I tuck my beloved seeds back into their box and follow Sister Adelheid uphill. She is huffing for air because the slope to the main house is steep. I am lucky to be used to it from my daily ministrations in the garden.
“What happened?” I ask, but Adelheid just raises her arms, and the wind, which is brisk most times up here, makes her habit flutter and reminds me of the wings of a crow. She is quiet, even for a nun, and I quit pressuring. Even now, after all these years, the sin of impatience is difficult to master.
Abbess Mayrin already waits in the entrance to the main house along with the hulking figure of Chaplain Father Schweiggl. We may be a Benedictine abbey of nuns, but Father Schweiggl serves as our confessor. He dismisses Adelheid with a nod and waves me and Abbess Mayrin along.
“We must pray, Sister Magdalena, for strength and wisdom.” Abbess Mayrin’s usually calm voice is strained and I recognize distress between her scrunched brows. They are thick and dark with speckles of gray like those of a man, but vanity is not something we subscribe to at the abbey.
Father Schweiggl remains silent, only flings up his hood to cover his shaven head.
Voices rear from beyond the walls, a lot of voices—the voices of men. How could I not have heard them earlier?
Sister Magdalena (and all the nuns who stayed behind at the abbey during the various occupations) was a strong-willed and dedicated woman, as evidenced by her escapade dressed as a French soldier to reinstate the Sabiona Abbey as a religious entity. The story has many tense and exciting moments as the women face their French attackers and even their own countrymen bent on taking advantage of the situation for personal gain.
Although not much is known about Mariele Told’s (Sister Magdalena as she was known after joining the order) reasons for initially coming to Sabiona Abbey, the author has created a tragically plausible origin story here. But what starts as an often-heard tale re-enacted thousands of times, a woman seeking asylum to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage, turns out to have a surprise twist. The story becomes one of forgiveness.
The author’s writing put me right in the story with the women of the Benedictine community of Sabiona Abbey, and at just over 200 pages in length, the book was a perfect one-sitting read. With its engaging heroine and exciting plot based on true events, I recommend SO CLOSE TO HEAVEN to readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially stories with strong female protagonists or set during the Napoleonic Wars in Italy or within a religious community.