Providence and Pilgrimage: New Review by Francis Etheredge of Offerings, a Novel

Offerings (A Novel) by Christine Sunderland, Waterford, VA 20197: OakTara Publications, 2009, 249 pages and additional notes.

Reviewed by Francis Etheredge

“We live like a vine – Entwining and Entwined”

In this second book of Christine Sunderland’s trilogy on pilgrimage, the story builds on the first book but, as written, it could be read without it. In other words, although there are one or two backward glances, as it were, the second book is a sufficiently enthralling read to be enjoyed independently of the first one. However, given that this is the second part of a trilogy, there is both continuity and development of character; but, in addition, there are a multiplicity of new threads which make this a definitely enriched addition to the whole. Therefore, perhaps contradicting myself, let the reader be encouraged to begin at the beginning and start with book one. In general, and in book two, there are a variety of reasons which prompt the characters’ journeys. However, because there is an intermittent link with people who are connected to Christianity, in one way or another, it is as if the principal travellers are bumped, as it were, onto a pilgrimage.

On the one hand, human lives are twining around each other, not in any sense strangling each other so much as finding that growing together, even if there seems to be a different rate of growth between characters, does not separate but supports each of them; and, on the other hand, the wider denominational distance, as between Anglo-Catholics and the Catholic Church seems, at times, like a live electrical coil inducing a current in a wire. In other words, the proximity of the travellers-come-pilgrims to members of the Catholic Church and her mysteries seems to be a positive influence on them.

“Starting Points: Providence and Pilgrimage”

It could be we are going, ostensibly, to find a person who can help us; but, in the course of that search we may discover that, in fact, we need a more radical help. Or we could be the prayer companion of one who does not pray but begins to experience the relationship out of which prayer pours. Or we could be young and unattached and discovering the possibility of a vocation to marry. It is not so much, then, that there is one answer to these questions as that there could be multiple answers, each of which comes to the surface in its own time and needs its own remedy; and, therefore, it is to Christine Sunderland’s credit that she has brought out a number of these threads and shown how, in the end, they weave together different lives and their problems – but all, as it were, in search of the one God who is with us all, at all times (cf. Jn 14: 16-17). While, then, it could be argued that if we are not a Christian how can God be with us, there is also the path to God which each one of us treads, perhaps unknowingly to begin with but, in view of God’s searching for us, it is not so much discovering God as discovering God is with us. So, whether we are a “Sunday Christian” or “too busy” to be about searching for God, perhaps the point is that events in our lives can be, as it were, the stone that we trip over or the rock that we stand on (cf. 1 Pt 2: 7-8).

“Take up your cross and follow me” (cf. Mt 16: 24)

What, then, is a cross? In the case of Jesus Christ, it was the will of His Father that He accept the agony of both the thought (cf. Mt 26: 42) and the reality of His crucifixion at the hands of men, brought about by the ‘father of lies’ (cf. Lk 4: 13) and the weakness of human beings (cf. Jn 19: 12). The cross, then, is a suffering that is not taken away but which we are strengthened to endure (cf. Lk 22: 43).

It could be, then, that we have seriously failed, that we suddenly need an operation, that we have been too driven and too professional to be personable and that we do not even know the history of our family or that we think that we are called to one vocation but events reveal that we are called to another. Whatever it is, then, that comes into our life, God allows it because He is greater than what it is and can bring about a good beyond what we ordinarily experience. Thus Joseph, son of Jacob, who was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery, in the end rose to prominence in Egypt. When, in the near future, a famine came he was overseeing the solution and not distraught by the problem; and, therefore, when he was finally reconciled to the brothers who rejected him, he was able to say: What ‘you intended against me for evil, God intended for good’ (Gn 50: 20).

So we could say, our sufferings expose our vulnerability, even showing us that we are not invulnerable to temptations to adultery, to suicide, murder or whatever the sin we are tempted to commit. While discovering our vulnerability, like recognizing that black-fly always attacks the stalk or permeable underside of the leaf, we also discover the tempter’s way of stalking our weakness – but more significantly, we discover that we need an event, very often, to turn us out of our routines and to live in view of eternity: of the possibility that we will die one day. Will we have met our Creator before we die or will we be confronted, and possibly affronted, by the presence of a Stranger-Lord who will listen to what is in our heart? Will God find love in us or only an immersion in ourselves?

“Moral or material miracles?”

In the end, just as we are travelling through a modern world of cars, phones and laptops, as well as restaurants and farm life, there are still the poor who need help, people who need operations, but also the different possibilities of healing – whether that of being enabled to live with a disability or an illness or the actual healing of them. Indeed, it is a profound question as to why one person is given the gift of healing, while another is helped by an interior healing, even to the point of recovering or rediscovering the Christian Faith. Thus we are taken through innumerable places, each of which draws on what gave it existence and history, as well as how it is lived in the present and what difference it makes to visit it, even now.

In view, then, of the complexity of our lives, our habitual religious habits or the neglect of the questions which open upon eternity, we cannot possibly foresee all the ways that we are brought, by God, to an encounter, with Him; but, in reality, and this book succeeds supremely well in this, there are so many interconnecting strands that if we needed a contemporary account of the providential love of God, we can begin to find it here, in this trilogy on pilgrimage. I very much look forward to reading the third and final book.

Francis Etheredge, Catholic husband, father of 11, 3 of whom are  in heaven, author of 13 books on Amazon, particularly, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends:; and, as a variation on the theme, a more domestic pilgrimage through the Covid-19 lockdown, in Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers

Christine Sunderland is author of seven award-winning novels about family, faith, freedom, and the sanctity of human life. Her most recent novel is Angel Mountain (Wipf and Stock, 2020) set in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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