Painting Angels is the third installment in a series about a monastery nestled in a small village when, according to the back cover, there are hardly any monasteries and small villages. I had never read Melinda Johnson’s previous installments: Shepherding Sam or The Barn and the Book, so I didn’t know what to expect when I cracked open this red, brightly covered novella with two tweens looking at each other, with a bit of chagrin and annoyance in their faces, a happy corgi pup at their feet.
Furthermore, I have a confession: I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to children’s literature. I was an English teacher for six years before coming home to raise my growing brood of children. See my previous blogpost: On Reading Children’s Literature for more on that.
So, anytime I go to open up a children’s religious literature, I have a healthy bit of skepticism. I won’t endure artifice. I want a rich, captivating story, full of nuances and character development. Full of courage and hope and love.
Painting Angels delivers that, and so much more.
Macrina and Sam, our two central characters are real, or as real as a fictional story can make them, with real dilemmas, confusions, and quirks. They have defense mechanisms to protect themselves and their little world views. Sam is brutally honest–mostly to protect the happy little world he’s created with Saucer, the monastery’s dog, and the farm animals. Macrina uses rule following to protect her image as a “good girl”.
Behind both of these defense mechanisms is fear. Sam’s afraid his beautiful world will be destroyed by outsiders that just “don’t get it”. And Macrina also lives in fear: Will God love me and bless me if I mess up?
Furthermore, these two characters have never gotten along. Oil and water. Black and white. Forks and power outlets. There’s all sorts of cliches you can use to describe how these two characters are far from friends or even cordial. It’s fair to say, they are each other’s nemesis at the beginning of the tale.
Yet, they’re both placed at a village Orthodox Monastery for the summer. Well, let’s just say, conflict was inevitable. They pick. They shout. They run. They get the nuns and parents worried and praying, hard. I love the dilemma’s the nuns face in the beginning of the story: “Should we let Sam and Macrina work together this summer on some projects around the farm? Even though we know there will be conflict? It would be ‘easier’ to give them separate jobs….?”
As a mother of three small humans, I run into this dilemma often: “It would be easier and prettier if I made the bed, baked the cookies by myself, cleaned the car, picked up the dirty clothes/plates/toys…etc” But, guess where people learn? In the thick of it. In the struggle. In the nitty gritty parts of life.
Philip Malamakis writes in Parenting Towards the Kingdom: “Children internalize our reactions to them at these difficult times more than when we behave. It is specifically in the midst of these daily struggles that we teach most effectively and shape our children’s minds, hearts, and souls” (p. 31).
And just like myself, that has to make these kinds of moral decisions daily, so did Sister Anna and Sister Katherine at the monastery. And guess what they chose to do? Let the conflict unfold. That, in a culture where convenience is often THE factor behind so many decisions, is pretty revolutionary. It’s also what makes this story so good. And also so powerful. Our world needs more people and characters, that are willing to love people through their struggles and past their own sense of entitlement and laziness.
Sam’s mom and dad get that too. They don’t coddle or condemn Sam. Neither do the nuns towards Sam or Macrina. They take a step back. They let the “fur fly” (metaphorically speaking, there was no physical violence in the book), and wait patiently and prayerfully in the wings to come in and listen, love, and guide these characters towards love and truth.
This is so powerful and important because it’s all too easy to sap children of their personhood in religious communities. We, as a culture, are more concerned with children “behaving” through a prayer service (i.e. being still and quiet) that we fail to care about their internal struggles. We want our perceptions of our children to be good. We want our egos to be raised by how well behaved our little angels are….no matter how hurt and confused they are under the surface. We love children, in theory, when it’s easy, but not in practice. I’m preaching to myself here, because, I need reminded of this too.
That’s why I loved this story. It’s messy. It’s confrontational. And both characters had to learn, the hard way, that:
1.) Love is the only rule
2.) The truth will set you free
Not just Sam and Macrina, but won’t we all wrestle with these principles our entire lives?
As for the books structure and style, I’m so thankful for the minimal exposition. I imagine, in part, that this is because it’s the third installment in a series, so exposition need not be heavy. Yet, I love books when the author is artful enough to capture a scene and drop you in it without dozens of paragraphs “painting the scene”. As a lover of Hemingway, I like that style.
I like the way Macrina stops, mid stride, when she hears Sam’s going to be at the monastery in the opening scene. She, quite literally, can’t conceive of moving after hearing someone so agitating will be spending time with her this summer.
I like the way Sam slips out the back door with Saucer, the corgi dog, after communion. Sam’s his own person–not interested in socializing after Liturgy.
I like how Macrina runs after him and, desperate to be the “good girl”, offers him a bandaid because she noticed his slipped off during church. Sam rejects her offer. She takes offense. Quickly, we realize, Macrina is more interested in Sam’s opinion of her than in actually helping him. Sam, oblivious to this or quite calculatingly, takes advantage of her insecurity and does his best to make her realize she’s “not welcome” in his world. He uses the hard truth: “I don’t want a bandaid. I’m on a hemophiliac” to, yes, not take the bandaid, but also to give Macrina the hint: I don’t like you: get away!
And here’s the magic of this story. Throughout it, we see these two characters, individually and in conjunction, fight with theses inner thoughts and feelings.
Yes, love is the only rule. And yes, the truth will set you free. But it is in the marriage of those two that true goodness and peace resides.
Now, what I really found so important about this story is that 2020 America needs lots and lots of stories that deal with the marriage of love and truth. We need to see how a community can heal the divisions that we have created through our arrogance, pride, laziness, entitlement, gossip…etc. We need to see that conflict isn’t the end of the story. That picking “sides” isn’t the story either. We must be willing to move past our own insecurities, foibles, assumptions, arrogance, and lethargy to find solutions that are both sincere and feasible.
Whether it’s wearing a mask in public places, choosing a school, or fighting for racial equality, we need zeal and wisdom. We need love and truth. We must fight the urge to coddle our perceptions/egos/assumptions, and we must fight the urge to condemn others as “shallow,” “weak minded,” or “useless”.
Love is deeply inconvenient. We must face our own temptations and weaknesses. We must be willing to guide people through their false narratives. Be it a three year old or a thirty-five year old. People must be willing to patiently and prayerfully, love one another, like the sisters at the monastery love. Like the parents of Sam and Macrina love.
We must love people through the unpleasantness of life. And right now, America’s got a lot of unpleasantness (ain’t that the euphemism of the century).
You know, the title, Painting Angels is rather a miracle. Not because there is anything spectacular about two tweens painting together. It’s because these two tweens painted together. That’s the real miracle. Goodness knows we need more people who are willing to set aside their egos and become friends.
Painting Angels reminds me, in a small way, of a real life story. The story of Daryl Davis ; the black jazz artist who would play for the KKK and befriend the members. He converted some of the worlds most pernicious hate group advocates into people that were friends with a black man. Wow. The courage. The prayerfulness. The patience. That’s the kind of story I want to hold on to. And, right now, the kind of story our world really needs.
By the way, Melinda Johnson is now on my “favorite authors list”. Her other installments will be secured and devoured. We’ll await the next. Bravo, Melinda Johnson, bravo.
To provide an honest review, I was given a copy by the publisher.
Also, forgive the typos. If I edited all my blog posts, I’m quite certain my children’s health and well being would suffer.