I recently finished reading Penelope Wilcock’s book, The Hardest Thing to Do. It’s the fourth book in The Hawk and the Dove series, and the first book following the original trilogy. (The trilogy was later expanded to a series of nine). I’ve been eagerly absorbing these books over the course of 2021, since they were recommended to me by my friend Jason and purchased for me as a birthday gift from my parents. So I already treasure them for those reasons. But I’ve continued to find so much joy and meaning in these stories about a group of men living in a Benedictine monastery in 14th Century Yorkshire. I know; the setting sounds like it would be esoteric and unappealing. Yet somehow it resonates strongly with my life in 21st Century Ohio.
There are a couple of significant developments in the series, with the shift from Book 3 to Book 4. One is a shift in characters, and the other is a shift in setting.
The first three books of series centered around a character named Father Peregrine, who was a delightfully-complex figure. The Hardest Thing to Do shifts the lead role to Father John — who was a very sympathetic character in the earlier episodes, but not heavily featured until this book. At first, I didn’t like the shift. But I grew to love Father John, as the story progressed. And after finishing this book, I’ve come to realize that nine books centered around Father Peregrine may not have been as enjoyable as an ever-shifting (but still somewhat continuous) narrative of the community. Brother Thomas and Brother William also play more significant roles in this book, but the stuff that centered around Father John was the most compelling, in my opinion.
The setting of The Hardest Thing to Do is still primarily St. Alcuin’s Abbey. But the first quarter of the book also includes a journey, looking over the shoulder of Father John. The different people and places he visits don’t seem to be central to the narrative. Until he comes across another monastery that has been burned to the ground. I appreciated the way that the author introduced us to this other monastic community. Later on, the contrast to these two communities formed a central point of tension throughout the book. Themes of forgiveness and learning to love one’s neighbor came through loud and clear, as a result of the author’s choice of setting.
My favorite thing about this particular book was its glimpse into the mind of a spiritual leader. It brilliantly portrayed the insecurity that I’ve come to know well in my own leadership. And it showed ways that such insecurity works itself out for good, evil, and mixed motives. There were some aspects of the story that reminded me of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (though the settings and styles of writing are very different). I resonated deeply with that work of non-fiction when I read it, back in 2009. But The Hardest Thing to Do somehow sharpens and softens similar lessons into a more digestible form. It proved itself a very worthwhile read. And I highly recommend it to any other leader, looking to understand his own heart and the hearts of the people he or she is leading.