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Reading Group Guide QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION Women's lost worlds
Kate (on page 45) thinks of all that God can take away. "Husbands, fathers, brothers, music even. God could take you life if he wanted. God could take anything. What could a woman do but endure, be faithful, and hope to be spared some small thing she loved, something perhaps God didn't want?" Each woman in the novel sacrifices a vital part of herself because she believes it is necessary if she is to live within the limits of whatever life God or the church or the society demands. What feelings arise in these women upon such choices?
Such sacrifices are not usually discrete, self-contained forfeitures, but more often represent an entrée into a whole world of possibilities - in some ways, an alternative life - now lost, as in Elise's potential future as a pianist. Imagine and describe the lost opportunities, the lost worlds or lives of each of the following: Meghan, Kate, Elise, Suzanne, Isabel, Sister Thomas Ann, and Sister Mary. Would those other opportunities or alternative worlds have been realistic?
Can you tell similar stories of women whose lives have intersected with your own? Is Kate right -- is it God who takes away what we love? Discuss whether or not it is possible to live without such loss.
Elise and Suzanne promise one another: I will never leave you. In what ways did they keep or break that promise? There are a series of promises in the book that various characters struggle to keep, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. Consider some of these promises and how the nature of the character's desire or goal in making the promise impacts its viability. Discuss broken promises. Can a promise ever be broken with impunity? Are there promises that should not be kept?
The characters in Altar Music are filled with passion: passion for God, for nature, for art, for human love and sexuality, and even for the patriotism that brings Michael to fight a war. Consider the relationship or interaction between spriritual passions and human passions, as experienced by the average person, and also as experienced by nuns and other people of the Church. Is faith in and commitment to God in conflict with human passion?
Discuss Elise's descent into madness. What steps led her there? She asks her mother, "Sometimes I think there's something deep in the convent itself that's to blame. Do you think that could be?" Do you think that social structures can lead some people into forms of mental and emotional illness? What would characterize such structures, if that were so? What would characterize the personalities of those persons who might be vulnerable to such influence?
Wounds, Abuse and Victimization
Several characters are wounded, in different ways, early in life. Identify the wound of each of the following: Meghan, Clara, Kate, Suzanne, Elise. What did you think and feel when you read about the infliction of these wounds? How did their wounds impact the lives of these women? For the women in the book who enter the convent, what is the connection between the wounds they suffered earlier and the events that transpire after they're nuns? What is the difference between being wounded and being victimized? Do the wounds that these women experienced constitute victimization? Are they ever transformative?
Michael is wounded by war. Was this a form of victimization? Discuss the relative forms of victimization for men and women. How does the image of war fit into the novel? Michael's name means "Who Is Like God!" And the Archangel Michael is a warrior against evil. What are the implications of Michael's wounding?
When Clara Monroe enters the convent she receives the name, Thomas, which is the same as that of her husband, Tom, who abused her. Father Brian Murphy wonders about this: "It seemed a peculiar irony to him, however, that Clara had been given Tom's name after all, despite what the man had done and regardless of the annulment. Surely the nuns were aware....Who could know how God may have joined those two in spirit as well as name?" (p.55) Discuss the relationship of abuser to the abused. The results of abuse are complex. How does the character of Mother Thomas Ann demonstrate this complexity? On one hand, she can be condemned for her inappropriate behavior toward the novices, but one can also feel a great deal of compassion for a woman traumatized by such a brutal attack from her husband. In the end, did you find Thomas Ann to be a sympathetic character, or was her behavior, despite her past, inexcusable? Does the good she accomplishes during her years at the convent outweigh the bad?
Oppression and Seduction
The culture and rules of the Catholic church as it existed in the 1950s play a large part in this book. Discuss the author's use of this institution as a metaphor for the oppression of women. What are the seductive elements of that oppression? How does the church's seduction differ for Clara, Elise, Kate, Meghan, or Suzanne? What is the impact of that seduction on each of these women's lives? Is Sister Mary seduced? Why or why not?
How do women survive oppressive structures in the home, society, church? Are the men in the book also seduced? If so, is the seduction different for them than for the women? Discuss the interconnections of power and seduction in the lives of individuals and in social structures such as the church, the family, the workplace, etc.
The author mixes the erotic with the religious in ways that can sometimes seem even sacrilegious. What kind of relationship is there between the tragedy of Clara Monroe and the subsequent seductive behavior of the same woman as Mother Thomas Ann? Do you think she has any awareness of the destructiveness of her behavior? If religion itself is a seduction, what characteristics of religion lend themselves to use as seduction's tools?
Discuss the chemistry of allowance and forgiveness in the book. What connections exist between what the characters allow and what they forgive in themselves, and what they allow and forgive in others? What does the church allow and forgive? Is there anything that cannot be forgiven?
Elise says that there is a God she has not yet found, and yet she has searched the church's traditions and the convent life to find God. Discuss the image of God she has realized is false. What hints does the book provide to a different image of God that might be more true and healing for her. Discuss how people's belief in God changes throughout their lives.
The name, Michael (Who Is Like God!) appears three times in the book: The infant, Michael; Elise's father, Michael; and Sister Michelle. Discuss how each of these characters is 'like God.'
Sister Mary says, on page 236, "The music is God." What does she mean?
The author makes strong use of music as a primal metaphor, and particularly uses Mozart's composition, Rondo in A Minor, as a connecting theme throughout. What meanings about character and about life itself are implied in this metaphor? The author even uses music as a key to the meaning of God. Discuss how this meaning of God is both the same and different from that taught by churches.
Discuss what is meant by the title. When Elise places her hand on the altar stone in which are contained the relics of women saints, it feels alive. "She could almost feel their hearts, the throbbing of their desire, their spirits -- subtle enough to pass through stone. She almost heard their whispers of release and the freedom of their songs." (p. 172) Discuss the paradox implied by the juxtaposition of the altar - both the physical object and what it represents - with music.
The convent's religious practice seems to result in wholeness and maturity for some women, like Sister Mary, and in disintegration for others. What factors does the book suggest make the difference?
Selections from Sister Mary's Music Notebook head each chapter. Sister Mary writes about music, and yet her words seem to apply as well to her spiritual life. Discuss the relationship between art and spirituality.
Talk about the symbolism of Cleo, Elise's pet seagull. What complex of emotions and experience does this bird evoke in Elise?
The blue dish is an image that appears several times throughout the story. Trace the development of its significance for the different characters whose life it touches. Is there some object you have kept for similar reasons?
The convent of Our Lady of Peace, besides being a setting in the story for action, also serves as a metaphor for the novel as a whole and for each of the main characters in particular. Discuss the many facets of convent as metaphor and the power of that metaphor for each character as well as for women in general."
What other images carry the meaning of this story? How does the presence of powerful images in people's lives help and/or hinder personal growth and development?
Sacrifice or Enforced Denial
Both Elise and Suzanne were required to sacrifice the expression of their talents during novitiate training. Did this convent practice have any noble purpose or was it simply an exercise in forced denial? Why did Mother Thomas Ann require Elise's life-long sacrifice of her piano? Discuss the results of both sacrifice and forced denial on the human spirit. How might someone who is not in the convent find themselves in a similar situation? What sorts of sacrifice/denial characterize other life styles and what, in your experience/opinion, have been the results?
Rules and Laws
The nuns in the convent agree that, while Suzanne committed suicide, she had surely gone to heaven and was no longer in pain. Why do they believe this when their faith considers the act of suicide one of the gravest sins one can commit against God? Discuss the place of laws and rules in a spiritual life. When, if ever is law to be superceded?
Language and Silence
Altar Music employs a variety of languages (including music, silence, imagery, and the rhythm of the written word itself). The convent, marriage, and priesthood each has its unique language that forms and structures personal revelation. Each character has a language by which the self is both revealed and concealed. Discuss the implications of language for the characters in the novel.
The convent has rules of silence. How does the application of these rules by the sisters at Our Lady of Peace both aid and harm them? How does silence itself become a language? When does silence destroy language and truth itself?
Discuss the secrecy of the Catholic confessional. Are there secrets that should not be kept? Discuss proper and improper uses of this sacrament. Is there any language reserved for God alone?
Reality, Fantasy, and Mysticism
Throughout the novel Elise asks, "What is real?" Discuss the situations, beginning with her fear of the monster in the houseboat, in which this question arises for her. How does her sense of 'what is real' develop as she grows up? Have you ever experienced something as 'real' that other people consider 'fantasy' or imagination?
Is religious mysticism a form of fantasy? Are there realities that transcend material reality?
On page 79 the author describes Elise's first experience of touching a piano. "Elise Marie Pearson knew herself that day to be pure sound. She ranged, endless, through what she could know of universe...she would remember that first day and her discovery that all music is a variation on the one divine tone at the core of being." Is Elise's artistic imagination a form of reality, of fantasy, or of mysticism? How much differentiation can/should be made between reality, fantasy and mysticism?
Mothers and Daughters
Compare the characters of Kate and Elise: as women, Catholics, and musicians. Are they alike or very different? How does each one use music to express emotion, find solace, and heal pain?
Kate has great difficulty in accepting Elise's decision to enter the convent. Discuss the different reasons why this is so. Explore the pain Kate feels watching her daughter voluntarily abandon her own identity right before her eyes. Does Kate view this eradication of Elise's identity as an eradication of her own identity as well?