I was raised Catholic. Baptism through Confirmation, I received four out of seven sacraments. I attended K-12 Catholic school and, more times than not, went to mass twice a week. Nuns bruised my knuckles with their rulers, if only by metaphor. During primary school, I served as an altar boy and thought becoming a priest was a real possibility. I saw priests as leaders, role models: smart, composed, confident — full of a quiet and loving power. The farther I move away from Catholicism, that power shifts from something holy and benign into a thing more sinister built on guilt and shame. Olaf Olafsson’s new novel, The Sacrament, is concerned with this darker type of power, one where even as time passes it has the ability to bear down on you, wear away at your sense of self, and make memory a fickle and fallible thing.
The plot of The Sacrament is familiar but still horrific. A young French nun, Sister Johanna Marie, is sent by the Vatican to investigate abuse allegations at a small Catholic school in Iceland. While she’s there she finds a young boy locked in a broom closet who witnesses the accused priest fall to his death from a bell tower. Some two decades later, while she’s tending to the roses at her convent and looking for peace, that young witness has new information to share, and Sister Johanna is called back to Iceland.
“Time plays tricks on the mind, and memories are capricious,” Sister Johanna says. She may believe that she is speaking of the now-grown young witness, but, really, she is nodding towards her own unreliability as a narrator, her own struggle with what she remembers and how she remembers it. Sister Johanna meanders through a Russian nesting doll structure of three separate timelines, in which secrets are hidden in memories that are hidden in other memories that are hidden in…
And memories are slippery, smoothed down over time so that there is little left to grip. Sister Johanna is trying to hold onto, trying to remember, who she is and who she was.
There is a strong Catholic tradition of taking new names upon receiving certain sacraments. I have a Confirmation name, but I can’t remember what it is. It’s the idea of rebirth, a new beginning — it’s why we go to confession and do the prescribed penance. Forgive us. We can become someone — something — new, something different, all we need to do is change our name. Before she was Sister Johanna, she was Pauline. It took Pauline some time, but soon enough she realized “that [she] was different than other girls,” and “found it strange that as a teenager [she] had no interest in boys.”
As a theology student in Paris, living in the guest house at Sacré-Coeur, Pauline falls in love with her Icelandic roommate, Halla. Pauline never expresses this love, and as Sister Johanna, will question her recollection of Halla’s fondness towards her. A young priest, Father Raffin notices the closeness between the two young women, and confronts Pauline. He tells her he will spare her reputation “providing you turn over a new leaf, and seek refuge in our Savior.”
The memories of Halla and Raffin hang like shadows in the corners of rooms: always begging Sister Johanna to squint and look closer, to peer into the dark to see what secrets they might reveal. Their memories are there on her initial trip to Iceland, on her return to Paris as she remembers her youth, and there when she goes back to Iceland and confronts them — confronts herself. The shadows of Halla and Raffin are sounding boards projecting echos of regrets, what-ifs, and the faintest sounds of acceptance.
The Sacrament is a quiet, contemplative novel. And Sister Johanna, her even-toned, melancholy tinged voice, her always calm demeanor never belying the storm inside her, is an ideal stand in for Olafsson’s Iceland. At once austere and full of passion. The whole book is a kind of mood. The Sacrament is based on real events that took place near where the author grew up. And of course it is. No one is shocked by the widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — not anymore. Olafsson may not have given us a new story, but he has reminded us it is still a relevant one as institutional power continues to prey on both the weak and the resolute.
By Olaf Olafsson
Published Dec. 3, 2019