Interview With Beryl Singleton Bissell


Beryl Singleton Bissell

Beryl Singleton Bissell grew up in Puerto Rico, spent 15 years as a cloistered Poor Clare nun, fell in love with an Italian priest, left her order, married the priest after he left the priesthood, had two children, watched her husband die of cancer and lost a daughter to murder. Despite more than her share of drama and sorrow, Bissell, now 66 and living in Schroeder, Minn., is a joyful woman, and her new memoir, "The Scent of God," is an ode to passion both spiritual and sensual. Meticulously researched and skillfully written, it is the story of a woman who twice gave up everything for love -- first for God, then for a man.(

Women's Book Reviews subscriber Kim Sisto Robinson recently interviewed Beryl Singleton Bissell for the website and has graciously offered to share her interview with our readers

Per Kim Sisto Robinson: I discovered Beryl Singleton Bissell at a book signing in Duluth, Minnesota. She was downtown promoting her newest gem, “The Scent of God.” Beryl’s ch­arming smile captured me immediately.  And when she told me her book was about her “exploration of God,” I became intrigued and excited to chat with her.  She told me she “was” a n­un.  I looked at her in surprise… and asked, “WAS?” This is Beryl’s fascinating story and interview. I think you will fall in love with her as I did! Thank you, sweet Beryl. Your life and journey has inspired me!

As a young girl, you had a calling to follow God. Can you tell the readers ­what transpired? What sort of epiphany you had? Did God audibly speak to you?

I’ve often wished that God did speak to me audibly; it would have made that decision much easier. But, no. I heard no audible voice. Instead I listened to what was happening within me.

As a child, I felt drawn toward God who seemed to offer more love and constancy than the volatile and erratic love I encountered at home. As I grew, I turned more frequently toward that constant and comforting love, especially when we moved to Puerto Rico when I was a young teen. It was in Puerto Rico, where I felt most an outsider, that significant events propelled me toward a life dedicated to God:

Witnessing the drowning death of a young boy my age and confronting the need to find the purpose in my life; and the subsequent “experience” of being overwhelmed by God’s unconditional love.

Yearning to be absorbed into that love, I chose to enter a cloistered order which offered the quickest and most certain route to God. Life since then has never dulled the pull toward the divine that has made my life a pilgrimage.

I appreciated the honesty about your resentment about “taking care of your father.” Can you elaborate a bit about your relationship with him?

My father was a brilliant man who found greater reward in work than in his family. He also drank too much which turned my normally loving mother into a mother whose suffering frightened us with its destructive force. When 12 years after I entered the monastery, my father had a stroke and my abbess broke with centuries of monastic tradition and sent me home to Puerto Rico to help my Mom care for my father, my vocation to religious life began to totter. I discovered that in returning to Puerto Rico as an adult, I loved life outside the cloister. I loved the island and its people. I loved my parents. And, I loved Padre Vittorio, the handsome priest professor whom I’d met on the first day of my return.

For three years, as I traveled to and from the cloister, I felt as if I were being torn apart by my parents’ needs, my desire to remain a good nun, and my love for Vittorio. I blamed my father for his stroke – that he’d done nothing to ward off that impending disaster, even after almost dying on the operating table during by-pass surgery and being warned by his doctors to change his life-style.

I resented my father until I began writing The Scent of God, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the reality of all that my father must have suffered. Having lost his ability to speak, he’d never been able to tell his story and consequently I’d never been able to hear it.

While in the monastic life, your acquired an eating disorder. Was this a way to take some sort of control over your world, your every day existence?

Poor Clares, the cloistered order I’d entered, make four vows: To live in obedience, in poverty, in chastity, and in enclosure. This first vow was primary and throughout our novitiate (the five years of training leading to those vows), we practiced what was then known as blind obedience to our superiors. In obeying our superiors, who represented God, we were giving up the greatest obstacle to union with God, our own wills.

By not eating, I was exercising my self-will -- taking control of the one small area still left to me: what I put into my mouth. Daily I chose to reduce my intake of food until I weighed all of 96 pounds. When ordered to eat, and loathe to give up control, I only pretended to eat, a choice that almost led to my expulsion from the monastery. Because I loved religious life, I chose to resume eating. I wanted to remain a nun.

Have you found your story being compared to “The Thorn Birds?” Of course, your reality turned out so much more beautiful.

The Scent of God is occasionally referred to as a modern-day Thorn Birds. Certainly, Ralph’s efforts to resist Meggie’s love remind me of Vittorio and my struggle. I imagine Meggie must have suffered rage and heartbreak, as did I; and Ralph must have waged as excruciating a war to stay faithful to his priestly calling as did Vittorio. We also lost children.

In northern Minnesota where I live, I’ve since met four other ex-priest and former-nun couples whose children died as teens; so many in fact, that I wonder whether such marriages result in children too vulnerable and sensitive for this world and who try to escape it as quickly as possible.

My girlfriends and I fell head over heels in love with Vittorio. As I was reading your book, I visualized him as Richard Chamberlain. The world was pulling him in one direction and God was pulling him in another direction. Vittorio was married to God, but he was also in love with you. Can you tell us what you miss the most about this wonderful man?

I think the attribute I’ve missed most acutely is Vittorio’s courage and his ability to instill trust. It was so easy to love him and so natural to be loved by him. Vittorio saw me at my most immature, self-centered, and ugly, yet he continued to love me, never tried to change me. And how he loved his children. He tried so hard to stay alive so he could see and help them grow.

What was the most profound lesson you learned from living a cloistered life?

I learned so much in the monastery, so much that was good, that cloistered living has imprinted itself on my life. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in the monastery is the importance of silence to the inner journey. It was in the monastery that I learned to create an inner cloister-- a place of interior silence that I could summon even while in the midst of a crowd. This skill was not always helpful when my children were little and “Earth to Mom. Earth to Mom,” became a frequent refrain in our home.

This inner cloister or “cell” as I think of it, however, has been a precious resource during times of conflict, giving me the space and strength to face whatever the situation demands, and provides the writer in me with a sanctuary in which to focus without distraction.

I hear you are writing a sequel to “A Scent of God.” Do tell!

Writing The Scent of God took me 10 years and 10 drafts. Writing the sequel is sheer anguish as it focuses on the sequence of events, and my role in those events, that led eventually to my daughter’s death. In writing, I hope to find the daughter who slipped from my arms and understanding as a teenager; to be a vehicle that will allow her to emerge as she really was.

What is the best advice you can give emerging writers?

Give yourself permission to write first-draft junk. Keep writing until you’ve finished that first draft and don’t try to edit as you go. Write it all and then put it away for several weeks or months. Only when you’ve completed that second draft, should you show it to anyone and then only to someone you trust to give you an honest appraisal. Above all, write because you want to, not because you have to . Write because your story demands telling.

Beryl, when I read that your daughter, Francesca, was killed, my heart literally dropped to the floor. Could you tell us about her?

When Francesca was three, I made remarried. That marriage was a terrible mistake. From a bright, funny, loyal, loving little girl, Francesca emerged from that relationship as a tormented, despairing teen who turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort. I left that marriage to save my children but I couldn’t save my daughter.

Francesca was killed on September 18, 2001. One week earlier, on 911, she’d driven four hours to tell me how much she loved me and to tell me how sorry she was for the pain she’d caused. On the day she died, she was moving home. The medical examiner was not able to ascertain whether it was suicide or murder. I cannot, like other mothers, state unequivocally that my daughter would never have killed herself. I wish I could. Perhaps I could then rid myself of the notion that not knowing is the better option.

Lastly, would you tell the readers what your daily routine is? How do you get yourself ready to write? What inspires you? What is your message to the world?

I love the early hours of the morning and usually rise before it is light to meditate, to pray, stretch and read. I have coffee and fruit with yogurt, maybe half a bagel with peanut butter and jelly. I then head to my computer, while admonishing myself that I will not go online or check e-mail until I’ve written for at least two hours. Two hours can sometimes become 12; sometimes two is all I can manage.

Nothing inspires me more than getting outdoors into the pristine forests where I live, hiking through varied terrain, canoeing, snow-shoeing. Listening to a winter wren, searching for the first bloodroot in spring, following animal tracks through fresh snow. Best of all, I love watching Lake Superior change her visage from playful, to somber, to wild, to furious. Sometimes, though not often, she is so still that she reflects the shoreline in her waters. I dream of a day when by telling and listening to one another’s stories, we help shape a safer more compassionate world.

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) sums up this hope so beautifully when she says: “If only I could so live and so serve the world that after me there should never again be birds in cages.”

Educator / Writer
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