For The Dialog
Chronic pain from a baseball injury led William Peak on a journey that resulted in his first novel, “The Oblate’s Confession.”
Peak’s trek toward the writing and publication of his book took 40 years, which pales when compared to the 14 centuries between the timing of his story, set in what now is England, and now.
Along the way he learned the beauty and power of contemplative prayer, encountered Thomas Merton’s writings, became Catholic, and came across the historical record of the church in England in the Dark Ages compiled by the Venable Bede.
“The Oblate’s Confession,” published last December, recently won a silver citation (second place) for “Best New Voice: Fiction” in the annual Benjamin Franklin Awards given by the Independent Book Publishers Association. The historical novel follows the monastic life of an oblate named Winwaed. Oblates were children given by their parents to a monastery, a custom of the Dark Ages.
The story is told by Winwaed as he comes to grips with a choice in which he must betray either his birth father, who makes a request of the oblate, or his church father.
Peak, 63, lives outside of Easton, Md., where he is a member of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish. As he talks about his life, similarities come to light between some of his experiences and those of Winwaed.
Each came to learn about contemplative prayer, which enriched their faith lives. Peak learned of the prayer form as a young adult, when doctors said they could do nothing to alleviate the pain caused by the baseball injury and suggested he try meditation.
Some meditative tapes provided relief. Peak began researching meditation and quickly came across Merton, a Trappist monk and author.
“When I discovered Thomas Merton, I was moved by his description of the Mass, prayer, the Catholic Way,” Peak said. “Since I was a teenager part of me felt attracted to the Catholic Church. I became more sure of that, and started practicing contemplative prayer.”
Peak also researched the roots of contemplative prayer, which led him to Venable Bede’s history of the church in early England. Bede is a doctor of the church who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries, the time of Peak’s novel.
As he read that account, the story of “The Oblate’s Confession” took root.
Like Winwaed, Peak, who grew up Presbyterian, had to make a difficult choice between family and faith. He grew up in Louisville, Ky., which had lingering anti-Catholic sentiments after religious riots there in the 19th century.
“There were those in my family who were appalled” when he became Catholic, he said. “It was not a decision we (he and his wife Melissa McLoud became Catholic 30 years ago) undertook lightly. It was a large step for me, but something I have never regretted.”
Both Winwaed and Peak enjoy nature, in which they appreciate and are in awe of God’s creation. Peak lives in a wooded area where he enjoys spending time outside in contemplative prayer. He has gone on silent retreats to monasteries in Virginia and in the Washington, D.C., area where he formerly lived while working for the National Association of Broadcasters.
“There are two places where I experience God, one is the Blessed Sacrament, the other is nature,” Peak said. “If you look around us, it’s hard not to believe that there is something [God] out there.”
While Peak liked his job at the National Association of Broadcasters, his favorite time of the workday came at lunch, when he walked to nearby St. Matthew’s Cathedral for contemplative prayer near the Blessed Sacrament.
Since moving to Easton, Peak works with the Talbot County Free Library. “I like to think of my work at the library as an extension of my prayer life,” he said.
“The Oblate’s Confession” may be set in the Dark Ages, but Peak believes Winwaed’s story carries a message for people today. The child’s experience – being “donated” to a monastery, “must be a confusing experience,” he said.
“I think all of us occasionally feel we have been dropped into an alien world not of our own making and feel confused about it,” Peak said. “I feel that way sometime. … In many ways this modern world we live in is often stranger and more alien than the world Winwaed was dropped into.”
“We’re all looking for home, I think,” Peak said.