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Archive for the ‘Priests’ Category

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
Perennial Classics, 2003

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a modest yet clever book and, for me at least, a genuine lost treasure.  In other words, I knew nothing about the book and had never heard of it until I read it at a Fides et Ratio seminar put on by the Faith and Reason Institute even though as an American Literature scholar I had done some study of Thornton Wilder.  Most of what I knew concerned Our Town, of course, and I was also vaguely aware that his The Merchant of Yonkers (later revised as The Matchmaker) was made into the musical Hello, Dolly.  Imagine my surprise to find this sweet, little gem of Catholic fiction.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey (and that’s “of” not “over” as in “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or The Bridge over the River Kwai) is set in Peru in the 18th century; the bridge was real but its collapse was invented by the author.  Wilder’s tale begins in July of 1714 as the bridge over a cavernous gap in the cliffs above the Apurimac River outside of Lima collapses.  Five people plummet to their deaths.  Their intertwining stories of how they came to be on that bridge are told through the eyes of a well-meaning, if somewhat naïve monk.  This kind of event makes people question either God’s existence or God’s goodness, and Brother Juniper is determined to prove that not only did God intend for the bridge to collapse, He causes it for the good of all, especially the five who die.  The book is an easy, quick read and highly entertaining.  However, as one begins to think about the narration of the tales which are filtered through the participants and then through witnesses and then through Brother Jerome, the complexity of the work and the artistry of Wilder become plainly apparent.  And the easy interpretation of the book becomes as shaky as walking across a rope suspension bridge high above a raging river.

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The Company of Women
By Mary Gordon
Ballantine Books, New York 1980
ISBN 0345329724

The Company of Women is a gift of God. It’s one of those books you cry when you near the end, not because it’s sad, but because you feel like your best friends are moving away. Although, reading the book, I did not feel that I was friends with each of the characters but that in some way I was each of the characters. It always amazes me when an author can create just such a connection between the reader and each character no matter how diverse they are. In fact these characters range from a cantankerous, arrogant, intellectual, conservative priest, to a self-effacing, child-like, priest worshiping movie theater usherette, to a rebellious, fatherless teenager. The other characters include a simple, practical single mother, a timid, bookish, abandoned wife, a bitter spinster, and a cultured heiress and talented business woman. And yet I saw myself in each one of them. How these characters found themselves together and how their lives came to be centered around the arrogant Father Cyprian and the rebellious Felicitas is told from the point of view of each of the characters in the first part of the book. The second part tells the story of Felicitas as she leaves this protective circle and enters the similarly rebellious world of the 1960’s. The circle reunites in the last section of the book, this time with Felicitas are part of the circumference centered around her own fatherless daughter Linda. This time the characters narrate their own sections, even Linda, whose voice ends the novel.

The novel addresses many of the “great” issues of humanity such as the relationship between religious observance and true spirituality and how these two conceptions come together differently in each one of us. But mostly the novel addresses the nature of friendship – friendship between women, friendship (or lack of it) between a man and woman, and finally friendship that transcends both gender and sex, age and education, doctrine and belief. This is the friendship of Father Cyprian and Felicitas, a friendship so powerful it almost destroys but also heals.

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Paradise News

by David Lodge

Viking, 1992

ISBN 0670842281

 

A cultured, British academic joins a tourist group on a “Hawaiian Paradise” vacation package so his father can visit his dying sister.  The British academic also happens to be an ex-priest who is barely making a living as what we would call a part-time adjunct at a second or third rate university.  He is no longer respected as a theologian since he left the priesthood, but he has little faith left to teach or write about anyway.  This is an amusing book but told with melancholy sadness.  This so-called paradise includes a dying aunt and an aging, cantankerous father hoping to inherit his sister’s large fortune.  The setting is tourist Hawaii as well as the realities of Hawaii as a place real people live and love and die.  The tackiness of the tourist package is incongruous with the tragedy of people’s lives.  Even the minor characters have sad lives.  The ending remains hopeful though.   The second rate academic, ex-priest is no more incongruous here in paradise than he is anywhere else. And there are elements of the myth of paradise on earth that are real.  The weather is all sunshine and warmth, and there is a healing aspect to that.  For the most sensitive of readers, the hero is a laicized priest, and there are one or two tame sexual encounters involving him (after his laicization), but for the most part, the book may be a little sad on the subject of faith but is not offensive.    

 

 

 

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Catholics

Catholics
by Brian Moore
Loyola Classics, 2006
ISBN: 9780829423334

Catholics is a very short novel and easy to read, but it is anything but light.  The story takes place at an Irish monastery built on a remote,rocky island on a cold, harsh rainy night.  The stormy weather matches the personal and internal conflicts of the characters. There’s not much plot; instead the narrative consists mainly of conversations and internal monologues.

Catholics was first published in 1972 during the chaotic period following Vatican II.  However, it takes place in a fictional time following Vatican IV. In some of its details Catholics is definitely dated.  Many of the supposedly shocking elements — such as a priest travelling in non-clerical garb — are commonplace now.  Others seem far-fetched — such as private confessions banned by Rome.  One “battle” is timely though — the Irish monks have returned to saying the Mass in Latin, and Father Kinsella has been sent from the Vatican to make them cease and desist. 

The novel is neither a criticism of Vatican II nor an advocation of it. The main point of the story is not how ecumenical the Church should or should not be; it’s not about the Mass in English or in Latin.  It is, rather, a confrontation between two men of authority within the Church which raises questions of faith and it’s source.

Catholics is available at Doherty Library.

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Even though I’ve already suggested one book by Jon Hassler (Dear James), since he has recently passed away, I would like to honor him with another entry.  All of Hassler’s works are eminently worth reading, but three of my personal favorites are The Dean’s List, Simon’s Night, and North of Hope.

The Dean’s List is the first Hassler novel I read.  It is an immensely funny depiction of academic life from the point of view of a weary administrator (who’d rather be a faculty member).  Edwards lives with his mother whose death he must soon face; he frequently runs into his ex-wife with whom he still has a friendly and loving relationship.  He occasionally runs into the friends of his teaching days (whose adventures are recounted in Hassler’s earlier novel Rookery Blues).  But something is missing from his life, something that’s been missing since his father was struck by lightening when Leland was fourteen.  He’s the dean of a mediocre university with a more than mediocre president.  His mother, a local radio personality, outshines him and controls him.  Then arrives on campus the noted poet Richard Falcon (a sort of Robert Frost-ish kind of poet)  whom Leland is supposed to keep track of.  Chaos, hilarity and pathos ensue.  And in the process his life changes.

Simon’s Night begins at what Simon Shea assumes is the end of his life.  He’s eighty now and having difficulty living by himself.   He has lived alone since his wife abandoned him years ago.  Simon’s commits himself into the Norman Home for the Elderly, a place filled with the most amusing old people ever described by a warm and loving author.  These are not caricatures or stereotypes of crazy old people – although they are to some extent crazy.  They are very much real people with faults, annoying habits, and deep, sympathetic souls.  Much of Simon’s story is his remembrances, and these flashbacks contain one of the most beautiful descriptions of making a choice between, not really good and evil, but between a good and The Good ever written.  Simon is ultimately faced with another choice in this novel – a choice between wasting his life or beginning it anew.

North of Hope is perhaps Hassler’s darkest novel, and it is also perhaps his masterpiece.  There are still amusing characters, however, such as the old parish priest who feels compelled to spend most of his day praying for all the people he once said he would pray for and all the souls of the dead he has ever buried through the years.  He questions at what point a person can stop praying for another, but since he has no answer, he continues in his duty though it leaves him little time for anything else.  Father Healy, the assistant pastor, originally chose the priesthood because it was his mother’s dying wish when he was eleven.  When this familial legend comes into question, his whole vocation comes into question.  He is the one in this novel faced with the choice – the choice between love and Love.  He must choose between a vocation that has recently left him empty and weary and a woman whom he has loved since a teenager and who now  desperately needs him. 

We have lost a great storyteller in the passing of Jon Hassler, one who so eloquently and sympathetically delineated our choices between good and the greater good.  Choosing between good and evil isn’t all that hard, but choosing between two loves can be.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. 
And may perpetual light shine upon him.

Requiescat in Pacem.

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The Poems of Alice Meynell
Scribner’s, 1925

April is National Poetry Month, so even though Alice Christina Meynell did not write fiction, I’m going to recommend her Catholic writings anyway.  The first time I ran across Meynell, I was in a gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I discovered a delightful little book of love poems illustrated with paintings from the museum.  I didn’t buy the book because it was too expensive, but I quickly memorized Meynell’s name and the first lines of her two poems in the collection and found them the next day using Granger’s Index of Poetry.  They became two of my favorite poems.  I give them to you here:

 

Renouncement

  

I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,

I shun the love that lurks in all delight–

The love of thee–and in the blue heaven’s height,

And in the dearest passage of a song.

Oh, just beyond the sweetest thoughts that throng

This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;

But it must never, never come in sight;

I must stop short of thee the whole day long.

But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,

When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,

And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,

Must doff my will as raiment laid away,–

With the first dream that comes with the first sleep

I run, I run, I am gather’d to thy heart.

 

After Parting

 

Farewell has long been said; I have forgone thee;

I never name thee even.

But how shall I learn virtues and yet shun thee?

For thou art so near Heaven

That Heavenward meditations pause upon thee.

 

Thou dost beset the path to every shrine;

My trembling thoughts discern

Thy goodness in the good for which I pine;

And, if I turn from but one sin, I turn

Unto a smile of thine.

 

How shall I thrust thee apart

Since all my growth tends to thee night and day–

To thee faith, hope, and art?

Swift are the currents setting all one way;

They draw my life, my life, out of my heart.

 

Meynell converted to Catholicism in 1868, and there is a romantic story that she fell in love with the priest under whom she received her instruction and that these poems are addressed to him.  We do like our poets and their poems to have such tender stories attached to them.  How delightfully melancholy to be torn by the paradox of a love which makes you a virtuous person (as true love should) but a love that you cannot as a virtuous person have.  Most of Meynell’s poetry is Catholic in subject matter and “closely examines the human role in constructing and celebrating the Catholic faith, and it repeatedly explores the relationship of faith and art.”*  Meynell married her husband Wilfred Meynell in 1877 and together they edited and wrote for the Catholic publications The Weekly Register and The Tablet.  Meynell also contributed essays to The Spectator, The Saturday Review and The National Observer.  Her poetical output was actually rather small and during her life she was admired as much as an essayist as a poet.  She counted among her close friends the other members of the Catholic Literary Revival of the 1890’s including G.K. Chesterton, Francis Thompson, and Hilaire Belloc among others. 

 

Doherty Library has two collections of Meynell’s poetry and one collection of her essays.  I haven’t read her essays yet, but intend to do so this weekend.    

 

 


* Gray, F. Elizabeth.  “Alice Meynell.”  The Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature.  Ed. Mary R. Reichardt. ( Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 462.

 

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celtic2.jpg“First Confession”
by Frank O’Connor

Sometimes you go through periods when you just can’t find anything to read.  You’re stressed; you’re busy; you’re a little overwhelmed.  When you find the time to sit down and relax with a good book, you can’t choose one.  You pick up one book, read a few pages, put it down; you pick up another, flip through, put it down.  You toss aside books you’ve been waiting months to read and old favorites you’ve read dozens of times.  Nothing fits your mood or grabs your scattered attention.  You can’t make a commitment.  You have become a Commitment Phobe in the realm of reading.  (Note that I have not done an entry in awhile so I know of what I speak.)  That’s when I turn to short stories.  Of course when one mentions “Catholic” and “short stories” in the same sentence, readers immediately think of Flannery O’Connor, and she is well worth reading (and will merit an entry here someday), but because it’s March, I will recommend at this time Frank (no relation to Flannery) O’Connor’s  “First Confession.”  Not only is O’Connor an Irish writer which makes St. Patrick’s Day an excellent time for reading him, but now is also the season of First Confessions and First Communions.  Catholic aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, etc. will be attending numerous First Communions in the coming weeks following Easter (I myself am already engaged for two) and memories of one’s own first sacraments – especially in cradle Catholics – will be very near the surface of the mind and heart.

“First Confession” is an extremely humorous, laugh-out-loud-in-public-even-if-you-embarrass-yourself, story.  The narrator Jackie doesn’t see the situation of having to make his first confession as humorous at all.  In fact he’s desperately worried about burning in hell in the afterlife and the misery his grandmother causes in his present, corporeal life.  As he sees it there is no way possible he can refrain from sinning, no way he can admit the heinous nature of his sins and therefore no way he can escape eternal damnation.  He can’t even operate a confessional correctly.  But it’s the adult mind looking back on the absurdities of the situation of a six year old and the seriousness and literalness with which he approaches everything that brings out the humor.  Frank McCourt’s recounting of his First Confession and First Communion in his memoir Angela’s Ashes is told in a similar fashion although O’Connor’s short story is much less grim.  (McCourt’s grandmother sends him back to the confessional three times in the same day because she disagrees with Father’s assessment of young Frank’s state of grace.)

“First Confession” is available in numerous collections and anthologies including Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor at Doherty.

FYI – The UST Catholic Fiction Reading Group will read O’Connor’s short story at their organizational meeting on Sunday March 16th at 6pm in Doherty Library.  All members of the UST community are invited to attend.  See our Facebook page for more details. 

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