the thorny grace of it, by Brian Doyle

by Robert A. Parker

Because I am acquainted with the author, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on this new (2013) interesting collections of essays, essays in which each one carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.

In fact, I would not ordinarily write a comment about a book like this. But I do so, because I relate to it. The author has a spiritual perspective that I share. And I have long realized that making a comment helps me to think further about a book—and appreciate it more.

In retrospect, what strikes me first is that, in this era of Church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths  (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“ a man who choked off liberation theology…a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children…a man who…dismissed women from any serious role”).

And one senses that this political reticence is deliberate. That neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life.

He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life. That we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.

Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include: exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years; a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club; an archbishops letter of resignation at age 75; a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust); and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.

Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a cord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood.” An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about…how these sweet honest funny moments [a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did.”

Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bid Laden chose; to an essay on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the marines—and loses his left hand in battle.

The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.

This is a modest book. It is for a very special audience. An audience which acknowledge its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity. (January, 2014)

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