Papal Sin, by Garry Wills

The Introduction to this 2000 work is marvelous. It should be required reading for all Catholics. It is not concerned with the personal sins of past popes: the sins of power, avarice, and concupiscence. That era has passed, Garry Wills says. What should concern Catholics now is the Church’s defense of its recent institutional acts.

He cites Pope Paul VI, who negated the decision of his commission on birth control, because he was persuaded that the Church could not admit it had been wrong in the past. That such an admission would expose to challenge all its doctrines of the past. Which is self-defeating, he says. For such thinking has driven both the clergy and laity away from the Church. It has led priests who stay in the Church to ignore the doctrinal messages from Rome (such as on contraception, abortion, celibacy), for they are too intelligent to pass on such teaching to the laity, and they know the laity is too intelligent to accept it. “This is a neglected factor in the many discussions of the way vocations to the priesthood have fallen off so drastically in recent years.”

He adds that, “the young, idealistic person, the kind who want to be priests, are just the people for whom matters of honesty with themselves are bound to be most challenging. How can one aspire to a high calling and yet accept low standards for his own truthfulness about what he really believes?”

Wills challenges the idea that “the whole test of Catholicism, the essence of the faith, is submission to the Pope….To maintain an impression that the Popes cannot err, Popes deceive—as if distorting the truth in the present were not a worse thing than mistaking it in the past.”

Wills subtitles his book Structures of Deceit. Because it is not the Popes who are the continuing sources of these decisions, it is the Vatican, it is in the structure of the Church.

Wills says he is not attacking the papacy or its defenders. “My book is a tribute, in part, to he honesty that has led so many priests to keep silent under the burden of deceptiveness called for by their superiors—and it is a plea that the weight be removed.”

What matters here is that this is not a book about the papal sins of history. (He covers that in another book.) This is about the Church today, about its history following World War II. It is not a history to be proud of, and the results can be seen in the empty seminaries, novitiates, and pews.

And its causes can be read in the papacies that followed John XXIII, when the windows were shuttered on the breath of fresh air. Fear drove the Church, as the Curia feared it would lose its influence, the popes feared they would lose their power, and the hierarchy feared change would be an admission that in the past they had been wrong. Meanwhile, the laity feared the Church’s failure to understand both the practical and spiritual issues they faced.

This book is about truth and honesty, about the failure of the Church to meet those criteria. Which is so contradictory for a Church that claims to be descended from the most holy man in history. But it is an organization of men, that is the rationale we hear today, and has been for 2,000 years. Which I can understand regarding the personal conduct of popes and cardinals of the past. But much less so when it comes to spiritual matters being addressed by the institution today.

But what troubles me most of all, and for which I have no answer, is how this Church can have been under the watchful eye of the Holy Spirit throughout its history, and yet conducted itself the way that it has: its defensiveness, its fear of change, its culpable Curia, even its alternation between liberal popes and conservative popes who seem to contradict one another. Perhaps it is more a human institution that we think, particularly if Wills is right and Christ did not make his apostles priests, and their successors did not themselves create new priests for four centuries.

I shall follow here my practice of summarizing a work when I find it both refreshing and convincing. These are ideas that needed to be expressed, and Wills supports them with pertinent quotations from scripture and history. He especially spells out instances in which the Vatican misuses or distorts the meaning of a scriptural passage.

Wills begins his book with the Holocaust.

He cites the 1998 document, We Believe, issued under Pope John Paul II. He says it separated anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, claiming the former was a scientific matter not under the Church’s jurisdiction and the latter was a human failing not connected to the Church. Actually, he says, both fed on the other. The report also ignored millions of Catholics who supported the Nazis (claiming they were afraid not to), and cited only Church leaders who objected.

Wills makes the interesting point that since the Jew Jesus died for all mankind, his death should not be a source of racial confrontation, and discrimination, but of racial solidarity. He also points out that Vatican II, while it said the Jews of today were blameless for the death of Christ, did not acknowledge a past in which Christians persecuted the Jews. After a bitter dispute in the Council, a compromise omitted this historic fact.

Even before this, in 1938, an ill Pope Pius XI asked the American John LaFarge to draft an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism. But LaFarge felt he had to work through his order, and the Jesuit head and the Vatican Curia sabotaged the encyclical. It never reached light, dying with the Pope.

Instead, the Vatican emphasizes that Catholics were also victims of the Holocaust, an example of the structures of deceit. Wills cites the case of Edith Stein, a Jew who became a Carmelite nun. He tells how the Church dishonestly claimed she was executed not as a Jew but as a Catholic. And made her eligible for sainthood by attributing to her a miracle recovery from drug poisoning, a poisoning that her doctor said resulted in recovery 91 percent of the time.

Wills also exposes false attempts to claim that Pius XII criticized the Holocaust

Wills next tackles the encyclical of Paul VI on birth control. He said it was not about sex, but about authority, about a denial that Church teaching could change. However, he points out that earlier, when the rhythm method was approved, it marked the first time that it “put a sacrosanct mechanics of sex above the motive of the actors, reversing the normal priorities of moral reasoning.” Indeed, the reasoning of St. Augustine.

I have read before Wills’ views on Humanae Vitae. He describes how the Curia and Ottaviani tried and failed to control the Commission, that the final vote was 54-12 in favor. What I did not know was that his encyclical also condemned artificial fertilization, and yet his successor, Pope John Paul, who lived only a month, congratulated the “English baby girl whose conception was produced artificially. As for her parents, I have no right to condemn them….They could even deserve great merit before God.”

How unfortunate that that Pope was succeeded by John Paul II, who immediately and strictly enforced Humanae Vitae. While for Paul it was a matter of authority, for John Paul II, Wells says, it was a matter of authority and sex, that the new Pope considered himself an authority on sex. He cites this Pope’s commitment to the Virgin Mary and her virginity. “He wants to introduce the aura of virginity even into marriage, where concupiscence toward one’s own wife is forbidden.”

On women as priests, John Paul II’s answer, Wills says, was “that the twelve apostles were men so all priests must be men. But all had wives, Wills claims, so could not today’s priests be married. He contrasts the presence of women at key moments in Christ’s life and death, how he cured “unclean” women, associated with prostitutes, and how they were the ones who announced his death. He traces the negative portrait of women and their qualification to subsequent centuries in which men said that they were inferior to men from the moment they were conceived, that they were not clean (they menstruated), and that they were not made in the image of Christ. He concludes: “But not to realize it now, when the evidence is so overwhelming, when the opportunities for redress are available—to perpetuate the wrongs to women as a way of maintaining that the church could not have erred in its treatment of women—that is the modern sin, and it is a papal sin.”

On married priests, Wills cites the letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul says, “Have I not the right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers, and Stone (Peter)?” Which Paul VI ignored in his encyclical on married priests in 1967. ”Omission of this most relevant text, just because it is inconveniencing,” Wills says, “is an example of the intellectual dishonesty his book is studying.”

To further separate the priest from worldly life, Wills cites the priest’s need to say the mass, even by himself, the Latin language that few understood, the communion rail that separated the clergy, and the priest alone causing the consecration of the bread and wine. He says that originally what was meant was that the congregations receiving the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, not that the bread and wine itself does.

Thus, there was resistance at Vatican II to the priest saying mass in the vernacular and turning to face the laity, and to the laity shaking each other’s hands—all took away from the mystical rite of the mass. Which, in turn, challenged the ritual purity of the priest himself, and his need to be celibate. Finally, Wills challenges the “greater availability” to the laity claimed for unmarried priests. He compares it to a married doctor’s availability, a married teacher’s, a married rabbi’s, even a married politician’s, including our president.

Wills cites the decline in the number of vocations, and traces it to the Vatican’s insistence that priests follow its prescriptions regarding contraception, homosexuality, married priests, etc. He contrasts this with the early centuries of the Church, when it was the community, the faithful, who created its own priests and bishops. Indeed, he says there is no scriptural claim that the original 12 apostles were priests, that Rome assumed that prerogative gradually, as political leaders began appointing church leaders and bishops.

After a long presentation of pedophilia, in which he describes how the Church concealed and transferred the perpetrators, and defended its treatment of them, Wills discusses all types of sexual activity by priests: “Whatever one thinks of the morality of any of these acts, such [research] figures are obviously related to the thesis of this book, that the life of the church authorities is lived within structures of multiple deceit.” And: “My point here is not to judge the priests but to return to the dissonance [the gap] between papal claims and lived reality.”

Wills next discusses gay people and the Virgin Mary. Of interest to me was only the matter of Mary’s immaculate conception, that she was conceived without original sin. How, Thomas Aquinas then asked, can she be considered as part of the line of David, all born with original sin, from which line Jesus claims descent? Pius IX ignored such thinking, Wills says, when he proclaimed her Immaculate Conception; it was a power move, he says.

Of great interest is the chapter on abortion. For Wills, it comes down to when the soul is infused into the person. Is it done all at once, or gradually? Is it done when the egg is fertilized, at some point in its development, or when the child is born? Wills points out that we do not baptize a fetus when it miscarriages or is aborted. He seems to conclude that since we do not agree on when the human soul enters the body, that a woman should have the right to control what is happening inside her body. I am not persuaded. While I favor birth control, as Wills does, I cannot accept abortion. My basic belief is that this fetus is a person. If we do not know when it obtains a soul, but agree that it does, I prefer to err on the safe side, at the point the egg is permanently fertilized in the woman’s body, when the being there can become nothing else.

Wills ends stating that “woman have the legal right to decide whether to have an abortion,” but that women still must face “a moral decision-making task that goes deeper than the law.” To make his point, he adds: ”I cannot be certain when personhood begins, any more than Augustine was certain when the soul was infused. But against all those who tell us, with absolute assurance, when human life begins, we should entertain some of his knowledge of our limits.” And he quotes Augustine: “When a thing obscure in itself defeats our capacity, and nothing in Scripture comes to our aid, it is not safe for humans to presume they can pronounce on it.”

Wills offers interesting history on how Pius IX got his Vatican Council I to pass the dogma of papal infallibility. He tells it largely through the viewpoint of Catholic layman Lord Acton, who strenuously opposed it. Highly respected and close to many bishops, Acton quickly lost the respect of the Pope and the Curia, whom he saw as acting dishonestly when they curtailed all debate and steamrollered the process. He remained a Catholic, but the multiple excuses given for condoning dishonorable action, Wills says, “offended him in the church because it should be the friend of truth, not an enemy”

Wills contrasts Lord Acton with John Henry Newman, Acton was aggressive in his opposition, Newman cautious. In the end, Newman accepted the dogma, when he felt the Church as a whole accepted it, not just the Pope, and that when the Pope claimed infallibility he was acting for the Church, not just for himself.

Wills begins his conclusion by addressing a dispute between the apostles Peter and Paul in order to discuss lying and any possible validity.

This has a thematic connection to the rest of this book, because the book itself is charging the Vatican with lying to further its mission. He concludes: “The greatest betrayal is to lie about the truths of religion.” And he compares St. Augustine’s adherence to the truth with the conduct of today’s bishops and popes, such as how the Vatican dealt with the Holocaust, the contraception issue, the celibacy issue, the infallibility issue, the banking scandal, the role of woman, the celibacy issue, the pedophilia scandal, etc.

He finishes: “Christ, Augustine said, is the way to the truth and is the truth….that is why the church lie was the worst lie in his eyes—the falsehood to proclaim the truth. He would have said that the new papal sin, of deception, is worse that the vivider old sins of material greed, proud ambition, or sexual license. It is a spiritual sin, an interior baffling of the Spirit’s access to the soul. It is a cold act, achieved by careful maneuvering and manipulating, a calculated blindness, a shuttering of the mind against the Light.”

In sum, this is a remarkable book, a truth-telling book that in former days would undoubtedly have ended on the Index of Forbidden Books. It not only challenges the Church, it does so effectively. It uses the Church’s own words and its own actions to expose its dishonesty. Moreover, there is context here, to show that the words and actions are not being taken out of context. One hopes, that in the era of Pope Francis, Wills will be inspired to continue his challenge to the Church’s position on a wide gamut of sexual issues, plus further promote the fact that the Church is its people, its faithful, and is not its hierarchy. (July, 2014)

Advertisements

The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

I have been a great fan of Henry James. But for some reason I did not get around to reading The Golden Bowl, written in 1904. Perhaps because I had heard that it was in James’ later style, and was a difficult book.

In any event, I tried reading the novel a few years ago, and could not get past the first 50 pages. They were too dense, and seemed to be going nowhere.

So now, I am trying again. I am up to page 200, and it is difficult going. I am not sure right now if I am going to finish the novel, or give up. I certainly had the same difficulty in reading the first 50 pages. We begin inside the Prince’s head before he marries Maggie, and every sentence seems to have many clauses with multi qualifiers, as James has his hero consider all the possible effects of a particular thought or action. Plus, nothing seems to be happening.

When, finally, the characters begin talking to each other, we leave what has been exposition and interest begins with the interaction of these characters. Finally, the narrative is being dramatized. I have not read or seen any of Henry James’ plays, but I know he turned to playwriting late in his career. I would surmise this was because he liked writing dialogue, and perhaps realized he was good at it. I do know I myself enjoyed his dialogue in his earlier novels.

James follows these interesting dialogues, however, with long pages of more exposition, with some paragraphs lasting more than a page. He does this, I believe, because he has developed a rich knowledge of the contradictions of the mind and of human emotions, and he imparts these contradictions to his characters in order to establish a lifelike richness to his characterizations.

But what he does not realize is that the richness of these contradictions comes between him and his reader, and instead of the dramatic action we seek from his characters we endure endless introspection. His purpose may be admirable: to establish a rich lifelike context, whether of the atmosphere, a person’s thinking, or the ramifications of an action. But in truth, I have found myself skimming over those long paragraphs that freeze the action so that James can probe the complex thinking of these characters—long paragraphs that advance possibilities, but do not advance the story.

The story itself is about two couples. Maggie has married Amerigo, the Prince. Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. Maggie and Charlotte are longtime girl friends. Charlotte and the Prince were once (this is the 19th century) lovers. Complications ensue among these basically good people. The complications are exasperated by the gossipy Fanny Assingham, who keeps confiding to the reader the ramifications of these relationships, as we listen to her and her husband, Bob, the Colonel.

As we move from Book First, the Prince’s view, to Book Second, the Princesses’ (Maggie’s) view, we learn through Mrs. Assingham the issue that this novel addresses. It is that Maggie has remained close to her father, and is thus withholding her attention from her husband. This appears to result in the Prince renewing his emotional tie to Charlotte, who, in turn, finds herself less attached to her husband, because of Maggies’ caring love of him, her father.

So the issue becomes twofold. Will Maggie realize the reason for the renewed relationship between her husband, the Prince, and Charlotte, and will she trust them? And will her father, Adam Verver, realize that his wife Charlotte is giving her attention to the Prince rather than to him? Finally, how will Maggie and her father react if they discover that her love for her father has reopened that former relationship?

The answers have drawn me into the second half of the novel.

What is initially disappointing is that the first 90 pages of the second half employ what I am calling exposition, which means a narrative of Maggie’s thinking rather than a dramatization of what she is thinking and doing. This raises the question of why James has taken this approach. Yes, it saves space, saves pages, but I think it is because James has so much knowledge of how the mind works that he wants to show its nuances, and thinks that to explore and reveal actions through the mind is the best way to establish the reality of his characters. Whereas, I prefer to reveal character through action, including conversation—rather than through what I would term a more static approach, through the depths of the mind.

Another source of this approach I hesitate to introduce. It is that this is James’ last novel, and that perhaps, perhaps, he has found it difficult to find the concentration to turn a somewhat conceptual concept, his plot, into dramatic action. That he outlined where he wanted the story to go but found it required considerable effort to dramatize where he wanted it to go. And he soon turned to playwriting precisely because he was comfortable with dialogue, and a play does not have the complexity of a novel.

What also may be behind my reaction is that I have not been able to follow the complexity of Maggie’s thinking, or of the Prince’s thinking. There may well be much more to these internal musings than I am aware of, and this master should receive full credit for that subtle treatment. However, given my inability to follow some of these musing has been one reason, I admit, that I have skimmed through those long paragraphs of little action.

On the other hand, there is also the issue of the actual musings of these characters, especially those of Maggie. They are of minor significance in the external lives of these characters. Maggie’s suspicions of the faithfulness of her husband and her best friend arise in her imagination; and her speculations lead to no external action until the end, and then it might be better described as inaction. The subtlety behind her thinking is that she does not wish her father to know her suspicions, for fear it will destroy his marriage, his happiness, as well as her own relationships with both him and her own husband. Thus, she achieves as much as she can by inaction.

What I will grant, however, is that as inconsequential as Maggie’s suspicions are, James knows how to write a scene in which she confronts, first, Fanny Assingham, and then her husband, the Prince, with her suspicions. This may well be the scene that James saw as the turning point of this novel.

The golden bowl of the title also plays a role here, and a very appropriate one. Indeed, it is a symbol of Maggie’s relationship with her father and with Charlotte. For it has a crack. And Fanny Assingham plays a major role in its fate. For Maggie, the issue is why, earlier in the novel, Charlotte was prepared to buy the bowl for the Prince. And the issue for me now is the logic behind how Maggie learns of that earlier encounter in the antique shop, and how she twists it into meaning something significant to her.

Otherwise, this confrontational scene with the vase reminded me of the old, the earlier James, whom I so admired. For it is marvelous dialogue, and truly works as a symbol of Maggie’s psychological fragility.

In passing, I would note that most of the book’s earlier confrontations in dialogue form concern the Assinghams, either between themselves or hers with Maggie; and they clearly exist to explain to the reader the ramifications that so concern Maggie.

The ending begins with final confrontation scenes, in dialogue, between Maggie and Charlotte and then Maggie and her father. It seemed to me to be a perfect ending, with Maggie resolving her situation with each of these people who are important to her. But then we read more than 25 pages of narrative exposition before we get to two more conversations, one again between Maggie and Charlotte that bring a change in all the relationships. It seems to me that James wanted here to give his novel a new twist at the end, but for me it was far from necessary, much less in any way significantly revealing of Maggie. For James, perhaps, it brought a greater sense of completion. On the other hand, I am thinking here of the overall situation, whereas James may have decided that it important that his hero Maggie change from being a person who only reacts to others to one who herself acts on others.

However, I do have to admire the sure, confident technique of the final pages‑—its resolution of the relationship between Maggie and her father and Maggie and her husband. Which, I think, is intended to represent the completeness of Maggie’s portrait. For James keeps us uncertain until these final pages. And even then, those final relationships are elusive to this reader. Yes, Maggie has maneuvered them as she wished, but they have also taken their own initiative in reaching the same conclusion. Indeed, both the Prince and Charlotte agree, in effect, to give up each other. Thus, there is goodness in each of these four characters who have, for various reasons, put themselves into this difficult situation. And for Maggie, what matters is her decision that her loyalty be, first, with her husband, whereas previously it has been with her father.

And yet, it is such a slight obstacle that this novel has resolved. An obstacle that Maggie initially creates in her mind. That is, her view of the relationships among these two couples. Which becomes a greater obstacle when it transforms itself into the tension between her love of her father and her love of her husband. However…it is still an obstacle that lies within their three minds. It does not exist in their external world. Which, in turn, shows us what interested James in this stage of his career: the internal world.

In an introduction, Richard Brett has offered some interesting ideas. He asks: “What is the point of this slight, breathlessly refined action? How does it come to seem both trivial and profound?”

And: “The people are characteristically concerned with the questions of where they are, what do they know, what do others know, what can be said, what can’t be said, what can others say or not say, do or not do” And this certainly captures the narrative exposition that continually turned me off.

He also suggests that the wealthy Maggie wishing to buy a prince for his social ranking and to “buy” Charlotte for her lonely father “may well seem a guiltier thing than the adultery committed against them and which, in any event, they have themselves provoked by the logic of their bargains.”

He continues: “James point, perhaps first, is that no matter what the original appearance of the morality of the Ververs’ bargains, all four characters are mutually implicated in them; all give and all take; and further all are transformed by their interconnectedness.”

In the end, this is a story of love. Of Maggie’s for her father, and of Maggie’s for her husband. Not to forget that between the Prince and Charlotte. Indeed, Maggie realizes, for them all, that giving up one love can be a commitment of love to another. And Brett asks “But how else is love to be conceived…if it is not the allowance to others of as much freedom as one assumes for oneself.”

So what I am evaluating is the effectiveness of this portrayal of love requiring a sacrifice, when that sacrifice is explored too much within the characters’ minds rather than in any external action. Yes, these characters, and most of James’ characters, live through their consciousness more than through their body; but there was too much of that consciousness here for my taste. There was too much subtlety, too much goodness, in the actions of these characters; too much speculating that if I do this to achieve my good end, he or she will do that to achieve their good end.

In sum, this was a novel to struggle through. In part because of its complex style. In part because of its narrative rather than dramatic approach. And in part because the drama is inside these characters rather than, as in most novels, in the physical world. James was obviously drawn here to that internal world, much as Joyce was when he used another format. Perhaps that new knowledge of the mind was an avenue novelists wished to explore at the turn of the 20th century. However, I also wonder whether or not James himself was dissatisfied with this novel. And wonder if that influenced his turning thereafter to the stage. (July, 2014)

The White Stone, by Carlo Coccioli

More than 50 years ago, I was fascinated by Carlo Coccioli’s earlier novel, Manuel the Mexican. I enjoyed it both for its impressionistic style and for its portrayal of the Mexican culture, but mainly for its interesting confluence of the Aztec and Christian religions.

So I sought out a new work, The White Stone, originally published in Paris in 1958. It was about an Italian priest, Ardito Piccardi and his crisis of faith. But I also learned there was a companion novel, Heaven and Earth, about the same priest’s life prior to that described in The White Stone. So I waited to discover that first novel on the remainder shelves. And waited, and waited…and never did find it.

Now, I have finally stopped waiting. I have read The White Stone.

This is the story of what happened to Ardito during World War II. As the book opens, he has just lost his faith because he prayed to God that he be executed to save local peasant youths who have been caught sabotaging a railroad, only to have a German officer pardon the youths without executing Ardito. In somewhat confused thinking, typical perhaps of Coccioli, the Nazi officer has negated Ardito’s faith in God by being the one, rather than God, who has done the pardoning. Sent north to a prison camp in Germany, Ardito meets a second priest, Augustin Nevers, who has lost his faith because he is gay, another familiar theme of the author, who is himself gay.

The two priests have interesting theological discussions while they are prisoners. Ardito does not want his friend to lose his vocation, even though he has lost his own. He tells the priest that he will be judged “not for what you are (a homosexual) but for the way in which you have lived.” And Augustin writes of Ardito: “Yet the man he had become retained the spiritual habits of his former life….What I mean…is that the spirituality of this priest who ceased to believe in God became earthly, changed into flesh, took on human form. [And yet] having lost God had not lost the necessity of him.”

The purpose of their discussions seems to be to deepen Ardito’s character rather than to explore a contrast between the two priests. Thus, Augustin asks. “Why do you impose on me a faith which you have renounced?” And Ardito replies: “I did not renounce my faith. A day came when I found myself emptied of it.”

While a prisoner, Ardito also writes: “God only existed because I thought that I believed in him. I have therefore not destroyed God; I have destroyed only my illusion.” Yet, as this novel demonstrates, he still wishes that he could believe.

And we soon are following only Ardito, as he escapes from the Nazi prison camp and hides in the woods. He has escaped with an unsavory but good-intentioned Croatian, another complex characterization that expands on the novel’s tension between goodness and evil.

Ardito then joins a larger group of escapees, who later claim that he has saved them from the Germans through a “miracle” that he has no memory of. The men pray with him and then, as in a dream he himself has, say he rose a meter off the ground in front of the pursuing German soldiers, which then turned back. Thus, this good priest, who still prays, changes reality, even if he no longer believes in God—and cannot himself believe in this “miracle.”

To back up, the entire story of Ardito is being told by a narrator called, “C.” (the implication is Coccioli) who knew Ardito when he was a youth, and is now seeking to learn Ardito’s fate after the priest was taken away to the German prison camp. This information comes to C. in the form of letters, journals, and diaries written by Ardito and those he encountered, sources that C. has tracked down. Thus, we are learning about Ardito long after the fact, allowing them (and the author) to lend a helpful perspective to his adventures.

In an interlude, Ardito is living in Paris in 1950. He begins by saying: “Before, my religion was a material thing. I had discovered God through Satan. I served God, but I lived in the reality of Satan. He was everything: the flesh and its torments….My religion was too influenced by Satan to be metaphysical.” In Paris, a Mr. Page approaches him. Page introduces the idea of service, and tries to persuade Ardito that he think of himself not as a “free” man, but as “available.” But after many meetings, Ardito has a dream and realizes that Mr. Page is the tempter Satan. And Ardito writes: “I felt linked to Someone whose existence I had denied for many years….I knew, that night, that I could not believe in God, yet I loved him more than ever.”

This is not that interesting an encounter, mainly an exchange of ideas that crystallizes the uncertainty in Ardito’s thinking. It does not advance C.’s search for him. It seems, rather, to be Coccioli’s way of showing the reality of Satan and then Ardito turning a corner, the corner to worldly sainthood. In sum, I am not sure of the necessity of this episode.

Ardito’s final adventure occurs in Mexico, where he encounters a similar situation to his original confinement by the Germans in Italy; he is trying, in this case, to save a single hostage. In Mexico, he is now more mature, and he acts more bravely in a highly dramatic scene in which the author again portrays this hero as a saintly man. Finally, Coccioli rounds off his novel by returning his priest, and those seeking him, to the small town in Italy where his adventures, and this book, began.

Why did the author write this book? Why was he drawn to its theme of a priest searching for God? And of exploring men’s relationship with God? Coccioli was raised a Catholic, but became disillusioned with the Church’s direction (including its position on homosexuality), even though he still believed in the Church’s mission. So I believe he was inspired here to explore his contradictory feelings about the Church. Thus, his hero decides he does not believe in God, even as he acts as a good priest in his dealings with the troubled people he encounters. Coccioli is emphasizing the humanity of all mankind, and that our body cannot be sacrificed at the expense of our soul.

In Mexico, near the end of this novel, Ardito says, “There is a more sensational and more real miracle than a blind man regaining his sight. It is for a man who has lost his faith to regain hope.” That sums up Ardito’s journey in this novel. He wants to believe, is searching for his way back to God. And the title is explained on the last page when it cites a verse from St. John’s Revelations. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

One leaves this book sensing that Coccioli, like his hero Ardito, wants to believe, is trying hard to believe, and here allows his character to accept what he cannot. For he keeps writing here about truth, about the contrast and connection between good and evil, about the link between man’s body and his soul. What he has written here is a spiritual mystery, not unlike some of the work of Graham Greene, who also accepted what the Church stood for but could not accept its more specific conduct.

Coccioli himself writes that he has portrayed Ardito “as a man and as perhaps a saint, and as a bridge between heaven and earth.” Indeed, on his website he suggests that this is a true story, that he actually knew Ardito Piccadi in Italy, that the letters and journals are a result of his research, and that he decided to fictionalize the priest’s story based on those resources. I am not sure whether I accept this reality. (Might it just be the author trying to sell the reality of his fiction?) But I would concede that Coccioli may well have experienced a similar situation in which a priest he knew was held hostage (perhaps even killed?) and then let his imagination take wing.

In any event, this is an admirable work for its exploration of faith. It captures the tension between our world of realty and the ideal of faith. It is a tension each person experiences as he balances body and soul, truth and temptation, the saint and sinner within. And it explores this tension in the body and mind of one person, a priest, who belongs to both worlds. It even achieves a believable conclusion, although perhaps one more acceptable to a person of sincere faith.

I do wish I had come across that earlier novel about Ardito’s youth, education, and ordination, but it was not necessary to read that novel in order to appreciate this novel. This work, on the turning point in the priest’s life, is complete in itself.

I am also more interested now in reading additional Coccioli novels. The internal conflict within a man between his imperfect physical body in an imperfect physical world and the perfect ideal of his spiritual life—this is a valid source of literature for me, as Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, and others have long demonstrated. (July, 2014)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)