The Miracle, by John L’Heureux

Father Paul LeBlanc is handsome and charismatic, but also troubled. Not because he questions the war in Vietnam, papal infallibility, and the primacy of individual conscience, all of which puts him in conflict with the Boston hierarchy. Rather, it is because he cannot commit himself to his vocation, nor establish a true relationship with the God he serves. And so as this 2002 novel begins, he is transferred to a small church on the New Hampshire coast; and, forced to admit his troubled vocation, he appeals to God. Since he cannot find himself to love others, including God, he prays that God will love him—and says he will do anything in return if God will only do so.

And then, the housekeeper at his new rectory, Rose, sees her daughter Mandy die of an overdose. But, refusing to accept her daughter’s death, she prays for her to survive. In fact, the church’s dying pastor, Father Moriarty, sees her alive in a dream. And she does survive. Which intrigues Father Paul. What did Rose do? Is it a miracle? He wants to deny it, but cannot. And he decides it isn’t the miracle he needs to understand; it’s Rose.

L’Heureux has more on his mind here than if there was a miracle. He explores what this presumed miracle means to others. Father Paul, especially, needs to know how Rose revived her daughter. What capability for miracles does Rose have within her? And his fascination with Rose turns this novel toward the bond between human love and divine love. And about the doubts his new attraction to Rose raises in his faith and in his worthiness as a priest.

Meanwhile, a parishioner, Anna Kathryn Malley is herself attracted to the handsome Father Paul. She even sees him as a “man she might marry one day.” When she reveals that she has never been able to commit herself to a man, he realizes it is his own problem as well: human relationships. But a priest need not commit himself to such relationships, she says, whereas her life has been one of continual failure at them. Eventually, Father Paul realizes that this good person needs help. And he is a priest. And as each begins to understand the other’s failure, they begin exploring their mutual need. Whereupon, the reader wonders where this new relationship is going.

Meanwhile, Mandy dies again, irony of ironies, and seems to be a victim of a miracle gone wrong. Now begins the heart of this novel. Father Paul is drawn to comfort the bereaving mother. And finds that this is expressed in a lust for her. For if he can possess her, he thinks, he will finally understand that miracle. “And is it lust,” he ssks, “to want to understand a miracle?” She, in turn, has long looked upon this attractive priest with equal fervor. And so by letting his body fulfill itself sexually, he relates to another person. But if he has fulfilled his role as a man, he is drowning in guilt.

In the morning, both are sorry, but there are no regrets. Only guilt. Whereupon, Anna Kathryn helps Father Paul realize that while God will forgive him for this sin, the priest cannot forgive himself. And when he raises new doubts about his vocation, Father Moriarty, his own body betrayed by ALS, suggests to Father Paul “you became a priest because you wanted God’s approval. But God doesn’t need you. Or me.”

Father Paul, however, cannot shake his guilt, or his lust. In fact, in his dreaming of a kiss, Rose turns into Anna Kathryn. Is it now Anna Kathryn he wishes to possess? For the rest of the novel, Father Paul is torn between his desire for the two women and how this conflicts with his wish to remain a priest. What is remarkable is the understanding of the priesthood in this novel, such as one’s responsibilities to God, to the faithful, to fellow priests, and to oneself. This comes across most beautifully in Father Paul’s conversations with his supervisor, Monsignor Glynn, and with Father Moriarty. “Tell me to stop being a priest,” he says to Glynn. “I’ve come a long way from wanting to be a saint. Isn’t that that the next step?”

Both priests are sympathetic to Father Paul and his internal travail, but both treat him, first, as a fellow human being trying to deny his own humanity. They remind him that he has a relationship with God, yes, but it is a relationship that he needs to have, not one that God needs to have with him.

These priests are themselves human, not representatives of God, or of their Church. They fully understand the weaknesses and uncertainties of being human. And L’Heureux surely presents such effective portraits because he himself was once a priest. Who left the priesthood following the upheaval that Vatican II brought to the Catholic Church. Indeed, what this novel suggests is that such modernization did not go far enough in acknowledging the humanity of both priests and the faithful.

Meanwhile, Father Paul and Anna Kathryn are drawn closer together. At the beach, he says, “Tell me about your boyfriends.” And she: “Tell me about God.” Later, she invites him on a picnic to tell him that she loves him. But at the key moment, both are frozen speechless. And later, she writes, “You are incapable of happiness, and I incapable of living without it.”

Father Paul realizes that “his idea of God was simply egoism turned inside out.” Thus, “extinguishing the self to make it perfect meant getting rid of everything human.” This is accompanied by the one melodramatic scene in the novel, a scene in which Father Paul convinces himself of one thing while doing another. It is not entirely convincing, but it does lead to him facing reality, and recalling the earlier advice of the dying Father Moriarty: “Try loving somebody besides yourself for once.”

L’Heureux winds up this story of the three priests and the two women somewhat poetically, as each reaches a self-realization. Father Paul, says, “I don’t want to love God, any God. I want to love someone.” While Rose decides that having sex, including with a priest, “was like getting even with God,” presumably for the loss of her daughter. And Father Moriarty “reaches up and his hand fades in darkness, and another hand grasps his. [And] this new…dark is more light than humankind can bear.”

In sum, this novel explores the link between faith and love, and how a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. As Bruce Bower sums up in The New York Times, this is “a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizably human individuals making what they can of life.”

This reviewer needs to read more works by L’Heureux. (July, 2019)

Some Rise by Sin, by Philip Caputo

This 2017 novel, set in the small Mexican town of San Patricio, uses three stories to capture the town’s economic vulnerability amid the violence of a drug war. First is the story of Father Tim Riordan, an American priest who has chosen a kind of exile in the town and is a revered figure there. It continues with the story of Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who has fallen in love with the town and its people; but she is also a lesbian, which she must hide from the locals. And, finally, there is the story of the Brotherhood, a violent movement of narcos who have browbeaten the town and seek to control the entire area. Both the army and the national police strive to destroy this gang, but must deal with similar efforts by a local militia led by a parishioner, Cesar Diaz.

Each story is beautifully told, especially that of the priest. The novel introduces him at length, and one expects this work to be a portrait of a lonely, introspective priest far from home who has earned the trust of his parishioners. That is, Caputo gets truly inside him, probing his thoughts on his vocation, his dedication to his work, and his theological doubts. The novel’s overarching story begins when, in a military mishap, two civilian anti-war demonstrators are killed, and Riordan is requested by Diaz, chief of the town’s local militia, to ask the military leaders for an apology

But finding the perpetrators gradually recedes, as the other stories prevail. And while the three stories work in parallel, they remain on separate tracks. The priest’s doubts revolve around the seal of confession, and his efforts to protect his parishioners. Meanwhile, Lisette, the doctor who has brought modern medicine to a primitive village, is entrapped into treating Julien, the wounded leader of the narco gang. And finally, the Mexican army, under Captain Valencia, and national police, under Gregorio Bonham, also known as the Professor, join their forces to destroy this ambitious and violent narco movement.

The problem, as indicated, is that the three stories never come together. Father Tim is involved in each one, but his involvement in one aspect never ties in with his connection to another. His main issue as a priest concerns the seal of the confession. Should he break it, does he break it, when doing so warns of and perhaps even prevents the violence that has penetrated this village. It is a heartfelt search of his conscience that brings the priest alive early in this novel. For some, this novel might recall Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, with its tale of the whiskey priest in a small Mexican village, but the priest here, a responsible man, is far different.

Nor does Lisette connect the three stories. Her own concern is her lesbian affair with a friend, the painter, Pamela Childress, also an American. Their issue is whether their relationship can survive in a distant Mexican village. Lisette is linked to the story of the Mexican drug wars, as I said, when she is forced to operate on the wounded leader of the narcos. But that dramatic scene does not relate to further developments in this novel.

Finally, there is the story of those narcos, The Brotherhood, as they call themselves. Defeating them prompts both cooperation and competition between the army and the national police, who are jealous of each other’s efforts, plus disdainful of the local militia. Their rivalry is personified by the army’s brutal Captain Valencia and the more refined leader of the national police, the Professor. The latter has been a corrupt official in the region’s drug wars, but, unlike Valencia, relates to the educated priest.

The problem is the ending, when the experiences of the five main characters—the priest, the doctor, the captain, the Professor, and the narco leader Julian—never come together. Instead, each story is resolved separately. That of the priest, as he confronts Captain Valencia, is especially disappointing, for its abruptness. And also because the conscientious father abdicates from his responsibility as a priest, after so much of the novel probes deeply his commitment to his vocation and to his conscience.

At least, it becomes an ending, as does his entire life, that only a writer with a Catholic background could impart meaning to. Which is illustrated by these thoughts that arise in the closing paragraph: “It was he who bore the sins—his own sins and Cesar Diaz’s and every sin he’d heard confessed in his lifetime as a priest. He would atone for them all.”

The title, Some Rise by Sin, comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. A valid theme for this exploration of evil, it means that some can justify their lives, can rise, by committing sinful deeds. Or, in more direct language, that the end justifies the means, long a source of debate in Catholic circles. It applies here most forcibly to the actions of the priest. Can the breaking of the seal of confession be justified if it can prevent violence and save lives? That issue is fully examined here from a Catholic perspective, and is again evoked on the final page.

But Lisette might also be said to be furthering evil when she operates to save the arm and the life of the wounded leader of the Brotherhood. Which, in turn, despite all its violence, preaches that it is fighting the corruption of the Mexican state in behalf of its citizens. Even Valencia and the Professor, by the contrast in their actions, emphasize that there are good and bad methods to achieving a desirable end.

And speaking of ends and means, Caputo does not miss the irony that as two Americans, a priest and a doctor, try to alleviate the suffering endemic to this small Mexican village, other Americans are indirectly, if ignorantly, fomenting the town’s narco wars by importing illegal drugs from Mexico in the first place. It is another reason for Father Tim’s commitment to his Mexican parishioners. He is making amends, both personal and political.

Caputo enriches this novel by means of a Catholic framework. Without Riordan’s doubts and self-recriminations, this work would lose much of its texture as well as a philosophical depth. I would hope that more of Caputo novels are enhanced by exploring such a religious texture. It may not please some critics, such as the New York Times reviewer who says that “Breaches of Catholic doctrine are hazardous plot hinges,” and cites as evidence The Heart of the Matter. But that novel refers inward, to a personal sin, while Father Tim’s reaches outward, to his parishioners. (May, 2019)

The Cloister, by James Carroll

This 2017 work is the novel by a priest that I have been waiting for. Except, as in this case, it is by an ex-priest. That is, a novel that blends human life with spiritual life and extends their interaction across history. As well as a novel that explores both the conflict and the balance between the human and the spiritual, and presents man’s obligation toward each one.

Indeed, this is a novel that one thinks could have been written by only an ex-priest, by a man who had lived in both worlds, the spiritual world and the human world, the world of philosophy and the world of politics, the world of transgression and the world of love.

This is also a novel that, for the first time in a long time, I have read slowly. This was, in part, because of the richness of the writing, in part because of the philosophical depth being explored in the conversations among its intelligent characters, and in part because I simply wanted the novel to last for a long time.

There are three stories being told here simultaneously, and we move back and forth among each one. First is the story of Heloise and Abelard, the twelfth century lovers and Catholic intellectuals, who are introduced in a Prologue. Next is the story of Jewish philosopher Saul Vedette, who is fascinated by the story of Heloise and Abelard; and his daughter Rachel, who encourages him to continue his research into Abelard while they are living in France under German occupation in the 1940s. And finally, there is the story of Michael Kavanagh, a New York parish priest who casually encounters Rachel, a docent, in the Cloisters shortly after World War II. She is a woman who, because of her own experience, recognizes the intellectual and spiritual uncertainties she senses in him.

The story of Heloise and Abelard is basically a story of rebellion. A rebellion against their vows, yes, when they fall in love and marry, but more significantly a rebellion against Catholic teaching of their time, which Carroll suggests applies to our time as well. For Abelard, sworn to his earthly love for Heloise, believes that God is also driven by love, a love of all the creatures He has created. And this love includes the Jews, who were even then being slaughtered by Crusaders heading east to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.

Professor Vedette of the Sorbonne is writing about these beliefs of the Christian Abelard because he and his daughter are Jews. And he wishes to show that, even now, centuries later, Jews are unjustly persecuted for their role in Christ’s life. His daughter not only agrees with him but also believes she can extend her elderly father’s life by supporting his effort to complete his treatise about Abelard’s defense of the Jews.

As readers, we are drawn into all three stories. We read about Heloise and Abelard, as much to have an insight into their lives as to learn about their destiny when the Church turns against them. We read about Professor Vedette and Rachel in order to learn about his fate as a Jew under the German occupation and what happens to his treatise about the persecution of Jews under a just and loving God. And we read, most of all, about Father Kavanagh, about his personal doubts and about what his final relationship will be with both Rachel and, in his vocation as a priest, with God.

The story of Abelard parallels in some ways the story of Father Kavanagh. Both become rebellious against Church teaching. Indeed, Father Kavanagh becomes convinced that Abelard was correct when he emphasized that God’s entire relationship with his creatures is based on love. And he sees how this particularly applies to the Jews. Indeed, author Carroll’s opposition to discrimination against Jews throughout history has appeared in other works of his, particularly the historical work Constantine’s Sword. So it is no coincidence that he has chosen Abelard to be the fulcrum of this fictional exploration of the Church’s relationship with Jews and with history.

The effectiveness of this novel lies in two factors. First, Carroll successfully transports us back to the twelfth century, from its physical environment and its culture to its clothing and its furnishings. And does so again with France under German occupation and mid-century New York. We see and feel each scene that he creates. And second, he captures the tension in each century between human and divine needs and between the conservative and liberal positions. Indeed, these discussions, taking place at a deep philosophical and theological level, are often not easy for a reader to follow.

Carroll explores most deeply the uncertainties in the priest’s mind. They arise particularly when Kavanagh encounters a former seminarian who has been drummed out of the priesthood, and the bishop seems to lay the blame on Kavanagh himself. It becomes even more complicated when the priest learns the true reason the seminarian was evicted. How far, we now wonder, will Kavanagh follow his doubts about his own role as a priest? How much will his reading of Abelard influence him? And how much will Rachel do the same? All three, Abelard, Rachel, and now Kavanagh, are confronted by the abuse of power. Both Rachel and Kavanagh, moreover, face their own uncertainties. In fact, as each decides where the future lies, it will not always be what the reader expects.

But back to the novel’s basic theme, which is God’s love. At the heart of this novel is a belief that God was not being a cruel God when his Son was tortured and killed to redeem mankind’s sinful lives. This is held by Abelard, by Father Kavanagh, and by James Carroll. They believe that a God who loves his creation, both this world and its humanity, does not have the capacity to treat that world with violence.

This contrasts to the twelfth century, when conservative philosophers said that God the Father proscribed a violent death of his Son on the cross in order to redeem mankind. Whereas, Abelard believed that any cruelty committed in the name of God, and justified by the cruel death of Christ on the cross, is illicit. (“Any theology that says so is wrong.”) For cruelty cannot have been willed by a loving God as the means to redeem mankind.

And yet, this reviewer has long been taught that Christ’s suffering is what earned mankind’s redemption. Whereas, Abelard’s thesis is that a loving God could not have required this of His son. But Christ does say that “not my will but thy will be done.” So he does accept it. And my understanding has long been that physical suffering was needed to compensate for all the physical actions than mankind is responsible for, from the actions of our first ancestors until today. The only answer that comes to me is that Christ was God, and that therefore God was inflicting cruelty on Himself, not on any of His creatures on this earth. It was a demonstration of His love of them.

And so, I do believe that God, in his deepest recesses, represents love, and that, like the Vatican II declaration, Jews should not be denied that love because of their role in Christ’s death. Indeed, I have long held that Jews, as the Chosen People, were meant to represent all mankind when they betrayed Christ. It was not as Jews they did so, but as human beings. That is, we all are the guilty ones. And so we all needed to be, and were, redeemed. Moreover, Christians, those who accepted Christ, are not special, and cannot use that acceptance to believe that only they are relieved of mankind’s guilt. Or to believe that Christians are the only ones who deserve reaching heaven.

In an interview, Carroll has said that violence is built into our culture today, even though God does not in any way support violence. This began, he suggests, back in the time of Abelard, when civilization, as represented by the Church, faced a fork in the road, and it chose the fork of what he calls sacred violence, the violence that still exists today against both Moslems and Jews.

Carroll has often written of the unjust persecution of Jews, and he felt that the story of Abelard, in fact, illustrated the point in history where Christians became responsible for much of that persecution. And he turned to fiction, a novel, as the best way to show how that decision of the Church long ago has resulted in constant persecution, up to the Holocaust in Germany this last century—and extends today to the mistreatment of other religions. He created the story of Rachel Vedette and Father Kavanagh, he says, to give contemporary relevance to the Church’s handling of Abelard long ago.

While there is no clear correlation among the characters in the three stages of history covered by this novel, both Heloise and Rachel are women who inspire and challenge the men in their lives, with Rachel also persuading the naïve and troubled Father Kavanagh that he has to determine his true calling. Carroll adds, however, that while Kavanagh “is not myself,” his own experience did serve to introduce questions that Kavanagh faces as a priest.

If Carroll, now in his seventies, does not write another novel, this will be his crowning work of fiction. In a sense, it will justify that entire branch of his career. He has used his life experience, even if not his personal experience, to explore the spiritual world that all readers live in. A world most novelists ignore, both because it is unimportant to them or does not interest them and because it is a difficult world to explore in the earthly terms that a novel requires. (September, 2018)