Grace and the Incomplete Flush

oldcoolbuildingAlmost two years ago my husband and I bought a condo in a cool old building downtown. Great location, hardwood floors, exposed brick, pocket doors—charm and more charm. The trouble with cool old buildings is that they are rife with plumbing and electrical issues as ancient systems jury-rigged to keep up with modern times continually fail.

Our previous home had these same issues. The electrical never bothered me much—an ungrounded outlet here, a shorted breaker there, a little smoke wafting out of the dimmer switch of a summer evening. Life.

But the plumbing. The plumbing is another story. The primary symptom of its troubles (and all of my angst about it) coalesces around what is known in the biz as an “incomplete flush.” No matter how many times you flush the toilet, you can never quite get rid of all evidence that you had to use it.

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Crime and Grace Collide in Denis Johnson’s Novels

laughingmonstersOn the back cover of Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is a rather extraordinary quote by David Means. Means was reviewing Johnson’s short novel, Nobody Move, for the New York Times Sunday Book Review in 2009.

The sentence from the quote that struck me in particular is that Johnson “routinely explores the nature of crime—all his novels have it in one form or another—in relation to the nature of grace (yes, grace) and the wider historical and cosmic order.”

Crime, grace, and the wider historical and cosmic order. A novel by Johnson is, then, according to Means, practically the Bible. Maybe better. [Read more...]

The Prodigal Bears His Scars

My last communion was during a brief suspension of my former church’s policy of forbidding it to children. I was already halfway out Protestantism’s door, and three-quarters out of my marriage, but on this their mother and I agreed: we should seize the opportunity to have communion alongside our children. The table was soon blocked again, after much pastoral consultation of texts. Communion remained accessible for hard-drinking adulterers like me, but not for my four year-old.

I lingered at the edges of another church in the following months, and then not at all. The shape of a newly divorced and even harder drinking man is not well-suited—at least it can seem to him, in his vanity and stupor—to pews. I drifted, and far.

My memory of that long descent’s end is the memory of a voice, nightly, over the phone. That voice spoke truths I’d forgotten apply to me: truths about forgiveness, about purpose. It was not the voice of an angel, but close enough, and to this day the sound of it conjures for me salvation.

I still hear it every morning, because it is the voice of a woman who chose to become my wife, long after I stopped believing I deserve such a thing. She took my hand despite my past, took it though her cancer left us unsure if she would live long past a honeymoon. We had no money, no home. Each of us bore a sickness. Today we are mending, and we have a house in a little town, and my children love her more than I imagined possible.

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Only God is an Atheist, Part 1

When she was twenty-one years old, far from home and as yet uncelebrated, Flannery O’Connor began keeping a journal to God. For the many who were moved by reading her correspondence with friends and admirers—a correspondence collected in The Habit of Being—the first publication of O’Connor’s journal in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker is a chance to revisit the workings of her mind.

Much will seem familiar. Always a seeker of knowledge, she nevertheless exhibits her characteristic wry wit regarding the limits of such pursuits: No one can be an atheist who does not know all things, she says. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

But much will also seem new. In the journal, the young writer speaks to God in direct address. And unlike the letters, which were always meant for at least some type of public audience—if only that of the addressee—the journal was likely never meant to be seen. As such, the candor found there unveils a raw, youthful side to the otherwise tough, wise-cracking, and often cocky, O’Connor—a side that to my knowledge was seldom shown in her correspondence.

In the balance of this two-part post, I will comment on some of the passages that are particularly striking, arranged by topic. Today, I will focus on her prayers about writing.

With only one story accepted at the time of her journal (1946), O’Connor displays both zeal and anxiety about her vocation:

I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.

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What are You Doing for Lent?

“So what are you doing for Lent this year, Bill?”

This was my annual question to my spiritual director, Fr. Bill Shannon, for the twenty-five years that I went to him for monthly counsel. (I wrote about our relationship in a previous post.)

When I posed the question in 1995, about ten years into our relationship, Bill’s eyes twinkled in a smile as he answered. “Each day I’m going to write a letter to someone, and then keep that person in my prayers during that day. It’s a way of participating in the Communion of Saints.”

That impish eye-twinkling came from Bill’s knowing that his answer would take me by surprise. A fairly new Catholic, I’d expected that he would be “giving up” something for Lent.

He explained. “You shouldn’t be focusing on the negative for Lent. It’s a positive opportunity—to attend in a special way to one’s relation to God.” [Read more...]