I’ve gotten completely lost in this book. Picked it up, read three pages. Put it down, turned out the light. Turned on the light, read just two more pages…. Laughed out loud. Really, I can’t stop reading, laughing, crying, can’t stop myself from sharing stories with my husband or whoever will listen.
I’m talking about Brian Doyle’s newest book, The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics. Not a weighty tome, it’s a carefree book of essays which meander through the halls of real-life Catholicism, shining the flashlight on things you knew, but which you’d never stated in just that way.
Here’s what I mean. This is Doyle, musing at the end of Mass about a crotchety blind priest in a university chapel.
I think about the motley chaotic confusing house that is Catholicism. I think about how the mad wondrous prayer of the Mass. I think about how there are such stunning and wonderful and confusing people in the clan of Catholic. I think about how we are all kinds of people at once and hardly know ourselves let alone anybody else. I think about how possible the Church is, and how possible we are. I think about how really the Church is just lots and lots of us mulish miracles gathered for little holy meals and story-swaps. I think about how religions are like people, capable of both extraordinary evil and unimaginable grace. I think about how the Church is sort of like the windows above me which catch these timbers of sun and focus them on the human comedy. I think about how I’d be a lot less of a man if I didn’t have ways to wake up to what I can be if I harness mercy and humor and wisdom and attention and prayer and humility and courage and grace.
But then there’s Doyle the historian/teacher. Woven into his stories one finds history and theology and pathos and love. Here he recounts a story about the strength of the Church in Ireland, during the time when Catholicism was suppressed.
One morning in Donegal, during the time when the penal laws are in effect and Catholics are forbidden to assemble for Mass, a farmer herds his four black cows into a corral, along with one white one. This is a sign to his fellow Catholics as to where Mass will be held at noon; this sign of four and one means in a particular hedge under a hill. The people casually drift away from their work before noon and assemble silently around a rock where the Mass will be celebrated. The priest is a fellow age forty. He gets halfway through the Mass, but just as he elevates the host at the apex of the Mass, just as he lifts it to accept and accomplish the miracle, he is drilled between the eyes with a bullet from a British soldier on the hill….
Oh there’s more, so much more. Archbishop John George Vlazny, crafting his letter of resignation upon reaching the retirement age, pondering Portland’s bankruptcy in the wake of abuse cases, gazing on a child’s sketch. Doyle’s mother, making sandwiches. His friend Tommy, who died in the terrorist attack on September 11.
Here are just a few lines from Doyle’s essay “first draft of first letter to the Corinthians”:
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. Love does not steam open letters that have return addresses you think look like they were written by women when you know they are from my cousin, and yes, she and I kissed that one time, but we were thirteen years old, for heaven’s sake, and I think Abraham Lincoln was president, that’s how long ago that was.
And from his essay on “fatherness”:
…As best I could, I gave our children peace and good food, light and clean air, education and clean water, a set of expectations to exceed and a foundation of values and ideas from which to leap…
You really want to read The Thorny Grace of It. Really.