J.D. Salinger died yesterday at the age of 91 and, full disclosure, I’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye. Nor have I bothered getting detailed autobiographical information on Mr. Salinger. I can only say that his work had an effect on my prayer life, thus proving once again, to me anyway, that God continues to work through the secular in unexpected ways.
I was a new Catholic, and interested in deepening my prayer life. I was reading a book on contemplative prayer, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. The author mentioned Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. F&Z is another of Salinger’s novels that documents the triumphs and travails of the Glass family. Published as short stories in The New Yorker (Franny in 1955 and Zooey in 1957), then put together as one, the book was published in 1961.
If you want a synopsis of this novel, you can easily find many. All I can say is that through Laird, I first learned of The Jesus Prayer, and through Salinger I saw an application of its use and received another lead to a great book which truly had the impact on my prayer life that I was seeking: The Way of a Pilgrim (author anonymous).Salinger is an enigma to us today and has been for over 40 years. He “dropped out,” fled the world. He was a recluse whom the world didn’t seem to understand. Why did you flee? You had it all J.D.! Why did you not take advantage of your gift? Why did you stop sharing it with us? These seem to me to be much the same circumstances that inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers to flee the world as well. Perhaps, like them, J.D. figured the world out and decided to become a hermit.
In the past, this kind of behavior was understood to be rational for holy men and women. In the East, it is more appreciated and understood. In the West, it is cause for consternation, contempt, and a judgment by society that you are not a good steward of your talents.
In the next few days, weeks, and months, narratives will be spun that will allege to unveil the mystery of J.D.’s life. Perhaps new brilliant works will be unearthed that will inspire a new age to continue to wonder, “What the hell am I doing here?” Stay tuned.
So for J.D. Salinger, ascetic hermit, misunderstood by the world, and for all we really know, a holy man, I thank you for sharing your gifts with us until you couldn’t bear to do so any longer. And here is a simple prayer that I think J.D. might appreciate:
Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Son of the Father, have mercy on the soul of your child, J. D. Salinger.
We may never know if he whispered the Jesus Prayer as his character Franny did while he lay dying. The world may find only that J. D. is “a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Only time will tell. But he reached at least one soul, and probably countless others, sowing seeds for the name of Our Lord, even if he really wasn’t a party to it.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. Thanks be to God.