Welcome, Sick Pilgrims

Welcome, Sick Pilgrims December 10, 2015


Julianne Moore as Sarah in The End of the Affair. Her mother had her baptized as a baby and it took like a vaccination. Too bad for her lover, Maurice.

“…people often seemed perplexed by Frank and Maisie’s enthusiasms, and published them with little hope of success. But the enthusiasms were right for America, and Sheed and Ward helped at least to shade in the outlines of a counter-Catholicism to which a civilized person could repair.” —Wilfrid Sheed, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir With Parents

I’m obsessed with Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward.

Wilfrid (their son) says their marriage and their publishing house (once considered the “Tiffany” of Catholic publishing in America) served the “incurably brainy” Catholics of their time. They searched for new writers who could speak truth to artists, thinkers, and restless seekers, and “kept them orthodox,” but they also raided the church for treasures. They gave the insatiably curious Catholic mind “somewhere to go” in the Church.

Sheed and Ward
Sheed and Ward on their wedding day, looking boss

They were distinctively Catholic, unashamedly literary. But you didn’t have to be a theologian or a philosopher to appreciate the Sheed and Ward list. I’m neither, and they published some of my all-time favorite spiritual books—including Caryll Houselander’s This War is the Passion.

I don’t mean to romanticize the past (thought that would be so typically Catholic of me) but as a writer of contemporary devotional books I feel I can confidently assert that these days, few to no artists or intellectuals read (or admit to reading) the soft-focus sentimentality that is taken as representative of the genre. I say this based on the expression of confusion/embarrassment that crosses the faces of artists and intellectuals when I tell them what I do for a living. And as a writer of literary memoir, I can say it runs the other way too–readers who have come to like and expect a certain kind of “Catholic” book will not read work that is perceived as too literary or too intellectual–or even just too long.

Or so I’ve been told.

When my Catholic publisher tried to warn me that the book I wrote with Amy Andrews, Love & Salt, was too “high brow,” I thought to myself, “but it’s letters between friends. I know it needs a bibliography, but it’s really just a conversation about the struggle to believe.” Fortunately they liked it enough to buy it anyway and tried to make it appeal to women readers by giving it a (charming, I admit) pink cover that belied that it was largely about death. Few seemed to know what to do with such a book—one written by women who reference Hegel on the first page (Amy) and then recount the trouble of washing out one’s bangs in the sink to avoid being late for work (me). But we found that those who read the book loved the book. Our audience was narrow but passionate.

I’ve been warned by industry vets that Catholic publishing is a waste of time. But I just can’t let my sweet Sheed and Ward dreams die. I confess I badly want to be the next Caryll Houselander, a bona fide Catholic eccentric, a mystic who wrote like an angel and looked like a ghoul (this again according to Wilfrid Sheed, who said she used to dip her face in a bag of flour before coming to their house. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or if she did this to scare him or if it was really part of her beauty regimen. Regardless, what’s not to love?). I also freely admit that my co-author, Amy, who was described in reviews of our book as “the deep thinker” of the two of us, is much more likely to become the next Houselander. I’m the comic relief, though my humor is often black. So now I’m hoping to become the love child of Norah Ephron and Graham Greene. Okay maybe I’m shooting to high. Erma Bombeck and Graham Greene?

Love and Salt's deceptively charming cover
Love and Salt’s deceptively charming cover


Oh, but I was so naïve when I first started doing this 15 years ago, a grad student in creative writing and a cradle Catholic. I had no idea, for example, that to write for any Catholic publisher or magazine meant to risk aligning oneself with an ideology, though ideology has nothing to do with the faith. (This is how I managed to publish in both Crisis and America–naivety). I remember, after graduation, being asked at a job interview for a certain Catholic magazine, “So….what kind of Catholic are you?” and just sitting there, blankly, thinking, “There are different kinds?”

Isn’t that sweet?

Meanwhile the general reader doesn’t trust Catholic publishing to deliver high quality work. They see a Catholic logo and they think they’re getting this. (Which is actually a great book about the Eucharist and I refer to it all the time, but it’s not exactly for the general reader. And why does everything have to be a secret with us, anyway?).

Unlike many of my contemporaries–including my own husband–who shy away from being branded or (cursed) as “Catholic writers,” I really and truly don’t mind (again, Sheed and Ward dreams.) I’m Catholic. I’m a writer. I write mostly about being Catholic. But I’ve always been a little too secular for Catholics and a little too Catholic for secular humanists. Any way you slice it, my audience is narrow. I’ve been reminded of this fact countless times by editors and agents. But I don’t know what else to do but what I do.

And you know who I attract when I do what I do? Not Catholics, especially, though nuns tend to dig me. My biggest fans seem to be mainline protestant pastors (I love those ladies!) and seekers with a mystical predisposition. People who admire the church from afar, as if they sense that it’s the repository of some great and irresistible mystery even as it repulses them.

As I’ve embraced my narrow audience, I’ve met other writers who share my frustrations and my enthusiasms—which is how I met Jonathan Ryan, who joins me here. We wanted a space to write for ourselves and for those who are here in the church with us and those who are attracted to Catholicism but can’t find their way in. For those who have Catholic minds or Catholic aesthetics or Catholic hearts but remain, for whatever reason, outside the church, or who feel they must seek outside Catholicism to meet their spiritual needs.

Like Sheed and Ward, we’re going to set up a soapbox and hope some interesting people show up.

We want to invite people in, encourage them to look around, raid the church for treasures, as Wilfrid said, and claim what’s theirs.

We’re not going to try to make Catholicism relevant, though we may sometimes reveal how relevant it stubbornly remains. We want to talk about the ways in which many of us are searching for something that’s been there all along. Like how I spent all morning searching for the glasses that were on top of my head.

So I hope Sick Pilgrim will be a space of attraction, not proselytizing, that it will remain blessedly free from snark and sentimentality, ideological thought policing and toxic outrage. I hope we’ll be unafraid to speak truth but insatiably curious and unfailingly compassionate. That might be an impossible dream, but it’s worth dreaming.

Because I’m convinced the Church is our sanctuary in this world, a place to be fed, nurtured, forgiven, a place to grow up together. A family, a mystical body, a hospital for sinners—not the hidebound rulebook of patriarchal oppression so many of my friends seem to imagine. And I believe the best way to show it is by telling stories.

Story-based theology has been trendy in evangelical publishing for years (see Donald Miller’s and Ann Voskamp’s sites for two wildly popular examples).  There’s no shortage of protestant/ecumenical blogs publishing accessible, humble, empathetic stories from daily life (I write for this excellent example). And we’re going to do that here too—write and publish personal essays that reveal the many different ways, joys, and challenges of living and seeing Catholicly.  It was a Catholic—St Augustine—who invented confessional memoir, anyway. It’s OUR genre.

But Christianity is no longer the air we breathe, and no matter how devout we are, we fill our lungs instead with pop culture, pop psych, science and pseudo-science, and the pleasures and the pain of the material world. I want to know how we’re feeding our inborn spiritual hunger. I want to go to all those places—travel with other pilgrims, hear their stories—and pick out the thread that leads back to the church.  Because it’s always there. Somewhere.

The boho, sea-faring rat of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows
Wayfarers All: The boho, sea-faring rat of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows

I see them every day: fellow travelers. I have no idea if they’re Catholic, if they despise Christianity, if they’re indifferent. But I see them tugging at that same glimmering thread that I do.

Just one example I recently bookmarked–Clare Messud writing in praise of boredom in Harpers:

  “Along with this hazy sense of inferiority came a sort of absolution — broadly shared, I think, in my generation. The comparative ease of our upbringing first inspired guilt, then defiance. If, as our parents said, we should be eternally grateful for our comfort, then couldn’t we be grateful without feeling bad about it? Why should we accept that the hard path was always superior? Why shouldn’t we enjoy life’s pleasures? Why believe that reading Beckett or, God forbid, Heidegger, was an innately more worthy activity than watching music videos? Says who?”

Here, dear readers, is a pilgrim looking for the right roads. One of us.

Even Catholics who’ve lost the faith remain recognizable to the trained observer (I’m pretty sure I stole that line from Maisie Ward). Sick Pilgrim will credit the witness of the lapsed. Not just because I want to invite them back to the table and to the conversation, but because they are often making art that inspires me. We’re Catholics by “birth or by a ritual entry… not holiness,” (Maisie Ward again. Told you I was obsessed.)

So maybe you stopped going to church ages ago. Maybe you never darkened the doors after your infant baptism. Too bad. Like the adulteress-saint in The End of the Affair, we’re marked for life, y’all.

So, why do I call this blog, and myself, and you, Sick Pilgrim?

It started with my daughter’s pilgrim obsession (obsession clearly being a thing with us).  She was around 4 years old the first time we watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and she was captivated by the idea that people would be so willing to risk their lives, and leave all their stuff, to take a perilous journey to an unknown land. Well, she didn’t really articulate it as such, but that’s how I interpreted her repeated requests for me to draw a stick-figure pilgrim with X’s for eyes, throwing up hard tack over the side of the Mayflower. I fell in love with that image, which seemed like a portrait of my own spiritual life.

That's what a couple months of hard-tack will do to your tubes, Charlie Brown.
That’s what a couple months of hard-tack will do to your tubes, Charlie Brown.

Because we’re all pilgrims drifting toward God whether we realize it or not, sick as dogs, broken and fallen, in need of healing and rest and companionship. Sometimes we sing on our way, and sometimes we kick and scream. We long for fellow travelers who can help bear our burdens and illuminate the good and beautiful when the way turns dark.

A narrow audience? Maybe. But I’m tired of walking alone.

So, welcome, pilgrims. Let’s ramble on.


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