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. Prologue

The lunatic in the pew



The author in front of her parish church in suburban Maryland. By Gary Wayne Gilbert


It should go without saying that, being Catholic, my first thoughts on the topic are guilt ridden, my first impulse, confessional. I'm not a very good Catholic. I started skipping Mass as a teenager, as soon as my older brother got his driver's license and my other brother and I could pile into his car for what we would tell our just-returning-from-the-10-o'clock parents was noon Mass, and then make a quick, hour-long detour to Dunkin' Donuts. What we complained about in those days was the Church's hypocrisy, its trivial rituals and petty obsessions, stuff we thought no one else had ever noticed.

Through college, I went to Mass only on occasion and even then simply because the Newman Center at my state college had a funny priest whose sermons were pre-Seinfeld standup routines about the foibles and the excesses of campus life. I became in my twenties what my father used to refer to as an A&P Catholic—one of those Catholics who only stop into church when they need something, or run out of something. I got regular and somewhat steady about churchgoing when my children were born, telling my skeptical and permanently apostate friends and family (my brothers among them) that I was giving my kids Catholicism in order to inoculate them against the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, the occasional pair of Mormons at the front door; that I was giving myself the advantage of knowing something about the religion against which, I was certain, my children would eventually rebel.

When it came time for our first child to begin school, we dutifully bought a house in a neighborhood with an excellent public school system, and it was only after we learned that our son would have a lengthy kindergarten commute because the local school was being renovated that my husband, a Methodist, suggested we look at the nearby Catholic school. On the day we were to meet with the principal, I arrived a few minutes early and took my own private tour. It was all too familiar: the uniforms, the orderly rows of desks, the crucifixes and holy water fonts and carefully colored cutouts of little lambs and big-eyed shepherd children. The Catholic school smell, which most especially brought back the terror and the tyranny of my own Catholic grammar school, where we were 50 or 60 to a classroom and Sr. Edwina stalked the place like a long-robed Captain Bligh. I was nearly hyperventilating as I met my husband at the principal's door, prepared to say, "Let's run, let's get out of here. We can't perpetuate the madness," when he, grinning, informed me that he had also arrived a little early and had made his own tour, counterclockwise to my own. "I love this place," he said, before I had a chance to object. "The uniforms, the order, the religious symbols. We can't send him anywhere else."

Even now, I confess, my involvement in the daily life of the Church is minimal: school-related activities, check-writing, a meal or two for the homeless. I'll occasionally miss Sunday Mass out of laziness, or busyness, or be deterred by the prospect of sitting through yet another sermon full of halfhearted platitudes.

Even now, as I find myself expounding on a topic such as this—being Catholic—I imagine the Dominicans who taught me in grammar school or the Josephites who taught me in high school rolling their eyes or, as the case may be, rolling in their graves. I hear my no-longer-practicing Catholic friends and family, who have shared my irreverence and cynicism and disappointment, ask with utter disbelief, "Who is lecturing whom about what?"

Of course, my excuse for such hubris—my license to preach—is that while developing into a mediocre Catholic I have also, simultaneously, it seems, become a Catholic novelist. Or at least that's what I've been called. To be honest—confessional—the term makes me feel somewhat like the narrator in the O. Henry story "Man About Town." He's an inquisitive young man who spends the day seeking "enlightenment concerning the character known as A Man About Town." He asks a reporter, a bartender, a Salvation Army girl, and finally a critic, whose definition inspires him to spend the rest of the night raking New York "from the Battery to Little Coney Island" to find an authentic Man About Town. As he begins his search, he steps off a curb, is hit by a car, and wakes the next morning in the hospital, where a young doctor shows him the newspaper report of his accident. The article closes with the lines, "His injuries were not serious. He appeared to be a typical Man About Town."

In my own attempt to seek enlightenment concerning the character known as the Catholic novelist, I have time and again come to no more definitive conclusion than that I seem to be one. It strikes me as a rather pallid qualification, for both a preacher and a novelist. As a reader sunk a hundred or two hundred pages into a work of fiction, the thought that I am reading a Catholic novel serves as neither lifeline nor anchor—if the novel's good, I float, if it's bad, I don't. Nor would the promise of a "Catholic" novel get me to open a book in the first place.

That my novels have what Flannery O'Connor referred to as a "Catholic decor" is true enough. My characters, for the most part, are Roman Catholics, born Catholic, raised Catholic. Churchgoers, members of a church community, they know the lives of the saints, the niceties of the sacraments, the rules, the rituals. To borrow from O'Connor, that most Catholic of Catholic novelists, they know so thoroughly what they believe, they don't have to think about it.

They believe in the Incarnation, the Trinity, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Their faith is genetic, cultural, blood-borne, and as such it is cause for neither fanaticism nor zealotry, crisis nor grief. It is, like language itself, a way of ordering the world, expressing emotion, communicating need. It is, forever, their first language.

These Catholics may be the subjects of much of my fiction, but their Catholicism is not. As a fiction writer, I am not interested in conversion, transubstantiation, the mystical body of Christ, the infallibility of the pope, Aquinas, or Augustine. My novels have a "Catholic decor" not because I have anything original to say about Catholicism but because I know it, because it is my first spiritual language as well, and also because—more pertinent—with the religious lives of my characters firmly established, I can try to understand what lies beneath: what is, in some way, pre-religious, the first impulse, the initial yearning, the earliest, embryonic indication of the substance of things hoped for.

I don't write about Catholics because of my own faith, lackluster yet persistent, but because by doing so I hope to discover—percolating up out of all the assurances (authentic or not) that the Church, the life of Christ, provides—what it is that sparks the need for faith in the first place.

Time and again I have discovered that for my own characters, at least, that need is founded in a simple, stubborn, unrelenting refusal to be comforted. W.B. Yeats posed the question:

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

And Billy, in my novel Charming Billy, soaked in both alcohol and the Irish poet himself, paraphrased the question in the language of his faith:

"Death is a terrible thing," Billy said. "Our Lord knew it. Our Lord knew it was terrible. Why would He have shed His own blood if death wasn't terrible?" There was another pause, another sip of whiskey. "You know what makes a mockery of the Crucifixion?" Billy said. "You know what makes it pointless? Anyone saying that death is just an ordinary thing, an ordinary part of life. It happens, you reconcile yourself, you go on. . . . It's a pact with the devil," he said. "To be reconciled. Our Lord spilling His every drop of blood on the cross to show us death is terrible, a terrible injustice, and all the while we're telling ourselves that it's not so bad, after all. You get over it. You get used to it. . . . Life goes on pleasantly enough no matter who dies."

An alcoholic, a pregnant teenager, an aging and ornery Irish woman, a flock of would-be writers, a beautiful girl—all characters in my fictional world who refuse to be reconciled to the death of those they love, to the past that contains such loss, or to the future that will deliver it. Who stand stubbornly against the inevitable, argue vehemently against the irrefutable, remain outraged over the unchangeable, undeniable fact that man is in love and loves what vanishes. Unacceptable, they cry, these characters of mine, in their cups, in their old age, in the certainty of their youth. The death of the people we love is unacceptable.

I don't claim any originality for them in this. Their stubborn refusal to accept the inevitable is nothing new in literature—is, often enough, literature's very reason for being. Two examples come immediately to mind. Here's Edna St. Vincent Millay, in "Dirge Without Music":

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the
  hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Or García Lorca, in "Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter":

Because your death is forever
Like everyone else's who ever died on Earth,
like all dead bodies discarded
on rubbish heaps with mongrel's corpses.
But no one knows you. No one. But I sing you—
sing your profile and your grace, for later on.

Outraged, unreasonable, obsessed—as any lunatic, lover, or poet must be—my Catholic characters carry in their blood the promises of their faith, carry on their tongues the tenets of their Church, and yet still their spirits rebel against time, against loss, unreconciled, refusing to be resigned.

"I wanted to banish," my lovely teenager says in Child of My Heart,

every parable, every song, every story ever told, even by me, about children who never returned. . . . I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesn't happen, a world of only color, no form. Out of my head and more to my liking: a kingdom by the sea, eternal summer, a brush of fairy wings and all dark things banished, age, cruelty, pain, poor dogs, dead cats, harried parents, lonely children, all the coming griefs, all the sentimental, maudlin tales fashioned out of the death of children.

If death is forever, the unwed mother in That Night reasons, then love is meaningless.

Faced with the death of those they love, these characters of mine don't seek some vague afterlife. What they seek, what they demand, against all reason, is the return of the loved one in all his or her familiarity, "the profile and the grace," as Lorca called it, "the answers quick and keen, the honest look," in Millay's poem. My characters, my fictional Catholics, understand the Church's promise of eternal life, but nevertheless find it lacking. For what they really want is life returned to them, the world returned to them, in all its magnificence and love and heartbreaking detail. Life uncompromised by death, death utterly defeated. Anything less is unacceptable.

It is a mad, unreasonable demand, of course, but it is also, it seems to me, the primitive impulse that makes faith necessary. It is the mad, unreasonable demand—and promise—made by Christ himself.

When Jesus tells Martha, "Your brother will rise," she replies as any one of us pretty-good-to-middling Catholics might, as one well trained in the language of faith should: "I know he will rise," she replies, "in the resurrection on the last day." If ever a false Messiah had an out, here it was. Jesus had only to tell her, Right you are, you get an A. What he does instead, mad prophet, is to refuse such easy comfort. He becomes, John tells us, troubled, deeply perturbed. He weeps. "See how he loved him," the onlookers say. And then Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave. Jesus restores what has vanished, returns Lazarus to life, to his sisters, returns not the soul or the spirit, the memory or the ghost, but the man himself, the profile and the grace, the honest look, the laughter, the love: and proves to us that death is not forever.

In his own refusal to be reconciled, Jesus makes possible our impossible hopes, confirms our own, primitive rebellion against that terrible thing that is the death of those we love. And reminds us—or should remind us, if we can just shake ourselves from the numbing familiarity of the tenets of our Church, the platitudes, the rote rituals, and the petty obsessions—that ours is a mad, rebellious faith, one that flies in the face of all reason, all evidence, all sensible injunctions to be comforted, to be comfortable. A faith that rejects every timid impulse to accept the fact that life goes on pleasantly enough despite all that vanishes, despite death itself.

What I have to say about being Catholic, then, is simply this: Being Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossible of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

In my own fiction, I have linked this crazy faith to difficult characters, an alcoholic, a griping old woman, one sullen teenager and another amoral one who would remake the world to her own liking. But as we face the Church of the 21st century, my hope is that we non-fictional Catholics regain the courage to be difficult, rebellious, mad, the courage to refuse to be comforted. That we refuse to be comforted by the familiar, by the way we've always done things (priests in charge, laity ushering, women running bake sales). That we refuse to be comforted by our own self-satisfied eloquence about the dignity of unborn life while political or practical imperatives silence our objections to the destruction of life in the ghetto or in the death chamber. That we refuse to be comforted by our good, prosperous lives, by the careful picking and choosing of what words of Christ's we will take to heart.

My hope for the Church, for us, is that we recall the adolescent rebellion that seems a part of most of our biographies as Catholics, recall our youthful dissatisfactions and objections (whether we voiced them in Dunkin' Donuts or in our permanent disassociation from the Church) and speak them again. Or, if that adolescent rebellion seems too distant to recall, then my hope is that each of us becomes the garrulous drunk in the congregation, the loud-mouthed, inappropriate, indiscreet psycho who cries foul over hypocrisy and deception and illogic and cliché, refusing to accept the easy comfort of assurances that the hierarchy will fix itself, that Jesus doesn't want women to be priests, that it is acceptable for Catholics to acquiesce to a politically defensible but morally unjust war.

At the heart of our beliefs, at the heart of our faith, lies the outrageous conviction that love redeems us, Christ redeems us, even from death. Following this wild proposition, this fulfillment of our most primitive yearnings, every other outrageous thing we expect or demand of ourselves and our Church—honesty, charity, goodness, forgiveness, peace—surely must begin to seem reasonable, even easy. Every other challenge the 21st century brings should seem—even to the likes of us not so great Catholics—simple enough: a benefit, no doubt, of the simple grace of being Catholic.


Novelist Alice McDermott is writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University and the author, most recently, of Child of My Heart (2002). Her novels include That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), and Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award.

Photo: The author in front of her parish church in suburban Maryland. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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