As a convert, I grew up without the Catholic church. I grew up without preparing for confession, kneeling at my bedside for prayers. There was no reaching for the rosary at my headboard when I was scared at night. I don’t have memories of the “smells and bells” of Latin masses (although I went to a couple with my grandmother, but was too short to see anything). I didn’t grow up with the support of knowing that Mary will always intercede and His Word was meant to help me. Enter in, Brian Doyle’s The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics. Generally, when I work on a book review, I give the review copy away. I have grown so close to all of the people that he remembers and shares so intimately in this book, that I want to keep them, I want to keep the memories of chuckling in the middle of the night, or the references to memories of my own childhood – that says, I was always a Catholic – even if I didn’t know it. I hope the people I introduce to you here, bring you to pick up your own copy. An easy read, as they are a collection of short stories, no more than 5 pages each, it’s enough to whisk you into his world, and easy to get back to the dishes before the crust forms.
I didn’t know in which order to present them, so they are just in the order of how he’s presented them. Doyle’s chronology of memories, people and events are ordered for reasons I’ll never know, but it’s best not to mess with an imperfectly perfect Catholic.
Ten Blessings: Did you ever think of having a rosary blessed over and over? I didn’t know you could. I didn’t know that you could have anyone – not just a priest or deacon, bless your rosary or that it could be done more than once. I have grown my collection of rosaries and even just received one from a friend who is on her path to the Poor Clares – so you know that’s my favorite. It belonged to her, and she prayed with them, for who knows how long. I don’t ask. I like that the beads have their own story – one that I don’t know but get the grace from.Doyle speaks of all the people that have blessed his rosary, the passing of his beads through the hands of people, priests, children, a nun who used to be a “roaring drunk”. He writes:
She blessed my rosary in a coffee shop and like my mom she went right to the Madonna with the request. She says she and the Madonna are the best of friends from way back and they talk twice a day and when you are desperately thirsty She is the cool clean water that saves your life, trust me, and I do.
Doesn’t this make you rethink your rosary? Now do you see why the one from my Poor-Clare-in-discernment is so important to me?
First draft letter to the Corinthians: I had my first marriage annulled. I wasn’t Catholic, I wasn’t filled with the sense of being truly loved and valued as a daughter of the most high God (as Deacon TC would say). I thought I knew what marriage was. Even with my current husband, I didn’t know. I was the kind that thought you learned as you went. I have come to realize that, that’s not it. When you come to the realization that it’s not just about husband and wife, but about God in that union. The presence of the Holy Spirit in that union, marriage truly becomes a higher calling. Everyone is familiar with the famous wedding scripture
But do we really incorporate it, or is it just an index card in the best print you can muster on your mirror (like me)? Doyle lives these out, to and for his wife that resonated with me so deeply, I wish I had written it to my husband:
Love believes all things, even the astounding idea that we are still married, love hopes all things, like maybe the duct-tape market will will collapse and someone we will not name will actually no kidding get a screwdriver and fix the blessed hinges on the cabinet not to mention the shower head.
No kidding, my husband just said that he *promises* to fix the hinge on the cabinet underneath the sink AND – get this, finally fix the toilet paper holder in the bathroom that *always* falls apart the moment you touch it. Just as S, she knows.
And please allow me one more, because this one, like all of them, are so good it’s hard to choose:
Love never fails, even in those moments when we are glaring at each other in the kitchen, which there have been a few of those moments, and there will be a few more, because love isn’t a placid sea, love is a verb, love is human, which means flawed and difficult and complex and startling and wonderful and painful.
What else do you say, but Amen to that?
The Clan of Catholic:I am creating my Clan of Catholic. You know, the souls you see every week in the pews. The smells you smell when you walk in the door, the feel of Monsignor’s handshake and the instant fear when you look into his face of how old he’s grown and you pray for more time – but also God’s will. The babies that you smile at and watch grow instantly before your eyes as if water was just poured on them and you wish for their sweet smell to stay for their mother’s sake, because you miss it too.
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.
The Brilliantine Coattails of Lust: Decadent sounding isn’t it? It’s Doyle as a young boy as he goes to his older brother asking for help with an assignment about his first reconciliation. Do you remember that? I only have my son’s to refer to – for a picture of what it was like. As an adult, I made my first confession a few years ago. But as a child? This was just a wonderful foray in the mind of a boy, the relationship (and mutual respect) of brotherhood, and the ways of cradle Catholic life, which at times, I wish I had.
His big brother helps him with what to say – which is funny and also gives you a great perspective on just how kids think – and I don’t think much has changed:
Start by being honest about lust, he said. Write that down. Admit lustful intentions right away. Then go to theft and battery. The priest will still be rattled by your opening move and he won’t be quite as horrified by the sins that ride on the brilliantine coattails of list. Are you writing this down?
Isn’t it just like a kid to be completely and wholly outlandish? Can you imagine the look on the priests face?
The necessary spark: Now this, this, sleighed me. For reasons I have yet shared with you here, my friends. My grandmother passed away all too soon from breast cancer. I looked up to her in ways I can never ever express no matter how many words I type. I still have pajamas that she loaned me when I slept over once, and I “borrowed” long term. They are worn thin and the buttons resewn more times than the button holes care to count. I wear it still and only when I am in the downest of the dumps. Such an intelligent go getter of a woman. She came to the US (from Puerto Rico) not knowing a word of English and ended her life as a world traveling, principal of a bilingual school in the Bronx with a master’s degree. She had great pride about her appearance and her favorite nail polish color was “shrimp pink”. She could cook her curlers off and was tough. There was another side to her. She was also alone. She was also sad. She was also secretly susceptible to long dark nights of the soul. How I wish she were with me now, so I could ask her, so I could know how it all works out in the end. I wish she could have met my children and more importantly, for my children to know her. She is – my patron saint to be sure. There is more I can say about her just now, but for the sake of time – as these are supposed to be quick. I will put them all back in the box and up high, on the dusty shelves of my library of memory.
My father said Mary Magdalene was a remarkable woman with a granitic will and a love bigger than the ocean and she ought to be acclaimed more than all the poor muddled apostles put together. After my grandmother dies my father said everyone is so sad but we should be thrilled that she is now reunited with her clanswoman Mary Magdalene, and probably all the flinty women in history live in the same building in heaven where they can start cooking fires if necessary by using their granitic wills.
Thank you, Brian Doyle. I rather like that.
Dawn and Mary: I watch the news. I don’t always like the news, but I watch it. I watch various news sources, running the gamut from secular to Catholic, left, right and “balanced” (whatever that means nowadays). We live in a pretty violent country wouldn’t you say? Violent physically towards people and within ourselves (talking modesty here people, Grammy’s?). I don’t know anyone who didn’t pray for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, teachers, families and communities. This is a story of a teacher and a principal, who when they heard the “pop, pop, pop” of a gun, they ran toward the bullets, not away from them. And how odd is that? To run toward danger, when your whole body is instinctively pointed toward survival? I wanted to add these brave saints here, because Brian Doyle is right. They should always be remembered. Always close to the lips of those who can speak to their bravery.
They leapt out of their chairs and they ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did,if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?
I don’t know if Doyle is referring to the Sandy Hook tragedy, or the Columbine tragedy or the Philadelphia High School shootings, or the Virginia Tech school shootings. I hope you get what I am saying here – there are far too many. I think, subtly, that was his point with not sharing where it took place. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we address it.
The green seethe of the sea: I grew up in Brooklyn, as I’ve mentioned. When I was 13 my mother got married and we moved to Long Island. From 13 till 17 I lived in a beach town. I was literally two blocks from the beach and would spend days after school riding my bike on the board walk or rollerblading. For the most part, I would just watch the waves. I would listen to the shushing back and forth and dream. It’s there I learned to reflect. It was there that I learned to pray, I think – even if I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I can remember walking on the beach and it was overcast and cold – like only a beach can be. You’ll only know that cold if you’ve lived there. It’s salty, and you can taste it, but uncaring and it makes no excuses for not being summery. Hard to explain. As I walked, I wanted to know why I was always so drawn there and why I wasn’t happy and why the ocean didn’t care. It just kept pushing its waves in and out. Hurricane Sandy killed my beach. It was Long Beach, NY. I haven’t been back. I can’t walk the canals, or the West End lanes named after the months of the year, knowing what it used to look like. My favorite pizza place gone and my boardwalk – and my memorization of the pock marks of planks and chipped white paint to keep cyclists from running over walkers is gone. A childhood – erased. It was the same weekend I was married in the Catholic Church. Hmph. I wonder if that’s symbolic. I wonder if this picture of what Long Beach looked like in that weekend of devastation has any clue.
We are terrified by the sea and we love it and we cannot do without it. Those who live far away from it yearn for it and those who live by it have never seen it the same way twice…So we write essays, here and there, to try to say something small and true about how we love and are terrified by and love the sea. We could not live without it. Each of us is a small sea with salt water swirling in s like a tide, and every drop of liquid in you passes through your heart. Is it any wonder we are always looking into the sea?
These are just 7 stories of 52 (wow) that spoke to me (I had four honorable mentions, but thought I would keep that to myself). I would love to know if you’ve read this and made any friends of your own.
I would like to give a sincere thanks to Loyola Press for giving me a copy of this book to review. I would have gladly paid for it. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to review it – and I am sure they don’t mind in the least. For Brian Doyle, thank you for filling in areas of my coloring book of memories that I’d missed.
Now get thee this book, because I ain’t giving mine away!
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!