Review of The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, by Brian Doyle (Loyola Press, 2013), reviewed by Robert A. Parker.
Because I am acquainted with Brian Doyle, I feel a certain trepidation in commenting on his interesting collections of essays, each of which carries a small spiritual or family message. The emphasis in The Thorny Grace of It is on the smallness, for these essays run only three or four pages apiece. But each makes a pithy statement that crosses our spiritual heritage with our common humanity.
What strikes me first is that, in this era of church factions, it is impossible here to assign Doyle a definite place within the Catholic political spectrum. He comes closest when he evaluates Pope John Paul II, both his strengths (“a man of stunning presence and charisma, a corporate leader of wonderful creativity, a figure of light and hope for many millions”) and his weaknesses (“a man who choked off liberation theology . . . , a man who presided over a church riven with the rapes of children . . . , a man who . . . dismissed women from any serious role”).
One senses that this political reticence is deliberate—that neither he nor the publications he wrote for wish to make a political statement regarding Church doctrine. Instead, he explores the common elements in our daily human experience, an experience that often but not always arises out of our spiritual life. He subtitles this book Essays for Imperfect Catholics. For he is often exploring the human weaknesses in our family life and our spiritual life—the ways in which we do not always live up to our idea of spiritual perfection. Or human perfection. And what Doyle does here is recognize this—and in doing so he acknowledges his past naïveté, his current regret, or his often belated understanding.
Most of his essays reveal something of his own inner life, but a few also touch the reader’s own sensibility. For me, these include exaggerated speculation on Jesus’ life in his missing teenage years, a humorous evaluation of Catholic writers by the imaginary Saint Francis de Sales Parish Book Club, an archbishop’s letter of resignation at age 75, a brother’s advice on how to keep a priest off-balance when in confession (keep bringing up lust), and the memory of hauling storm windows up from the cellar each winter.
Some essays are humorous, some are touching, some strike a chord of memory. An example of the humor: “From the age of thirteen when a boy in Jewish tradition enters manhood, to the age of thirty, when a boy in Irish-American tradition enters manhood” (“Jesus Christ: The Missing Years”). An example of both empathy and self-awareness: “On the way home, I thought about . . . how these sweet honest funny moments [of a baptism] are so holy I cannot easily find words for them, which is why we share these stories, which is what we just did” (“The Baptismee”).
Other essays range from a regret at the life Osama bin Laden chose; to a meditation on his father, his own fatherhood, and the Father; to the story of a star basketball guard who turns down scholarships to enter the Marines—and loses his left hand in battle. The range of these essays portrays a man who understands that a full life includes a spiritual life. He is a man who understands the meaning of family, of community, and of our eternal destiny. But he is also a writer who understands the power of a revelation to be found in a single moment, a moment we may all have experienced but most likely have never thought of again.
This is a modest book for a very special audience—an audience which acknowledges its spiritual life and makes it a part of its daily living. It is more a book to be dipped into as a reminder of that life than a book to be read in one sitting. It is a book that enriches the reader who pauses and thinks for a moment after reading each essay. And in offering a special opportunity for reflection, each of these essays opens to ourselves an opportunity to review our own experience with our family and our church in a timeline of eternity.
Robert A. Parker is a writer, editor, and photographer. For more than 40 years he has written for consumer, special interest, and business publications. These include Caribbean Travel and Life, The New York Times, Communication Arts, America, Sign, Spiritual Life, The Critic, Review, Across the Board, Business Finance, Americas, ID, and other publications. Since retiring, he has self-published more than 20 books, including six volumes of literary criticism, called A Literary Cavalcade, which collect his personal book reviews of the past 50 years. The above review will appear in volume seven. A graduate of Boston College, he has a masters degree in communication arts from Fordham University. Before retiring, Parker was a writer, editor, and publisher, for McGraw-Hill, Metropolitan life, Touche Ross, and Financial Executives Institute. He earned more than 100 awards during this period for the writing and design of publications he directed.
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Jessica Yuan's poem "Fluorescent" appears in Issue No. 46: A Way Through.
It took years to arrive and your eyes
became accustomed to light at all hours,