Tag Archives: HarperOne

Praise God and Live

harpercollins.com

harpercollins.com

The Abbey, Jesuit priest James Martin’s fiction debut, is not strictly a conversion story or even a prologue to one. This is the novel’s greatest strength. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being more honest than the common, smarmy man is sad…man finds Jesus…man is happy conversion story that reduces faith to a good mood and Christ to life coach.

Its protagonist, Anne, is by her own admission “not so big on God right now.” Raised Catholic, she drifted away from the church as a young adult. She still grieves for her thirteen-year-old son, hit by a car while biking home from a movie three years ago.

Her tenant, Mark, is a once-promising architect now supporting himself by working as a handyman at a monastery. He is thirty years old, and uncertain of the future.

One day, car trouble forces Anne to ask Mark for a ride. He swings by the monastery on the way home, and Anne remembers the place where her parents spent so much time.

She is skeptical of church, and largely ignorant of it—listening to what she thinks are psalms, she wonders if those are in the Old or New Testament—but she is drawn to an icon of another mourning mother: Mary. And so starts a series of conversations with Father Paul, the abbot.

Paul tells her about God, His mercy, His Love. When Anne complains that she sees God as a judgmental man in the sky, Paul concedes that, yes, the judgment is there, but the love is more important:

“[A]t least as I see it, a God who didn’t judge what we do is a God who doesn’t care how we live. And who would want to believe in a God who doesn’t care how we treat each other? But for me God is much more about mercy and love than about judgment and punishment. We see that over and over in Jesus’ parables.”

Paul’s conversations with Anne, and his reflections as he attends to his labors, are the high point of this novel, but would seem more at home in an essay than a novel.

Martin’s narration is both workaday and needlessly ornate. Note the overloading of adjectives in “The vivid color of the flowers in the bright May sunlight was like a scene from a postcard,” or the redundant third sentence in “The silence enveloped Anne. It was like something she could touch. Like a blanket.” Getting through this brief novel is a bit of a slog.

But while this novel may be inelegant, it’s never unintelligent. Martin (also the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of many nonfiction books) never lets us think that faith is easy or quick.

At the end of The Abbey, neither Mark nor Anne has become a Catholic. They have found no road to Damascus, and their problems still exist: Mark is still a handyman, and Anne’s son is still dead. But the possibility of faith has brought a glimmer of hope that wasn’t there before.

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by James Martin, SJ. Published in October by HarperOne. 212 pages. $24.99

“The Way of Serenity” Offers Comfort, Wisdom, and Flimsy Theodicy

I

Devotionals are simple, unglamorous, and vital works of religious literature. They don’t give detailed instructions or draw us deep into the intricacies of theology, but they offer thoughts for our faith to build off—the gentleness of Jesus, for example—and prayers we can use to keep those thoughts in mind, and turn them to action.

Father Jonathan Morris’ The Way of Serenity is best described as a collection of devotionals based on the Serenity Prayer:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

In the book’s three sections, Morris—a Catholic priest and frequent commentator on radio and television—elaborates on what each line of the prayer means and how Christians can put it into practice. Morris doesn’t hide his Catholicism or conservatism (the latter is especially apparent when he writes about his family’s struggles to love his sister despite her “homosexual behavior”) but his insights are accessible to Christians of all denominations and politics.

Morris’ prose, and ideas, are workaday: “When we pray for the courage to change the things we can, we are already accepting God’s wonderful plan for us to be his hands and feet on this earth.”

This isn’t a bad thing—simplicity is the point of devotionals, and, to a lesser degree, Christianity. God doesn’t set rules on what not to eat or when to rest or what to wear while praying; He sets a standard of selfless love that’s impossible but nonetheless worth striving for.

II

The Christian faith goes far beyond laws and pragmatic considerations. Yet it also has an intellectual component, one that this book often backs away from.

When Morris grapples with questions of theodicy—how the existence of God as we know Him can be reconciled with the existence of evil—his God starts seeming less like the mysterious Lord of this flawed world and more like the simplistic sky fairy of atheist ridicule.

After pondering instances of evil, including “little children with horrible birth defects,” he assures us that “[t]here can only be one satisfying explanation for all this. Somehow God must be able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it. Somehow God must be able to take even the most horrific of tragedies and bring them to a happy ending.”

This theodicy works on a small scale: perhaps a child born with birth defects could inspire new heights of selflessness in its parents. On a global scale, however, it falls apart. The tragedies of sectarianism and colonialism in the Middle East have yet to be turned into a “happy ending” by God or man.

(Neither Morris nor I are among those Christians who cheer bad news as a sign of the second coming. “Our health, our environment, our wealth—responsible stewardship of all these things is part of what it means to be a good Christian,” writes Morris. Seriously. The apocalypse cheerleaders display all the sense and maturity of people who burn down their houses hoping to buy mansions with the insurance money.)

In Morris’ depiction, God is the parent of a newborn, who guides our every step and does good even through things that seem senseless and cruel, like making us take a bath, or get our shots. That doesn’t make sense in a world run by grown-ups, however fallible. War, genocide and famine seem senseless and cruel not because of our limited human perspective, but because they are senseless and cruel.

Let me propose another metaphor for our Father, not quite as comforting but better reconciled with the world as we see it and the Fall as we know it.

Heavenly Father is an empty nester. Humanity had the option of staying in His house forever, but, restless and proud, we struck out on our own. “I still love you,” He told us. “How could I not? I am love! I’m always here to answer the phone, but I’m not your ATM anymore, and I can’t always swoop in to save you from the dangers and temptations of the big city.” He came to visit once, at the height of our sin, but we were none too kind. He can work miracles if he wants to, but they are exceedingly rare. While he can part waves or multiply loaves of bread, directly changing someone’s conscience—the kind of miracle that would be necessary to end war—is beyond even Him, because of His gift of free will. I assume He’s shaking His head, appalled at our actions and our taste in music, but needs us to know that, in the natural universe, fucking up has consequences. (The Mormons add that, like many older adults, Heavenly Father took a while to get comfortable around black people.)

God doesn’t always make things right, but is worth worshipping because He created this world, occasionally offers us guidance within it, and will be fully present with us in the next.

Everyone’s journey of spiritual growth, writes Morris, “is as long as life, and it is lined with unique street signs, designed and placed by God, that correspond perfectly to the twists and turns, the bumps and bruises that God allows to come our way.” Our signs, however, don’t always “correspond perfectly” with our trials. The universe can be an immoral place, not because it’s meaningless or random but because its Creator gave it free will. Earlier in the book, Morris writes that free will is the risk God took to enter into a loving relationship with us, but he seems to forget that here.

III

Morris’ theodicy may fail, like all theodicy, but The Way of Serenity is not overall simplistic. Morris often reminds us that living our faith is neither easy nor immediately gratifying, as “the Lord is not a God of quick fixes and fifteen-minute spiritual oil changes, but a God of long-term and indeed eternal promises.”

Here he is on the Christian “primacy of persons over things,” acknowledging the difficulty of love rather than reducing it to facile images of shepherds and smiling couples:

“Christianity is not for the faint of heart….Once in a while love comes naturally, and then it is easy. But this is the exception. Most of the time love requires courage, self-sacrifice, and lots of patience. We really need a heart like Christ’s to love people the way he wants us to.”

Morris’ attempts at theodicy are sunny and shallow, but the paragraph above shows The Way of Serenity at its best: a fiercely unpretentious look at Christian love through the lens of a short and crucial prayer.

–Published September 16th by HarperOne