Category Archives: faith

The Gathering

I came to read Anne Enright’s The Gathering in a peculiar way. I didn’t notice it had won the Man Booker Prize, or bother reading the reviews of it, many of which are negative if you want to get right down to it. Instead, I wandered the aisles in the library and picked books that might be good based off their back cover blurbs, and I threw this one into my growing pile of books to check out. I lugged it home, and there I lost it in the mess of my big move. I ended up paying the library $14 for it–the cover price–what a steal, considering libraries generally charge above and beyond any book’s worth. I would too, if I were a librarian–if I had to cover it and key it in and stick the alphabetizing tag on the spine–sure I’d stick it to the irresponsible patrons who take out books at moving time, who do this only because they need books to distract them from their stress.

And I had no desire to read this missing book, despite the loss of $14, because I had no context for it. So when it resurfaced, as lost things sometimes do months or years after unpacking, I stuck it in my bookcase and left it there until a few days ago, at which point I remembered I had a hard copy book I hadn’t read (for some reason it takes me ten times as long to read books on my Nook and, besides that, all this is to explain why I’m thinking about a book that came out four years ago. I didn’t even have a Nook four years ago.) What can I say? This book, about a sister grieving her brother’s suicide, was one of those books–the kind that renders me useless and forces me to stare at the ceiling wondering what just happened to me, wondering if I could write a book this stunning.

Let me attempt, here, to put my finger on what makes this book special. The language is lyrical. That’s a start. I don’t need a hard-hitting plot if I get caught up in the language. The author also does something funny with memory. You may not like this, but it’s difficult to tell what actually occurs in the protagonist’s life because her childhood memories are skewed, and she invents memories where there are none, or where her memories are confused. 

I relate to the main character, Veronica, because she’s a disconnected female, and although some people want a solid history to understand how a woman gets to be so withdrawn from the physical world around her, I don’t need tragic childhood events to explain away personality flaws. In fact, it annoys me when authors attempt to explain their characters’ foibles with past events and family histories. This author pulls away from that. The reader (or this reader) never knows exactly why Veronica is screwed up, even though the protagonist, herself, searches for substantive reasons.

What part of me did this book pique? I don’t know–some part that responds to faith and hope. This section near the end won’t leave me be:

“I do remember God’s love, that year in Ada’s when I was eight, and Liam was nine. I remember it very clearly. Sister Benedict told us to take Jesus ‘into our hearts’ and I did, no problem. I check my heart now, and I find that there is still a feeling there, of something hot and struggling. I roll my eyes back under my closed lids, and there is the sense of opening in the middle of my forehead. The chest thing is like fighting for words and the forehead thing is pure and empty, like after all the words have been said.
There now.
Belief. I have the biology of it. All I need is the stuff to put in there. All I need are the words.”

The part that fascinates me is this: the biology of faith. Is faith biological? Is it caught up in the coding of what makes a person who she is? And do some people lack it? Do we need nothing more than the right words at the right time, or the wrong words at the wrong time to fill this biological urge? Is this the reason why some people believe in nonsense, because the wrong words filled them at the wrong moment? And is this why other people eschew faith, because it isn’t in their biology?

Ultimately, this book left me feeling hopeful. I’ve read my share of literary books, and most of them are filled with hopelessness. The author could have ended this book in so many bad ways, and she chose not to. I can’t give away the ending, obviously, but I wish I could because the image Enright employs is a perfect one for bringing a detached heroine back to herself. I could almost feel it happening to me. 
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On Faith, God, and the New Year Abyss

Have you ever heard of Brother Lawrence of the barefooted Carmelites? At the sight of a wintry tree, he began to contemplate the presence of God, whose hand he could see in the tree’s spring transformation. He believed in God at that moment, in that winter, early in the 17th C. Later, in the year 1666, he joined the Carmelite order and, in the same year, carried on a series of conversations with M. Beaufort about the practice of the presence of God.* By the way, 1666 was also an important year for scientific thought and discoveries; Newton was supposedly beamed by the apple that year and, in his own words, was at his prime for mathematical and philosophical thinking (see this link). I have no beef with Newton, but I am concerned sometimes that we have sold our souls to science and substituted a love of God for what we perceive as knowledge (does that sound familiar? Eve may have been tempted to eat its fruit, while Newton was merely knocked on the head by it). Fortunately, no amount of science education has altered my belief in God. Like Brother Lawrence, I see God’s hand in the processes of nature.

However, sometimes I wake up in the morning, and it’s as if I’ve fallen into an abyss. This happens to me throughout the winter holiday season often, although I can’t actually blame the abyss on outward events or occasions. Certainly, the New Year celebrations drive me to despair when I feel that I’ve accomplished nothing in the past year, that nothing has materialized for all of my hard work–and I’m not simply talking about the writing life, but of many of my endeavors. My life, sometimes, feels like the apple tree outside my kitchen window. It flowers in spring, just as I would expect–just as Brother Lawrence expected over 300 years ago; it brings on new leaves and a few very small apples. Then, the little fruit the tree’s produced is cast off by the wind or eaten by birds before it’s fully ripened.

Does anybody else suffer this kind of despair? I had wanted to ask my readers about their faith–how they believe in God in the midst of a world that looks to science for answers. Instead, I’m going to ask you how you keep welcoming in new years with happy expectations when life has been so difficult. Has this past year been difficult for you? It has for me. But it hasn’t been void. I’ve finally written a book that I feel is publishable. I continue to pray and place my faith in God, and, today, I talked out my frustrations with my husband. Also, as a purely outward diversion, I must soothe my soul with good music. ¡La música mexicana es mi droga, por cierto!

*See The Practice of the Presence of God, and The Spiritual Maxims by Brother Lawrence (Cosimo Classics, 2006)

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On Writing and Faith

As I had mentioned in a previous post, I’m on the last leg of editing my novel. August 1st is my own arbitrary deadline for completing this tedious work; editing never quite takes my breath away in the same way that writing the first draft does. It definitely doesn’t bring me windy mountaintop moments, which is probably why this is the first book that I’m finally going to send out in hopes of publishing. In my twenties, I wrote about three detective novels, and I think back on them and grimace in embarrassment. Honestly, it isn’t that they were so badly written. I just never took the time to edit them because I completely lost the passion for them. This book is different, though. I can’t lose the passion, not completely, so I’ve braved the rough territory of editing with determination. This book will go out into the world. I don’t know when or how, but it must.

You can imagine my frustration, then, when I relate my latest editing-writing woes. Don’t worry, though. There’s redemption at the end. The other day, I completely rewrote a section of Franklin’s Ladder. Not only did I completely rewrite it to my satisfaction, but I did it while my children were getting ready for camp, while they were slamming the screen door over and over again, letting the cat tear through the house, waking their baby brother, who was supposed to be napping. By the time they left, the house was a wreck and filled with the wails of a young child who hadn’t slept enough. When my husband blustered in from work with his heavy, black fire-service boots clomping across the floor, I was ready to cry.

You see, my husband has convinced me that we’re going to get ripped together, and if I thought he meant drunk, I’d probably have wanted to laugh in relief rather than cry. No, indeed, though, my husband is putting us through the P90X workout system. I guess the fat fireman image wasn’t working for him–not that he’s fat; he just has a spare tire from all that beer. Well, I was frustrated and angry and didn’t want to work my shoulders and arms, which was the muscle group of the day. Soon, though, my petulant mood vanished. There’s nothing like arm reps for dissipating anger. After the workout, he took me out for chile-cheese fries (a local delicacy, and, yes, I did spell chile correctly), and he bought me a bottle of wine, and we went home to put only one child to bed and drink the lovely Merlot.

When I woke the next morning to a beautiful new day, I was excited to move on in my editing. Granted, I wouldn’t have time to turn on my computer until the afternoon, but the afternoon waited for me in a golden glow of heat. It would be too hot to go outside, the baby would be napping, and I would move on to the next section of my book!

I thank God that he knows what he’s doing. I thank God that he is always in charge of the universe because, when I quickly scanned the work I’d finished the day before, I discovered that none of it had been saved. Explain to me how that is possible with a program that makes sure I save my work before exiting. Explain to me why no back-up document existed. Explain these things to me, and I won’t stop believing in God, necessarily, but I will acknowledge that strange phenomena–that is to say, what we can observe with our eyes–have logical explanations. In the meantime, I will believe that there is no logical explanation, not with my hard drive, my removable drive, my automatic back-up system, and my own habit of saving approximately once every half hour.

Well, I took a deep breath and did the only thing I could do: I started over. As I wrote, I realized why the material had not been saved, and it was only for the sake of a few lines. Yes, I believe that God wanted it a certain way, and I had not written it that way. Why do I possess this kind of faith? I don’t know; I can’t explain it, except to say that my parents instilled it in me, and no amount of education has been able to rob me of it.

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