We often blame the unfavorable treatment of traditional religion in contemporary art on animus or ignorance. Sometimes that’s an accurate assessment. But we underestimate how devilishly difficult it is to depict devout, God-centered characters convincingly, without making them plastic saints or thrillingly flawed extremists. Even the best intentions fall short. So it is cause for gratitude when first-rate art presents committed religious individuals sympathetically and respectfully. In recent decades, the novels of Alice McDermott have done exactly that.
McDermott’s novels explore Irish-American life in the New York and Long Island of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She recognizes the central place of the Roman Catholic Church for her people, and she does not shy away from writing about priests and nuns, their ideals, their failures, and the content of their faith, life, and preaching. When I speak about what can feel like an uphill battle to transmit religious commitment and passion in the classroom, I often recommend a chapter from McDermott’s After This (2006) in which Sister Lucy, a teaching nun lamed by childhood polio, strays from her English literature curriculum to talk about her mother’s enormous effort to help her recover and, having celebrated motherhood, draws the inference to the inhumanity of abortion. Her lecture probably fails to make much of an impression on most of her students, adolescent girls of the 1970s, some of whom are pleased to hear a monologue instead of a class. A couple of them leap at the chance to play up to the teacher by echoing her sentiments. And yet there is the one quiet girl whose life that hour changes.
McDermott’s most recent novel, The Ninth Hour (2017), takes place in Irish Brooklyn and spans several generations, between the world wars to the suburban present. As is so often the case with McDermott’s literature, exact dates are withheld, yet readers are given enough to supply the historical context; it is as if the social realist in McDermott wants to emphasize the stories of the individuals she cares for rather than the events surrounding them. The title invokes the fateful consummation of Good Friday. More directly, it evokes a dreary, solitary late afternoon in February, when a dreamy young man with a pregnant wife, dismissed from his subway job for tardiness, resolves his conflict with the world’s requirements by sealing the apartment and turning on the gas. Sister St. Saviour, a member of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, herself weary and approaching her end, happens by and takes charge of the chaotic situation. Though her desire to get a Mass said and a regular funeral for the suicide is frustrated, she arranges work for the widow, Annie, in the convent laundry.
Annie’s daughter, Sally, thus grows up among the nuns. A precocious mimic, she is attracted to their world and its commitments. She asserts her vocation, though it makes her mother feel abandoned, and some of the nuns are shrewdly skeptical. They put her on the train to Chicago to pursue her novitiate. McDermott gives an understated but harrowing account of that journey. The experience demonstrates to Sally that she lacks the love for others necessary for the life she had imagined would be hers. Eventually, she marries and raises a family. By the end of the book she has departed the earth, along with most of the old nuns who were perpetually available to help her through every crisis. The narrator of the novel is one of Sally’s children.
Nursing the sick and unfortunate, day after day, sounds romantic. But McDermott dispels the illusion: Her descriptions of the nuns’ daily chores, however understated, are not for the faint of heart. Attending to the physical needs of crippled, unattractive, ungrateful people, washing their soiled bodies and garments, seeing to their comfort and nourishment before briskly moving on to the next assignment, is frankly unappetizing. Most of us have extended such care on an occasional or extraordinary basis. It is something else to undertake this routine forever. We are meant to admire the sisters who do their demanding and often unpleasant tasks clearheadedly, without the option of refusal.
As I mentioned, religious heroes should not be portrayed as too good to be true. McDermott’s nuns are not without their foibles, doubts, and resentments. They are often animated by an inveterate desire to be needed rather than by selfless charity. As Sister St. Saviour struggles to face her mortality,
the old nun felt a beggar’s envy rise to her throat. . . . She envied the very daylight, envied every woman who would walk out into it, bustling, bustling, one foot in front of the other, no pain weighting her steps, so much to do.
Confident of heaven—God knew her failings—Sister St. Saviour was, nevertheless, even now, jealous of life.
She turned from the cold glass, turned as well a cold shoulder to the God who had brought her here . . . the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.
In the larger scheme of the book, the overall wholesomeness that characterizes the Little Nursing Sisters is, to some extent, balanced by male functionaries of the Church, who come across as a bit too authoritative, sheltered, and privileged. Outside of her art, McDermott has advocated for female priests; how this may affect the accuracy of her account I leave to the historically proficient.
It is unfair to concentrate exclusively on the religious aspect of The Ninth Hour. Yet two passages toward the end encourage the emphasis. Recalling the family story, the narrator seems to dismiss the spiritual dimension in the name of truth:
We listened to the same stories told again and kept silent about the truth: that our mother’s midlife melancholy was clinical depression, unspoken of in those days. . . .
That the holy nuns who sailed through the house when we were young were a dying breed even then. The Bishop with his eye on their rich man’s mansion even then. The call to sanctity and self-sacrifice, the delusion and superstition it required, fading from the world even then.
The holy nuns “fade from the world” not only due to the bishop’s desire for aggrandizement. Larger forces are at work. The nuns’ vocation, in the narrator’s opinion, required “delusion and superstition.” Perhaps the narrator should be interpreted narrowly: The nuns’ spirituality was possible only in an environment where certain women were driven to choose it for lack of more materially remunerative careers, or because at that time becoming a nun was one of the few ways women could ensure they would be treated respectfully. In either event, such a life was sustainable only provided that the nuns did not question the allocation of power in the world and in the Church. But the context suggests more than the eclipse of a particular social institution; it suggests that the entire ideal of sanctity and self-sacrifice has been cancelled in contemporary American culture.
I cannot judge the milieu of the novel, but I know Jewish men and women, not at all given to delusion and superstition, for whom such a life of selflessness, in a Jewish form, is very much a live option, indeed a compelling one. In the light of their example, I sometimes wonder that anyone can deny not just its possibility but its allure.
In the novel, the narrator’s remarks are not the final verdict. In the last chapter, McDermott gives the floor to one of the surviving nuns. At a crucial point in the novel, this nun steers the teenaged, confused Sally away from a foolish and wicked plan she was close to executing. Now she speaks of heaven. She compares it to the relief one experiences in shedding an itchy old coat: “When you finally get the old thing off, the air in this house will feel as cool and as sweet as silk on your skin, won’t it? It will feel like cool water on the back of your neck and on your wrists.” But, she continues astonishingly, that relief and beauty—the heaven in which her predecessor, Sister St. Saviour, was so confident—is not for her. It seems that at that long-ago ninth hour, when Sally had been so close to damnation, the then-young nun had “given up” that hope and expectation for her sake.
On my first reading, I doubted whether a religious woman would entrust such an intimate confession to the much younger and less pious generation. I now find the concluding scene plausible. And within the economy of the book, it leaves the fundamental question in the reader’s hands, which is to say with us, where indeed it always rests: Is the life of sanctity and self-sacrifice a product of delusion and superstition, or is it the height of reality?
We felt her delight in us, which was familiar as well, delight in our presence, our living and breathing selves—a tonic for all sorrow.
She whispered: “God has hidden these things from the wise and prudent, see? He’s revealed them only to the little ones.”
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva College and is editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.