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60All Too Humanhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/004-all-too-human
Fri, 01 Aug 2008 00:00:00 -0400 Original Sin: A Cultural History
The Saints of John Paul IIhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/03/the-saints-of-john-paul-ii
Wed, 01 Mar 2006 00:00:00 -0500 Of the making of saints there is no end
cries the modern Ecclesiastes, and with some justification. A thousand years ago”or even twenty-five years ago”the roster of canonized saints was severely circumscribed. From 1000 a.d. to 1978 a.d., fewer than 450 men and women had been raised to the altars by the Catholic Church. The situation changed dramatically under the long pontificate of John Paul II. The vigorous pope”who was ordained on the Feast of All Saints”canonized, during his twenty-six-year reign, over 480 saints and beatified 1300 more, with a thousand additional candidates still wending their way through the labyrinthine juridical process. Some wag has christened this explosion of saints John Paul’s canonization cannon. Pope Benedict XVI has not yet canonized anyone, but there are good reasons for thinking that he intends to keep up the pace: not only his pronounced intention of sustaining the principles of John Paul’s papacy, but his own declaration, when asked about his predecessor’s penchant for saint-making, that there cannot be too many saints.
]]>The Love of Saint Thérèsehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/12/the-love-of-saint-thrse
Wed, 01 Dec 2004 00:00:00 -0500 The Pope leaned toward her, so that “their faces nearly touched,” and Thérèse hurriedly whispered her desire (despite her bishop’s opposition) to become a Carmelite nun. Leo, flustered by this breach of protocol, first ventured a conventional response: “Ah well, my child, do what the superiors say.” When Thérèse continued to argue, he appealed to God, enunciating each syllable like a patient schoolmaster: “Go . . . Go . . . you will enter if God wills it.” But Thérèse refused to budge, clutching the Pope’s legs more tightly still; finally papal guards intervened, lifting and dragging the now-sobbing girl to the exit. “In the bottom of my heart I felt a great peace,” Thérèse recalled some years later, “[but] bitterness filled my soul, for Jesus was silent.”
]]>In Defense of Jabezhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/10/in-defense-of-jabez
Mon, 01 Oct 2001 00:00:00 -0400 Read not the times, read the eternities, said Henry David Thoreau. It isnt often that the two realms intersect, but they have this year”and not only in the
New York Times
, but in news media across America”with the runaway success of Bruce Wilkinsons
The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life
The Prayer of Jabez
, as almost everyone knows by now, proclaims the blessings that derive from reciting an obscure prayer buried in a genealogical litany of, well, biblical proportions in the driest book in scripture, 1 Chronicles. The pertinent text, in the New King James Version favored by Wilkinson, reads:
]]>The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Taleshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/01/the-owl-the-raven-and-the-dove-the-religious-meaning-of-the-grimms-magic-fairy-tales
Mon, 01 Jan 2001 00:00:00 -0500 There’s no escaping the Brothers Grimm. Their masterwork,
(1812-1822), usually translated as
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
, still reigns unchallenged as the greatest folk tale collection of them all. Millions of children have listened, spellbound, as parent or schoolteacher initiates them into its primeval mysteries of baked witches and shape-changing wolves, of gallant princes and dreaming damsels. Thousands more have been initiated through Disney’s sweetened (but still, to a tot, terrifying) film adaptations.
]]>John Paul II Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994)https://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/03/john-paul-iicrossing-the-threshold-of-hope
Wed, 01 Mar 2000 00:00:00 -0500 There has never been a book like
Crossing the Threshold of Hope
. Popes teach, exhort, pray, serve; they issue encyclicals, bulls, and apostolic letters; they most emphatically dont write best“sellers. True, this centurys pontiffs have not entirely ignored the halls of literature. Leo XIII wrote Latin verse celebrating both traditional Catholic motifs and modern technology. (“Sun“wrought with magic of the skies / The image fair before me lies,” begins “Photography,” a typical effort.) Pius XI penned
Climbs on Alpine Peaks
, an energetic account of his mountaineering adventures. (“We wished to avenge ourselves for our failure on Mont Blanc two years before.”) John XXIII kept a diary published posthumously as
Journal of a Soul
. John Paul I left us
, an amusing collection of letters to Dickens, Pinocchio, and other famous figures.
And that, at least until a few decades ago, comprised the sum total of modern papal contributions to the world of books. The twentieth centurys nine Popes, like most of their predecessors, kept their authorial ambitions under wraps. That is, until the advent of that literary cyclone known to the world as John Paul II.
Its difficult to determine just how many books this Pope has written. George Weigels
Witness to Hope
lists twenty by Karol Wojtyla and thirty“six by John Paul II, but some of these volumes are collections of talks or letters and thus not authored books, properly speaking. What we can say for certain is that a torrent of writing that has included philosophy, theology, poetry, prayers, and plays, as well as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, apostolic constitutions, and apostolic letters, continues to flow from his generous pen. From the standpoint of ecclesiastical history, the culmination of this vast literary output”carried on in the midst of staggering duties as priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and finally Pope”may well be three of John Paul IIs latest encyclicals:
Fides et Ratio
(1998). From the standpoint of popular interest, however, the apex is surely
Crossing the Threshold of Hope
What is it about this book”cast in the form of written questions from Italian journalist Vittorio Messori and written answers by the Pope”that leads so many to treasure it? The reasons, as one might expect, are manifold. As I discovered when I used it last year in a college seminar for first“year students,
Crossing the Threshold of Hope
is a splendid distillation of Catholic thought, the
in miniature, the essential teachings of the worlds largest religious body distilled into 244 elegant pages.
But catechetical summaries, while often valuable, are not unique. This books originality lies elsewhere, in the Popes willingness to roll up his sleeves and engage in deep, direct conversation with the modern world. He ranges through anthropology, cosmology, Christology, eschatology, psychology; communism, socialism, missionary activity, ecumenism; the thought of Levinas, Eliade, Marx, Buber, Rosenzweig. There is not a whiff of dilettantism here. The Pope has immersed himself in these thinkers (one remembers that he entered one of the 1978 Vatican conclaves with a book of Marxist ethics tucked under his arm), and what emerges is an invaluable effort to measure the last half“millennium, and our century in particular, against the eternal truths of God. Always the Pope subordinates politics to culture, culture to cult. The foundation and final measure remains God, whose action “passes through the heart of man and through the history of humanity.” I dont know if John Paul II has read the mission statement of First Things, which states that “the first meaning of First Things is that, for the sake of both religion and public life, religion must be given priority,” but I suspect that he would heartily approve.
The book crackles with a vitality that, twenty years into his papacy, one takes for granted with John Paul II. One finds this energy in the declaration that began his reign and begins this book: “Be not afraid!” One finds it in the exhilaration that courses through the text, the sense that totalitarianism and atheism are on the run and that the future brims with hope for Christians, indeed for all men and women of good will. One finds it in the Popes bold overtures here toward the Churchs traditional enemies, as when he speaks kindly of Islam even while some Muslims continue to persecute Christian missionaries. One finds it, too, in his willingness to speak his mind at the expense of controversy, for instance in his remarks about Buddhisms “negative soteriology” or in his insistence upon separating Jesus from all other religious figures: “If he were only a wise man like Socrates, if he were a prophet like Muhammad, if he were enlightened like Buddha, without any doubt he would not be what he is. He is
the one mediator between God and humanity
Above all, however, this book haunts its readers because at its center lies the mystery of the papacy. It is difficult to read it without the impression that when the Pope speaks, the other 264 occupants of the Holy See speak with him. One senses, to get right to the heart of the matter, the presence of Peter. The text radiates an authority quite different from that of an encyclical or other official teaching document: it has a power grounded not only in the office but in the man who fills it, in a life lived close to eternal verities. John Paul II speaks here of the blood of the martyrs as “the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.” It is not too much to say that his own long reign as Pope”in its own way a slow“motion martyrdom, an era of prodigious labor, great suffering, and glorious vitality”has also contributed, not least through this marvelous book, to laying the foundation for this new world and for its bounty, the civilization of love.
]]>Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventureshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1999/06/daniel-defoe-the-life-and-strange-surprising-adventures
Tue, 01 Jun 1999 00:00:00 -0400 The best physical description of Daniel Defoe comes to us, fittingly, from a wanted poster: a middle sizd spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown“coloured hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes and a large mole near his mouth.
This unappealing description was issued by the Earl of Nottingham in 1702 against Daniel de Foe, alias De Fooe, sought for high crimes and misdemeanour for publishing an anonymous parody of Tory religious invective. The poster, and the accusation that spawned it, neatly encapsulate much of Defoes life: a writer on the lam, a lover of aliases, given to anonymous and pseudonymous productions; a middle“class merchant bewigged to pass as an aristocrat; a literary pugilist who scorned the orthodoxies of the day; a man judged by many of his contemporaries to be a ferret, a sneak, a public menace.
Yet Defoe was also a devout Presbyterian, faithful husband, doting father, and genius of the first order, a man who invented both modern journalism and the modern novel in his furious forty“year career. His greatest achievement,
, is a masterpiece of religious prose that has appeared in over 1,200 editions in English alone, has been translated into almost every known language, and continues to instruct delighted readers, as it has for nearly three hundred years, on the basics of Christian civilization by means of one of the most exciting adventure stories ever penned.
How to reconcile the two Defoes? This is the mystery that any biographer must confront, and one that Richard West only partially resolves.
The enigma begins with Defoes birth. We remain uncertain about his year or place of birth, although 1661 in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, seems likely. Raised a Dissenter”a Presbyterian in an Anglican nation”he was barred from Oxford and Cambridge and instead received three years of higher education under the Reverend Charles Morton, a future vice“president of Harvard University who drilled his pupils in science, modern tongues, and the intricacies of English rhetoric. Defoe learned his lessons well. He took away with him a superb prose style and a burning resentment of the upper classes who had denied him entrance to Oxbridge, coupled with a scarcely“disguised lust to join their ranks”a blend of envy and hatred common among young middle“class men even today.
This ambivalence toward social betters, suggests West, was one of Defoes driving obsessions. Another was his terror of debt and his sense of being hounded by creditors, as well as by literary and political opponents. Defoe relished the harsh world of late“seventeenth“ and early“eighteenth“century business, when capitalism was coming of age; unfortunately, he had an uncanny knack for investing in projects that left him in ruins. He traded in cows, bricks, tobacco, honey, land, diving bells, and even civet cats, almost always for a loss. By his early thirties, Defoe had squandered his wifes considerable dowry, was in debt for 17,000 pounds, and had declared bankruptcy”an act that barred him for life from public service. West describes the aftermath with typical empathy: The torment of mind he suffered . . . condemned him to a life of misery, fear, loneliness, and remorse, from which he could only escape through prayer, the love of his family, and eventually by writing books.
Defoe responded to the crisis with characteristic ingenuity: He decided to switch careers and become a journalist”and not just any journalist. As West enthuses, He was the first master, if not the inventor, of almost every feature of modern newspapers, including the leading article, investigative reporting, the foreign news analysis, the agony aunt, the gossip column, the candid obituary, and even the kind of soul“searching piece which Fleet Street calls the Why, Oh Why.
This new venture unleashed the best and worst in Defoe. On the one hand, he delighted in subterfuge. He wrote bogus letters to the editor, bogus travelogues, bogus histories; he worked as a journalistic double agent, writing for Tory journals while in the employ of the Whigs; he delighted in printing anti“Catholic drivel (and spent a lifetime seething about Popish Plots, including, so he thought, the Great London Fire of 1666); he raked up scandal wherever he could, insulting enemies and shocking friends.
On the other hand, he vigorously defended his faith and accepted a prison term as the price of principle. Although it is not always acknowledged by his biographers”West does better here than many”Defoes professional life focused on the place of religion in personal and public life. All his writings, from novels to marriage manuals, from occult studies to political broadsides, stem from the viewpoint of a devout Dissenter fighting for survival in an Anglican nation. It was this issue that produced his first best“seller,
The True“Born Englishman
(1700), a poem of high passion and mordant wit defending the reign of the Protestant King William III. It contains the memorable lines:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The Devil always builds a chapel there,
And twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
Defoes somewhat paradoxical love for both religious righteousness and literary deceit soon led to his undoing. In 1702 he published
The Shortest Way with the Dissenters
, the parody that occasioned the wanted poster quoted above, in which he suggested that the best way to handling religious nonconformists was to hang them. At first many Tories missed the joke and welcomed this splendid final solution. When they discovered that it was all a hoax, they went for Defoes throat. Three visits to the pillory and a stretch in Newgate Prison resulted. According to West, this was one of the great defining moments in his subjects life, a near“martyrdom that, far from breaking Defoes spirit, . . . gave him the courage, patience, and resolution he needed during the years ahead.
Defoes prison term also gave one of his admirers”Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons and a moderate Tory”a chance to intervene on his behalf. Soon enough Defoe was set free by edict of Queen Anne and enlisted as a spy for Her Majestys Government. Here, too, he stood out from the pack. In 1707 he wrote to his employer:
In my management here [among pro“Catholic Jacobites] I am a perfect emissary. I act the old part of Cardinal Richelieu. I have my spies and my pensioners in every place, and I confess tis the easiest thing in the world to hire people here to betray their friends.
Defoes years as secret“agent“cum“journalist make for the most exciting portions of the biography. West admires his subject and tolerates, even as he tsk“tsks, Defoes most outrageous behavior”a refreshing change from the current fashion that requires biographers to rip their subjects to shreds. Happily, there is much that deserves admiration, not least Defoes astonishing industry. He started a weekly newspaper, the
, and from 1704“1713 wrote each issue in its entirety. He churned out one bizarre book after another:
The Dyet of Poland
(1705) transposes English politics to Gdansk, while the very title of
The Consolidator: Or Memoir of Sundry Transactions in the World of the Moon
(also 1705) speaks for itself. For twenty years he wrote and spied; at one time, he ran eight newspapers, penning large portions of each himself. Approaching the watershed of his sixtieth year, his journalistic energies finally began to flag. Small wonder! But rather than retire his pen, Defoe reinvented himself again, and became, in 1719, the worlds first novelist.
Here we run up against the mystery already alluded to: How can we explain the miracle of
? West prepares us for this glorious invention by harping on Defoes love of subterfuge. For
, like many of Defoes earlier works, is a hoax, a novel posing as autobiography (
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner . . . . Written by Himself
). Defoes subsequent novels”
Journal of the Plague Year
, and the rest”belong to the same shadowy genre of fiction passing as truth.
s format, then, seems well“accounted for. But what of its content? Those who have read the unabridged version know that
is more than an adventure novel; it is a tale of religious conversion, telling how an isolated man rebuilds Christendom from some bits of flotsam and a repentant heart. Here West provides another clue, demonstrating how, as Defoe aged, he grew more convinced of the dangers of secularism and of the need for religious integrity and a rigorous moral code.
Defoe expounded these ideas in a series of books, written at the same time as
The Family Instructor
Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom
. All three works counsel a strict Christian life, dispensing advice on wayward sons, impious wives, the evil of contraception and abortion, and the danger of exercising the frolic part outside of the marriage chamber. As West points out, these texts not only establish Defoe as a champion of Christian virtue”a theme sounded over and over again in
”but also reveal his domestic happiness, including his love for his wife, Mary.
But what of
s literary brilliance, its startling universality, which led Coleridge to remark that compare the contemptuous Swift with the contemned De Foe, and how superior will the latter be found . . . . [He] raises me into the universal man. Now this is De Foes excellence. You become a man while you read? Here West is of little help. In place of analysis, he offers plot summary. It is pleasant to discover a Defoe biography that rises above the special“interest interpretations offered by Rousseau, Marx, Virginia Woolf, et al., but one wishes that West, who is obviously sympathetic to Defoes religiosity, had done more to explore its role in his subjects greatest work. He does advance one pet theory, asserting, contrary to all prevailing
criticism, that the true“life tale of Alexander Selkirk was not the genesis for Defoes masterpiece. The contention is amusing and smartly argued, but hardly makes up for Wests clumsiness at literary discussion”a serious flaw in an otherwise solid book.
Defoe ended his professional years as he began them, writing a string of curiosities that include
General History of the Pirates
The Universal History of Apparitions
(1729). He died alone in a London boarding house, hiding from debtors. The cause of death was given as lethargy, an ailment that would have surely killed a man of such compressed energies. He left behind 566 books and pamphlets as well as abundant evidence, if such be needed, of the infinite mystery of the human person. For who can fathom this liar, spy, and wearer of masks, this incomparable literary genius, this tireless exponent of Christian goodness? Which aspect reigned supreme we will never know, but we can be sure, from a letter written a year before his death, where Defoe placed his hope: Be it that the passage is rough and the day stormy, by which way soever He pleases to bring me to the end of it, I desire to finish life with this temper of soul in all cases:
Te Deum Laudamus
Philip Zaleski is editor of
The Best Spiritual Writing 1998
and author, most recently, of
Gifts of the Spirit
. His article The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe appeared in the May 1995 issue of First Things
]]> The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/05/002-the-strange-shipwreck-of-robinson-crusoe
Mon, 01 May 1995 00:00:00 -0400Two or three years ago, the first cold winds of middle age came knocking at my door. My muscles ached after an hour of softball and my mind turned to mush by ten o’clock every night. But I resolved to fight back. The decision is commonplace enough; we all know graying men who seek the fountain of youth with hot-air balloons or low-slung sportscars. I chose a more moderate and productive course. I snuggled down with a cup of hot chocolate, a woolen blanket, and a plan: to reread the beloved classics of children’s literature. Whether this was a coward’s flight from the hard facts of aging or a heroic attempt to keep my youth intact, I still do not know. I do know that it was magic.
When I opened the first slender volume, the doors of memory flew open as well. I hurtled back a quarter of a century and became again a boy with a book on a long summer afternoon, ready to tumble, like Alice, into a wonderland of words. Time-travel, I discovered, is indeed a reality; how grand that it is reserved for older folks. I found, too, that the pleasure of rereading was more than that of stepping into the past; it was the thrill of meeting a past illuminated by the present, of bringing to these cherished children’s books an adult’s appreciation of irony, wit, characterization, and plot. I read with two sets of eyes at once, that of youth and that of maturity, and my vision was never so keen.
So one joy tumbled after another, until I came to the oldest classic of them all, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 work of high adventure and humble religiosity,
. As a scholar, I knew the importance of
. The tale is so famous that Robinson is often taken to be a real man who suffered a real shipwreck, a mix-up of fiction and fact bestowed upon only one other literary protagonist, Sherlock Holmes. That
exists at all is a miracle. Few could have predicted such a masterpiece of good feeling and fortitude from a man described by Jonathan Swift as a “grave, sententious, dogmatical rogue.” The miracle is compounded when one learns that Defoe, who made his living as a journalist, churned out seven other books the same year he fathered Robinson. But somehow the most famous survivor in history was born, and his popularity was instant and undying. A count taken in 1979 found 1,198 editions in English alone (the number has increased since then), plus translations into innumerable tongues. There is even an 1820 Latin version for schoolboys,
For my return to Robinson’s island, I chose the Norton Critical Edition. I picked it up eagerly, anticipating what my memory assured me was a streamlined adventure tale, far from the ambiguities and complications of the adult world. What could be simpler, after all, than shipwreck and survival? The book seemed curiously weighty in my hands, thicker than I remembered; thicker in style, too. Well, I thought, perhaps I read an abridged version as a child; they must have simplified the language. No matter. Abridgements, when done with care, generally retain the gist of the original, although they necessarily deflate the art. And after all, how could one mangle an adventure book? One episode of derring-do more or less should make no difference, I reasoned.
The first sentence of
reassured me, despite its cumbersome length: “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull . . . .” This at least was familiar territory. I sighed with pleasure and settled into my armchair. As the plot unfolded, however, I began to wonder. I did not remember Robinson being quite so obstreperous, or his early life such an unbounded misery on land and sea, such a jagged sequence of poverty, imprisonment, even a shipwreck that presages the more famous one. The mystery was compounded when I discovered-still in the first thirty pages-that Robinson had been a slaver. Well, I argued, the abridgers had left this out to protect tender sensibilities.
But soon I realized that something was terribly amiss. It was not only Robinson’s character that was different, but the very significance of his shipwreck, the very meaning of his life. What I discovered in the unabridged
clashed, in every important point of substance and style, with the abridged
of my memory. Moreover, what seemed to be missing from my childhood version-what loomed before me in Defoe’s original text-was hardly material one would wish to hide from children. On the contrary, the most savage cuts-those that tore the heart out of the novel-had removed just those passages that I would have thought any parent would most want his child to read.
Perhaps, you think, I fuss over nothing. What does it matter if I once read a bad abridgment? But there is far more to it than that. Before I demonstrate exactly what I stumbled upon and why it matters so much, let us refresh our memories of
. We will then be able to judge whether my experience is unique or whether it exposes a grave truth about our culture.
Just about everyone, reader or not, can recite the highlights of Robinson’s adventures: A man is shipwrecked without resources on a desert island, survives for years by his own wits, undergoes immeasurable anguish as a result of his isolation, discovers a footprint in the sand that belongs to Friday, and is finally rescued from his exile. Such is our common store of Robinsoniana, to which 99 out of 100 people will agree.
All of it is wrong.
Robinson’s island is not a desert in our modern sense of the word, he does not proceed without resources, he does not live solely by his wits, he does not suffer inordinately for his solitude, and that famous footprint-the best known in the world-does not belong to Friday. Even the word “rescue,” for Robinson’s eventual escape from the island, is false. But more significant than any of these details is that our overall perception of
is wrong. The single most important fact about this boy’s adventure book is that it is not a boy’s adventure book at all. It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man’s discovery of himself, civilization, and God.
Mon, 01 Aug 1994 00:00:00 -0400 Some writers capture national headlines; others capture local hearts. This observation was brought delightfully home to me a few months ago, when I dropped a small pile of books on the checkout desk at my neighborhood public library. The librarian working the computer screen, a small, quiet woman of monastic disposition, usually goes about her chores without uttering a word. This time, however, she accepted my stack, glanced at the top book, and burst into a smile broad enough to launch a moon rocket. Jon Hassler! she yelped. The smiled widened as she saw that, in fact, my entire selection that day consisted of Hassler novels. Isnt he just great! she said. I wish there were more like him. A writer that makes you glad to be alive.
Who, you might wonder, is this man who gladdens the hearts of young librarians, middle-aged professors, and, I am told, droves of retirees? The author of seven novels, beginning in 1977 with
(the imaginary Minnesota town where most of his stories unfold), Hassler is a writer-in-residence and English teacher at St. Johns University, Minnesota. In a recent interview, he confesses that the writing takes precedence: My teaching is always in the late afternoon or evening. The students get me when my mind is shot! a decision that even his students must applaud considering the literary fruit that results, lately in his newest novel,
Dear James brings back characters from Hasslers earlier ventures, most notably Miss Agatha McGee, the elementary school principal who loomed so large in
A Green Journey
(1985). Agatha, now seventy, radiates that quality that used to be called spine: moral rectitude, dogged courage, and a trap- door mind fused into a backbone strong enough to shoulder the problems of half of Staggerford. She has her faults, too; having always striven to be predictable, she finds herself adrift after the closing of her beloved St. Isidores Elementary, an event symptomatic, in her worried eyes, of the shutting down of Christendom. Around Agathas moral axis revolve, frequently in erratic orbit, the members of Staggerfords closely knit Catholic community: French Lopat, the Vietnam vet who scratches out a living as a fake Indian for the tourist trade; Lillian, Agathas best friend, who gets her news from supermarket tabloids; Imogene, Lillians daughter, a liar and backstabber; Sister Judith, a New Age nun who imagines the Creation as God laying a giant egg.
In this constellation of superbly drawn comic characters, the brightest star is the one farthest away: Father James OHannon, an Irish parish priest in Ballybegs, Ireland, with whom Agatha has carried on a correspondence blossoming into platonic love for years. Thus the salutation of the title; its irony lies in James failure, for the first several years of their relationship, to inform Agatha of his clerical status. After she discovered the truth during their only face-to-face encounter (a debacle recounted in
A Green Journey
) the correspondence entered a new phase. As
opens, Agatha continues to write long, revelatory letters to James, and then instantly tears them up. Meanwhile, James undammed stream of letters to her stagnates in her desk.
Despite their estrangement, Agatha thinks constantly of James, and he of her. Their relationship is platonic in more than the conventional sense; these two traditionalists share a respect for ideas and a belief in Ideas, even in the Logos. Similarly, their correspondence is more than epistolary; their lives run along parallel tracks, in religion, intellect, and morals. The joy of the book lies in watching these lines converge into a happy ending despite the obstacles of age, location, and vocation. Before this dignified conclusion, however, Agatha and James must not only reconcile with one another, but atone for the past by surrendering a grudge: he against the British who killed his father sixty years ago; she against Imogene, the acid-tongued gossip who makes public her correspondence with James. In local communities, Hassler suggests, ancient truths abide: words retain their power to save or ruin lives, good and evil can yet be distinguished, people remain accountable for their acts, and sin, penance, and absolution are still valid coin of the realm.
Remarkably this is where Hassler parts company with almost all other American novelists religion is the means whereby these small-town transformations take place. In
, the catalyst is not only the teachings of the Church but its sacred places as well. Agatha and James heal their breach in the Vatican (she is there on a New Years tour of Italy), a small town that is a universal city. They deepen their accord in Assisi, another small town whose essence Hassler captures as well as any writer before him. Most strikingly of all, James renews his priestly mission during a papal audience at the Vatican. The critical moment comes when John Paul II, working his way down the center aisle, halts in front of James (who is standing on a chair for a better view), gazes into his eyes for a full five seconds, and then gestures him forward.
James lowered himself carefully to the floor, and the crowd made room for him at the barrier. John Paul stepped forward, took James face in his hands, turned it to the left and spoke briefly into his ear. Then he bent forward and touched his forehead to James forehead, his hands still cupping James face like a precious vessel. Then he moved on.
To find out what the Pope whispered, read the book. Suffice it here to repeat Agathas assessment that weve just witnessed a miracle, not in the sense of an impossible happening, but in the sense of a revelation of the eternal sacred moral order in the temporal fallen human order.
These Staggerfordian trials and redemptions add up to more than a series of Sunday School lessons. One feels a great moral force surging through this novel, a sense that lives do indeed matter, that God oversees the comedy and that fiction is the right means to get this message across. As James puts it, Stories can move people, Agatha. I learned that in the pulpit. You can preach till the cows come home and not awaken a single soul, but the right story, well told, goes straight to the heart. It brings to mind a passage from John Gardners
On Moral Fiction
, an important, vilified, and now forgotten book of the 1970s. The traditional view, Gardner writes, is that art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not to debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us.
Gardners definition of traditional art describes perfectly Hasslers novels: creations as admirable for their benevolence as for their architecture. Here is an author who embraces every character his imagination conjures up, whether heroine, fool, heretic, or shrew. He is fulfilling Chekhovs dictum that it is the writers business not to accuse and not to prosecute, but to champion the guilty, once they are condemned and suffer punishment. Agatha, James, and nearly all of Hasslers figures suffer chastisement or worse for their failures, and nearly all are championed in this splendid work, testimony to Gods tender mercies.
Philip Zaleski teaches literature at Wesleyan University and religion at Smith College.