Monday, April 12, 2010

Men Religious: Image and Experience

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York, c.2009
US$15.00, 375pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7399-0

Brooklyn: A Novel
Colm Tóibín
Scribner: New York, c. 2009
Hardbound, US$25.00., 262pp.
ISBN: 978-1439-138311-1

When it comes to religious life and/or priesthood, I’ve always been struck by the difference between image and experience. When I was growing up in the urban Midwest of the Fifties and Sixties, the dominant images of priests and priesthood available were those created and promoted by Hollywood. Wise, folksy, affable, but also appropriately tough and worldwise ‘don’t mess with me, I’m nobody’s fool’ kind of Irishmen, by and large. Pat O’Brien, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby. Father Flanagan of Boys’ Town; Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s. If the cassock fits, wear it.

My own actual, lived experience was of men of a somewhat different cloth altogether. Monsignor Heinrich, pastor, had up to four (count ‘em!) full-time associates at any one time. He was a stern, aloof, and formal figure, who left no strong impression, endearing or otherwise. He simply ran the place, and ran it rather well. His associates, like Frs. Stetson, Sargent, Murphy, and Bank were somehow more visible, approachable, believable. Outside of church, they could be seen catching a smoke at the sacristy door, or in their T-shirts washing their cars on a Saturday morning, or chatting easily with families after Mass. Inside the sanctuary, however, they could sometimes be holy terrors--Fr. Sargent, the ex-Presbyterian, brought the spirit of John Calvin to much of his preaching. Parishioners basically took them as they were, though: liked them, respected them, and downplayed their failings. The cinematic Irishness of O’Brien & Company was charming and romantic. Our real, live parish priests were far less dramatic or compelling figures. But they were good, hardworking, and holy men, and over the long haul, that counted for more than charm and charisma.

Novelists McCann and Tóibín, both transplanted Irishmen who write about US culture, provide differing images of priests and male religious-- ones which merit some consideration and reflection. In Let the Great World Spin, one of the chief characters is Corrigan—Irish-born and bred and self-styled urban monk who, by the early 1970s, has graduated from the streets of Dublin to the howling madness of the South Bronx. In the spirit of the heady decade immediately following Vatican II, Corrigan parachutes right into the midst and messiness of inner city life. “What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday…. He consoled himself with the fact that in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of …light.” His parishioners are the neighborhood’s most fragile denizens: the elderly and the street prostitutes whom he befriends, and attempts—largely without success—to protect and defend.

By the time of his early exit from the novel’s pages, Corrigan has fallen in love—with a single mother from El Salvador, who works as a nurse’s aide and sometimes assists him in his ministerial endeavors. He has also become addicted to heroin: “He was shooting smack (his brother reports)…because he couldn’t stand the thought of others being left alone with the same terror.” In a fatal auto collision, he ultimately gives/ loses his life. During the remainder of the novel, his life and character— flaws as well as virtues-- are reconstructed through the memories of family, friends, and the destitute and the abandoned people he served.

One is left with a number of doubts about Corrigan. What is his real ‘religion’—his point of connection, his interpretive lens of spiritual meaning? To whom and to what is he connected beyond the immediate realm of his ministry-- his family? his religious brotherhood? the Church? Corrigan is a kind of kamikaze Christian— in the unsparing arc of his self-styled call to action, the fact of his demise is ultimately unsurprising, yet nonetheless compelling. He leaves behind a motley crew of suffering, struggling human beings who have been genuinely touched by his love. But has anyone, included himself, been transformed or redeemed through his sacrifice?

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: A Novel visits an earlier, kinder, gentler, quieter, safer New York. It is a slice of the Brooklyn of the early to mid-1950s, the waning days of the fraying Irish ghetto, with even a remnant of the immigrant boardinghouse. Tóibín’s cleric is the irreproachable Fr. Flood, who on one of his periodic visits home to Enniscourthy, County Cork, befriends Eilis, the novel’s main figure and protagonist. Fr. Flood sees that, left unsupported or encouraged, Eilis faces a doomed existence in the same pinched and provincial small-town life he himself escaped. He proffers himself as patron and protector, and assists Eilis in her literal and figurative passage to the new world. Fr. Flood is an honest broker: he knows the game and the players. Through a mixture of kindness and canniness, he is able to place and assist Eilis in her adjustment to a very new and different cultural reality. He arranges safe living quarters for her, work in a respectable department store, and the possibility of contacts with appropriate peers through a network of parish social activities. He is a mentor and literally, a ‘father’ figure, but he is at the same time somewhat detached in his dealings with Eilis. He takes pains not to shelter or smother her in the way her own family and culture have done. But the safety net of parish and family life are always assumed. Eilis may suffer, but she will not be devoured by her environment.

There you have it. Two good and decent men. Both deeply committed to the Church and to the care of souls. Fr. Flood is from central casting—or at least what’s left of it by the mid-Fifties. He could squeeze into the suited image of O’Brien, Kelly, and Crosby with few alterations. Corrigan is another bird altogether. He is cut astray, searching and uncertain both in his personal identity and institutional anchoring. Part of a generation of men (and women) who have broken out of a traditional network (or web?) or relationships and have not yet firmly fixed a new one to replace it. Corrigan is the more complex and compelling figure by far. His heroic struggles and ultimate, untimely death are lived and expressed the ambiguities of a world and culture split wide open by the Sixties. Neither Father Flood nor Eilis have any sense of the convulsive decade ahead of them.

Two images, two expressions, two experiences of men committed to the Lord and the Church through religious life and/or priesthood. What appeals to you in these characterizations? Which of the qualities in these characters would attract/distract you in your own search for identity and expression? What images and experience/s of your own do you have of priesthood a/o religious life? Do they help or hinder you in your personal journey in any particular way at all? Feel free to leave a comment….

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