Monday, April 19, 2010

True Conversions No. 1: Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir
Mary Karr
Harper: New York, c. 2009
400 pp. US$ 25.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-059698-9

One of the most interesting phenomena of our time from my perspective is that “a pesar de todo y en medio de todo”/”in spite of everything and in the middle of everything”—people continue to join the Catholic Church. At our parish alone this Easter, we welcomed 47 new Catholics—30 adults, teens, and children (no infants) were baptized at Easter vigil; an additional 17 were received into the Catholic community from other Christian denominations. In the Diocese of San Diego as a whole some 1400 neophytes joined the Church. Nationwide in the US, more than 100,000 people enter the Catholic Church annually. A pretty good indication, from my lights, that in terms of Church membership and attendance, there’s a fair amount of two-way traffic—people are leaving (no news), but other people are joining as well (pretty big news for us Catholics, I’d say). How come?

While I have a few hunches from my own pastoral experience as a Franciscan and as a priest, I’m also fascinated by the number of our contemporaries who have been willing to step forward and articulate their own conversion stories. Nearly two decades ago, I found myself sitting in an audience in San Francisco as author/ poet Annie Dillard spoke about her own unlikely embrace of Catholicism. The information was received with embarrassed silence followed by surprised gasps and giggles by her generally well-heeled and well-read listeners. There was no applause. I hadn’t know about that part of Ms. Dillard’s life, but she made it clear that her faith was important to her and that it illuminated her own artistic search and expression. I liked that in her. I still do.

That was then. More recently, I’ve become aware of a whole slew of “true conversions” stories appearing in print media– almost a sub-genre in itself. I find these tales of personal discovery fascinating. Why would someone choose Catholicism—especially now—especially given the media coverage of the sexual abuse scandals, in particular? What’s going on here? How is the Spirit moving in our time? What is s/he saying to us? What continues to attract intelligent and committed people to this faith community, while other equally intelligent and committed people appear to be leaving in frustration, bitterness, and contempt? I’d like to reflect a bit on some of the stuff I’ve been reading lately. It is, after all, all about ‘vocation’—listening for the clear, calm, gentle voice of Someone (maybe God?) inviting us into a deeper experience of love and community. In spite of, and in the middle of all the ‘stuff’ that goes on in our lives.

Writer Mary Karr can best be termed as a “memorist”. Her first works-- The Liars Club and Cherry—were both bestsellers. The former concentrated on her rough and tumble childhood in Texas. The latter dealt with her adolescent struggles. Karr’s third and most recent memoir, however, focuses on her spiritual journey and her unlikely path of conversion from, what-- Alcoholism to Catholicism? (Would it be fair to describe it as kind of a shift from one kind of‘religion’ to another?) So how did she get from there to here?

On the other hand, why not look at things in reverse—how did Mary Karr make her transition between here and there? “Time arcs back,” the author notes in the very last chapter, “carrying me in it.” She is visiting her mother—an aging, cantankerous, absolutely charming professional prevaricator and ingrate. Karr stumbles across an underlined passage in her mother’s Bible—Psalm 51—(“the hanging psalm”). The thing is, this is the very passage her spiritual director has prescribed for Karr’s Lenten reflection. She reflects: “… it feels as if God once guided my mother’s small hand, circa 1920-something to make two notes I’d very much need to find seventy years later—a message that I could be made new, that I am – have always been – loved.”

Karr’s conversion story ‘ends’ in its’ ‘beginnings’—the jagged trajectory that her life has made “arcs backwards” from love to Love. In between is all the ‘stuff’ that happens or that we make happen in our own stumbling, bumbling way. In Karr’s case the arc passes backwards and forwards through childhood misery, adolescent longing, youthful experimentation, catastrophic relationships, and toxic dependencies. In between and among all this, one is able to discern some slender, yet surprisingly firm threads of sustaining hope, stubborn discipline, and sustaining friendship and love. “A pesar de todo y en medio de todo,” she discerns presence of a loving God in her life, partly through the means and medium of her chosen call, the written word.

Where does the Catholic part come in? Maybe it was just some kind of crazy luck or random choice, but I think not. Again, my funny bone tells me that with Karr it may have been a matter of things “fitting”— the narrative of her own suffering and redemption coalescing with that of our own collective history and struggles. They fit. They fit well enough for her to embark on the path and serious business of making a faith choice and commitment to a specific community of worship and service. Whatever happened, it is clear that the point of entry into the faith experience for Karr was every bit as much through her pain as it was her brain. As she expressed it in a PBS radio “Fresh Air” interview: "I thought faith was a feeling. My intellect told me this was insane. The only way I was able to do it was through practice," she says. "[I'd] been trying to get sober and not really listening to the ways you're supposed to do it, and somebody said 'pray on your knees every day for 30 days and see if you stay sober.' And I just saw it as, like, self-hypnosis or like talking to yourself."

Karr’s journey is not unlike a lot of our own stories. What makes her tale particularly striking and convincing, though, is her gift of honest expression— by turns blunt, blue, raw, or reflective, yet ever relentless. Her seemingly constant and continuing collisions with crushing realities. Her ultimate deliverance from multiple and cumulative experiences of pain and suffering-- through successive dead ends to eventual recovery and spiritual awakening. Read the book for the details. It’s not always pretty, but it’s really real. Just like life.


Alan said...

This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.


Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Thanks for this analysis! It's fascinating to me from the reverse perspective: I'm a convert to Catholicism from lifelong atheism, so it's always interesting to hear what cradle Catholics think of us converts. :)

Also, if you have any interest, I recently wrote up my thoughts on the scandals from the perspective of a convert here.

God bless!

Anonymous said...

I noticed you’re a fan of Mary Karr and just wanted to let you know that Mary will be at PLNU in San Diego. This would be a great opportunity to hear her talk candidly about writing and I thought you and your blog audience would be interested in knowing. If you love Mary Karr's poetry and memoirs, you MUST check out the PLNU Writer's Symposium by the Sea's February event. Mary Karr will be interviewed live on Wednesday, February 16, 7-8:30 PM.
Meet her, hear her, love her...