Category Archives: Catholicism

My life’s work apparently

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Well, I’ve finally finished Sabra the Astonishing, thirty seven years after I first put pen to legal pad in the carrels of the austere library of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute for Byzantine Studies, where I was, as it turns out, masquerading as a serious scholar. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on the life of Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Put off by the need to stick to known facts, however, increasingly obsessed with Marian visions, in particular,  the case of Bernadette Soubirous, and, not to put too fine a point on it,  unraveling, I began instead to write a novel, which I described decades later in an application to the Ontario Arts Council thusly:

Sabra the Astonishing is the story of a teenage girl who sees an apparition which she takes to be the Virgin Mary . . . which it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is something far more sinister. Set in the sixties in the tobacco country of North Carolina, the novel explores the phenomenon of Marian visions and the steamier underside of Catholic excess.”

The novel went through a number of iterations, the most recent of which was completed twenty five years ago. My agent circulated it; no takers. My ex once described it less than kindly as, “bloated,” and, in retrospect, he was right. Sabra the Astonishing  erred on the side of excess; rather like the obese fellow traveler who sits next to you in coach, it had a propensity to ooze.  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that the manuscript contained some of my best writing and the fact that it has languished in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for so many years has been a source of  melancholy for me. Unpublished novels render one wistful. They are like dead babies; you can’t help but mourn them, to wonder what might have been had they been allowed to live.

This past year, I decided to have one more go at it, so I pulled out the manuscript and had a critical read.  This is what looking at a novel written by a young woman through an old woman’s eyes revealed:

  • Characters that don’t belong. I quickly realized that I had to kill off one of the lead characters; though darling, he was absolutely extraneous to the plot. (Those of you who follow this blog will have been privy to Lorenzo Da Silvio’s murder over several posts, each purporting to be the last.   I couldn’t help it; he was everywhere.)
  • Time and Place: Despite the fact that the novel takes place on Easter Monday, 1963, I had done nothing to set it in the period. I’ve now spent the last six months researching what training bra Sabra would have been wearing, what episode of Wagon Train might have played that night, and what brand of tranquilizers were vegetizing her mother. Thank God for the Internet. A related disconnect was the fact that, although Sabra’s family owns a big tobacco company and it’s the sixties, no one smokes! I addressed this problem by making everybody smoke all the time. One even dies of lung cancer.
  • Acknowledging the Zeitgeist: For a book set not forty miles from Greensboro, North Carolina where the lunch counter sit-ins had taken place just three years earlier . . . moreover, for a novel with several black characters, the fact that there was no acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement was, well, weird.
me at 60

Me when I finished The Virgin of Ararat.

The young woman was caught up in the story, in  action; the old woman, in context.

All these oversights have now been rectified and I will be sending the novel out again, but under a new title this time – The Virgin of Ararat. I’m doing this in the hopes that any editors who might have rejected it a quarter of a century ago will think it’s a different book altogether. Shhh! Let’s let that be our little secret.

The Beguiling St. Bernadette

In this excised excerpt from Sabra the Astonishing, Jesuit priest Xavier Buck goes to view the body of St. Bernadette Soubirous, on display in a glass coffin at the convent where she served as a kitchen nun in Nevers, France. 

St. Bernadette in her coffin

St. Bernadette in her coffin

Perfectly preserved the nuns said as they ushered him into the church. It had something to do with the type of soil she’d been buried in. Charcoal? Limestone? Only her skin had blackened on exposure to air, so that they had artfully covered her hands and face with a sort of chamois. Such fine handiwork.

They stepped aside to let Xavier draw near. Save for the fact that her neatly trimmed fingernails seemed too deeply sunk into the flesh of her fingers for them to have been real, the short neat figure in the black and white habit of the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction had seemed quite lifelike, as though she had fallen asleep a century earlier, her pretty face turned to one side on the lace-covered pillow, her fingers curled around a rosary pressed to her heart.

As he gazed down on the saint he had experienced a sudden pang of desire so sharp that it riveted him to the spot. An urge to throw open the coffin and crush the tiny body to his breast, tumbling the chamois mask from the blackened face and crackling those age-brittle bones on which the flesh so perniciously clung came over him.

But, “Don’t touch the glass!” the nuns cried shrilly. They rushed after him, grabbed him by the elbows, and dragged him back. “You’ll get fingerprints all over it!” A fat pigeon of a nun interposed her bulk between it and him and, reaching into the folds of her habit, withdrew a bottle of Windex. Spraying the coffin liberally with the solution, she scrubbed at it with her sleeve.

Bernadette coffinHe had thought, standing there in the dark convent chapel with the sweat streaming down his face and his fingers squeezed into fists, that if he could only embrace the horror beneath, tumble the mask, then everything would come clear for him. The darkness in which he lived would be rent like a curtain, thrown back, and he would see things as they were. He wanted it so badly. He felt that he couldn’t live a moment longer without it. But the nun continued to polish the coffin, crawling all over it like a black and white bug, all the time casting quick victorious glances over her plump shoulder at him. At length his friends, embarrassed, had urged him gently to go, and he had turned away, his heart in his mouth, his hands trembling. As he stumbled from the shrine one of the nuns had plucked his sleeve and like a madam who, on a summer’s eve when the blood stirs, calls to passersby from a chair placed beside her door, she lisped through death’s head lips “She’s beguiling, is she not? Our Bernadette?”


Why I became a Catholic (p.s., it didn’t stick)

kitschy jesusI converted to Catholicism in my senior year at University, taking Catechism with a Jesuit professor. It was the South in the early 1970’s. North Carolina had been settled largely by the English and the Scotch; it was Bible Belt Country. My parents, though not themselves religious, had been raised more or less Methodist and Baptist, but I . . . I was an intellectual; if I was going to convert, I wanted it to be to something esoteric and exotic. In that day and time, in that place, that meant Catholic.

When I was a child in Indiana, the Flynns lived kitty cornered to us on the northwest corner of Rose and East Stadium. Mr. Flynn was MIA.  The Flynn household was comprised of Mrs. Flynn,  her sister, a leviathan of a woman we knew as Aunt Rose, her dipsomaniac brother, a.k.a. Uncle Bud, and her teenaged daughter Bridget. Later, when their parents were killed in a car crash outside Indianapolis, Mary and Joey, Mrs. Flynn’s niece and nephew, were added to the mix. Joey was my age and Mary was my brother Peter’s age.

Mrs. Flynn ran a daycare center out of her house at a time when few mothers worked outside the home unless compelled by dire circumstances. Certainly no mother of our acquaintance worked and we felt sorry for the woebegone and slightly tattered children consigned to Mrs. Flynn’s dubious care.

Sorry, but also intrigued.

In sharp contrast to our neatly kept and well-ordered homes, the Flynn household was haphazard, ramshackle and chaotic.  The only person who would have knocked on the Flynns’ door would have been a Fuller Brush Man or an Avon lady. Everyone else – adult or child – walked in and out of the never locked house at will. Paint peeled, linoleum curled like thick old fingernails, furniture exhaled stuffing …. For one entire year a toilet seat lay abandoned on the landing of the stairs.  As for the fenced in back yard with its rickety swing set, sagging monkey bars and the sandbox that served an astonishing array of villainous looking cats as a litter box and a  smaller number of children as a locus for merriment, it boasted  not a single  blade of grass.

To our horror, we learned that waifish Mary slept in the same bed as Aunt Rose, meaning that she was in nightly peril of being crushed beneath her relative’s enormous bulk. Was it any wonder, our mothers exclaimedd, that the poor little orphan occupied her idle hours by standing on the corner, sans panties, flashing passing motorists?

As for grizzled Uncle Bud, he made his home in the  coal cellar of the Flynn domicile, which he had wallpapered with old newspaper, and earned his small keep mowing lawns around the neighbourhood; it was an occupation upon the altar of which he was to sacrifice a half dozen toes over the course of his lifetime, proving once again that one should never mix alcohol and lawnmowers.

To render the Flynns even more bohemian in our eyes, they were Catholics – Catholics. Not only did Catholic schoolchildren like Mary and Joey get more holidays than those of us in the public system, they were taught by nuns whose feet had been chopped off when they entered the convent and replaced with roller skates. Moreover, Mary and Joey attended Mt. Carmel, which we heard as Mt. Caramel. Who in their right mind would prefer Morton School to Mt. Caramel?

But it was teenage Bridget who would earn the Flynns their permanent niche in my personal Hall of Fame  for this reason:  one hot summer’s day, Bridget rode the municipal bus to its last stop and upon disembarking,  met  Jesus Christ.  He handed her a baby boy and promptly transcended, leaving Bridget  no recourse but to return home with the baby, hereafter  to be known as  ‘Stevie’.  Stevie was about three when we moved away and still in diapers. He was what our mothers used to describe as, “a little slow.”

A few years after my conversion, I was sitting in the kitchen of the rectory of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Toronto with a fellow graduate student of theology, a hip young parish priest and a  bottle of Tia Maria. At some point in that evening a painting hung there on the kitchen wall by the pious Portuguese housekeeper caught my attention –a portrait of a flaxen-haired Jesus, looking as girlish as could be managed and still retain the beard.  Emblazoned upon his chest was an apparently radioactive Sacred Heart pierced with a lance and wreathed in thorns. The heart was purple.

It was the exact same painting of Jesus that had hung on the wall of the Flynn’s kitchen, minus a few ketchup and peanut butter stains. And in that moment, that clarifying  moment, I understood why I had converted to Catholicism in the first place . . . and it had a lot more to do with the Flynns than it did with the Trinity or the Mystery of Transubstantiation or how many angels could samba on the head of a pin.

My left-leaning sympathies did not allow me to linger long in the bosom of Mother Church. In time, I fell in with the great milling horde of other Lapsed Catholics who roam the world, mourning the disconnect, but unwilling to put up with the nonsense. However, my interest in Catholicism –  profound and perverse – abides to this day. I have written a great many “Catholic” stories, including this one:  Moving Violation, published in the Antigonish Review in 1992. It is the story of an old priest recalling, with sweetness and horror commingled, the one mortal sin of his life. To read it, click here.