John L’Heureux began his career as a novelist writing about leaving the priesthood in the 70’s in Tight White Collar and The Clang Birds. I was then America’s literary editor, and the magazine published reviews of both of them. The second book was reviewed by Doris Grumbach, as I recall. Suffice it to say that she was not impressed.
Well, 30 years and more than half a dozen novels on, L’Heureux has returned to the subject. In the meantime he has proven again and again his growing mastery of the craft of fiction, both comic and tragic. “The Shrine at Altamira” remains one of the most haunting horror stories I have ever read and “The Comedian” the best short story “not about abortion,” as he once described it at a reading.
The Miracle puts us back in that exciting and unsettling era of postconciliar confusion when past certainties were falling like tenpins, and bold new ideas were blooming everywhere you turned. Father Paul LeBlanc is just ordained and filled with the ecclesial zeitgeist; he plays basketball with the teenagers in South Boston and teaches them Latin, but he also plays down birth control in confession, urges parishioners to make moral decisions for themselves and talks about Vietnam and busing from the pulpit. Soon the long arm of the chancery plucks him out and exiles him to a beach parish in New Hampshire. The pastor, Father Tom Moriarty, who is the best friend of Monsignor Glynn who reassigned him, is dying of A.L.S., which he refuses to call Lou Gehrig’s disease: “It’s my own goddamn disease, not some baseball player’s.” Father LeBlanc has met his match.
For all of his “radical” ideas, Paul’s spirituality is remarkably voluntaristic; he treats prayer like exercise, the more and the harder the better. In each case, self-conquest is the ultimate goal, and God becomes the harsh taskmaster who counts the laps, which are, of course, never enough. Each morning he submits himself to an hourlong run, followed by an hour on his kneeler, with eyes and hands clenched tight. He then spends 45 minutes cleaning up and caring for the pastor, who is fast losing muscle control. Then he celebrates the 9 a.m. Mass.
Into this hermetic world comes an event that plays havoc with all his certainties. The parish housekeeper’s teenage daughter, Mandy, has overdosed and by the time Father Paul arrives she is, to all appearances, dead—no breath, no pulse. Her mother, Rose, forces everyone out of the room and prays in desperation over her. Suddenly she regains consciousness, with only a headache to complain about. Father Paul seizes on this as a miracle he must fathom. But it is the bedridden Father Moriarty who foresees it all in a dream-vision and responds sharply to Paul’s self-dramatizing account: “For Christ’s sake, try thinking of someone besides yourself. Just for once.”
Paul cannot let it go, however, for it seems to promise him an entrée to God. Pursuing it leads him, ironically, to Rose’s bed where he loses his virginity but finds no answers. Enter Anna Malley, a disillusioned young woman whose parents’ marriage flourished on their mutual loathing and undermined all her subsequent attempts at intimacy. Father Paul’s spiritual aura both attracts and repels her, just as her interest in him further confuses his vocational struggles. By now all the pieces seem to be in place for a dénouement.
In Anna, Paul begins to find a way out of his spiritual and emotional cul-de-sac, but not without a couple of wrong turns. Having told him she was planning to enter a convent, Anna shows up later to announce that the sisters have told her to wait for a year, something somebody should have told Paul when he showed up with his entirely willed vocation (I can so I should therefore I must!). He is relieved but still incapable of admitting he loves her, and so she goes back to Boston and law school and refuses to respond to his phone messages.
Again it is Father Moriarty who, having counseled Anna not to see Paul while he wrestled with his vocation, provides the occasion for their reunion with his funeral. “You don’t have to be a prophet to deliver a message,” he had once told Paul, and the novel makes clear at the end, as it has all the way through, that the dying priest is the locus of all the story’s miracles. For all his irony and isolation, and even his deflationary rhetoric, Moriarty participates from his sickbed in all the novel’s pain and grace, a conclusion he would, of course, have vigorously contested.