John B. Breslin

On the way, as a guest, to the annual meeting of the Chrysostom Society, a community of Christian writers that includes novelists, poets, biographers and essayists, I toted along this newly arrived book--oil to Houston, perhaps? By the time the plane landed in that city I had finished the seven graceful essays written especially for the book and the lagniappe of the late Andre Dubus’s epilogue on sacraments writ large and small across our everyday lives.

 

It was a genial notion on the part of the editors to ask seven contemporary American writers to reflect on their "favorite" sacrament while also providing a precis of the best historical and theological understanding currently available. That formula provides a common shape to the chapters while allowing for delightful divergences and divagations.

Another bonus is the pleasure of reconnecting with favorite authors and/or discovering new ones in an explicitly spiritual setting. Mary Gordon, for example, offers a rousingly enthusiastic response to the newly named and conceived sacrament of the anointing of the sick, though she regrets the disappearance of the more startling phrase, "Extreme Unction." But the gain far outweighs the loss by pulling the sick out of their isolation and returning them to the center of the community of believers. She particularly likes the prayer after anointing for its graceful rhythm and climax: "’Father in heaven, through this holy anointing, grant (N.) comfort in her suffering. When she is afraid, give her courage, when afflicted give her patience, when dejected, afford her hope, and when alone, assure her of the support of your holy people.’ The building rhythm of this prayer, its use of repetition that turns and turns and turns again, and thickens with each turning so that the ending--ushered in by the conjunction ’and’--seems both inevitable and desirable, shows a mastery of the form that is both intellectual and physical."

Ron Hansen’s take on the Eucharist, the central sacrament of all the sacraments, begins with his own first Communion and moves fluidly through a quick survey of Jesus’ ten meals in Luke’s Gospel and the Didache’s earliest description of the Christian Eucharist to the decrees of Trent and Vatican II. But the personal is never far away, whether his teenage scoffing or his more recent attraction to morning Mass in a strange city as a way of locating himself in time and space.

"We were surrounded by worship, buoyed up by gestures of belief, as if many wings were flapping all about us, like the [priests’] white hankies miraculously stopping traffic on Summit, keeping us suspended in the peculiar vacancy of our ordinary lives, which in this way were not allowed to pass for ordinary at all. The Kingdom of God is within you, boys and girls. Never forget that. How ever could we?" Patricia Hampl’s description of growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in St. Paul could easily stand in for Hansen’s Omaha and Gordon’s Queens, as could her description of waiting on line for Saturday confession. Her problem was finding enough sins each week for a respectable performance!

Hampl’s accurate historical explanation of the sacrament’s development helps explain both that old problem and our new one, where the space between confessions has widened from weeks to months to years. The original public (and extraordinary) nature of penance in the early church was transformed by the Irish monks into a facet of spiritual direction, in which the spiritual father was also the confessor. In such an intimate situation, laundry lists of sins made no sense, and depth was more important than breadth. Often today retreat situations or their like have become the occasion for a Ôreturn’ to the sacrament, and the quality of the penitent’s insight into her heart and soul counts for far more than the quantity of offenses. Once again, it has not been all loss since Vatican II!

Curiously, confirmation is the sacrament whose original significance theologians have best recovered since the council but whose contemporary meaning most eludes us. It belongs, with baptism and Eucharist, among the sacraments of initiation, as we can clearly see in the Easter Vigil liturgy, when the catechumens receive all three together. But for most of us cradle Catholics, confirmation stands alone, somewhere between first Communion and college. Paul Mariani, America’s poetry editor, wrestled with this problem over all the years he tried to prepare unenthusiastic high schoolers for their confirmation--a frustrating task made a bit easier by his wise pastor’s comments that the Spirit is not bound by our timetables, but blows where he will. It took a cursillo retreat, uncomfortably entered into, for Mariani to have proved upon his pulses the truth of that remark. "On Memorial Day, 1972, I finally understood that I had been holding back, with one qualified yes after another, and that something in my battered dogbrain had finally let go and said yes. Yes to life, yes to God.... This was a reprieve, a new life."

Three writers previously unread by me account for the rest of the sacraments. Katherine Vaz’s family reading of baptism, both the sacrament and a painting of that name she discovers in Philadelphia, reveals a writer of great sensitivity and cultural depth. I have added her novels, Saudade and Mariana to my reading list. Paula Huston’s moving personal account of her marital travails and her efforts to get an annulment so she might be married in the Catholic Church speak well of her commitment to her new spiritual home after a messy divorce. Happily, she met a wise priest whose good judgment cut through the canonical thickets that stood between her and her deeply desired goal. Father Murray Bodo, O.F.M., gives a thoroughly incarnational account of his growing into his priesthood, from boyhood playacting to mature self-acceptance in Christ: "For if we genuinely love Him, we wake up inside Christ’s body...we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body" (Symeon the New Theologian, an 11th-century Greek Orthodox abbot and theologian). And then one is free to be an alter Christus, a genuine pastor.

To conclude, there is Andre Dubus’s brief essay, one of the last pieces he wrote. Like the others, but even more than they, Dubus celebrates the senses: "A sacrament is physical, and within it is God’s love," he begins. The analogy here is a sandwich made with love, like the ones he made for his young daughters after they no longer lived with him. But the most powerful image he offers is the cracked ice he made for his dying father so that he could enjoy a final glass of bourbon and water. He long regretted not having said the words "I love you" before his father slipped away in his sleep. But gradually he came to realize the "holiness...of pounding ice with wood and spooning the shards onto a dry tongue."

It is an almost biblical image and a fitting coda to a book that anchors our seven graced signs in the physical world so that they might free our spirits to experience the love of God made flesh in Christ. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know what Catholicism is really all about!

John Breslin, S.J., a former literary editor of America, teaches contemporary Irish literature at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.