Of Many Things

Among the most enjoyable duties I have at a local Jesuit paris - hwhich you will be unsurprised to learn is named St. Ignatius Loyola - is running a book club for young adults. The parish started the group three years ago as a way of offering the young professionals crowd a chance to continue, if in an informal way, their religious education and, not incidentally, meet other young Catholics. The setup is simple: we meet monthly at the parish to discuss books that would be of interest to Catholics.

When I first proposed the idea, one woman on the pastoral staff suggested that our meetings should begin with dinner. I demurred, but she insisted. You can’t expect a group of strangers simply to sit down and begin a discussion, she explained, without a sort of ice-breaker. Despite visions of having to provide elaborate meals for 20 hungry yuppies with finicky tastes, I agreed. As it turned out, she was absolutely right: a meal was the perfect way to encourage conversation among initial strangers. (And besides, almost everybody likes pizza.) The dinnertime conversations usually range from people’s professional lives (we’ve had lawyers, doctors, network publicists, investment bankers, actors) to the latest movies to what they do and don’t like about Masses at our church. And that last conversation, I can assure you, was far more revealing than any parish survey.

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After the pizza and sodas are cleared away, we turn our attention to the book. During the first year, I basically offered my own favorite Catholic works, by authors like Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus and Kathleen Norris. And while I was happy to see that the conversations were going swimmingly, I learned my first lesson: not everyone viewed my favorite books in exactly the same way I did. Well, how’d you like it? I asked enthusiastically at the beginning of the discussion of Cardinal Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace, one of my favorite memoirs. Oh, it was all right., I guess, answered one. (He felt it difficult to relate to the experiences of a prince of the church, no matter how transparent his story.) After we read Patricia Hampl’s lovely book Virgin Time, about a spiritual journey that takes the author to Assisi, one woman said that she just couldn’t stomach the author leaving her husband for weeks at a time as she made her way around Italy. This, I had to admit, was something I hadn’t even thought of, and it cast the book in a different light for me.

During the second year, I learned a second lesson: keep the books short. This was especially important for busy young professionals with crowded social calendars. During our chat about The Long Loneliness, when I expected rave reviews, I was instead greeted with considerably more silence than usual. As the discussion continued, I noticed that most people were commenting only on the early parts of Dorothy Day’s life. Hmmm. Gradually, it dawned on me that only a select few had finished the 286-page book. I mentioned this. Well, one said sheepishly, I know why it’s called The Long Loneliness.

Over the past two years, there have been a few clear favorites. Some have been a surprise. Though I initially wondered how the group would respond to straightforward spirituality, they loved God and You by William A. Barry, S.J., and Anthony DeMello, a collection of his writings edited by the late William Dych, S.J. Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen, and Meditations From a Moveable Chair, by Andre Dubus, were also big hits, as was Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk, which someone said was Great!...but long. (It was 416 pages.)

But most popular was a selection from last year, that was short, relevant to people’s lives and written in a beautifully clear style. It was readily available in almost any bookstore, too, and prompted the most energetic and thoughtful discussion of any of the books we read that year. Assigned for December, it also fit in nicely with the Christmas season. It was called the Gospel according to Luke.

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