Catholic fiction

Esquire

From my forthcoming novel:

James McNaughton, Esquire, is how he introduces himself while he holds court on a grimy stool at the bend of the bar; his primary audience a speckled mirror, glazed in the omnipresent smoke of penny cigarettes and cheap tobacco wafting from cracked pipes. He taps his own— "‘twas my granddad’s this was—he’d puff great circles round his head as we bairns sat by the peat fire. He sang of Cathleen ni Houlihan and her four green fields and the lads and men who would rise to her defense when the bloody British violated her shores. He taught us our real history from the days of our great kings and the seanachies singing of the victories and tragedies as the men gathered ‘round turf fires after a hard day’s work. This here"—he lifts his dirty pipe like a priest lifts the sacred chalice—"is a legacy of your people and don’t forget your people, lad, or you will sore grieve it."

Esquire’s dark round glasses keep his ragged brows from his eyes and his black and gray beard, not silver as he claims, but iron gray, smoke gray, dirty gray at that, catches bits of spittle and brown bread. He thinks himself quite the figure in his sagging tweed patched and re-patched by his wife’s—God rest her soul—darning skills and little is left of the original woven in the Donegal mills of his grandfather’s day.

Esquire invented his grandfather since his own two were dead long before his birth. His first hearing of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the old woman and the young queen who is Ireland and her four green fields, was from a fellow passenger who believed his singing such a gift to the world that he bestowed it on every soul shivering across the Atlantic. The peat fire in a hearth in his lovely thatch burned only in Esquire’s florid imagination as he retched into a full bucket on his escape from the home he had to leave, wearing the tweed he took from his father’s back before he was lowered into the mud of one of Cathleen's fields. 

James McNaughton, before he was Esquire, sauntered down the gangplank in New York Harbor in 1864 to be snatched with the other scrawny lads by men in squashed felt caps with a great X of crossed rifles on their forehead. So, he was to be a soldier. Perhaps the High King Brian Boru would be re-born in New York Harbor that day.

The life of a Union soldier wasn’t too bad for the future Esquire. He got his first new set of clothes and food and rough bed. He managed to stay out of the way of any Rebel bullets in the only battle he was part of. Within six months of landing in America the Civil War was over and James had a handful of stories to tell around whatever hearth or bit of smoldering coal he could find.

Esquire thought himself an intellectual, therefore, unsuited to the work available to immigrants shuffling off boats in their tattered rags with tattered children in tow. They banded together in tenements in the Lower East Side of New York and in Brooklyn, and those not able to afford this much American luxury made homes of bits of wood and tin and ragged blankets left as trash that found new purpose as shantytowns. These groups of human refuse forced their lean-to’s on patches of ground that pigs and dogs and smaller creatures condescended to, but would not cede, as their natural turf.  

When he was released from the Union Army with a mouthful of stories ready to spill, young James had to find work. He managed to get a job as a street sweeper by chatting up the ward boss in his squat. He was a jolly fella with a mouth that never shut, which was acceptable as long as he kept the broom moving, but after too many corner stone conversations on what’s wrong with the world, the future esquire found himself at liberty with empty pockets.

More to come…

So Vast and Shattered

This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas.     Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

This mosaic is composed of a handful of shapes repeated over and over to form five major faces and several minor ones on the canvas.

Artwork by Daniel McCullagh 

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen while I drive. He's got several songs that deal with brokenness and being shattered, and the Love that is so vast and shattered that it will reach us anywhere.

So, with his lyrics dancing in my head I wanted to write a post on the state off being broken, our lives crashed around our ankles and the redemption and light that can arrive at the end of such a difficult journey, if we pray for discernment and grace.

I had several false starts. I wrote about brokenness in general, as a necessary state that we will all go through at certain points in our life. That it is an important state that we must all learn to navigate  

It occurred to me that I already wrote words on this subject; in fact I wrote a whole novel on this subject. Here is an excerpt toward the end of The Narrow Gate when Rose, the protagonist, has survived a terrible year.

"Rose is making her bed, the Miraculous Medal still hangs around the bedpost. These late October mornings are breathtaking—in another week the leaves will be swept off the trees as November settles in. Late October in New York is the height of autumn, nature’s magnificence on bright display as something to take forward into the darker days to come.

She takes the small gold medal from its resting place and runs her fingers over Mary’s face and hands. Months ago Rose asked for a miracle. She got a breakdown. Jimmy died. She went into a tailspin. Her marriage was in crisis.

Her faith shattered into shards revealing what? Seed planted on good soil, like she thought when she was young and untested—I'm the good soil that hears the word of God and keeps it—such arrogance in a child, such childishness in faith, yes, childishness; she was a child.

She discovered that she was more like the seed planted on rocky ground: roots shallow, pulled away at the first strong wind leaving only bare pebble and sand. What could be planted on that kind of heart? Something cold and stony, hard and unyielding.

But no, the rocks have shattered. Under the rocks the soil is soft and rich; tender. New faith stepping out. God, its hard. I cannot see, I’m battered, broken. Questions replaced answers. Questions still don’t have answers, and maybe they never will. And maybe thats just the way it is: open ended, messy, ambiguous.

No one with any sense would seek out a broken heart. We try to protect ourselves from broken hearts but at some point the protection is more expensive than the truth and then it all must crumble under its own weight.

We just can’t do anymore and we break down. Can’t hold back crying. Can’t hold on to what passes for dignity and if we ever cared about such things, we just don’t anymore.

We see how stupid it all was. Broken hearts hurt down to the core of us. They rend us alone in the dark, unconnected, cut off. All the ways to describe isolation, severance: birth. We do what we can, desperately if need be, to be connected, encumbered even, with with lies.

Its better than being alone. Abandonment as our most basic fear, not falling, but exile. If I tell the truth I will be exiled. I will have to connect with other exiles. The island of misfit toys. All the children’s stories were written to warn us, weren’t they?

Is this theology? The theology of the broken hearted, the crushed, the humbled.

The road to perdition is broad, but isn’t the road to salvation broad? The narrow way is just that, narrow.

I asked for a miracle. What I got was a breakdown. Just what I needed. Miracle of the broken heart.

Rose undoes the clasp of the gold chain and fastens the medal around her neck."

There is something about us humans: we cannot reach true adulthood unless we’ve been through—and examined—a crisis or two or ten or a hundred. I think it goes back to Adam and Eve and Original Sin and that niggling trait we all have that just wants to rebel, just wants to challenge, just wants to stand up to the big man and stamp our feet. Or, our vision of life never matches up with our reality. I know we are supposed to claim our own destiny and power and bliss—but really, we still have to deal with who we are, imperfections and all.

If we are not cracked open every once in a while we become stagnant. Our normal starts to show wear and tear and that leads to boredom, or existential angst or ennui, depending on the books you read. If life doesn’t present you with a crisis, it is in our nature to manufacture one.

In our brokenness we descend into Hades or our Dark Night, just as the heroes and heroines of mythology and saints must, in order to become our truer, braver, better selves, filled with light, with our weaknesses, some of them at least, left in the underworld.

After being shattered, we seek wholeness. It will be a different wholeness. A wholeness with cracks that add to the beauty of what a life becomes, and hopefully, our brokenness will allow us to become compassionate and understanding and generous and loving.

Of course, it can work the other way, and often does. We can take our shatteredness and become angry and vengeful and tight and mean or inflate our narcissism, but that is a different story.

Therein lies the tension of any heroic journey, and I contend that we are all asked to embark on our own heroic journey. Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe. Free Will.

When we are broken, we must reside for awhile in darkness, a kind of death to the incomplete notion we have of ourselves, and out of that, with grace and love, we may enter the light.

Light Breaks Blue

Image courtesy of   Frank1030's Flickr stream   under   Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Frank1030's Flickr stream under Creative Commons

It’s dark. He turns right, to the aurora of street lamps along Forest Park Drive, to the diluted light pushing its way through the trees that have arbored this area for generations. Wind whips up under his shirt and slaps his back. Jimmy steps out from the awning. A smoldering cigarette in one hand, an empty beer bottle in the other, he raises his arms over his head breathing in the cold, clean, wet dirt smell. His upturned face receives the sharp needles of rain. A baptism. 

The wind and rain pick up. A crackle of light breaks blue deep into Forest Park. Thunder reverberates his thin frame, tolling out the bell of him. Somewhere in there, somewhere in here, I still am. I am.  (Chapter 58, The Narrow Gate, JBMcCullagh, 2012)

The sacramental nature of the ordinary is a recurring theme of mine. I suppose all writers have themes. A few of mine are: finding grace in the ordinary, the communion of saints, the light that darkness cannot overcome, the heroic journey and redemption, no matter how late in life we say yes to it.

In this small excerpt from my novel, Jimmy, who is in his early fifties, has reached the realization that he's been on a course of destruction for decades. There is grace and forgiveness and redemption to be had if only he will say yes to it. Even a faint hearted yes will be a start. 

I am at a disadvantage in explaining faith. On one level I know that faith cannot be argued or terrified into anyone. On the other hand, the evidence of God and redemption and the power of prayer and grace surrounds us and if we have the eyes to see and the heart to receive, it will overwhelm us beyond any need for argument or persuasion.

My disadvantage is this: I have always believed. In God, in Jesus as God, in the whole array of saints and angels. I feel confident in the use of the word always, because my understanding of this knowledge pre-dates my childhood, pre-dates my infancy, to whenever the beginning is.

I never had a Damascene moment, a falling of the horse and struck blind a la St. Paul event forcing me to recognize Jesus. I didn't have to. I always believed.

I have certainly had epiphany moments, moments of clarity and beyond the veil moments (another theme of mine) that have given me strength and courage and hope and direction. Transformational, transcendent moments that are pure gift, pure unearned gift. Grace.

Grace and belief do not spare you from struggle. The struggle of dark nights where you plead and pray and many of the Psalms seem like they were written for you. (Out of the depths I cry unto you O  Lord, Lord hear my prayer, over and over and over and over) The struggle of feeling forgotten, ignored, unanswered. No, belief does not spare you that. It reminds you to hold on, though.

The example and witness of others, be they canonized saints or some wonderful grandparent whose whole manner of life pointed the way beyond the present to the eternal, should teach us to face our struggles with hope, to remind us that we are not alone. The witness of grace in suffering and of joy in the everyday ordinary wonderful gifts of life, testify to the life giving fruits of faith.

Faith doesn't make you less stupid or even less sinful, necessarily, though I think it would give you pause by engaging your conscience and reminding you that you indeed do know right from wrong.  Faith and grace do supply the light to pierce the darkness of sin and doubt and hopelessness. They allow the light to break blue in our darkness.

Fairy Godmothers and Wicked Witches

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I was in good company last week. I was watching the grandkids so my daughter could work on illustrations for a children's book. So there were cartoons. Lots of cartoons. Since cartoons, like any media, are not created equal, I needed a break. I needed one of those cartoons that kids and adults could stand, I mean, watch.

Enter Sleeping Beauty. A Disney classic that I saw countless times when my kids were small, particularly when my youngest child, John, identified so much with Prince Philip that he carried a makeshift sword of truth and shield of virtue and defended fair maidens (his big sister was granted an aura of royalty that her other two brothers had failed to detect).

This time around I was watching with an eye as to how the story played out not only classic hero journey motifs, but motifs that fall under the category of Catholic fiction.

What is Catholic fiction as distinguished from other fiction?

Well, that's a longer answer than will fit here, but for the purposes of classic tales, there is the element of hope, there is virtue--light-- that can conquer darkness. Yes, there is struggle, there needs to be struggle or there is no story worth telling, but struggle aided by prayer and divine intervention, aka, the fairy godmothers.

The magnificent villain Maleficent-- what a name!!-- whom everyone is obsequious to and dare not provoke-- wields her terror from the christening of the fair child until the hero, filled with the courage that only love can generate, aided by his angels, risks his all to battle through the dark forest to save his love.

I know that all these 'fairy tales' have been derided over the past generation as being too sweet, too perfect, too ridiculous, to be a paradigm for children. But what have we lost in dismissing these stories? What have we lost in dismissing fairy godmothers and hope that goes beyond our limited human resources?

If we accept the metaphor of fairy godmothers standing in for angels, then they are anything but sweet. Angels are ferocious. Think of all the images in our collective imaginations of Archangel Michael slaying Lucifer.

I wonder if there is a correlation to the trend of making 'realistic' heroes for children, heroes who rely only on their own wits and strengths, and the preponderance of angel stories bursting through the fringes of our culture?