It is the kind of quiet, meditative novel I most love, in a class with the much-shorter but equally penetrating A Month in the Country, by the English writer J.L. Carr. In both novels, the protagonist-speaker is an introvert, wounded in some way -- Carr's restorer of medieval doom paintings by war and the desertion of his wife, O'Connor's parish priest by death and alcohol -- who seeks to wrap himself in solitude, thinking that therein lies survival, if not actual healing.
Father Hugh Kennedy, the precariously-recovered alcoholic, has returned from four years' rehabilitation in the Southwestern desert to the parish of Old Saint Paul's, a down-at-heel pile in an even downer-at-heel section of Boston, at an enormous remove from the comfortable, familiar, prosperous Irish-Catholic-Boston world in which he once circulated. Baptised, as it were, into suffering by the death of his father, driven (as much by the Bishop as by the Spirit, though they may amount to the same thing) into the desert, then recalled to ministry, Fr. Hugh returns slowly, reluctantly, to life. The temptation of drink he finds easy enough to resist; on the other hand, the temptation to dwell in a kind of between place, neither dead nor entirely engaged with the living, masters him with such powerful subtlety that it is not until late in the novel, when a friend accuses him of withholding himself from his parish, that he even realizes that he has succumbed to it. It is this self-realization which breaks him open, as a cast is broken from a mended limb, and enables him both to turn his back on old ambitions and accept, with certainty and hard-won happiness, the life and the vocation which he has been handed.
There's a lot to say about this novel, and I hope Betty is going to pick up the conversation. I'm eager to hear her thoughts. Meanwhile, what I'd like to talk about now may seem like something of a sideline. While Fr. Hugh is undeniably the novel's protagonist and the lens through which we view the world he moves through, I want to think about a character who appears minor -- certainly Fr. Hugh regards him, initially, as a minor character in his own drama -- but who in the course of the novel, while not changing himself in any fundamental way, transcends the role of comic foil to which Fr. Hugh has consigned him.
Fr. Stanley Danowski, the curate: twenty-five years old, ponderous in person and in expression, a caricature so easy it almost writes itself. Here he is, in a Christmas homily to a handful of communicants, many of whom, like the perpetually-enrapt Mr. Yee, understand no English:
I beg of you, my beloved people, to try to conjure up in your minds the joyous feelings of that great occasion. Recall, I beseech you, your own most pleasant sentiments when, in the bosom of your own home, you have perhaps gazed fondly down upon a small crib, and have remarked proudly to your good spouse, "Well, here is our tiny infant in his swaddling clothes . . . "
There is something perfect in the ridiculousness of this delivery. But it occurs late in the novel, and though Fr. Danowski himself remains static from beginning to end, Fr. Hugh's own vision is beginning to clear. "The style was familiar," he muses, watching Fr. Danowski from the rear of the church, "It was vintage Danowski."
And yet for once I didn't smile, because as I looked around the church and saw all the people who had come here this morning, I knew that it all had very little to do with me, and that the credit for whatever change there was belonged almost entirely to this broad, bustling, zealous, slightly ridiculous boy, of whom it was always so easy to make fun . . .
This little scene is the prelude for a revelation, the epiphany -- if that's not mixing metaphors too much -- of the goodness of Fr. Danowski. When he appears early in the novel, it is as a buffoon; Fr. Hugh regards him as, simultaneously, a bit of private comic relief and a benign species of millstone, part of his drowning in obscurity, there in his hopeless parish. But as we and Fr. Hugh come to realize, not only has Fr. Danowski breathed life into the parish by loving its people, but in imitation of that "tiny infant in his swaddling clothes," he sacrifices his own happiness on Christmas Day so that Fr. Hugh will not have to be alone. At their shared dinner in the rectory, Fr. Danowski recalls the humiliations he has endured on his road to the priesthood:
[The seminary] was of course very hard for me, as I have just said, and sometimes the fellows who were there as my classmates would play pranks upon me. For example, Father, there is what is known as 'the apple-pie bed.' In which the sheets are short. So that one is unable to retire properly . . .
"Yes, yes, I know," responds Fr. Hugh inwardly.
. . . Does my curate ever suspect that I am his fellow countryman? From time to time he courteously interprets for me American customs and traditions, much as if I were a visitor from some distant land and ancient times: a courier, perhaps, from the court of Kubla Khan . . .
What Fr. Hugh is shortly to stumble on is that he has, in fact, been an emissary from the enormous distance of himself: detached, unengaged, profoundly self-protective and selfish in his non-dealings with the people around him, the sheep of his pasture. He catches Fr. Danowski interpreting not only the familiar world, but also the lives of these people whom he himself has not bothered to know, in such a way as to protect Fr. Hugh's own fragile dignity. "Surely you know, Father . . . " "You will remember, Father . . . "
As his vision clears, Fr. Hugh regards the pathetic spectacle of himself; conversely, in his eyes and ours, the pathetic one-note spectacle of Fr. Danowski puts on flesh, is incarnated in the imagination as a human being at once utterly humble and utterly motivated by love and mercy. The personage who in another of my favorite speeches dresses down the excitable, unreliable sexton who thinks that he has killed a man by looking at him --
Come come, Roy . . . That is not quite normal talk. We do not live in medieval times in these days. We do not believe we can look at a man and he dies. That is nonsensical, Roy. That is weird. If you go around talking like that, do you know what people will say of you? They will say, "Why, Roy is quite a foolish person!" Do you wish people to say this of you, Roy?
-- also spends hours each week in ardent letter-writing, the correspondence of deep friendship, with the very priests who as seminarians tormented him with "what is known as the 'apple-pie bed.'" He is the personification, in other words, of forgiveness, of charity.
I have also been reading, by the by, another book entitled Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, whose author, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., meditates on the oddness of Jesus' injunction, in Mark 1:15, to "Be converted, and hear the Gospel." As Fr. Dubay points out, the logical progression of events would seem to be that one would first hear the Gospel, and then be converted by it. But, he argues, the reality is that the ears of the heart must first be opened, so that the good news can be heard.
So, it seems to me, the unavoidable presence of Fr. Danowski works on Fr. Hugh: he comes to see in Fr. Danowski the person he is not. As an other, Fr. Danowski provides Fr. Hugh with a comfortable, ironic sense of superiority. But as the novel progresses, Fr. Hugh's eyes are opened, his ears made to hear; he is converted; he sees and hears the truth of what he is not, and also of what he can be, if he will.
There's much more to be said about this novel, but it seems to me that this relationship, of all the web of relationships which drive the narrative, lies at its heart. It's this relationship which, though the curate's utterances and his pastor's wry inward commentary on them are frequently hilarious, in the end moved me to tears. Because frankly, it is a novel about the sort of person I am myself: an introvert, a protector of the self, the sort of person who's often only half-present in a situation, watching it while private thoughts unspool themselves like a filmed autobiography more real than the concrete world. It is at this that the bumbling tendentious character of Fr. Danowski strikes -- and he strikes with such ineffable love.