Monday, May 21, 2012

Reading and Talking

Though I haven't been posting much, I have been carrying on what is (to me, anyway) a very interesting ongoing combox conversation about Rumer Godden, and in particular her novel The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Thanks very much to Anne-Marie and Pentimento for the good book talk. I am one of those obsessive readers who go over and over and over the same ground, again and again and again, which sometimes makes me feel as though I must be very dull and narrow in my habits. It's conversations like this which make me glad anew to know a few fertile books with a degree of intimacy.

Meanwhile, speaking of fertile books, I've been renewing my acquaintance with Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness, which I first read two years ago. Here's my plot synopsis from that earlier post:
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.
Of course, this is hardly everything there is to say about the novel. I barely mention the Carmody family, for instance, whose triumphs and disasters, whose goodness and badness, Fr. Hugh recounts, in the classic role of the narrator-foil -- though it occurs to me that perhaps the Carmodys are as much a foil for Fr. Hugh's interior complexities as he is for them.

Among the manifestations of his interior complexity is this rumination on the difficulties of prayer, which strikes home for me:

The truth seems to be that my mind is a kind of happy hunting ground for the negligible:  every night as I start to pray, even if the day has been as dull and unmemorable as one could possibly imagine, a hundred little items of no significance at all rise up from God knows where, and softly and painlessly begin to poke and prick away until suddenly, before I know it, all attention is leaking down a hundred little drains. Which, as I say, is absurd, which is humbling, and which nevertheless continues . . .

And yet while it can -- and does -- still shame me, it no longer leaves me discouraged. For I discovered . . . that the one way I can pray is with patience. We all approach God differently, and I know that there are those who can do so devoutly, totally, immediately, who can, in a sense, fling themselves into prayer. I can't. I wish I could, but I can't. I've said before that prayer doesn't come easily to me -- it probably doesn't to most of us -- and the only thing I can do is to start to pray and to wait -- to wait at night, for example, until the day runs down and dies. As it always does now;  as it did tonight. But there's always the prologue of innumerable false starts -- I suppose this is, for me, the preparation for prayer. Sometimes it takes a long time;  sometimes not long at all. But however long or short, it's always there, until finally it goes, and then there comes a calm, a quiet, and at last, prayer . . .

And you know, that's sort of all.  My mind, too, is a kind of happy hunting ground for the negligible, though it also occurs to me that it is of the negligible that daily life is largely composed, and that this is what we have to offer to God -- this algae we skim off the surface of the mind -- as prayer at the end of the day.

It's a nice afternoon out there;  I think I'm going to take Fr. Hugh out to the porch with a harmless cup of tea and let him speak to me some more. For a fiction, he's more pastoral than he can possibly know.


Anne-Marie said...

Have you read E. M. Almedingen's _The Little Staircase_? It's been a while since I read it, and I haven't read _The Edge of Sadness_, but it sounds they have some similar themes.

The quote on having patience and waiting through all the distractions for prayer is extremely helpful. A priest once told me to offer my distractions to God, which I found hard to understand. Thinking of it as offering him my "false starts" makes more sense--and also keeps me from thinking that they could be substitutes for true prayer. Thank you for that!

priest's wife said...

sounds like a very interesting book...I myself always re-read a beloved book instead of picking up a different book by the same author (I have to change that!)

Sally Thomas said...

I haven't read The Little Staircase, Anne-Marie -- thanks for the suggestion. If I can ever break out of my current Rumer Godden/Edwin O'Connor bubble.

And you know, PW, I really don't think there's anything wrong with reading the same book over and over. I do that a lot myself -- it's probably of a psychological piece with having a few intense friendships rather than a wide circle of acquaintances.