Book Review: Ordinary Grace

Small town in Minnesota, summer of 1961. What could possibly happen? Plenty, in this rich novel by William Kent Krueger. The prologue gives the tip-off, with the Aeschylus quote, “And even in our sleep pain… falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

It’s narrated by 13-year old Frank Drum, whose experiences that summer teach him “the terrible price of wisdom.” Deaths come by accident, suicide and murder, in unpredictable ways with unforeseen consequences. Forty years later, the narrator looks back and reflects, but still doesn’t fully understand. Reconstructing the past, he sees a path weaving into and out of deep shadow.

As the son of the town’s Methodist minister Nathan, Frank has a front row seat on small town events. His father is called when a child is killed by a train or an old war buddy becomes drunk and violent. But when his talented, kind, attractive older sister Ariel dies mysteriously, the family feels directly the jagged edge of tragedy. She is young and has a promising future as a musician ahead; their mother, in deep depression briefly abandons her husband and two young sons.

Through a furnace duct in the church basement across from their home in the rectory, the two boys eavesdrop, a clever device to reveal more of the plot than they would’ve known naturally. What they overhear and see consistently is their father’s steady compassion, even when he is broken-hearted himself.

When their dad must pray at the reception after his daughter’s burial, he pauses for a long silence. His blessings tended to be long and comprehensive. But this time, his wife’s grief, turned terribly onto him, twists into the public outburst, ”For God’s sake, Nathan … just  once, offer an ordinary grace?”

That phrase becomes crucial, indeed the book’s title, as the younger son Jake, who stutters steps into the breach. “Oh God,” prays Frank, “just kill me now.”  Instead, his little brother prays without a hitch “a grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.” Surely it can get us thinking about our own ordinary graces: the dance of laundry on the line in a warm breeze, an unexpected message of thanks or kindness, dew shining like jewels in long grass.

Another service Frank remembers is Nathan’s sermon right after Ariel’s death. His colleagues have offered to cover for him, and he has been wracked with sobbing the night before, but he speaks without platitudes and with searing directness. He guarantees miracles, but not the ones we pray for. “God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see the startling beauty of the day.” Without churchy language, he evokes Jesus’ resurrection after his dark night.  

After that turning point, Frank is able to tell Jake he’s his best friend, their grandfather for the first time voices his appreciation for the boys’ work on his lawn, and their mother after a time of mourning, returns to her family. The mystery of who killed Ariel is finally resolved. Nathan is a memorable figure—a clergy person who sometimes fails as husband and father but steps out of his own grief to reach others who suffer too. The only badge of his sanctity is a “clean white ball cap” worn in the final scene.

In this epilogue, Nathan, over 80, visits graves on Memorial Day with his two grown sons, all bound by the “awful grace of God.” The word “awful” is used not in God being dreaded, but that God’s grace is far beyond human understanding, logic or sense of fairness. The evocative prose carries the rich scent of Minnesota soil, and the novel is permeated by the profound sense that “the dead are never far from us.” Fine reading for Memorial Day weekend—or any time.  

May 21—Feast of Christian de Cherge and Trappist Martyrs of Algeria

Born in France, Christian de Cherge spent his youth in Algeria, where his parents taught him to respect Islam. His dad told the kids, “Let’s not kill each other over names.” As a young adult, he could share God-talk more easily there than in France. One friend, Mohammed, the father of ten, who shared a common love of God intervened when thugs aimed their rifles aimed at Christian. Because he defended Christian as a godly man, Mohammed was himself killed that night.

Christian later wrote, “In the blood shed by this friend, who was assassinated because he would not practice hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ would be lived sooner or later in the same country that gave me a tangible sign of the greatest love possible.”

Studying for the priesthood in Paris and Rome, Christian added intense study of the Qur’an. He wanted to seek “the notes that are in harmony” between Christianity and Islam, incorporated in a “both/and” spirituality. Later, as prior at Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algiers, he created there a safe space for respectful Muslim-Christian dialogue and prayer. Chapel bells mingled with the muezzin’s call to pray. Christian once counseled a Muslim woman worried about marrying a Christian, “we are only an envelope around a soul. Don’t worry about your skin.”

The Trappists farmed, became friends with local villagers and distributed medicine to the sick. Yet as violence escalated, the monks debated whether to remain, knowing they were in danger.

When one monk said, “we’re like birds on a branch—we don’t know if we’ll be leaving,” a Muslim woman complimented their commitment: “We’re the birds. You’re the branch.” Eventually all came to peace with the decision to stay, realizing that they rested in God’s embrace. They relied on their strengths: God, each other, their common prayer.

Eventually, rebels kidnapped and killed seven monks, but Christian had written a prophetic and forgiving letter three years before. He worried that his death would intensify anger at Islam. Despite his concerns, the last testament is filled with gratitude, extending even to his “friend of the last moment.” He meant his murderer, whom he would meet in heaven “like happy thieves,” who had both stolen paradise.

For more information, see the film, “Of Gods and Men,” or the book, The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser

May 13–Julian of Norwich’s Feast

Ever enjoy a movie, conversation, walk, or pizza? You can thank Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century mystic who invented the word. She was also the first woman to write a book in English, though Revelations of Divine Love wasn’t published until 300 years after her death.

We can thank Julian for much more than her creative, playful writing style. She showed us God’s maternal tenderness, God’s refusal to blame or shame, God’s forgiving and open arms. Some of her main themes are introduced below, an overview which should entice readers to learn more. But first, a brief biography.

Throughout Julian’s lifetime (1343 –1420), waves of plague swept through Europe, eventually killing close to half the population. Some scholars speculate that Julian’s husband and child or children were killed by this disease devastating her native England.  At the age of thirty, Julian grew critically ill. A priest held up a crucifix to the dying woman and said, “Gaze into the eyes of your Beloved. You’ll fly straight into his arms.”

But God apparently had other plans. On her deathbed, Julian had a series of visions which invigorated the rest of her life, eventually recorded in her book, also called Showings. She recovered, and continued to unfold the meaning of these revelations.

For the next 47 years, she lived in an anchorhold, a room attached to a church with one window opening onto the street and one into the church. (Her never leaving this room sounds like the 14th century version of pandemic lockdown!) At the time there were more than 200 anchoresses in England, and her city Norwich was the second largest and busiest in the country. Two helpers, Sarah and Alice brought clothes and food, emptied the chamber pot. Julian’s generous and authentic lifestyle was held in high esteem; many sought counsel at her outer window. Her only companion? A cat.

It’s a disservice to focus on Julian’s living conditions: she moves beyond her own specific context of plague, to reassure people of all times that God is larger; God is sovereign.  “Everything that is made is as nothing, compared with almighty God.” (Ch. 5) Evil is the illusion of separation from God, and God triumphs over evil. “That love of God is hard and marvelous. It cannot and will not be broken because of our sins.” God places no blame.

No one developed the idea of God’s motherhood like Julian until the end of the twentieth century. Far ahead of her time, she saw gender fluidity in God. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” (Ch. 59) By creating us, Julian said, Jesus is our true Mother. Second, Jesus takes on human nature, the motherhood of grace. Then, by doing the vigorous, natural work of mothers, Jesus keeps us alive: motherhood in action. It’s not sentimentalized motherhood, but hard sacrifice and daily service.

If anyone ever learned dour and punitive images of God, Julian presents another, more positive side. She has a generous, affirming view of the human condition: “Our birthright is never-ending joy,” she says. It’s logical—if separation from God causes our sadness, Julian reaffirms in different ways: “Between God and the soul, there is no between.”

Julian lived over 70 years, and endured the plague, the hundred years’ war, papal schism, assassinations of a king and archbishop. But her extensive writing never mentions those disasters. Instead, her focus is on the marvelous love of One who doesn’t punish, who is free of anger, full of tenderness, and who wants us to trust that eternal grace, thus becoming radiantly unafraid.

Excerpted from an article on Julian which appears in May/June Liguori Magazine, p. 20,

Fourth Sunday of Easter/Mother’s Day

Not often some churches get today’s lucky coincidence of John’s Good Shepherd gospel with Mother’s Day. Never mind that shepherds say the critters they tend are stupid and smelly. Mothers just smile quietly. And no odd aromas nor slow wits deter Jesus. He simply says, “I know them,” placing no blame.

Jesus often acts like mother and shepherd: one of the best examples is the post resurrection narrative where he invites the disciples who’ve been fishing, “come and have breakfast.”  He knows his friends have been on a boat all night and are probably woozy with hunger and fatigue. He doesn’t rehash gory details of Peter’s betrayal. Instead, he puts friends at ease, concerned whether they’ve caught anything to eat. (Feeding the sheep must be a big part of the job. As is mom’s job description.)

Calling them “children,” he touches the sweet, needy, vulnerable self beneath the polished or cantankerous surface. He looks on them fondly: dripping, bedraggled, dazed with grief and sleeplessness, sloppy, dear. They thought he’d died, but there he is, calmly placing bread on the grill, asking for more fish. Why do we make him so distant, perfect, unreachable and glorified, when he is as close and natural in his serving role as a waitress who’s refilled the coffee 97 times this morning?

No one developed the idea of God’s motherhood like Julian of Norwich, fourteenth century mystic, until the end of the twentieth century. Far ahead of her time, she saw gender fluidity in God. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” (Ch. 59, Showings) By creating us, Julian said, Jesus is our true Mother. Second, Jesus takes on human nature, the motherhood of grace. Then, by doing the vigorous, natural work of mothers, Jesus keeps us alive: motherhood in action. It’s not sentimentalized motherhood, but hard sacrifice and daily service.

Julian concludes that the Second Person of the Trinity, generally known as the Son, has to be female. Why? Because it is a mother’s nature to break herself open in childbirth and pour out everything for love of the child being born through her.

One more connection: The shrine of Our Lady of Aranzazu, Spain was built on the site where Rodrigo de Balzategui, a Basque shepherd, found a statue of the Virgin Mary nestled in a thorny bush with a cowbell in 1469. Stunned, he asked, “You? Among the thorns?” Exactly where a shepherd might seek the lost, in brambly wild places. St. Ignatius visited the shrine in 1522 on his way to Montserrat. Could it have influenced his signature quest for “finding God in all things?”

Shepherds and fisherfolk and mystics and thorns: what a fitting bouquet for Mother’s Day!

Third Sunday of Easter—“Breakfast!”

I’ve always loved the maternal Jesus who invites his tired, bedraggled disciples, “come, children, have breakfast.” He speaks to the hungry and bewildered a word of comfort, offering exactly what they need.

In other instances, the post-Resurrection Jesus asks for something to eat. He reminds us of adolescents who are always hungry, or long-awaited guests whom we welcome with a special meal. This touchstone in human nature apparently convinces the skeptical.

My granddaughter Mia recently had the same gracious instinct. She is only seven, but on the first day of spring break day camp, looks out for her friend from school. Glimpsing Ben, she is delighted, runs to give him a giant hug. Ben, on the other hand, is terrified. His mother tries to walk hobbled as he clings to her leg. Gradually, Mia peels him away, snuggles him beside her on a couch, opens her lunch box with bravado and reveals the tantalizing contents. Which does the trick. Somehow, knowing there will be Provisions calms Ben down. He relaxes his tight grip on mom and enters into the camp experience.

So Jesus, before asking Peter to feed the flock, makes sure his friend is well fed himself. Jesus knows how wavering and uncertain our human nature can be. But he also knows, like a good mom, how to nurture. We follow some deep instinct when we get out the best china and cook some of our favorite recipes to celebrate this season. Only following the footsteps of our wise and tender model…

Second Sunday of Easter–The Important Role of Doubt

Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.

Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.

Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.

The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.

Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.

To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.

Easter in Us

I’ve long believed that we come to understand the “capital R” Resurrection only through understanding “small r” resurrections—the stuff of daily life, like sun after a long stretch of rain, a restored relationship, an accident avoided, health after illness, energy after inertia, seeing a problem that seemed intractable in a positive light, starting a difficult venture late in life. A woman who suffered terrible migraines saw resurrection in the miraculous effects of the right medication, and a nurse described how a dehydrated child, when hydrated, comes alive: skin glowing, energy restored.

In that spirit, we search signs of resurrection this season that are fresh, maybe not expressed in religious language, but still filled with liveliness. The film “CODA” is one, which deserved the Academy Award for best picture. It explores a predicament some of us know little about: Ruby is the hearing child of deaf parents who struggle to make a living fishing the waters off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Spoiler Alert: if you plan to see the movie, stop reading now!

She wants to be a singer, yet she’s desperately needed to translate for her parents. Indeed, they incur a steep fine when she’s not present on the boat. The work interferes tremendously with her sleep, her desire for extra coaching from her voice teacher, and her long-range ambition to attend music school. It’s a heavy, genuine dilemma for a teenager who struggles mightily.

The family has more Good Friday: threats to their livelihood, the taunts of others at school and in town, a concert where the parents can’t hear a thing but muster support and encouragement for their daughter. (We get a taste of their experience when the sound fades out for part of the concert and the theater becomes eerily quiet.) Another bit of education: 40% of the dialogue is in American Sign Language, and deaf actors are featured in three key roles, a movie-making first.

The scenes that most speak of resurrection are the father’s asking Ruby to sing just for him, the rapt expression on his face, and his touching her vocal chords to try to appreciate the music. Another signal comes during her audition at a prestigious music school. At first she sounds wan, but seeing her family in the balcony fills her with energy and she sings powerfully, signing the song so at least they know the words. Most joyous is the family gathered around the computer to read whether Ruby has been accepted to Berklee School of Music. One look at their faces is enough to celebrate the good news. Her non-speaking father utters only one guttural word “GO,” echoing angel voices buoyant with song.

While the film title is the acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, it could also refer to the musical term. There, “a coda is the final part of a fairly long piece of music which is added in order to finish it off in a pleasing way.” Jesus healed the deaf in a direct, earthy way because nothing human was foreign to Jesus. This film reaffirms that we’re made for the garden, not the tomb. God’s life penetrates ours, filling every dark corner with song, bringing us deep pleasure and spring beauty.

Palm Sunday

Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives? The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions. He enters into them.

Some passion accounts begin with the exquisite scene of Jesus’ anointing. The bean-counters hate it: how will they justify the expense or fit it on their spreadsheets? But Jesus answers: hold onto kindness and beauty, which help us through the worst. As the author of ATONEMENT writes, such actions are a “last stand against oblivion and despair.”

As is a meal with friends. Jesus’ concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a final gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to insulting betrayal by pouring out love.

To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but they are blessed by the presence of One who lives through them.

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

(John 11:1-45)

Today, she’d be the CEO of Google or Apple. Brilliant, outspoken, direct, she gave Jesus exactly the affirmation he needed to proceed to Jerusalem and his passion. But let Martha tell the story…

“I was at my worst then: exhausted, vulnerable, grieving for Lazarus, angry at Jesus. I was so outraged, I spewed pure venom when he arrived. Lazarus’s place at our table was empty, the brother I loved had vanished, and Jesus’ delay became the target for my fury.

People with better social skills might have welcomed him with, ‘Thanks for trying,’ or even, ‘Your friend is dead,’ but I dumped the guilt trip: ‘If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’

The accusation hurt; I could tell by the sadness in his eyes. Still it didn’t paralyze him; maybe he continued our conversation because he could trust I wouldn’t mask the truth. I would look him straight in the eye and speak without a shred of syrupy politeness.

Still, he hesitated. It was as if he needed something from me, some mysterious affirmation before he plunged ahead. The roles were reversed: just when I needed to lean on him in grief, he asked for my support!

Even if I’d lost Lazarus, I could still encourage Jesus. Maybe he had taught me how to give people exactly what they need. He had wept with Mary; he had discussed the afterlife with me; now it was my turn to answer the question he hated to ask. So few people understood him; all he wanted was one person to show some inkling.

And I did know who he was. In some quiet, sure place within, I was bedrock certain of his identity. So I said it aloud. Not to sound arrogant, but Jesus forged into that foul-smelling tomb as if propelled by my words. I ran after him, just in time to see Lazarus lurch forth. Three days before, weeping, I had covered my brother’s face with the same linen. Now, I unwound the burial cloths as if unwrapping a splendid gift.

I barely thanked Jesus or noticed him leave. But neighbors said he walked purposefully toward Jerusalem, driven as he had been to Lazarus’s grave. Did my words still echo in his ears? Had I ignited some fire within him? As I had a hundred times before, I asked myself, ‘Now what have I said?’”

Excerpted from Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Books,, 800-258-5838

Book Review– The Lincoln Highway

Let’s take a pause from Lenten reflections this week for what may seem a detour, but in a sense lies smack on the spiritual path. If you liked Amore Towles’ Gentleman in Moscow, you’ll probably get quickly immersed in his newest novel, The Lincoln Highway. It’s radically different, but still shows the author’s signature interest in unlikely characters, and skill in developing their quirks and gifts through a complex weave.

Not often I get to hang out with 3 teen-aged boys from the “juvenile reform farm” that’s a subtler form of jail. Yet this rollicking road trip with Emmett, Duchess and Wooly proves the axiom, “to understand all is to forgive all.” It begins when Emmett wants to leave a small Nebraska town, prompted by his little brother Billy’s deep desire to find their mom in San Francisco. How do they wind up in New York instead? Ah, therein lies the tale.

Towles is wise enough to know that one doesn’t simply label a person with the dismissive term “juvenile delinquent.” Each one arrived at unwise action by a different path—one illiterate, abused by a parent, one quite wealthy and mentally ill, one trying to defend his father’s reputation, but landing an unlucky punch. A crazy logic governs their worst shenanigans, and a strong sense of companionship explains some of their mishaps. Denied justice, they still seek it—perhaps in skewed and illegal ways, but with committed gusto. In every case, the “delinquent” was betrayed by people who should’ve cared for him—yet he laughs and shines.  

One, abandoned by his father to an orphanage because the child is “inconvenient,” has the good fortune of meeting with a cigarette-smoking nun who embodies compassion. Sister Agnes sees the goodness in the boy even when he pulls the most aggravating stunts. She invites his companion Emmett to be a Good Samaritan because at a critical juncture, the irritating boy needs a friend. The familiar parable fleshed out in vivid, contemporary terms is just one of the book’s nuggets.

Another is Billy, the clear-eyed child who in his quiet, steady way, leads them. Not only that, he draws the parallels between their adventure and classic epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. He has a keen sense of rightness in human relationships, and directs his older brother to cherish these above all else. When Billy was six, his brother got into the fight that changed their lives, but Billy clearly remembers that even during the violence, “Emmett … never once let go of Billy’s hand.” (p. 511)

The depths of any person can be known only by an imaginative author—or a Creator, “who causes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, who sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike” (Mt. 5:45). Fortunate readers glimpse here that all-embracing theme: Either all is sacred, or nothing is sacred.