Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

Even now, Mc Dermott tells the interviewer,

the entrenched male hierarchy of the Church often requires the women who work within it to find their own, quiet ways of getting around rules and traditions that subvert both compassion and common sense. (Church doctrine on contraception is one example.) In this story, I wanted the nun to defy just such a “rule.”

Both the story and the interview, no surprise, are worth reading in full and, inasmuch as it’s possible, in tandem. For those who’ve followed McDermott in the pages of Commonweal (and elsewhere) on being a Catholic writer of fiction, the story gives play to a number of ideas she’s raised before while the interview expands on them. These include how to navigate “the ruins” left by “[t]he moral collapse of the institutional Catholic Church” via the sexual abuse of minors by priests. “I am not a theologian or a historian, and I feel no call to become a defender of the faith, so in my case the search for what remains valuable focusses on language itself: Catholic prayer, ritual, the naming of things.” When asked whether she considers herself a “religious writer,” she returns to the idea of “words” at length:

I was born and raised Catholic, I’m a practicing Catholic still, but I don’t think of myself as a religious writer. I’m interested in character. I’m especially interested in how language—story, memory, names, word choice—reflects and reveals character. The language of the Catholic Church—the liturgy, the prayer, the gospels—was in many ways my first poetry. As a fiction writer, I find the words very beautiful still, and I’m intrigued by what such language says about us—not Catholics, in particular, but human beings in general—when it gives voice to so many irrational and yet persistent hopes, such as the belief in justice, or compassion, or the triumph of love over suffering, even over death. You don’t have to be a religious writer, or a secular writer, to be curious about what it is that we humans want.

Those irrational and persistent hopes are present in Sister St. Savior herself, for whom McDermott toward the end of “These Short, Dark Days” scripts this near-peroration—a call to do the right thing rather than just do right by the rules:

She wanted the man buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true. … But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, here at the end of her usefulness. She would get him buried in Calvary if only because the Church wanted him out, and she, who had spent her life in service to the Church, wanted him in. “Hold it against the good I’ve done,” she prayed. “We’ll sort it out when I see You.”

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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