‘Steadier Than Before’

Christmas Critics
“I could only push on, push on, push on—until I walked free from the past.” (shinyoung park/Alamy Stock Photo)

Jonathan Franzen’s second novel, 1992’s Strong Motion, deals with big topics—the environment, feminism, chapter-and-verse religion—and the strong emotions they call forth. I touted it in a Christmas Critics piece that year, noting it was what Saul Bellow called a “large-audience novel” but that it hadn’t found a large audience. I then mailed the piece to the author in care of his publisher, and was surprised to get a letter back in which Franzen set out his notion (later developed in Harper’s) that the future of the novel rested with writers determined to bring “renewed, quasi-religious dedication to the old ideas of truth and mimesis.”

Thirty years later, Franzen has found so many readers that his novels can be said to define the term “large-audience novel” for the present. And he has deepened his scrutiny of religion: in his extraordinary new novel, Crossroads (reviewed in this issue); in essays; and in a spirited conversation he and I had during Georgetown’s Faith & Culture conversations series in 2018.        

The same process of author mail brought a package to me a couple of years ago: a card thanking me for suggesting “the possible parallels between the creative and religious vocations” in my book The Life You Save May Be Your Own, tucked inside the sender’s own book, The Crossway (Picador, 400 pp., $22.67), a paperback with a photograph of a man on a mountain, arms spread, beholding a valley before him. 

Reading ‘The Crossway’ for a part of an hour each night became a mode of travel in a period of confinement.

Then the pandemic struck, and reading The Crossway for a part of an hour each night became a mode of travel in a period of confinement. The author, Guy Stagg, is a Briton born in 1988. In 2013, he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem (about 3,400 miles) along the old pilgrim roads. The book—I’ve been reading it ever since—is an account of that walk; of the interior drama that occasioned it; of the peripheries of Europe and the Mediterranean today; and of the effects of Christianity on those who are resistant to faith, or so they say.

In his early twenties, Stagg—educated, ambitious, working in “the largest open-plan office in London”—was overwhelmed by depression. He spent weeks pacing his bedroom, afraid to go out, dreaming vivid dreams of self-harm. Seized by the idea of pilgrimage, he walked, alone, from London to Canterbury, and felt the depression subside; and then he decided that the next year, beginning on New Year’s Day, he’d walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem. “I began to believe that, if I made it to Jerusalem, then I would be well. This was the wager driving me through the winter. I could not turn round, or even slow down, for I feared returning to that room and those wrecking daydreams. I could only push on, push on, push on—until I walked free from the past. Yet I carried those memories with me, like the rucksack on my shoulders, the burden on my back. And the farther I hiked from home, the heavier they weighed me down.”

Reader, he did it. He walked to the shrine of Benoît-Joseph Labre in the north of France; over the Alps in the winter; to Rome for Holy Week, where he “slept almost twenty hours—a plunging sleep so deep that I woke with no memory of where I was, but stepped from my bed feeling reborn”; to Albania, Macedonia, and Turkey, along the route St. Paul traveled; to Istanbul; to Greece and Cyprus, and then to Lebanon. Most nights, he slept in rectories and pilgrim houses, and so the story of the walk is interwoven with stories of the saints celebrated along the route and of the present-day religious who would open their doors to a weary stranger when he knocked on the door at dusk. “At the start of my journey, I thought I was walking into the wreckage of Christianity,” Stagg reflects at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem:

My impression now was how much remained, holding tight to its decayed inheritance. Despite the decline of religion in Europe, it was still possible to cross the continent like a medieval pilgrim: travelling on foot, stopping at shrines, and supported by charity. Still possible to find comfort in pilgrim rites, even if the belief was gone. So maybe the decline was evidence of endurance, and loss the price we pay for surviving. 

Sitting in the basilica that night, I wondered if this was true for my own life too.  

The Crossway is so rich that it’s best read a few pages at a time, the pace of reading approximating the pace of the journey. Its insights, when they come, are road-tested, weather-proofed; they have the broken-in feel of real religious wisdom. 

O’Loughlin brings out the disturbing double aspect of the Church’s approach to gay people, with strong measures of charity and condemnation alike.

Michael O’Loughlin is a contemporary of Stagg’s, and his pilgrimage, too, has led him back into obscurely understood episodes of the Christian past—namely, the Church’s encounters with people with AIDS in the 1980s. His first book, just published, is Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear (Broadleaf Books, 281 pp., $28.99). Drawing on over a hundred interviews (many of them for his America podcast, Plague), O’Loughlin brings out the disturbing double aspect of the Church’s approach to gay people, with strong measures of charity and condemnation alike. He tells the story of Srs. Carol and Mary Ellen (as he calls them), who in 1984 opened a hospice for people with AIDS in Belleville, Illinois, inspired by Good Samaritan House in Kansas City; of Fr. William Hart McNichols, who, as a Jesuit priest, created posters, flyers, and other works of art that called attention to the plight of people with AIDS and sparked activism among Catholics; of the ouster of Dignity’s thousand-member-strong New York chapter from the Church of St. Francis Xavier in 1987 on the orders of the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John J. O’Connor; of Sr. Patrice Murphy and Dr. Ramon Torres, who took leadership roles in the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village; and of the development of the U.S. bishops’ 1987 pastoral letter “The Many Faces of AIDS.” That letter, O’Loughlin records—I’d forgotten—was “condemned” by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, who claimed it was insufficiently firm in its prohibition of condom use. The facile scrupulosity of those men, and many of their counterparts, is now clear to us all.     

Hidden Mercy is vital, necessary, timely, and pointed at a broad Catholic readership: the door O’Loughlin opens is one we can all walk through. So strong is he on the bright side of things that he underplays (it seems to me) how ignorant most of us American Catholics were about gay life, how nasty parishioners and pastors could be in scorning gay people, and how vociferously clerics urged gay people in the laity to live chastely even as they themselves were suppressing or dismissing vast evidence of priestly pedophilia and ephebophilia—objective disorders, yes; crimes, yes; but also grave failures of chastity. 

So I was relieved to find another aspect of the story in an unexpected place. Midway through Vikram Seth’s giant 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, I turned to his slim 1986 novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate (Vintage, 320 pp., $13.46). And there, in its gallery of young professionals in San Francisco in the ’80s, prior to AIDS, is a portrait of a gay Catholic struggling to be faithful to the Church’s teachings about what the Vatican, in a notorious 1986 document, called “the homosexual condition.” In bed, prior to the commission of any act, his would-be lover tells him: “I don’t quite / Get why religion makes you grateful. / I would say, Ed, that it’s a hateful, / A pretty odious trick / To make you as you are, then stick / The pin of infinite damnation into you.” But the other insists, and resists: “Ed withdraws his hold / And pulls back from the swiftening vortex / In desperate strokes, till he’s on shore / Trembling, but steadier than before.” It’s a sad scene, all the more so because it can’t be said to belong to the past or the imagination. 

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach. A third book, Controversy, is forthcoming.

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