The Deacon's Bench

Novelist Mary Gordon has just published a new book, with memories of her mother and her Catholic upbringing in the middle of the last century. For anyone who wonders what it was like to come of age during that particular time, the book, “Circling My Mother,” appears to be a vivid reminder of what the American Church was like during its brick-and-mortar period. A time when priests were above suspicion, when the Rosary Society was part of every parish (if not every family) and when being Catholic meant sharing the same religion as the President and his beautiful wife.

This Sunday’s New York Times offers a review that concludes:

These days, we seem to have two kinds of religious books. Those like “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the pastor Rick Warren’s self-help book, insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone. At the other end of the spectrum are gleeful repudiations of religion like Christopher Hitchens’s atheist manifesto, “God Is Not Great.” But Hitchens’s definition of religion is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity. What’s inspiring about “Circling My Mother” is Gordon’s deeply personal portrayal of her mother. Anna Gagliano is not someone who feels she must have large ideas about what’s wrong with Catholicism. Instead, like those famous midcentury Catholics, Gordon’s mother attends to the nourishment of her own particular religious vocation, a vocation less glamorous than (Thomas) Merton’s and (Dorothy) Day’s but no less divine — a vocation as a single mother, as one afflicted by polio, as a woman in full belief of the love of God.

You can also check out Gordon’s first chapter online, which includes this pithy description of visiting a woman whose mind is deteriorating — but not her faith:

My mother has erased me from the book of the living. She is denying the significance of my birth. I do not take this personally. It is impossible for me to believe any longer that anything she says refers to me. As long as I remember this, I can still, sometimes, enjoy her company.

The day before I go to the Bonnard show, I visit my mother. It is not a good visit. It is one of her fearful days. I say I’ll take her out to the roof garden for some air. She says, “But what if I fall off?” I bring her flowers, which I put in a vase near her bed. She says, “But what if they steal them or yell at me for having them?” She asks me thirty or more times if I know where I’m going as we wait for the elevator. When I say we’ll go to the chapel in a little while, she asks if I think she’ll get in trouble for going to the chapel outside the normal hours for Mass, and on a day that’s not a Sunday or a holy day. She seems to believe me each time when I tell her that she won’t fall off the roof, that no one will reprimand her or steal her flowers, that I know where I’m going, that she will not get in trouble for being in church and saying her prayers.

This is hardly an exercise in nostalgia, but a stark and poignant meditation on living, and on dying. Those of us who have been in Gordon’s shoes will know it all too well.

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