Mary Karr is the author of "The Liar's Club," a memoir that set a new literary standard when it was published five years ago, not only for the frankness of its personal revelations about growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family but also for the eloquence and artistry of its prose.
Karr proved that the daily life dilemmas of ordinary people can rise to the level of literature when written with poetic precision (she is also a practicing poet) and an ear for the lyrical music of vernacular language. She was recently on a promotion tour for her new book, a memoir of virginity and its loss, bursting with the sexual street language of East Texas adolescence and appropriately titled "Cherry."
It was not the raw language or accounts of sexual gropings and couplings that seemed to shock--and, in some cases, disturb--a book fair audience Karr addressed in Miami, but rather the confession that she was a Roman Catholic.
Karr mentioned her religious belief in passing during a question-and-answer period following her reading. The mention prompted a woman in the audience to express "surprise" and evident confusion. I had a sense there were others in the audience who felt the same way, not just because frank language and sexual revelation seem out of keeping with the Vatican's tradition of censorship, but also because of the unspoken secular assumption that intellectuals (allegedly smart people) such as Ms. Karr surely could not believe in God, or even if they did, would be too much at odds with the social and political positions of the Catholic Church to be part of it.
The woman in the audience wanted to know, "What do you get out of it?" (This gets my vote as the most spiritually impertinent question of the year.) This questioner identified herself, as if in explanation of her attitude, as "a recovering Catholic."
When I first heard that term, about a decade ago, I thought it was mildly amusing. It seemed a clever self-designation for those who believed they had been scarred in some psychological, physical, or sexual way by ruler-wielding nuns and/or lustful priests, or simply from what they later came to believe were the precepts of a restrictive and guilt-inducing dogma. The label expressed their disaffection from the religion they grew up with, and "recovery" from its alleged harm was an allusion to the Twelve-Step movements whose adherents are committed to live free of destructive addictions one day at a time.
When I heard Mary Karr's questioner describe herself as a "recovering Catholic," however, the term struck me for the first time as a smug, self-satisfied, self-pitying kind of whine that arises from our society's current canonization of self-proclaimed victims. Too many of us too often blame a range of factors, including substances, parents, and/or institutions (in this case the Catholic Church), for our own bad behavior, irresponsibility, and dissatisfaction with life.
|The term [recovering Catholic] struck me for the first time as a smug, self-satisfied, self-pitying kind of whine.|
I am not a Roman Catholic, but my own life and spiritual search has been enlivened, enhanced, and inspired by that religion and its variety of devotees, from the political radical and rebel Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," stands as one of the classic memoirs of modern literature, beside which Karr's work takes a rightful, if secular, place.
Let us welcome them all, respecting their belief, and in the wise words of the Benedictine Father Nicholas Morcone, abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, let us "take God as he comes to each of us."