Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments
edited by Thomas Grady and Paul Huston
Dutton, 256 pages

Sacrament: A visible sign of an invisible reality. This tidy definition, which one encounters in one form or another in almost every Catholic catechism, serves also as a description of this splendid collection of writings about the Church's most familiar and mysterious rituals. Each of the essays in "Signatures of Grace," written by some of America's leading Catholic authors, is itself an outward, literary sign of an inward, meta-literary life, the life of faith, lived not only in words but in silence. Edited by Thomas Grady, former executive editor of HarperSanFrancisco, and Paula Huston, author of "Daughters of Song," this volume positively glows with sacramental presence, with the light of God filtered through the stained glass of literary intelligence.

The contributors to "Signatures of Grace" are not scholars, but novelists, poets, and essayists. This means that they can offer no special expertise; one senses sometimes that a bit of library cramming is all that separates their historical and theological knowledge of the sacraments from that of the man in the street. By the same token, however, they can describe the lived experience of the sacraments, what it actually feels like to plunge body, mind, heart, and soul into the sacred life of the Church, with an intensity that no scholar could match.

Occasionally the personal element intrudes. Katherine Vaz explores baptism through a welter of memories united by the image of baptismal waters: as a child her "head swam with words, a white-water rush"; as an adult she explores the "tributaries of Proust" and seeks in literature "some marriage of water and words." Perhaps one learns less about baptism than one does about Vaz, but one does come away with the conviction that water is an apt symbol for both the ebb and flow of life and the stream of God's unending grace. Patricia Hampl approaches penance with a more objective eye; childhood memories still surge forth (she recalls with astonishment how confession offered "nothing short of a new life"), but she combines these reminiscences with a sturdy history of the sacrament, ranging from the public penances of the early Church through the orders of penitents to the recent development of private confession. Meditating on the Eucharist, Ron Hansen similarly blends memories of his first communion and his years as an altar boy with a deft account of Eucharistic theology. Confirmation, arguably the least glamorous of the sacraments, lacking the high drama of baptism and the pomp of marriage, is tackled by Paul Mariani, whose skillful interweaving of memoir and history ends with the tragedy at Littleton, where a young woman's "world-resounding, God-affirming Yes" on the brink of death confirms the work of the Holy Spirit. For Paula Huston, looking at matrimony, "faith in a marriage is a small analog to faith in God." Murray Bodo, O.F.M, a Franciscan priest, considers the sacrament of Holy Orders in an essay whose occasional sentimentality ("I needed to become a human being before I could become a real disciple of Jesus Christ") is more than offset by his shining, inspiring love of the saints, the Mass, and his fellow human beings. Mary Gordon finishes the list of sacraments by examining the anointing of the sick, once know as "Extreme Unction," in a piece that nimbly blends the expected memoirs - here, of her grandmother's death from colon cancer - with reflections on the nature of anointing with oil, which "coats the edges of things. . . .it is golden, and it shines."

Rather than let the collection tail off here, Grady and Huston wisely finish up with a previously published piece by the late Andre Dubus. Here Dubus offers an unforgettable definition of sacrament by means of a characteristically down-to-earth analogy: "A sacrament is physical, and within it is God's love; as a sandwich is physical, and nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love, if someone makes it for you and gives it to you with love...then God's love too is in the sandwich." All readers, Catholic or not, can rejoice in the message of this passage, and of all of "Signatures of Grace": that the sacraments are not only specific rituals but a way of life, a way of discovering and seeing God's grace in all things, not only in births and death, marriage and Mass, but even in sandwiches and books.

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