Some people are minor prophets – and that is is no way to diminish them or what they do. They are the ones who raise their voices above the tinny clamour of commerce and the seductions of the superficial.
Their words are real and resonant, truth ringing clear as a bell, if only we have the ears to hear it and the heart to act on it.
Sometimes they sound a note of caution or warning, or wonder and mystery, and remind us of the truths we have mislaid.
In our desire to keep up with the Jones’ or shape ourselves to some mythical advertising standard they remind us of what really matters. They debunk, with humour and clarity and whimsy, the falsehoods that have become the new rites in a world that is speeding up in its hurly-burly haste to get to the next big thing. They remind us of the universal and the eternal.
One such prophet is the American writer, Brian Doyle, whose beautiful words written with candour and joy and lyricism help us to find again the simple and larger truths. His exuberant telling of stories of faith mines the rich seam of belonging that is the core of the Catholic narrative. He describes it as the marrow of Catholicism.
Brian rediscovers those truths, truths that have been kicked over and along in the heaving and tumultuous last century and have lost their lustre. He picks up them up, found in the stories and anecdotes and urban legends of ritual and community, and polishes them to a new gloss. He reminds us of that adamantine glue that folds us into oneness.
Brian, “a minor inky artist” as he calls himself, writes the stories of a faith that flames and falters, flares and fails because it is lived humanly. He tells of a faith that provides meaning and solace and a relationship with God that knows no earthly bounds. It is a faith that cannot be quantified or rationalised or dissected, a faith that continues despite schisms and heresies and ructions and sadness and the paradox of the individual and the institutional.
He tells the stories of ancient nuns who have lived with God all their lives; women who have taught catechism, recited the rosary, applied mercurochrome to grazed knees and lead generations to the mystical and martyred stories of the saints. These are the women who have prayed in gentle solitude the Hours, and minutes and years of their lives.
Brian tells true stories of small sins and failings, and of giant courage and forgiveness. His people bleed and laugh and are confused by life and all its ambiguities. They are us - Catholics in all our messy humanity and short-sightedness, in our large loving and capacity for hope, in our blood and bone, in the prayers and hymns and intercessions that we mumble in well-worn familiarity, refrains of communion with those very saints to whom we pray.
He tells of father-figure priests who guide and marry and baptise and bless and lead their flock and tell homilies that make those drowsing in the back pew sit up straight and tell it how it is … or should be. He knows the beating heart of Catholicism in action; in mission or soup kitchen or nursing home.
Last year, students at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne were given the opportunity to hear this sage move from page to stage to share his wisdom – a wise guy happy to talk about the centrality of faith in his life.
For Brian, we all belong, wherever we live, to this timeless true story – the greatest story ever told.
The Year 11 students were enthralled as he told them stories of desire and death and the Dalai Lama, of life and love and all things in-between, even his barracking for the Geelong Football Club. He begged them to be witnesses and told them that laughter is a prayer as they giggled at his embarrassing family stories which are just the same as our embarrassing family stories except they are told with a beguiling accent, American, Oregonian, to the fore with a lilt of the Irish in the aftertaste and no translation needed for the Antipodean cousins.
He told us of the optimism he finds in Australia, in our own special history, as he observed with his astute American eye our similarities and differences, the skin and sin and song of us and what links us together.
He talked about looking around at the world - being awake - to the miracle of life. He urged the girls to use their gifts, to shape and wield them for good; to find their truth and live it.
Brian exhorted the audience that it is not enough to be Catholic. They must live Catholic.
It’s a big message to deliver and takes the girls beyond the RE of the timetable to the world beyond school. It’s a life lesson and will only be learnt as they grow in faith and hope and love. He understands the teenage heart – he has a daughter the girls’ age – and urged them to avoid cool narcissism, to bypass the chicanery of consumerism and the hard sell of spin merchants. He cajoled and beseeched, laughed and cried, and told his truth about the Church he cannot live without.
He invited the girls to step up and claim the Church as their own.
Ann Rennie teaches senior students in a Melbourne Catholic girls' school.
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