So, do you really have to buy all that stuff for Catholic faith to mean something? I mean, does a person really have to be a believer?
At first, this seems to be the question at the center of novelist Mary Gordon’s latest work.
Pearl is the story of two once-Catholic New Yorkers?each deprived of mother or father by tragic circumstances early in life?who are raised together. Boisterous and ever political, Maria is a child of the 1960s, while her lifelong friend Joseph remains quiescent and dutiful; he becomes godfather to Maria’s fatherless daughter Pearl (this novel is the most concentrated tale of mixed biological-foster families since the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, or perhaps more to the point, the gospels).
The novel has Maria and Joseph speeding to Ireland as Pearl, now a college student studying the Irish language, has inexplicably gone on a six-week hunger strike and suddenly chained herself to the U.S. embassy in Dublin in the middle of winter. They go on a mission to save her life and to determine why she has done this unfathomable thing.
Aiding their process of discovery is a kind of fourth character in the novel, the narrator. While claiming to be no more than a “midwife” to the story, the narrator combines an odd sense of quasi-omniscience with occasional opinions, rhetorical questions, and an almost academic desire to monitor and round out the reflections of Maria, Joseph, and even Pearl as they struggle to make sense of what has happened.
In a way, the narrator models a certain kind of Catholic image of God that Maria and Joseph have expressly rejected?intensely personal and like us, somehow lacking in power to intervene when it is desperately desired, yet possessing a comprehensive sense of knowledge and insight that knew all along but could only slowly reveal what in their foibles and weaknesses the main characters could not see.
The novel remains persistently agnostic on a direct level about faith, yet it is significant that the incarnational and humanist themes of Catholicism as well as the symbols and myths keep reappearing. The darker sides are explored and acknowledged?the spirituality of martyrdom is masochistic, the traditional relentless focus on women’s sexual purity is sexist?but very often the deeper messages and symbols shine through. Gordon depicts a faith tradition rejoicing in beauty and truth and in the sure hope that neither is destroyed by human limitations and the messy complications of life.
Above all, the human capacity for forgiveness comes through in this book. Forgiveness is asserted as neither quaint nor dangerous, as it is often viewed in today’s action movies and the “culture of fear” that we now live in; rather, it is simply given as the real alternative to death and violence (the Northern Ireland peace process figures in). The reader is left with a sense of hope, a quality reportedly absent in some of Gordon’s earlier, darker books.
But is Gordon really writing about Catholicism without faith? I’d like to think not. In fact, I wonder if Gordon’s narrator isn’t a kind of joke about God, challenging us that if we can’t imagine more of a God than that, then we have built our faith on false idols. But I for one am certain we can imagine more, and that actually shows in Pearl. The characters’ Catholic heritage keeps haunting them with a strange, incarnational faith. Sure, it was often presented to them as an obnoxious, vengeful God in the old days (maybe today we might be more at risk of hearing about a “gimme God” who answers our prayers whenever we wish). But behind all that there always seems to lurk a deeper Mystery. Some mystic or prophet or novelist was and is always urging us not to be satisfied with our comfortable images of who God is and what God does for us. Thank God.