It’s not often that a sexy cocktail waitress inspires a Catholic priest to write a book about faith journeys, but such is the case with Fr. Edward Beck’s Unlikely Ways Home: Real-Life Spiritual Detours. Story has it that Fr. Beck was having a drink in a Manhattan bar when a friend of his complained that priests only see spirituality in people who are praying in church. Like all great theological discussions that start in a bar, the conversation segued toward a waitress in a “barely legal mini-skirt.” Fr. Beck’s friend observed that he believed this waitress was a spiritual person. Incredulous, Fr. Beck asked how he came to that conclusion.
The friend said it was because of the way she “smiled when she came back after giving us our drinks, asking us if we were happy.”
“She meant with your drink,” Fr. Beck responded. “It wasn’t some Aristotelian query about the state of your soul.”
Nevertheless, the incident got Fr. Beck wondering about how people find God in their lives and what role organized religion plays in that search. Having worked on Wall Street and in the New York theater before deciding to become a priest, Fr. Beck knew first hand that there are many unique and unusual paths to God.
Unlikely Ways Home is a reminder of just how individual each of these faith journeys can be. In “Hitler’s Army Priest” a German teen drafted into Hitler’s army finds ministers of grace in the midst of his wartime duty and ultimately becomes a Catholic priest in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Looking back, Fr. Anton now believes his life may hold a lesson: “Maybe I am here with you, a former soldier in the German Army, to help you remember that?strangers can become friends. And friends can help us make a home.”
“Mercedes Benz to Monastery Mazda” tells the story of an African-American man who left behind a financially lucrative career to become a priest. At a time when black, Catholic clergy were hard to find, Fr. Beck eloquently describes the motivation behind this transformation: “There was mystery to the lives of these religious that intrigued him, and a peacefulness and contentment that made him envious.”
Not every story ends with a vocation to the priesthood, of course. There’s the married couple that survive the husband’s infidelity with the help of their Catholic faith; a man who struggles to forgive the priest that sexually abused him as a child; and the parents devoted to helping their mentally ill son. The common thread is that the people profiled in Unlikely Ways Home find themselves broken in some way and it is through that brokenness that God ultimately enters their lives. Fr. Beck brings perspective to the life-changing pain his subjects feel. “We look back on a dreadful experience, and we see layers of meaning that we could not have seen in the tempest” he writes. “Perhaps there was a kind word here, or a helping hand there?And while it may not be the totality of an answer to prayer, it is the beginning of a nod of recognition and a felt presence assuring us that we are not alone.”
Be forewarned, my conservative friends
Readers should note that Fr. Beck also profiles some non-traditional spiritual journeys in a “we report, you decide” manner. There’s a gay couple that consider themselves devout Catholics and a divorc?e in a relationship with a man who’s still “technically” married. The latter says she knows she’s not playing by the rules but that the rules don’t make sense for her right now. Conservative that I am, that statement–probably more than any other in the book–made me wince. It was one of a few times that I wished Fr. Beck had been a little more vocal about traditional morality. But I realized that some of these stories are more about a journey-in-progress than a destination so I rolled my eyes and moved on.
Unlikely Ways Home is an enlightening read for spiritual seekers and committed Catholics. As with any book, some chapters will resonate more than others depending on your personal experiences, but overall Fr. Beck provides a moving glimpse into the lives of pilgrims who are all on very different journeys to the same place. “In the Scriptures, conversion never happens as a result of abandonment but rather by the steadfastness of people (and God) who stand with the sinner even in destructive life choices” he writes. “People turn their lives around because others believe in them enough to walk with them until they find their way home again.”