Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Thomas Lynch writes beautiful stories about life and death

In meaning of death/life on March 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I wrote this review for, for whom I’ve been writing book reviews for many years. You’ll find it, there, in a week or so. In the meantime…

Review of Apparition and Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories, by Thomas Lynch. W.W. Norton & Company, published February 2010, $24.95 hardcover.

Thomas Lynch is one of those writers who have always had another career besides writing. Most of us do, but often, the successful ones, like Lynch, don’t. There are a few famous exceptions. T. S. Eliot, for instance, was a book publisher. That’s interesting, but it also relates to his work as a writer. More intriguing are those like the poet Wallace Stevens, who was a lawyer for an insurance company. Or William Carlos Williams, another of America’s great modernist poets, who was also a pediatrician.

Lynch, 58, is an undertaker. This wouldn’t seem to be an occupation that draws the same sort of person as does the work of writing poetry and fiction, but Lynch has found his way in all of these things and with tremendous results. It turns out that the funeral home business, which he’s run in a small town in Michigan for decades, has provided a wealth of insight into death – and that’s what he writes best about.

Death is the primary subject of this new collection of stories, just as it was of his 1997 book of essays, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, which won Lynch a bunch of awards and recognition, including the American Book Award.

Apparition and Late Fictions is not only about death, but about missing children, former spouses, dogs (lots of dogs), AA meetings, loss, and redemption. One story tells of a widower who has survived three marriages and made a bundle of mistakes in each of them. The man is a salesman for a casket company. In another, the first story in the collection called “Catch and Release,” Danny, a fly-fishing guide in western Michigan, takes a thermos bottle with his father’s ashes out on his drift boat one afternoon. As he remembers his father, he fishes, and slowly distributes the ashes into the water that the two of them had shared. It’s clear that Lynch knows how to fly-fish, and that he’s also a poet, in passages such as this one:

“He could feel the split shot in the gravel at the top of the hole, and could feel it fall into the deeper run, and watched the loop in his line straighten in the current and held the rod out in front of him as the line moved through the water.”

He also writes beautifully about human bodies, and the ways in which we think about our bodies. In one story, the narrator reflects on a young woman’s feelings of happiness and how they relate to her “graceful body and eyes like the blue of the indigo bunting.” In another, a lithe, young intellectual on a cross-Atlantic flight is appreciating the male flight attendant, whom she assumes, to her disappointment, to be gay: “She could see that he paid attention to his body hair and the press of his trousers. But if he weren’t [gay], she wondered, which of her parts would his hands first go to?” I suspect that these insights come from Lynch’s lifetime of talking with family members about how to best present their loved-ones for viewing in a casket. But Lynch is at his very best when he moves from death back to life, and when he shows us how to do the same.

In “Catch and Release,” before Danny dispenses with the last bit of his dad’s ashes (I won’t tell you how), the narrator summarizes what has been a subtext to the memories of father and son: a trusted dog with a bad leg that most everyone believed Danny should have put to sleep. In the drift boat on that afternoon, Danny and his dog, Chinook, have arrived at a memorable place:

“Danny wondered if the dog knew how close it had come to being killed in this place. It was to [here] Danny had brought the dog two years before, after all the experts had weighed in with their advice. They’d fished all day and Danny climbed the high banks to the oak ridge from which he and his father had first looked down on the curling braids of river that formed the swamp that winter years ago when he was eight. He had a field shovel and a pistol he had borrowed from a fellow guide. At the top, he began digging the dog’s grave, the work quickening with anger and slowing with sadness, the variable speeds of the labor like the division of his heart. He had the grave dug, the pistol loaded, the blanket he intended to wrap the corpse in ready. He whistled for the dog…. ‘C’mon, Chinook,’ Danny called, and the dog ran the bank upstream fifty yards, then dove into the current, crossing to a sandbar in the middle, shook himself dry, then dove again, swimming upstream fifty more yards before coming to the base of the high banks. He shook himself dry again and bounded up the steep hill without slowing. At the top of the high banks he leapt into Danny’s embrace. This prodigious bit of cross-country swimming and sprinting and climbing, regardless of the crookedness of his leg, proved the dog well able for his habitat. It convinced Danny that he should not kill him, now now, not ever.”

When an earlier American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor was asked why she wrote about such odd characters, she said, “We’re all grotesque.” I suspect that if someone asked Thomas Lynch why he writes so often about death, he’d say because we are made to live.

You may want to learn more about Thomas Lynch at

Canon lawyers run amok

In Almost Catholic book, Catholic imagination, The Catholic Church--meaning of on March 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

It seems to me that the same argument that makes capital punishment always wrong, should make excommunication always wrong. No one should be able to deny another person the right to be in communion with Christ. In truth, no one can. Excommunication only sets one outside of the Church, or at least, outside the sacraments of the Church. It is not comparable to a death penalty, because no one can ever take away your baptism. For these reasons, excommunication seems more comparable to torture than death. Whether for apostasy, heresy, schism, desecration of the Eucharist, or being an accomplice to any of these unseemly things, the church would say that excommunication is good medicine, and that its purpose is to force you back to repentance—and to the sacrament of forgiveness.

Some canon lawyers have a good old time talking about excommunications. It’s a shame. There’s even a web page started by one that seems to gleefully chronicle who’s “out” and who’s “in.” Here it is.

I’m not interested in apostasy or heresy or anything else of that sort, but I do wonder if excommunication might be exactly what some people need. In some ways, we all need to be kicked out. Then, we may be able to see more clearly the true meaning of what it means to be Catholic.

St. Flannery O’Connor

In Almost Catholic book, Catholic and Protestant, Catholic imagination on March 24, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Okay, so I’ve up and sainted her. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Her birthday is tomorrow, March 25.

Flannery O’Connor was a storyteller whose characters represent the strangest sort of people on earth. She shows us ugly characters and reveals the ugly parts in us all. “We’re all grotesque,” O’Connor confidently said in answer to a question about why her characters were odd, often even physically disfigured.

She wrote about what needs forgiving in human life and often depicted violence to do so. O’Connor once expressed admiration for a local Georgia pastor who pinned a real lamb to a wooden cross and then slaughtered it before the eyes of his congregation as a teaching lesson. She also believed that Protestants understood the Mass in ways that were lost on many of her fellow Catholics.

You may enjoy this article that I wrote about her for America magazine last year. You also may enjoy the chapter about her in my book, Almost Catholic.

Finally a true papal apology

In The Catholic Church--meaning of on March 21, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Big news in the Catholic world yesterday (March 20, 2010), as Pope Benedict XIV issued his most thorough apology ever to Catholics who have been abused by priests. His letter to the Catholics of Ireland is strong in its rebuke of priests, and sincere in its apology to the victims. “I am truly sorry…” he writes. Kudos to him. It’s about time! This is the first time that the Pope has addressed the sex abuse scandal in a document dedicated to that topic in five years in the Chair.

St. Bernard on intimacy

In Catholic imagination, Christian mysticism on March 19, 2010 at 1:46 am

I have a love and hate relationship with St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Some of his life story infuriates me – especially the ways in which he supported and advocated the Crusades during his lifetime. But at other times, he spoke so intimately of God that I wonder how he was able to blend both aspects into his spiritual life.

One of my favorite St. Bernard quotes goes like this:

“In every way

that the human soul

seems to be unlike


it is at that moment


unlike itself.”

Still good things in religion

In Spiritual practice on March 16, 2010 at 12:16 am

Here’s a few:

1. Keeps you from becoming solipsistic. You can’t just believe and practice in a closet. You can’t be the religion of Me.

2. Keeps you humble. Forces you to bump up against people you may otherwise avoid. This is good for the world in a variety of ways.

3. Puts you into the category of spiritual seekers who pursued their passion within a tradition in order to learn and practice spirituality more deeply. These people included Rumi, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Baal Shem Tov. Lots of others.

I fight with religion myself, but there are many reasons why it will last long past the current crises.

Two persistent themes in Irish history

In Catholic imagination, Making saints on March 15, 2010 at 2:11 am

St. Patrick’s life story involves both of these:

1. Occupation


2. Desertion.

Occupation (by the Anglo-Saxons, French, Vikings, et al) and desertion (waves of immigration that were more like fleeing a burning ship than seeking opportunity) are two themes that dominate Irish history. For instance, Irish novels have always been characterized by a certain self-consciousness focused on the uncertainty of Ireland’s roots, occupations, and inherited Christianity. What does it mean to be truly Irish? is a persistent theme. Contemporary Irish novelist, Anne Enright’s newest novel, The Gathering, is both typical and therapeutic in this sense: the main character of Veronica finds redemption for her troubles in Ireland itself—after journeying to England and then back again.

Check out my book, Ireland’s Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, by J. B. Bury, with introduction and notes by Jon M. Sweeney…

Small Is Beautiful

In Catholic imagination, Monastic spirituality, Spiritual practice on March 14, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I’ve written a short article on how I love little books, and what role the book has played in the history of Catholic spirituality. It appears in this week’s issue of America magazine, and is available on-line here.

The first modern biographer of St. Patrick of Ireland

In Making saints, The Middle Ages on March 8, 2010 at 12:04 am

J. B. Bury, author of IRELAND'S SAINT: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick

How St. Patrick Is Portrayed in Art

In Making saints, The Middle Ages on March 7, 2010 at 5:28 pm

“As a rule, St. Patrick is represented holding his Bishop’s crosier, round about the staff of which a serpent is twined, in memory of the tradition that he drove all venomous snakes out of Ireland. Occasionally he is actually surrounded by serpents, who are shrinking away from him in terror, and now and then a harp, one of the national emblems of Ireland, replaces the crosier, some say because of the fervor of the saint’s intercession for his adopted country after his death…. Now and then St. Patrick is represented kneeling at the feet of Pope Celestine, from whom he is receiving his decretals as missionary Bishop of Ireland, but a more favorite subject is the Baptism of a certain King, whose foot the Bishop is said to have wounded by accidentally dropping the point of his crosier upon it. The neophyte took no notice of the wound, thinking its infliction was part of the Christian ceremony, and St. Patrick did not observe it, until he saw a stream of blood staining the ground.”

(A great description from an old and charming book: Mrs. Arthur Bell’s Lives and Legends of the Great Hermits and Fathers of the Church, with other Contemporary Saints; London: George Bell & Sons, 1902; pp. 246-7)


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