Posts Tagged ‘Seamus Heaney’

I bought Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle in summer of 2015, because it was on the reading list for Teen the Younger’s mandatory “Catholic Moral Theology” class. Over the summer the instructor who’d selected this book decided not to come back to her school, and the new theology teacher chose to teach from an very old and uninspiring textbook, and from a series of impenetrable and frankly uninteresting essays.

Which is a shame, because Tattoos on the Heart is a book that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” It’s not really a story so much as a series of stories about Father Gregory Boyle’s work with “homies” in Los Angeles. He was pastor of a church in one of the poorest areas of the city, and over the past thirty years has worked to help gang members find jobs and turn their lives around. His work grew into the nonprofit Homeboy Industries.

What’s most heart-expanding about this book is what Father Greg has to say about how he and his companions have done this work: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” And,”We seek to create loving communities of kinship precisely to counteract mounting lovelessness, racism, and the cultural disparagement that keeps us apart.”

In between such cracking insights, Father Greg peppers his writing with “dog,” (sort of like dude) “cabrón” (jackass), ‘spensa (sorry), “homie,” “mijo” (my son) and other  English and Spanish slang that gives this book a down-to-earth feel. It’s thought provoking, too, as Father Greg writes about the stereotypes and bias people feel towards gang members and poor young men in general, and also about the endless pain of burying so many victims of gun violence. He also notes his own mistakes or moments of frustration and impatience.

It sounds silly to say this book made me laugh and cry but it’s true; Father Greg cites his own laughter and tears and it’s easy to join him. I found this book’s wisdom profound and also obvious — we have to stop thinking some people are more valuable than other people, and the only way to do that is to practice caring for each other with radical “no matter whatness.” Is that easy? Nope? Will be make mistakes? Yes. But as a society we could follow even an iota of Father Greg’s example, the world would be a far better place.






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I love a book that lingers on the mind long after you’ve reached the last page. In some cases I think this happens because a book is beautifully written and thought provoking. In some cases it simply speaks to your own experience, or to the human condition, so clearly that it makes you, the reader, more human simply by reading it.

The Moviegoer is both. I’d never read Walker Percy and I have to credit the New York Times Sunday Book Review‘s “What I Read That Summer” article, where I read about Walter Isaacson’s meeting his friend’s uncle, Walker Percy, and his discovery of Percy’s books. I checked out The Moviegoer that evening at the library.

Binx Bolling is twenty-nine, a war veteran (Korean, I think) managing a small brokerage office in the family firm in New Orleans, having a string of affairs with a series of secretaries, and going to movies. “It is not a bad life at all,” as he says. He’s on a bus on the way to see his aunt, who has summonsed him to lunch, and checking out a pretty woman seated across the aisle, when he recalls an idea he had earlier: “the search.”  He explains, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

If that sounds like Kierkegaard, it should. Percy’s epigraph is from The Sickness Unto Death: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Binx undertakes his search during Mardi Gras and we go along as he promises to look after his mentally fragile cousin Kate, tries half-heartedly to start a new affair, visits his mother and his half-siblings, travels to Chicago for a conference.

I was totally drawn into his existential wanderings, I was in New Orleans (where I’ve never actually been) I could hear the voices of these characters, I ate their lunch. Ok, I didn’t eat their lunch, but you see what I mean? Walker Percy made me Binx Bolling. And he made me more me.

I was trying to figure out what I didn’t like about the last Gibsons’ Book Club selection, The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry. After the meeting, I felt a little churlish for stating my dislike strongly and also a little disappointed that nothing my fellow book club members said changed my mind (which has happened, and I’ve enjoyed, in the past). When I read The Moviegoer I got it.

On Ash Wednesday Binx thinks: “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journeys and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.” This is the subtle, heartbreaking, tender, tenous, holy mess of life. This is love and faith and doubt and every loss or gain a person can experience. When you’ve drunk in a masterpiece like The Moviegoer you don’t really need words to explain why some “it” books disappoint. You feel it in every cell.

Good books capture what it is to be human. When someone raves about a book and I read it and it doesn’t, in Seamus Heaney’s words, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” well, that’s disappointing. I’ll grant that some days, that’s not what I’m after. As my dear friend YeVette says, some days she doesn’t want to think, she just wants a dead body in her book. But when you’re looking for more, give Walker Percy a try. Just be ready for Binx to stay a while after you close the book.

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