Astonished by what is

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There’s a great scene in the book Charming Billy by Alice McDermott that I used to always mention when I gave talks related to Just Think. The book’s main character, Billy, gets out of New York City for probably the first time in his life and sees the ocean and beautiful houses and the black starry sky of Long Island. The year is mid-40s. Billy is overwhelmed by the beauty of it. “I never knew,” Billy said, “I never knew what it was like out here…. Isn’t that something? I had no idea those places were out here… It almost makes you wonder what else you don’t know about yet.”

“It almost makes you wonder what else you don’t know about yet.” I love that.

I bring this quote up here now because McDermott has a wonderful piece in the current issue of Boston College Magazine, which arrived in the mail just before Christmas: “Astonished by Love: Storytelling and the Sacramental Imagination.” You can read the essay here online. She starts by using the way a novel “happens,” between novelist, narrator, and reader, to explain to a student friend the three-in-one nature of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – which reminds me, by the way, of Dorothy Sayer’s comparison of the Trinity to the writing process in Mind of the Maker.

This conversation between McDermott and her friend yields to an exploration of how the sacramental imagination plays out in her storytelling. It’s not a motive for the stories she tells, not a kind of behind-the-scenes trigger for writing to convince anyone of anything, but rather it enters the process nearly unbidden with her aesthetic choice to write what she sees. She borrows words from Joseph Conrad: “to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.”

“I set out to prove nothing. I know nothing about the real world. I cannot speak with certainty about what the Creator does or does not do in it.

But as one part of that holy trio that constitutes the necessary and silent confluence of minds that transforms marks on a page into a world, I can point to what we see together, in all its vividness and clarity, and say, as astonished as narrator and reader alike, by love, by grace, by God in all things, ‘Look, it is there.’”

McDermott’s essay is actually an excerpt of a lecture she gave at Boston College back in April, as part of The Church in the 21st Century lecture series. You can watch the full video of her talk here. She probes the above topic more deeply, and if you’re at all intrigued by what you’ve read here, the talk is worth watching. An additional bonus of watching the video is seeing author, poet, and professor Paul Mariani, one of my favorite people, introduce her.

From the taped lecture:

“Working steadily at words, my nose pressed to the page, so to speak, I find that meaning, perhaps even some glimmer of ultimate reality, exists in the things of this created world not because I placed it there but because the very effort to see, the labor of working at words, reveals it. To put it more succinctly, as a less than ardent Catholic, I do not bring a sacramental imagination to my work; I discover the sacramental while struggling merely to describe.”