Saturday, December 04, 2010

Rachel's Contrition: The Divine Passive in Fiction

My trip to Rome (pilgrimage that is! very Alberionian!) left me way behind on blogging and other fun endeavors, so I'm playing catch-up.

If you're looking to contribute to the care and feeding of those new writers who are part of the Catholic renaissance of letters, here's a book you could get. Perfect Christmas gift or indulgence for yourself. I reviewed this for the Catholic fiction list but since some of you don't read that, here's my review:

Rachel's Contrition tackles the grim topic of the death of a child. Knowing this
beforehand, I came to the book with a sense of dread. Not only is this every
mother’s nightmare, but it is one that I have personally experienced. An author
would have to be exceptionally skilled to get me to enjoy reading about another
mother’s grief. And yes, I do mean enjoy. There is a mystery to both the reading
and writing of fiction, before which we can only stand amazed and grateful. How
can the imaginative rendering of other people’s pain release the powerful
pleasures of fiction?

Michelle Buckman manages the trick. As I write
this review in November of 2010, Rachel's Contrition is #6 on the top 10 list of
Amazon's Women's Literature & Fiction category, & #1 in Women's Fiction
> Mothers & Children . This is a novel that has excellent reviews and
wide appeal. It features a Catholic understanding of the moral universe. I found
it marvelously entertaining and original.

Rachel Winters has scratched
her way up from a childhood of poverty and neglect to revel in an ideal life --
marriage to doctor Joseph Sinclair Winters, Jr. (Sinclair), a privileged life of
family and rank, and mother to toddler Seth and beautiful baby Caroline. Then,
in the snap of a finger, Rachel's world is shattered by tragedy. She finds
herself shut out of Sinclair's life, able to see Seth only on carefully arranged
visits, and teetering on the brink of madness by the loss of her daughter
Caroline. Worst of all, she cannot forgive Sinclair for his part in Caroline’s

Rachel lives out her new, numb life in a pool house she rents
from Colette, the only one of her wealthy friends who will have anything to do
with her in her altered situation. Her other former friends, wives of Sinclair’s
business associates, all seem to shrink from Rachel and to take Sinclair's side
against her. The only person who does not snub Rachel is Lilly, Colette’s
troubled teenaged stepdaughter. Lilly harbors her own secret pain, and comes and
goes in the pool house like a sardonic wraith. She leaves little things for
Rachel to find, like a book by St. Therese of Lisieux. Despite her annoyance at
Lilly, Rachel stirs herself from lethargy to try and understand the motivations
of her disdainful, cryptic, uninvited guest.

A murder thickens the plot,
but also provides a bit of a misstep, nudging the narrative into the mystery
genre, where convention dictates that the murder itself move front and center.
This does not happen. It is as if the author was afraid that she could not hold
her audience with the story of Rachel’s unraveling alone. But a murder whose
solving is only a sub-plot undermines the conventions of mystery writing, and is
a distraction here. The main event is Rachel’s contrition, and the noun itself
intrigues us. For what is she contrite? Fate has dealt her one blow after
another. Is she not more sinned against than sinning?

It is here that
Buckman shines, in the narrating of Rachel’s journeying in the realms of human
pain and the discovery of what – or rather Who – lies at the heart of that
darkness. God has His own story arc in Rachel’s Contrition, but it plays out so
subtly that the reader is barely aware that another actor has taken the stage.

Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias once described a verbal structure
found in the gospels and virtually nowhere else in ancient writings. It is known
as the divine passive. This is a way that Jesus, when he speaks, uses the
passive voice to describe an action whose subject would be God if it were put
into the active voice. The best-known examples are in the beatitudes. If you
were to reconstruct the beatitudes in active voice, the subject would be God and
the direct object the persons acted on. Thus, "Blessed are they who mourn, for
they will be comforted" becomes "Blessed are they who mourn, for [there is One
Who] will comfort them." “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they will be filled" becomes "Blessed are those that hunger
and thirst for righteousness, for [there is One Who] will fill them."

Learning about the divine passive has given me an appreciation for
Jesus' delicacy and reserve in describing the activity of God. Writers of
Christian fiction sometimes show less discretion in describing how God works in
the human soul. Efforts to depict the details of God’s wooing of human
protagonists can fail in ways that range from overly florid descriptions of
mystical experience to exaggerated scenes of religious conversion .

Rachel’s Contrition works an intriguing variation on the divine passive.
Every journey of the spirit requires a guide or a guidebook, and St. Therese’s
Story of a Soul provides Rachel with hers. When she picks up the book that Lilly
has left for her, Rachel is not drawn to the joyful side of the saint. The pain,
loss and darkness of spirit that characterize so much of Therese Martin’s short
life resonate with Rachel. Rachel has hungered for love, and finds an echoing
hunger in Therese Martin’s experience of life. She reads the saint’s
autobiography in bits and pieces, finding herself attracted to the strategies
St. Therese devises for handling the disturbances, slights, and anguish of her
everyday life. In St. Therese, Rachel finds a kindred spirit, but with a
difference. Therese, unlike Rachel, does not shrink from other people because of
her own pain but engages herself fully in the world around her.

reader doesn’t need to be Catholic or even Christian to share Rachel’s curiosity
about St. Therese’s “little way.” As with the divine passive in the gospels,
Rachel’s discovery of the practice of mindfully offering up of the events of
everyday life for the sake of love leads to knowledge of the unnamed God.

There is much to love in this book. Buckman does a good job fleshing out
Sinclair, Seth, and even Caroline, who barely appears but whose fleeting
materializations in Rachel’s memory evoke a lively presence. Also, the Catholic
priesthood shines, in a rare look into how priests really minister to persons
who come to their churches with inchoate needs.

This is an engaging,
solid entry from the new Chisel and Cross imprint of the Sophia Institute Press.
Chisel and Cross seeks to offer contemporary fiction that will help readers
discover how to be Catholics in the modern world. As their website notes, “We
are aiming to build up the pool of good Catholic fiction books… Contemporary
Catholics have been treated to a few good stories in modern culture, but most of
those stories are not about people like themselves, just people who happen to
have a passing resemblance to them because of accidental morality. We want to
give Catholics, particularly young Catholics, stories featuring characters they
can relate to and love.”

Rachel’s Contrition fits the bill.

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