Priest’s Faith Life Examined In Remarkable Novel
Published: January 20, 2011
When an English professor meets a stranger and is asked to reveal his occupation, he is inevitably met with two responses upon his disclosure that he teaches English: “Oh, I better watch what I say to you!” and “English—my worst subject.”
Sometimes, however, the listener is intrigued and asks further predictable questions: “What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?”
In both cases, I often become mute. What does one say to a person who loathes your profession? And what does one say in reply to an almost impossible question?
But in Catholic circles, the question is a bit easier to answer when the conversation turns to Catholic books. And in such conversations, I always mention Edwin O’Connor’s splendid novel, “The Edge of Sadness,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962. Sadly, and almost inevitably, I find that few—if any—Catholics have read this book, a book that forces the reader to confront another set of familiar stereotypes and preconceptions: those we have of the priesthood.
Edwin O’Connor’s “The Edge of Sadness” is a remarkable chronicle of religious vocation, loneliness and redemption. First published in 1961 following the popular success and film adaptation of O’Connor’s best known book, “The Last Hurrah,” the novel went out of print for many years until it was reissued as part of the Loyola Classics series in 2005.
“The Edge of Sadness” is about a priest, Father Hugh Kennedy, who has been assigned to a run-down parish in an unnamed northeastern city, a decaying old town described in the novel as “having a past but without a future.” The same might be said of Father Kennedy. A recovering alcoholic, Father Kennedy is assigned by his bishop to “Old” Saint Paul’s parish following his treatment in a rehab center for religious. The expectations for Father Kennedy aren’t much—maintain the status quo of the old parish, keep quiet, try to refocus upon his priestly vocation. Yet Father Kennedy’s slow decline into irrelevance is thwarted by an energetic young vicar, a cast of neighborhood misfits, and most importantly the dying patriarch of the Carmody family, Charlie, a real estate mogul described “as fine a man who ever robbed the helpless.”
Charlie, it turns out, is in grave need of both personal and spiritual validation and affirmation. His family, too, has a good deal of difficulties that need resolution. Indeed, one of Charlie’s sons is also a priest struggling with his own vocation. Ensnared into this dysfunctional Irish family by the irrepressible and often hilarious wiles of Charlie, Father Kennedy finds himself grappling not only with the problems of others, but also the very essence of his own spirituality. Ironically, he learns that his way out of his own dark night of the soul requires empathy for others’ spiritual anguish.
Edwin O’Connor (1918-1968) was born and raised in Rhode Island and later attended Notre Dame, where under the mentorship of an English professor he discovered his calling as a writer. He began his professional career as a radio broadcaster, and following his service in the Second World War, he continued to work in radio, as a freelance writer and as a television critic. His first novel, “The Oracle,” appeared in 1951, and in 1956 he published “The Last Hurrah,” which brought him acclaim, fame and wealth. “The Edge of Sadness” was a departure, and in it O’Connor found himself relying deeply upon his Notre Dame experience for inspiration.
It would be too simple to describe “The Edge of Sadness” as being “about a priest,” though it is indeed perhaps the most remarkable portrayal of a priest I have ever read. Though O’Connor had close friendships with priests throughout his life, his first person narration so fully captures the interior spiritual life of Father Kennedy that it is at times easy to forget that O’Connor was not a priest himself.
In one episode, for example, O’Connor writes of Father Kennedy’s reflection upon the discipline and difficulty of saying daily Mass: “For when we do anything, however important, over and over again, when by repetition we reach the point where we could do this thing without thinking, the danger is that we will do it without thinking. … The priest saying Mass knows exactly what he is doing, he knows that the words he repeats day after day are the gravest words he will ever speak, that they are in fact the very core of his belief and of his being, yet in spite of this there comes that moment when, with a sudden shock, he realizes that his mind has been wandering—for exactly how long he does not know—and that the words of the Divine Sacrifice have been little more than a buzzing background blur. Which is a strong signal to keep his guard up in the future.”
But Father Kennedy’s difficulties as a priest are as much a part of his manhood as his priesthood. Father Kennedy is, after all, a man. He shares the same faults, the same temptations, the same obstacles to his spirituality as any person. O’Connor’s priest, then, is defined in full human terms. The result is that rather than reading a sentimental, edifying and ultimately false portrayal of religious vocation, we are offered instead a brilliant evocation of a true human being.
On one hand, therefore, the novel is appropriate for a contemporary audience because at a time in Church history when vocations have declined and priests are exposed to scrutiny and suspicion from all sides, we need reminding that these men are indeed susceptible to the same difficulties we all are. Yet the book also makes clear the profound selflessness and even loneliness required by a religious life that is very different from a secular occupation.
“The Edge of Sadness” is also a fascinating account of Catholic life in America that has in many ways disappeared. Readers who grew up in the pre-Vatican II Church will recognize an atmosphere and a range of attitudes that are difficult for younger American Catholics to imagine. Yet I suspect the description of the priestly life holds true, and it is again this fascinating portrayal that makes the book so relevant for our own time.
Most importantly, the novel evokes a sense of mystery that is not shrouded in incense and ornamentation. The mystery at the heart of “The Edge of Sadness” is that alienation, loss and despair are fundamental challenges faced by all who live a life of faith, but they are not at all the end result of a life of faith. Rather, they are points of entry—perhaps necessary ones—into the fullness of grace and mercy that are open to all of us, regardless of our disparity of callings.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.