Last April I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, a conference held every two years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and hosted by Calvin College. It’s a Mecca for writers, publishers, and publicists/agents, and I went to hear several of the speakers as well as spend afternoons in my hotel room, working on my own writing project. One of the speakers I heard while there was Andrew Krivak–a Catholic writer who now lives with his wife in London. Last April I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, a conference held every two years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and hosted by Calvin College. It’s a Mecca for writers, publishers, and publicists/agents, and I went to hear several of the speakers as well as spend afternoons in my hotel room, working on my own writing project. One of the speakers I heard while there was Andrew Krivak–a Catholic writer who now lives with his wife in London.
I mention that he now lives with his wife because for some years he was a Jesuit which suggests that he has had an interesting faith journey indeed. The title of his session that I attended was “Something Unbelievable: Finding Faith in Fiction.” In his presentation he insisted that you could find moments of grace, moments of faith breaking through a story plot, but you had to pay attention to these signs of faith breaking through the writing. The description of the session in the program that drew my attention was the following: “Looking Closely at Blood Meridian [and The Road] by Cormac McCarthy and the more narrative lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, he suggests that the question of faith in fiction is well answered by certain contemporary writers, not in the edifying round-up of characters who believe but by the unexpected and unquenchable appearance of the small, salvific act in landscapes bereft of all else.”

When I got home, I ordered McCarthy’s The Road, but when it arrived, I decided it was a darker novel than I wanted to read at the time–described as an “unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of.” So instead, I ordered Krivak’s own memoir titled The Long Retreat–a fascinating look at Jesuit formation and also Krivak’s story of his faith journey to the present. Described by one of the endorsers as “the best spiritual memoir I’ve read since Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain,” it was too good to pass up.

For those of you who do not know, “the long retreat” is a reference to the month-long, silent retreat that Jesuits make during their formation in order to meditate on their spiritual lives–as well as God’s purpose for each of them–according to a method laid down in the 16th century by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola.

Before Krivak’s first long retreat, he was assigned to help out at a homeless shelter in Syracuse’s seamier side of town. If you’ve never spent time in a homeless shelter, the sights and smells of those crowded into a cavernous, unpleasant space can be a shock to the system. After Andrew’s first night spent there, he returned to his seminary and reflected on the juxtaposition of the two worlds he had just moved in and out of. While at the shelter the night before, one of the other volunteers–curious about life as a seminarian–had asked him, “What if God wants you to do what you will no matter what the life?”

And the question haunted him. Maybe no matter what way you’ve chosen, or believed you were given, he says, “I’ve always hated the expression ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.’ God doesn’t pick and choose who’ll be a drunk and who’ll be a Jesuit, who’ll suffer from the DTs and who’ll read a Hopkins poem before going to sleep. I required and received as much grace as the broken Danny and the nicotine-addicted sage [in the shelter]. We all did, and that’s what I accepted on that day.”

Circling back to Krivak’s talk given in Grand Rapids this past spring–many years after his time in the Jesuit seminary–I think there is a theme here that ties his life together. Glimpsed in small acts of grace in some of our contemporary novels, and seen in our own lives if we have the eyes to see–we each receive the grace we need for the day, no matter where we are or what we’re doing … or where life takes us.  Food for thought in this day of God’s grace.