On Flying Dancing Halls

It is a glorious and satisfying thing to discover an author who speaks to you in new and miraculous ways, an author sending you on a mission to read everything he has ever written. I have discovered authors like this over the years, with Lewis, Tolkien, Austen, Dostoevsky. I went through a Sherlock Holmes period, a Dickens period, and as a child I read every Nancy Drew that the library offered. On the other hand, I did not feel this way about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sartre, Camus, Woolf, Ibsen, or Henry James. I fear I gave Shakespeare no more attention than was required in my Literature major, having to work too hard on his poetic diction. These authors come to mind now, but there were dozens more – some who invited me on another leg of the journey, and some who didn’t.

So when I received the small used volume titled Father Malachy’s Miracle by Bruce Marshall in the mail, the book having been transported through the air from London, I opened it not knowing if it would challenge or change me. I’ve read it twice now, since I will be reviewing it on CatholicFiction.net. I’m sure I shall read it many more times, and be warned that I am cornering the market on any other books by Mr. Marshall that I can find. Alas, his books are out of print, something I hope to remedy one day.

But getting back to Father Malachy and his miracle, for he has become part of the peopled universe in my giddy brain. The book is, as the title implies, about miracles. The writing is dense, poetic, with rhythmically long sentences that flow like a sweet river to a welcoming sea. The metaphors stun me with their humorous and loving descriptions of ordinary people. God shines brightly through this lay-Catholic writer. When I am not sighing with authorial envy or jotting down ideas to use one day, I am nodding my head in agreement (aha, finally someone has written exactly what I think, and yes, that’s exactly how it is or was…), or I am laughing out loud.

One of many delicious passages is the author’s description of the Bishop’s Bad Brother (the “Bee Bee Bee”), a man of the world who enjoys dancing halls and wine bars:

The Bee Bee Bee was a simple soul who lived, as do many souls less simple than he, as though his sense perceptions were the only realities and as though arm-chairs and pork pies and pretty girls were exclusively and finally arm-chairs, pork pies and pretty girls.

We learn he has little interest in scientific mysteries or theological mysteries or angels dancing on the head of a pin. He lives for the moment, but he is a mystic:

Like most of his kind, he would have scorned the name of mystic even if he had known precisely what it meant. And yet that was what he was: a mystic, an inverted mystic who found in beer and dancing instructresses what tired business men found in golf, and worldly young women in lovemaking, and monks and nuns in prayer and contemplation: an escape from his own personality or rather a taking of it and plunging it in something bigger than and exterior to itself. 

An inverted mystic. He escapes from his own personality by plunging it in something bigger. I have often thought we are all mystics in this sense, that everyone has a desire to lose themselves in something or someone. We say we fall in love, we say we are swept away by a movie or a book. We want to jump on bandwagons because they are large and powerful and tell us what to think. When we say we are swept up or swept away we sigh with pleasure simply in the recollection. We plunge into work or play or fashion, fads, or Facebook. We lose ourselves in nature – beneath giant redwoods, beside a crashing sea, within a rose garden. We soar outside of time, killing it.

Perhaps this urge to lose ourselves in something bigger is an innate desire for God, a desire for our Creator, a desire for our Heavenly Father who calls us home, invites us to his table again and again, back to himself. I often think the Church is the messenger, the host of that invitation, or the invitation itself, to dine with God, dine on God in the Eucharist. Through his Church, God welcomes us into his own dancing hall, with his own family to love, sisters and brothers who return that love. We are brought inside his circle, made members of the Body of Christ, and we know we are  home, that we be-long, that we are longed-for.

We are mystics and we have found our heart’s desire. And oddly enough, in finding our Creator, we rediscover our true selves. For who knows me better than the one who made me?

The idea of the inverted mystic was one small miracle in this little book of miracles, a sweet novel set in Scotland in the 1930’s in which a dancing hall flies through the air (by power of the Holy Ghost) to land on an island called the Bass Rock. And as we consider the flying dancing hall we also consider other movements of electrons in our world, changes made to bread and wine, resurrections not governed by scientific theory, events we call supernatural. We consider miracles and the Creator of our world, the one who has power to change that world’s matter.

I must end this here, for I have just opened a small brown paper parcel containing Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith. The invitation is loud and compelling.

There may be echoes of Father Malachy in my next novel about a deserted chapel in a park in a suburb of San Francisco. Father Malachy, or his twin brother, may fly from Scotland and into my pages, flit across a great sea, and land in the present. But such is the stuff of miracles.

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