What I was trying to tell that fellow was, of course, that being a dead saint is no more worthwhile than being a dead philodendron or a dead angelfish. Living is the rub, and always has been. Living saints still feel the flames and stigmata of this vale of tears, the ache of chastity and the pangs of conscience. Once dead, they let their relics do the legwork, because, as I was trying to tell this priest, the dead don't care.
Only the living care.
And I am sorry to be repeating myself, but this is the central fact of my business--that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don't. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and the pleasure of memory. Theirs is the invoice for services rendered and theirs is the check in the mail for its payment.
I first encountered Thomas Lynch with his book The Undertaking, a collection of personal essays about the undertaker/poet Lynch's take on the business of death. It is, I think, his best book, much more focused than Bodies in Motion and Rest and the recently released Booking Passage and, simply on a personal level, of more interest to me than Lynch's poetry which can be found in Still Life in Milford. But no matter, since that first book, Lynch has proved himself an always interesting and complex author in all three books. He challenges you on everything, asks you not to agree with him, but wants you to hear him, to respect him, for you suspect that Lynch will respect you.
Booking Passage is centred around Lynch's connection with his Irish heritage and his Catholicism. It is the last that will prove most interesting and challenging, surprisingly, given Lynch's very interesting opening statement regarding ethnicity. And perhaps, for others, Lynch will not provide a challenge, but for I, who have never had anything but dislike for the Church, and which translates into religion in general, Lynch's beliefs bring an interesting and more than welcome portrayal of a man living in the 21st Century with his belief. For Lynch, being a strong and loving Catholic, is pro-choice and critical of the Church and how it has acted throughout the years. It could be even argued that Lynch is, himself, a radical in these beliefs, for in Bodies in Motion and Metaphor, Lynch suggested, even, that the pro-choice movement had only gone half the length that it should:
And though I am encouraged and inclined to march in favor of a woman's right to choose a safe, legal and affordable medical procedure to abort her maternity, where are the women who will march with me to uphold the rights of my sons and their sons in the matter--to choose a safe, legal and affordable legal procedure to terminate, for reasons that range from good to not so good, their paternity? Is Choice good for on and all or only one and half of the population?
I'm not sure, even now, how I view that argument. Of course, yes, it should be choice for one and all, and I see Lynch's point, and agree, but do I agree fully?
I like that challenge. I've gone beyond on the point in my life where I want to read things that I only agree with, things that won't challenge me, things that don't force me to be open in a different way. Booking Passage, then, opened a challenge for me about a good Catholic, even as it remained an unfocused book at the end. I still believe (and will likely always) that religion has no right in telling me how to live, how to exist, and how to conduct my life. Likewise, it has no place in running the world. Nae your religion, and I don't think it has any place in control of the world, and that all religions should encourage a separation, which is a different argument for a different place. That someone is religious does not bother me, but that someone is religious and pushes their belief does. And Lynch, from his writing, is a Catholic of the first kind, the kind who is not readily given voice (perhaps because of the Church's promotion of a different kind of religious figure, which Lynch himself is critical of, and perhaps also because of the nature of these religious individuals, who accept everyone).
Lynch is critical of the Church's influence over the lives of men and women in Ireland (and the world, for he uses Ireland as a metaphor for the world, mostly, allowing the countries problems to speak and represent similar problems throughout the world). He is especially critical of the Church's view on women, writing that "the power of femaleness--to attract, seduce, pleasure, and reproduce; the mother, mold, inspire, and educate--has always posed a threat to the Church." He writers about the horrors that nuns committed against young girls in their care and about the boys club nature of the church itself, which excludes women from all major roles. He links this back to the portrayal of Mary Magdalene, who, he suggests, in the Gnostic Gospels, was closer to Jesus than any of the Apostles, and preached his work in the early years of the Christian Church, who diminished her standing by tainting her with sexual sin. He writes with an evident disgust about how this has, in Ireland, resulted in the Church spending years keeping women in their place. From this, he even argues against the Church being so intimately involved in the sexual lives of all its followers.
Divorce and abortion and contraception would seem, I am not the first to say, odd topics for manly celibates to get so embroiled in.
What is it, then, that makes Booking Passage ultimately a mess?
It is, unlike Lynch's previous books, more of a memoir than a collection of essays, but it cannot be denied that Lynch himself has not fully given himself over to either form. For much of the book, he is caught between writing a memoir, and writing an essay as he has previously done. He writes about his life, yes, and you learn about Lynch's relatives in Ireland, Nora and Tom, and the journey his relatives took to America, but the majority of the book is focused on the two Irish relatives, and mostly Nora, if they focus on anyone outside Lynch. You do learn about the author, but it is not, ultimately, a revealing look into the author's own life, and much of it you have learnt in the previous books. His children and wife are curiously absent as characters, for example. But yet, neither is the book a collection of essays, for, especially in the early portion of the book, Lynch is retelling the story of his family.
Yet, despite this, it is always an interesting book, always beautifully written. Lynch does not want to make you love his take on religion, nor his experience of Ireland, which is a very limited experience, with Lynch and his family not coming into any of the conflict that plagued the country. No. Lynch wants you to simply respect his opinion, respect his experience, and he celebrates the diversity of beliefs that exist in the world. And perhaps that is not surprising, given that, under Lynch's own admission, once you're dead, you're all the same in your uncaring. No, the problem with the book is that Lynch has yet to settle on what he wants to write about. Ireland, his life, his family, the Church in Ireland, what? Yet still, this allows for Lynch to avoid the very played out Irish story that was made popular once again with Angela's Ashes and, in relation to that book alone, Lynch is an author with more ability than Frank McCourt. I did like and enjoy the book, as I have liked all of Lynch's work, but it is not his strongest work.
Still, better than a lot of other books out there.