Reading sparks reflection - Catholic Courier
Matthew H. Clark Matthew H. Clark

Reading sparks reflection

Two books recommended by friends provided a great deal of delight during my vacation. One is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; the other The Speckled People: A Memoir of a Half-Irish Childhood by Hugo Hamilton.

Gilead, a work of fiction, is a long letter written in 1956 by John Ames, a minister coming to the end of his life. Ames is the son and grandson of ministers, and is anxious that his own son be well-acquainted with his family heritage.

He shares with his son what he remembers or heard about his father and grandfather. But he also tells the young man about his own life — his ups and downs, his hopes and dreams, his joys and his struggles.

I loved the author’s use of language, and found Ames’ references to his experience of ministry to be realistic and often quite moving.

The Speckled People is a memoir also rooted in the 1950s, not in Kansas as is Gilead but in Dublin, Ireland.

Hamilton writes of his childhood in a home formed through the marriage of his Irish father and German mother. The father is deeply committed to maintaining the use of the Irish language, which he regards as the lynch pin of preserving Irish culture.

As I enjoyed the book, I thought that Hamilton invited the reader to think about the challenge and richness inherent in blending cultures; about the task in any family of developing honest, effective unity while fostering individual growth; about the difficulty of preserving values that are close to the heart when cultural changes make doing so more and more difficult.

Each of the books brought great delight through language, imagery, insight and engaging stories.

And both books got my wheels spinning about the themes they treated. The Ames character led me to think about my own father and paternal grandfather, and the ways in which they influenced my life. And, as indicated above, Ames’ account of his ministerial experience and his reflections on it were important to me. On several occasions, I put the book aside and sat silently with his insights.

I am grateful to both authors. Their work fostered relaxation. They stimulated thought. They triggered memories and quickened thoughts about the future.

In addition to all of that, their work raised a lot of important questions. Who are the people and what are the circumstances that have had the most significant influences on our personal development? What are the changes in our culture that have most influenced us? Have those been for good or for ill? And what have we done to adjust to them in ways that honor our deepest values? Or have we simply surrendered to them? And why? How do we best pass on to those who come after us those values that are very important to us?

I was grateful for that vacation reading — although I made no reference to it — during a conversation with a friend at a social event. The friend spoke with some enthusiasm about a conversation that had taken place in the context of his family’s reunion. The theme of the conversation was the difference in religious practice among the members of the family, especially the difference between generations.

As I understand my friend, they had a non-confrontational, honest exchange about the whys and wherefores of the religious practices of the participants. I had a sense that the conversation was a good one for everyone. It did for members of my friend’s family what Hamilton and Robinson did for me.

I hope that these days of summer have been good for you.

Peace to all.

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