Nancy Mairs has named her fourth collection of essays for the Roman Catholic missal used during nonholiday Mass. She does so with a deliberate irony that echoes her personal writing style, as the life she describes in this volume is anything but ordinary.
After twenty-five years of marriage, Mairs adjusts to the reality of her husband George’s cancer and renews her commitment to their marriage. During those two and a half decades, she reared two children, converted from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism, battled depression, experimented with infidelity, and was sidetracked but not devastated by George’s revelation of a six-year love affair with another woman which ended before he was diagnosed with incurable melanoma. Choosing to be both a feminist and a Roman Catholic, Mairs attempts to reconcile the numerous contra-dictions between these philosophies by considering how God in “her” wisdom would do so. She explores the church’s edicts about family by contemplating her own extended family, which includes a homeless single mother and her child, a college student from Iceland, two biological children-a daughter who never felt the need to rebel and a son whose harrowing adolescent years signify, in retrospect, a deep and lifelong attachment to her.
Throughout these essays, a sensation of acceptance reigns. This is not surprising, according to Mairs:
One of the elements that drew me into the Catholic Church was the concept of grace, although I’ve never been able to make mom than clumsy sense of it I am moved by the idea that God always already loves us first, before we love God, wholly and without condition, that God forgives us even before we have done anything to require forgiveness, as we will inevitably do, and that this outpouring of love and forgiveness fortifies us for repentance and reform.
Yet this acceptance has been hard-won for Mairs, who admits, “Nothing in my experience has revealed quite how grace works. Until now. The uncontingent love and forgiveness I feel for George, themselves a gift of grace, unwilled and irresistible, intimate that grace whose nature has eluded me.” This grace has come to Mairs through the experience of weathering her husband’s admission of infidelity and her choice to remain by his side, through accepting his illness and the inevitablity of his death, and through surviving her own depressions, suicide attempts, and debilitating physical condition.
Her Congregational upbringing did not prepare her for these challenges, as Mairs recognizes when she recalls the attitude of her mother and grandmother about mixed marriages, such as the one she entered with George, who was an Episcopalian from birth. “’Opposites attract,’ Mother and Granna were fond of intoning, ’but not for long.” Like magnets turned wrong end to, partners from different backgrounds were bound to burst apart in an agony of repulsion. Thus Mairs’s questioning of this “higher authority” and choice to marry a man from a different background, then to follow his lead into Roman Catholicism when the socioreligious tide seemed to be moving in another direction, is distinctly extraordinary. Fortunately, these choices have continued to serve her well through difficult times.
As she writes about the influence of religious faith on her life, Mairs cogently describes how spirituality can evolve through “setting the scene” for its arrival. In church she felt hypocritical, pretending to know God.
Talking about her writing habits, Flannery O’Connor said that she was careful to be at her desk every morning to that, if an idea came along, she’d be there to receive it. I now go to Mass in much the same spirit, hut for a long time I thought belief was something you had to bring with you, the way a diligent student totes her textbook and completed assignment to class.
Mairs’ subtle wit and intimate perspective are applied as easily to motherhood as to religion. When describing her maternal experience, she suggests,
the route was so circuitous and the fulfillment to different from anything I’d been led to expect that I spent years in a panic, certain I’d taken one wrong turn after another, certain I was irredeemably lost in the Black Bog of Motherhood…. As far as I could tell, every other woman was managing motherhood as though she were horn to it; and...
(The entire section is 1792 words.)