Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles in a Cynical Time Ann Hood Picador, USA, $23, 256 pp.
Teach us to care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still
Our peace in His will.
In “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot describes the perfection of faith.
When a loved family member lies dying, that serene relinquishment is not easy to achieve. Faith can then become a kind of wrestling, a desire to wrest Lazarus from the jaws of implacable fate by brute will. Ann Hood’s memoir Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles in a Cynical Time limns this exhausting odyssey.
When her sixty-seven-year old father is diagnosed with lung cancer, Hood decided “to get him a miracle.” She goes to El Santuario de Chimayo, in New Mexico, to pray that his tumor would vanish. It does, but then, in one of the bewildering twists not unfamiliar in the life of faith, her father dies of fungal pneumonia.
The shock of this apparently divine betrayal is amplified by the earlier death of her only brother who, following arguments with his estranged wife, and then his soon-to-be wife, drowns in a bathtub. When, soon after the death of her father, Hood has a second miscarriage, the powerlessness of sheer grief plunges her into despair. “I became immobilized by my sadness. I believed in absolutely nothing at all.” The loss of faith left her “deadened” by “dark numbness.”
Funded by a book advance and glossy magazine work, Hood travels searching for evidence of miracles that might help her believe in God. She introduces us to much of the colorful efflorescence of Catholicism, including Guadalupe, where she sees the sun’s rays form a cross, and Padre Pio’s tomb. In Worcester, Massachusetts, she visits “Little Audrey,” a teenage “victim’s soul” in a coma, who lies surrounded by osmogenesia, the odor of roses, weeping statues, and Communion hosts flecked with blood. Despite the Catholic church’s protests, thousands of visitors pray to Little Audrey, rather than for her. Seeking to be spiritually moved, Hood visits Joan of Arc’s birthplace; Rocamadour in the Dordogne; and Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. She weeps before a veil of the Virgin in Chartres, “spiritually stirred” at last. Hood’s is not the absolute faith of Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” nor the rationalist creed of Thomas, “Unless I see and touch, I will not believe,” but a narcissistic, emotional creed–“Unless I feel and thrill and weep, I will not believe.”
Finally, Hood decides that, since she absorbed her faith unquestioningly from her Italian Catholic family, she might be able to resuscitate her faith by visiting her ancestral village in Italy. She describes her family with a quote from Rudolph Vecoli, “Italian Catholics are only nominally Catholic. Theirs is a folk religion, a fusion of animism, polytheism, and sorcery, with the sacraments of the church thrown in.” (In fact, Hood’s own faith, with its reliance on symbolic dreams, omens, psychics, tarot cards, and healing candles strikes me as positioned somewhere between the Dark Ages and the New Age.) This trip works. When an old relative advises her in cliches–“You have to have faith for prayer and healing to work,” and “Saint Anthony will help you find your way home”–she cries hard, feeling convicted. Soon afterwards, the familiar twentieth-century miracle of finding a lost contact lens restores her longed-for faith.
I remember reading the nucleus of this book as an article in Doubletake magazine. The present narrative is undermined by the attempt to inflate an essay into a book. Do Not Go Gentle evolves into a family memoir, a popular genre in an increasingly rootless and isolated America. Hood gives us the history of each parent’s family, and is especially deft in describing her abusive grandmother, revealing the petty verbal abuse that often lurks beneath the shiny exterior of the large happy family.
More than anything, the book is a testimony to the therapeutic and palliative effects of time and travel. Travel plunges you into a new setting, filling you with fresh ideas. In this new way of existence, the griefs of your old world seem less sharp and poignant. Gradually, time blunts the edge of Hood’s sorrow and she comes to accept a lonelier world “whose common theme is the death of fathers.”
Ann Hood calls this book “a spiritual odyssey.” Unfortunately, her story ends where real spiritual adventure begins: she decides that God exists, that God is benign, that there can be power in prayer. This is tame stuff compared to The Seven Storey Mountain or Surprised by Joy, whose electrifying apprehension of the holy leaves us with a gasping hunger to follow. Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Pascal, and Augustine dive from Scripture into the deep sea of God. The response of these writers to God is quirky and individual; yet, since their quests begin by grappling with the story that culminates in the radiant figure of Christ, their journeys offer wisdom and illumination to anyone who wants to dive into the same sea. If Ann Hood sought comfort or light in the concentrated wisdom of Scripture at any point along her search, it does not show. With an irritating self-absorption, she seeks to base her faith on “spiritual stirrings,” intuitions, flickers of emotion–private stars with a private light with little general significance.
“Do Not Go Gentle” is a lively, gracefully written memoir, full of vivid descriptions of the beautiful places in which–possibly, not coincidentally–people have experienced miracles. It is a pleasure to read. To my husband’s despair, I took notes for future vacations. But finally I was more amused than inspired by the self-indulgence and emotionalism of this very American spiritual quest. For a guide on my own “spiritual odyssey,” I think I’ll stick with Merton or Thomas a Kempis, and, even better, the Word that was in the beginning.
Anita Mathias wrote “I Was a Teenage Atheist” in Commonweal’s October 8, 1999 issue. It was selected for inclusion in The Best Spiritual Writing, 2000, Philip Zaleski, ed., HarperSanFrancisco.