Several months ago, the religious editor at Doubleday sent me pre-release copy of a book by a young priest from New York named Edward Beck. Entitled, God Underneath, Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest, the book is an autobiography of sorts. The editor asked me to comment on it. Here’s the comment:
This is a wonderful book and the break-through, I hope, of an important new, religious voice in North America. That wasn’t my first impression though. Initially, reading the first couple of chapters, I didn’t much like the book. Beck seemed a bit to young to be offering this kind of a memoir and seemed too clever by far to be wise. That impression changed as I kept reading. Beck is clever, but he’s also wise, beyond his years.
His reflections centre very much on his life as a priest, but the book is for every kind of reader. If you are a parent, struggling to explain your faith to your own children in a credible way, this book can help you; or, more basically, if you are a person who sometimes wonders why you yourself still believe in God and go to church, this can be a good book for you.
Its substance? What Beck does in the book is to take ordinary incidents from his life, beginning when he was a child and progressing through his years of training for the priesthood into his present life and ministry, and hold them up in light of the gospel so that, through that prism, we are given a deeper insight into the human condition as a whole. It’s a technique Henri Nouwen utilized, a taking seriously of Karl Rogers’ suggestion that what is most personal is often too most universal. And, like Nouwen, Beck isn’t afraid to share some of the more humbling things. For instance, he has a chapter in which he describes his experience of being bullied at school. Now, years later, much more secure in his person, he can write: “Some of the insecurity I battle today is undoubtedly rooted in those early experiences. I sometimes wonder had they not occurred, would I feel more liberated from sentiments of inadequacy, self-doubt, and inexplicable fear? Though perhaps those feeling originate from many places, they are surely tied to being made to feel that I was never good enough.”
Beyond his insights, there’s his language. Kathleen Norris, in her book, Amazing Grace, suggests that today we searching for a new vocabulary for the faith. This book makes a modest contribution to that quest. Beck speaks of his faith, directly and from the standpoint of a committed Roman Catholic priest, but the language he uses (not unlike the language of Norris herself) is personal without being unduly exhibitionist, simple without being simplistic, descriptive of faith without being churchy, and confessional without sounding like the Jesus-channel.
Not to be forgotten is that this is also a book about the priesthood. Beck is young and talented with other options in life. But he has chosen to be a vowed religious, a Passionist priest within the Roman Catholic church. He writes as someone who has found and retained meaning, happiness, peace, and good humour within a vocation that is today much-maligned. He shows that the priesthood, even the celibate priesthood, can offer a rare fulfilment. But he doesn’t over-romanticize it. He writes too, with brutal honesty, about its pains and pitfalls.
The book has many positives, though perhaps what I like best is the sanity and balance that permeate its pages. This is not the memoir of a man who cashed-in his faith and good humour the first time he was bruised. Faith, as the book demonstrates, is about resiliency, picking up one’s couch and walking. It’s also about walking on a razor’s edge and never falling off into the selective sympathies of the right or the left. Beck walks this tightrope well. Rare. Especially today.
As a young boy, wanting to be an athlete and never being quite good enough, I used to envy some of my peers who did have the knack. It seemed as if they didn’t have to work at it, but that it simply came naturally. The right instincts, coordination, a certain vision, correct anticipation, the uncanny ability to make the right moves (that particular combination of things that make for a great athlete) can’t be taught, it would seem. Some have it, others don’t. Edward Beck, by every indication, has that kind of feel for the spiritual life. The night before he pronounced his first vows, a petty community-incident left him feeling ashamed and wondering whether, if things can be this ignoble, be should be making vows at all. His novice master came to his room and said to him: “Get used to it, the bullshit’s often part of the beauty. But I have a feeling you will be able to separate it.” He can. He does. This book’s a valuable read for everybody.