Book Review: Signatures Of Grace

Signatures of Grace is a lovely book, and an invaluable addition to any Catholic’s library. In fact, it would be a great gift – for Mother’s Day, perhaps, for a favorite teacher, catechist, parish minister or priest as this school year begins – for yourself.

The idea behind Signatures of Grace was simple. Get seven Catholic authors to write about one sacrament apiece. Ask that the essays be a tapestry woven of personal experiences and solid historical and theological information. Add a final posthumous essay by the late, great Andre Dubus and publish. Result: a treasure.

All the essays are fine,(except for “Anointing of the Sick,” penned by the ubiquitous pseudo-Catholic Mary Gordon, who is distinguished from the other contributors by her clearly non-practicing, beyond-it-all stance), but for the moment, I’ll just tell you about my two favorites: Patricia Hampl on Reconciliation and Paula Huston on Matrimony.

Hampl’s essay (reprinted in a recent issue of Commonweal) begins on a lovely, elegiac note, remembering her 1950’s Catholic childhood in which sacraments, sacramentals and other endless expressions of spirituality were as common as school composition books and Saturday nights at the movies. Friends stopped by church on the way to those same movies to catch confession. The priests prayed their breviaries as they walked down the street. As Hampl writes, the nuns in school told them that the Kingdom of God was within them. How, she says, remembering the world of prayer that surrounded her, could she doubt them?

The essay continues, recounting various experiences of confession, tracing the history of the sacrament, and ending with Hampl’s late return to it, a moment of grace at a retreat at a monastery.

Even better is the essay by Paula Huston on the Sacrament of Matrimony. At first glance, she seems an odd match for this sacrament. One might expect the author to deal with Matrimony to be a venerable, ancient cradle Catholic beyond reproach enjoying the sixth decade of an uncomplicated marriage (as if there were such a thing) and umpteen children.

Not so. As her adult life began, Paula Huston was married and not Catholic. Not anything, really. Time passed. She began a fairly wretched affair with a married man, one which wrecked both of their marriages. They, in turn, married each other.

Huston still wasn’t Catholic, but she was searching. A philosophy class stopped her dead in her tracks, forcing her to confront the question – what’s real? Philosophers can cleverly demonstrate the shifting sands upon which most perception and all abstractions seem to rest. Where’s the solid ground?

Her professor directed her reading to find answers, but the real answer came from his wife, a practicing, devout Catholic whom Huston watched with awe from afar, then more closely as they became friends. The study and the friendship eventually led Huston to the doors of the Church herself, ready and willing to become Catholic.

A problem of course. Her marriage, to be precise.

For you see, you can’t become Catholic if you’re in an “irregular” marriage. Even though Huston hadn’t even been Catholic when she married the first time, since the Church recognizes the marriages between non-Catholics as valid, she had to go through the annulment process, get the first marriage annulled and get remarried in the Church in order to become Catholic.

It took a year and a half (I think – again, I don’t have the book in front of me, but I’m pretty sure that’s it). During that time, Huston went to Mass faithfully, never receiving Eucharist, approaching the priest only for a blessing, until one day, the priest took her aside and asked who she was and why she never received Communion. She explained, he called the Tribunal, got things really rolling there, and at last, it all came through, and in one busy afternoon, Huston joined the Church and had her marriage convalidated.

No, it’s not ideal. But I’ll tell you what I like about it.

It’s not ideal.

I think that too often we're convinced that God won’t act in our lives until we reach some state of perfection. It’s true that the greater our faith is…well…the greater our faith is (which simply means we recognize God’s presence more easily and frequently and we act in concert with His will, not our own.)

But that doesn’t mean God waits on us to reach some mystical state that only the saints reach in order to act in our lives. “Grace is everywhere” – even in the midst of sin. Jesus said quite explicitly that the healthy don’t need a doctor, only the sick do.

So Huston’s tale might surprise, and might even be mildly shocking, as she speaks of grace in the midst of a marriage that began as an adulterous affair. But take our lives, less dramatic perhaps. Every day, we sin. Every week. And every week, in the midst of that sin, we confess, we dare to receive Eucharist, we dare to receive Christ right in the middle of the muck. We might think that our muck is not as far-reaching as Huston’s, but how can we be so sure? How dare she, some might ask.

Well…how dare we?

Author Patricia Huston, strengthened by all sorts of “signatures of grace” in her messy, imperfect life, has written a book that is remarkable in its honesty and utterly devoid of self-centeredness. I am grateful for her telling of the story.

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributor to the Living Faith quarterly devotional. You may purchase her books in our online store, by clicking here.

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