Ralph McInerny was an interesting guy. (I use the past tense merely to conform to convention since he died January 29, 2010, even though it is incorrect, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living. Mt 22, 32.)
Perhaps McInerny’s widest popular notoriety came as creator of the Father Dowling mystery series, though his 1969 best-selling novel The Priest would also be a contender for greatest public acclaim. Still, good as both Father Dowling and The Priest are, they’re only two small slivers of the globe-spanning potpourri of McInerny’s endeavors. Things like diplomatic missions to China as part of the United States Presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Or serving popes on the Pontifical Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Then he had a number of one-off side-projects, like founding the International Catholic University. Creating audio CD lectures on philosophy topics. He started and edited national magazines such as Crisis (now online as Inside Catholic) and Catholic Dossier. He wrote scores of articles and commentaries for publications ranging from the New York Times (he was a fiction writer, you know) to First Things (when he felt more serious and thoughtful). He hosted an EWTN television series. He created self-learning courses on Latin and how to write a novel. And he knew whereof he spoke when it came to writing novels, having published some 81 of his own, plus a bevy of non-fiction works for an astounding total publication tally of 155 books. Yes, you read that correctly: one hundred and fifty five books.
Best of all, a lot of them were funny, studded with pithy gems like this:
The pain that follows the loss of a game in which one’s favorite team has played would not, for many, rank high among the sorrows of the Western world. There are always philosophers among us, measuring our joys and griefs on a scale that diminishes both. But philosophers are often wrong (from The Green Revolution).
I’ve been reading O Rare Ralph McInerny, a book of tributes to McInerny from friends, family, colleagues and students (McInerny was a professor at the University of Notre Dame for 55 years). In the scattered bits and pieces of recollection from different people who knew him in various of his manifold capacities you begin to get some inkling of just how many irons McInerny had in the fire – and on the links (he was a golfer to boot – no one’s perfect).
He seemed to embody the idea that if you want to do something (or if there’s something that needs doing): do it. Roll-up your sleeves and get started. It seems the only thing he was ever short on (aside from money on occasion) was excuses. But he was always long on sweat-of-the-brow.
Take his writing. While working the night shift at a local factory to help put himself through college and grad school he also wanted to write. So he’d wake in the dark of night to put-in some time with the muse before heading to his factory job, where he worked before heading to school. Tough schedule. But McInerny was not one to be deterred. He plugged away even though his writing didn’t meet with any success. He produced novels and plays, poems and stories that never made it into print. By his own admission, these first efforts were terrible. But his first efforts were not his only efforts. He kept at it. For years.
The break-through to publication didn’t come until decades later when he was already a professor at Notre Dame. Like the old days working nights at the factory, once again he found himself in need of some extra money. So once again he started writing at night. After helping his wife put their kids to bed he’d go down into the basement to stand at a workbench and pound away at an old typewriter from 10 PM to 2 AM every night. Then get-up and go to work the next day.
He sent out a lot of things – and collected a lot of rejection slips. His response to the rejections? To post a sign above his typewriter that read: “No one owes you a reading.” If his stuff didn’t measure up, he’d hone his craft and improve until it did. Or find something else to do. He gave himself a deadline of one year to start selling or move on to more fertile fields. Fortunately for all of us, McInerny was a quick study and his evolving story-telling skills found their way to paying markets.
So I was surprised to read an article he wrote in First Things called “The Writing Life,” adapted from his memoirs I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, where he said: “Every published writer is the beneficiary of luck.” And added: “Like most writers, I quickly became used to my good luck, thinking of it as merely part of the natural order, and hankered after more.”
Luck? Ralph McInerny? The guy who wrote in the wee small hours before heading to the night-shift on the factory floor? The guy who kept at it for years, all on his own, with no glimmer of commercial success shining anywhere on the far horizon? The guy who told himself: “No one owes you a reading”?
I expected McInerny to be an apostle of tough-love, a prophet of bootstraps (as in: pull yourself up by your own). After all, he was a Marine.
It surprised me until I connected Mcinerny’s story with something in the Book of Jonah. Not the famous fish-swallowing episode, but the end of the story after Jonah’s already been spit-out on dry land and made his reluctant way to Nineveh. God instructed Jonah to warn the Ninevites to repent or face God’s wrath. Jonah complied, preaching as directed, then retired to a hilltop overlooking the city where he’d have a box-seat for the expected celestial fireworks. But the people of Nineveh actually heeded God’s word – perhaps the greatest miracle in the whole book of Jonah, the Ninevites repented. And God had mercy on them, so Jonah was waiting in vain for a show that had been cancelled. Then:
[While Jonah waited and watched Nineveh from his hill-top perch] . . . the Lord God provided a gourd plant, that grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was very happy over the plant. But the next morning at dawn God sent a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head until he was faint. Then he asked for death, saying, “I would be better off dead than alive.”
But God said to Jonah, “Have you reason to be angry over the plant?” “I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?” Jon 6-11.
There are echoes of Ralph McInerny’s luck in Jonah’s plant. Where? McInerny’s success was built on determination, discipline, and concerted effort over a long period of time. A lot of hard work, to be sure. But the echo of Jonah is there: in thankfulness, and recognition, for what we have to work with.
Another great Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, put it this way in The Path to Rome: “Our energy also is from God, and we should never be proud of it, even if we can cover thirty miles day after day (as I can) . . . as though it were from ourselves, but we should accept it as a kind of present, and we should be thankful for it; just as a man should thank God for his reason.”
It’s a sub-strata of blessings, underneath the more noticeable things like the car that swerves at the last second to avoid a collision, leaving us breathless with our heart racing. Or the telephone call with the longed-for job offer. These are surely blessings, also, but we’re more prone to recognize them as such. The sub-strata — things like our reason and energy, our talents and skills, even our dreams and passions and interests — are easier to overlook simply because of their omni-presence. We have a tendency to take them for granted and see them not as free gifts from God, but as ours, and more: as our due. They can become, to borrow McInerny’s phrase, “merely a part of the natural order”.
The key is to remember Who creates and maintains that natural order. In the fray of this life’s constant struggle and strife, we need to apply ourselves to the utmost. While we do, we can be thankful for what we have in us to apply to the challenges we face. If there’s something that goes well because of the intelligence or skill or strength we can bring to bear upon it, or if things don’t go well but we find within ourselves the fortitude to persevere despite set-backs, we’re seeing the less-obvious gifts of God at work. When we do, we can thank Him for the little spot of shade He’s provided us to shelter in.
(© 2011 Jake Frost)