A Review of
Whence and Whither:
On Lives and Living
Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney
*** This review originally appeared in our
Eastertide 2019 magazine issue
I shuddered when I saw “Christian Living” as the shelving category on this book. For booksellers, such nomenclature is likely to place Thomas Lynch among Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Daily Guideposts. I’m passing no judgement on those others, but Lynch is different.
I was first drawn to Lynch’s writing after hearing him do readings at literary festivals. I remember one reading that was standing-room only at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, about fifteen years ago. Lynch had recently published The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade—essays on living and dying, crafted in a way that only a poet/funeral director could. Since then, he’s written more poetry, more essays, and a minor bestseller with his friend, the great professor of pastors, Thomas G. Long: The Good Funeral. I’ve heard there may also be a novel in the works. For now, we have this fine collection of essays, oriented around the loose theme of “what comes next.”
Lynch has many friends, some of them among the justifiably renowned. Carol Ann Duffy, probably the best living poet in English, for instance, is a friend of Lynch’s. In the essay “Poets, Popes, and Laureates (On Carol Ann Duffy)” he describes first meeting her along the Thames in London. Duffy is about to conclude her ten-year term as Poet Laureate of England. She was born and raised in a poor section of Glasgow, where her father was an electrical fitter and trade unionist. She attended a Catholic primary school, and a convent middle school, studied philosophy at the University of Liverpool. She’s known for using plain language—she once criticized Seamus Heaney (one of Lynch’s dearest literary friends—there are essays on Heaney in Whence and Whither, too) for using uncommon words. She also once told a reporter, “In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth,” and those truths have often been at the expense of the Catholic worldview of her childhood. This was my favorite chapter of Whence and Whither, but also the one that made me most uncomfortable.
Lynch begins by setting the scene of meeting Duffy for the first time, just after he’s returned from a pilgrimage to Iona. He briefly recounts the life of St. Columba, better than any hagiographer. Then he describes meeting a priest, also on pilgrimage, from the suburbs of Glasgow. The two get to talking. Lynch tells the priest he’s there in Iona giving thanks for the woman he’s recently married, and who is home graciously caring for her new step-children. The priest calculates silently and then enquires about Lynch’s first marriage. Did the first wife die? Did they divorce? Before long, the priest uncovers what is to him a condemning fact: that no annulment was procured. He declares—in the way that a priest may think is kindly—that Lynch is living in sin. Lynch curses, tells him to bugger off, and almost hits him.
Meeting Duffy a few days later in London feels almost providential, and Lynch describes her possessing priestly qualities that were lacking in the ordained one he’d just tangled with on the holy island. Then, he adds, “[I]n all the years since then, whenever I have encountered Ms. Duffy, this richly liturgical air she has about her grows more manifest.”
They met on that first occasion, and we hear nothing more of it. But then there are future meetings—joint poetry readings in Galway and Newcastle West, and a more recent occasion when Lynch and others coaxed her over the ocean to Michigan to lecture and read to students. He admires a poem of hers in which the poet describes learning to turn unleavened bread into sacred Host, and laying down blessings from a papal chair. Lynch declares: “The priestly magic of transubstantiation—turning one thing into another, is after all the stuff of poetry.” Lynch’s anger toward his Church mirrors that of many of his fellow Catholics, including me, but Lynch is more blunt and less hopeful than I like to be. He’s right, of course, when he explains, “Membership in the universal, all embracing church of humanity seems too often at odds with the church such as we’ve come to know it—an institution of feckless Fr. Peters [the priest on Iona] and his well healed up-line, a clericalism which seeks to keep the reverend clergy in charge of God’s laws.” And the criticism goes on. It makes me blush, honestly, because I wouldn’t want to say it. But, of course, it’s all true.
Lynch says what he says in the obvious hope that faith and church might be transformed and resurrected. He has hope for this new life if there can be “exile and penance” for the old guard, and the growing and glowing presence of “fierce poets and wayfarers like Columba” in what’s to come. Again, he might be right. Miguel de Unamuno, the great Spanish writer of a century ago, wrote too, about the importance of being people, first and foremost, of flesh and blood. I think Unamuno’s meaning in writing, “Against values of the heart, reason does not avail”—is also what Thomas Lynch intends. In other words, don’t talk to me of what’s orthodox; talk to me of what’s humane.
Every essay in Whence and Whither makes for necessary reading, particularly if you are a person who has been hurt by organized faith. And who among us hasn’t been hurt, in one way or another? There’s a sentence in the middle of that essay on Carol Ann Duffy that reads, “I was alone in the off season, on an island in the sea, ready and willing and eager for the voice of God.” That’s how I think about Tom Lynch, and that’s why I always want to hear what he has to say.
There’s a hauntedness about this book. Its title is antiquated—if I had been Lynch’s editor, I would have urged him to change it—but I suggest you cross it out and replace it with this line from the preface: “Where we have come from and where we are bound.” Or this, which appears two paragraphs later: “The beauty of our being, the desolation of our ceasing to be.” These essays are from one of our greatest living writers, nearing the end of a productive career and a fruitful life, looking back, and ahead, at what’s to come.