Recovering the Vocabulary of Faith
The Holy Fool
By Harold Fickett
Publisher: Crossway Books
Review Author: Carl R. Schmahl
If the Incarnation of Jesus Christ means anything, it certainly means that we are now able to recognize the Holy in the ordinary. We have been freed from our sometimes obsessive preoccupation with what T.S. Eliot called “dung and death,” freed to live our lives like water striders skimming along on the often rough and murky surface tension of Glory.
The aim of any writer worth his salt is to take his readers beneath the surface of life and immerse them in the waters below. Unfortunately, as a quick survey of any B. Dalton or Waldenbooks bookstore will verify, what is revealed there is too often the soft silt and decaying vegetation of lust and the will to power. But there are exceptions, writers who bid us take a deep breath and follow them into the realms of light. Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, Dante Alighieri, John Donne, and C.S. Lewis come to mind. So too, after reading The Holy Fool, does Harold Fickett.
Flannery O’Connor says somewhere in one of her essays on fiction, “in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye.” In other words, good fiction, like life, operates on more than one level. Good fiction uses the events and tensions of everyday life on one level to draw us deeper and deeper into the writer’s perception of truth or reality on another. By this standard, The Holy Fool is good fiction indeed.
On the first level Harold Fickett presents us with Ted March, a middle-aged, scarred veteran of 30 years in the Protestant ministry. Like many of us, March has brushed up against the rough edges of life more than once. His wife, Constance, an attractive, intelligent woman, is a religious skeptic who neither shares nor understands her husband’s struggle. She is rational, cool, capable of saying, “This whole business, religion, gets crazier to me every day, and I don’t want any part of it. Especially the pain.” March’s daughter, Marianne, is the exact opposite of her mother, “unrestrained, romantic, volatile, like a coin of love and hate,” a woman who, at the age of 19, “began a program of sexual liberation with an oddly Presbyterian determination and thoroughness, coupled with a certain erotic-scientism.” Their youngest is Benjamin, conceived by accident, named for Jacob’s youngest son against his mother’s wishes, a boy who, even at age 10, hopes “that he, too, might be like the gods, knowing good and evil.”
In addition to worries at home, Ted March faces professional difficulties. His ministry at the First Baptist Church “seemed to have entered a dark and sodden night of the soul, so to speak, in which [he] could smell the tar and feathers.” The handwriting is on the wall, his congregation is dissatisfied with him. He is a man living on borrowed time.
Deeper than either of these problems, however, is the true cause of Ted March’s discontent; he has lost the certainty that sustained him in the early years of his ministry: “The question for me had become, Was Christianity true? I had no way of telling.” How to answer the question? How to recover his certainty? How to get beyond the spurious non-answers of long-established religious custom to the heart of the matter? What Ted March needs is a revival of the spirit, a recovery of the vocabulary of faith.
Like a good Baptist, March plans a revival for his church, a week-long series of sermons, songs, and testimonies which he hopes will revitalize him and his congregation. He enlists an old friend, a famous evangelist missionary; he hires the usual compliment of crowd-pleasing musicians and sits back, waiting for his spiritual aridity to end. But the revival does not come off the way he expects. The evangelist suffers from his own incapacitating lack of faith, which forces March to take over. While preparing the sermons he will deliver, March examines his own life and begins to know the reality of Sin, Justice, Grace, Hope, Love, and Redemption.
One episode, especially, stands out in my mind: During World War II, March was a Navy chaplain assigned to a hospital in San Diego. Uncomfortable with the hospital atmosphere, with counseling the broken and suffering victims of the war, he approached his commanding officer to request more preaching and worship responsibilities; in effect, to exchange jobs with another chaplain, Hugh Finley. Since Finley did not agree to the exchange, March, a competent golfer with a five handicap, determined to ingratiate himself with his commander by helping the man cure a wicked slice, and thus improve his game. The trouble came when March discovered that golfing ability alone was not enough to influence his commander, and he was going to be stuck in a job he could not tolerate. Deeply angered by Finley’s refusal to defer to March’s wishes, March drove a ball straight for Finley’s head. For an instant it appeared that the ball actually struck the man, and “in that first instant I felt deeply gratified by what I had done. Then, quickly, I felt guilt and, just as quickly, tried to rationalize.” For Ted March, this incident demonstrated the depths to which his own will could sink in pursuit of its own ends, and revealed him to himself as a sinner.
Other episodes are just as revealing. In fact, The Holy Fool brims over with nicely drawn characters and situations that smack of real life. It is no surprise that Fickett is a student of Flannery O’Connor, another writer whose prose delves beneath the surface of things to the Light below. The Holy Fool is a book well worth your time.
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