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Haunted by a baby’s death, author faces the silence

by James A. Connor
Crown Publishers, 209 pages, $22.95


The subtitle to Silent Fire is “Bringing the Spirituality of Silence to Everyday Life, and might suggest this is yet one more study of otherworldly prayer. It is not. This is the journal, written over a period of some 20 years, of James A. Connor, at that time a Jesuit priest, documenting his struggle to make sense of a life of ministry. Early on he discovered that life can be messy.

“Contemplation doesn’t take me elsewhere; nor does it give me visions. I don’t see flights of angels, or hear secret voices, but I see the ordinary world revealed.”

This ordinary world was revealed to him one morning as he entered the hospital where he served as chaplain. Turning the corner into the emergency room, he was uncharacteristically greeted with stony faces, angry looks and evasive glances. Shaken, he came to a halt at one of the desks and risked: “What’s with everybody today?” With that the tragedy began to unravel.

The nurse pointed to a closed cubicle at the back of the room. A young couple, wrenched from the joy of having a first baby, was mourning the baby’s incredible death. They had been on a road trip to introduce her to grandparents who could scarcely contain their anticipation and joy at seeing their new grandchild. The baby was snugly buckled into a safety seat. They were driving through a canyon. As if at a given signal a boulder rumbled from its nesting place, hurdled down the cliff and came to a crash landing on the back of the car. The parents emerged without a scratch. But the rock crushed the baby to death. The hospital chaplain’s job was to bring comfort to this family.

Connor sums up the toll of pastoral ministry: “Priests and ministers burn out faster then anyone, faster than doctors and teachers. They are surrounded every day by other people’s pain, and either they grow a hard crust, withdrawing into themselves, or they take to the bottle, or they have crises of faith. I could never trust a priest who had not struggled through a crisis, because his faith couldn’t be very deep. Faith is a muscle, a diaphragm for breathing, and needs to be worked.”

The chaplain did the best he could. He sat with the couple and talked with the family until he couldn’t take it anymore: “Two days after the baby died, I found a replacement for the parish and announced to the bishop that I was leaving on retreat. Frightened as I was, I would face that silence, one way or another. It was time to run toward it instead of away.”

The book is basically the record of how he entered into that silence, faced it squarely, and what it taught him for the rest of his life. For this reader the style is reminiscent of Annie Dillard -- penetrating in detail, poetic, a visionary in his element when free to roam the woods or pull away from shore with boat and paddle. His purpose is clearly not to escape from, but to enter deeply into the heart of reality.

Throughout the journal Connor is haunted by the question of the tragic and absurd death of the baby: Who is this God who would do such a thing? “Who is this God who with one hand makes the moonlight on a lake, yet with the other kills a baby with a large rock? In the face of suffering, we collapse into silence.”

His gift to his readers is a sharing in his solitude, inviting us to flee from the noise with which we fill our lives and to discover with him the peace of four levels, or “circles of silence”: no words, no thought, no self, embracing all. He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, yet he teaches best by simply sharing with us his own story. It is a moving story of deep compassion and search for peace.

A sampling of quotes from the book invites us to reflect on our own values:

“In a way, American consumerism, as bad a habit as thumb-sucking, is a twisted version of the true desire for the spiritual life, for God. ... Advertising and social manipulation confuse spiritual longing with lust for ownership.”

“Real desire is not about owning but about being owned, about belonging, connection and love.”

“Learn to see beyond immediate gratification; dig deeper than lust, and keep digging until you reach the soul’s desire, burning like a hot coal.”

“If you sit in silence long enough, things will come to you.”

“The education of desire is the most profound choice you can make.”

Silent Fire inspires us with the story of one who weeps with those who weep, who tends the fire in his own soul, offering the hospitality of a sacred space where others can come to be warmed and healed.

Robert Durback is editor of Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (Doubleday) and, most recently, Henri Nouwen: In My Own Words.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002