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Winter Books

Ordinary life that is prelude to a richer, deeper eternity

by Christopher de Vinck
Loyola Press, 160 pages, $12.95

Reviewed by JIM GOODMAN

Last year on Dec. 24, my father died. Over the next few days scenes of my life with him passed in front of my eyes -- rich, warm, endearing memories confirming that I was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. The night before he went, I said to my wife, “There has to be another life. This life cannot contain all the longing and love we feel.”

This page from my own history is an indicator of the places Christopher de Vinck’s Finding Heaven: Stories of Going Home can take you. In successive vignettes drawn from childhood, the memories of grandparents and parents, from times with siblings, spouse and friends, and from watching and playing with his own children, de Vinck offers his own “whys” for a belief that this present is but a prelude to a much richer and deeper eternity. No small pondering for many people anymore in a world where, as the current phrase puts it, “anything can happen.”

This collection might, at first, strike the reader as largely sentimental, as something that critics of a former age would have referred to as “bourgeois.” That might be true, if they didn’t strike so many chords in our own memories, if they didn’t coalesce with our own sensory first acquaintances with the many stages of life and the dreams and hopes they awaken in the heart.

It is because it is bathed in the light of the ordinary that Finding Heaven has such a seductive character. Stories of care for a physically and mentally handicapped brother, of having a mother who, as a young woman, survived Nazi occupation and war and met the love of her life in the streets of post-war Paris, of an encounter in college with a deeply troubled young woman who had recently lost a brother in Vietnam -- all these acquire a luminescent quality. They emerge from the life of a writer eager to tell of the backyard of his childhood home, of the necessary “two acres of wilderness for exploration and spiritual development” that shaped his early life, and the tree whose branches “extended like arms to cradle a fall.”

As I read the accumulation of 51 years of memories and reflection, I began to think of it as a writer’s exercise in the “practice of the presence of God.” Again it is the God of the ordinary, the everyday -- God who, through the people and environs of our day-to-day lives, has become as Julian of Norwich says, “our clothing.”

In our troubled times, the ordinary is appealed to as a haven of sanity, if not of safety, in the midst of anxiety. And the chronicles of those in love with the ordinary grow in importance for those seeking guidance for their own ordinary lives. Maybe because that kind of life is the hardest there is to live -- and record -- genuinely. It is full of its own unique happiness, as well as marked by its own halting confessions: of feelings of being lost, of the need for friends, of the hope that one’s work actually does count for something.

I especially liked de Vinck’s book because of his fearlessness about these things. He is unafraid to confess his worry that Fred Rogers and Henri Nouwen would not find him interesting enough for friendship, unafraid to admit his being shaken over the impending loss of his mother and the child-like feelings that rise up, as he is unafraid to confess his love for his wife, Roe, and their children.

It is all of these movements of the heart that require a writer’s sympathetic witness. The author of Finding Heaven is that kind of witness -- companionable, compassionate and possessing the necessary touch of innocence that reconnects the reader to their own child’s heart.

This little collection makes a good bedside companion, one that might reacquaint you with thoughts and dreams scarcely remembered. In thickets of memory lies the gold that paves the way to a newer world, that undiscovered country of “golden light” (de Vinck’s reference to heaven) that is “much brighter than our simple notions of light … brighter than the light we know here on earth.”

Jim Goodmann is the director of the Lilly Theological Exploration of Vocation project at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002