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rosary beads held in a priest's hands

Virgin with No One Face

A review of The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions Into Devotion, by Sonja Livingston

Nick Ripatrazone

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Un grand coeur du frère André goes the compliment in Quebec: a heart as big as Brother André’s. Pilgrims flock to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, where the heart of Saint André Bessette rests in a vault. The faithful have come to venerate this relic from a lay brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Veneration, though, is not worship. As Sonja Livingston writes in The Virgin of Prince Street, “The savviest of Catholics would explain that, despite the kneeler and pedestal and flowers, Brother André’s heart is not being worshipped. The relic merely provides a physical connection to a holy person while serving as a reminder of his humanity and our own capacity for goodness.”

The distinction between veneration and worship is important, and often misunderstood – especially as it relates to the Virgin Mary. For Catholics, Marian devotion is natural. She gazes down from the walls of churches. Statues of her adorn front lawns. The blessed virgin figurine on my dorm windowsill and the miraculous medal around my neck were the parts of my Catholicism that I had to explain the most at my Lutheran college. Catholic families look to Mary, a vulnerable young woman who made a dizzying leap of faith, as a source of hope. To me, she is best captured in “Rosary,” a short poem by Franz Wright:

Mother of space,
inner

Virgin
with no one face—  

See them flying to see you
be near you,

when you
are everywhere.

Mary is everywhere, but one particular statue of her is missing. Back at Corpus Christi, her childhood parish in Rochester, New York, Livingston notices that the blessed virgin statue that had been on the right-side altar was gone. Once merged with other parishes, “increasingly common as Rochester’s Catholic churches continued to close,” the church had become crowded with statues, and the virgin had been sold to a church in the Diocese of Buffalo. Livingston begins a light-hearted search for the statue that becomes the central narrative of the book, but it is best to understand The Virgin of Prince Street as a collection of meandering chapters that drift into various elements of Catholic culture and practice.

Livingston has written about her Catholicism before in Ghostbread, a memoir of growing up poor in western New York. That book focused on her family – she was one of seven children raised by her single mother – but this new book has a more spiritual bent. And, although Livingston was a female altar server during the 1970s at Corpus Christi, she clarifies that she “was never traditionally religious,” in part because of mother, who would either be “dragging all seven of her children to re-enact the stations of the cross on city streets on Good Friday, or sleeping in on Sundays and missing Mass for years at a time.” Livingston begins her book back at that church, after twenty years of not regularly attending Mass: “I looked around on Sunday morning, mystified. The rows of empty pews did not baffle me, nor did the worn fixtures or the precariousness of Corpus Christi’s survival. I was surprised only by how much I cared.”

Surprised might be better replaced with reminded, since what Livingston does best in this book is capture the particular notes of the Catholic culture of her childhood. To be raised Catholic is to be Catholic for life – in language and reference – regardless of spiritual practice. (If you doubt this, speak ill of Mary in front of a lapsed Catholic). The culture of Catholicism is marked by the marriage of sense and story, which do wonders to solidify memory. Art, narrative, song, architecture, and spectacle making palpable an abstract God.

Those representations are necessary for Livingston because there’s a distance between her and that divine word: “I smile hard and mutter other words – spirit, goodness, love – anything but the word God, which sits like a fistful of rubber bands in my mouth.” Is this foolish? Maybe. Is it related to the canard that Catholics don’t read the Bible? Possibly, and that assumption likely comes from the same source, the paradoxes of Catholicism.

Livingston says it is “possible my problem is cultural. I grew up among people who did not like to reveal our tenderness.” What her book encapsulates as so well is this idiosyncratic Catholic mix of sentimentality and distance, reserved personal faith – and a comfort with mysticism. Rust Hills, the fiction editor of Esquire, once told the writer Andre Dubus that Catholicism at the story level was “blood and guts” – a little base, but not untrue. Livingston reflects that as she speaks of “growing up with the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on our living room wall. Years of looking into that print prepared me, as did the life-size crucifix hauled out for Good Friday Mass, the bloodied feet the old ladies lined up to kiss.” Catholic devotion to bodily relics makes sense to her.

In many ways, Livingston is devoted to devotion itself – the melancholy music of belief. She feels impatient at a Presbyterian church with her husband: “The simple elegance of the service had been a good match for my head, but the tangled mess of my heart longed for something else,” and jokes “I need a statue of a saint.” She thinks of the now-missing one from her childhood parish on Prince Street: “Where other Virgins were topped by radiant diadems or crowned with halos of light, ours was outfitted with a meager veil and was similarly modest underfoot.”

Her journey toward the statue reveals her own spiritual search. She came back to church because “what my heart wanted was to go back, to look at things straight on, to take it all in – the beauty and the flaws – and see what it would be like to not leave.” Livingston is particularly attuned to the beauty of faith. She writes of communion:

When else did we bow to something larger than ourselves? Where else had I seen faces so open and solemn that tears sometimes came into their eyes? On television, perhaps, when actors played the part of being in love. In movies. Or books. But in our neighborhood, where most fathers were absent and mothers worried over the steady onslaught of bills and raged some days and laughed the next – even on those days when we managed to be peaceful or glad – no face ever looked as tender as it did in the Communion line.

One short chapter, “Litany for a Dying Church,” is an affirmation of these graces. The section reads as a gentle prose poem of why a church is more than simply a building to her and other parishioners: “The silk chasubles and velvet-cushioned seats. Confessions murmured through the screen. Bless me, Father. All that’s said and heard and washed away. All that remains locked inside the body’s tender vault.”

These are careful and welcome notes. The Virgin of Prince Street is an apologia of sorts for Catholic devotion, although not quite the institutional church. As a believer, it is sometimes frustrating to see the artifice of belief mistaken for its substance. I think Livingston largely evades that posture, but her language sometimes pauses me. “The aspects of Catholicism that sustain me are rooted in teachings more vital than the institution that houses it,” she writes, “and it’s the institution that’s dusty, the institution that’s in peril, the institution that must be renewed if it’s ever again to thrive.” Yet I think Livingston gets it right when, elsewhere in the book, she captures how the institutional church is inextricable from the faith itself – this is the paradox of Catholicism. Its structural elements are also its salvific elements. A church built on a rock, one might say.

Although her book does end on a slightly ambiguous spiritual note – the final chapter feels a bit abridged – Livingston is to be lauded for documenting an honest journey back home. “When the norm is walking away,” she writes, “devotion itself becomes a radical proposition.”

book cover of The Virgin of Prince Street by Sonja Livingston

Get the book: The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions Into Devotion by Sonja Livingston

Contributed By portrait of Nick Ripatrazone Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is the culture editor for Image journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and Esquire.

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