My interview with The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion author Sonja Livingston: Part II

sonjalivingston copy
Photo credit: Jones Hendershot

Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston continues our discussion of her new book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. We talk feminism and the need for human connection in faith. Sonja also offers her take on teaching students of writing–and the rest of us–to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and fills us in on what she’s writing, right now. (Missed Part I of the interview? Find it here.)

Sonja, as if writing about faith and devotion weren’t a hard enough sell in today’s fairly secular literary world, you’ve noted before that as a professor of writing, students often bristle at the use of the “R word,” religion. How do you encourage your students or other writers to get past the initial bristling to explore their relationship with faith—or any other challenging aspect of identity?

I encourage students to write about what’s important to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s important to me, their mothers, their best friends, their social media followers. This is so simple, but it’s tough.  

It used to be that writing about issues related to abuse, trauma, and sexuality was especially risky, but those subjects have become standard fare in nonfiction writing workshops these days. In other words, what’s hard to open up about today is not the same as a decade ago. And what we’ll be afraid to speak (or write) in ten years will likely be different still. But I tell my students that this is where the power is. To notice what’s not being talked about, what subjects make us feel shame or small or tender. This might be something as big as religion or spirituality, but it might also be relatively minor, like the TV show character you’re obsessed with or the voice message you keep on your phone and listen to when you are alone. I remind students that whether we write about religion or our crush from 7th grade, HOW we write is at least as important as WHAT we write. Keeping the focus on the process helps writers to see that any topic tackled honestly and with humility and curiosity can be the stuff of powerful writing.

In one of the essays in your book, “Act of Contrition,” you journey to southern Louisiana to meet the priest who has converted an old ambulance into a mobile confessional, what he calls a Spiritual Care Unit. The priest drives around through Cajun country, offering the sacrament to the Catholics in the area. With the pandemic, local churches around the country have gotten creative—streaming Mass and even doing drive-through confessions. Through your own devotional journey, how do you reconcile all that hasn’t changed in our very traditional Church with all that could or should? 

This is such a good question. It’s maybe THE question. Of course, I have opinions about what should change in the Church and I tend be friends with people who hold similar opinions, so they become pretty firmly entrenched. But I also understand that our opinions don’t actually change much. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I can (and do) write what I love about the liturgy or a good priest or an old prayer—and even, at times, criticize what seems so blatantly wrong—but ultimately, the Church has shown itself unconcerned with popular opinion and is even dying, in many places, rather than change. I suppose, on some level, I believe that people have a profound need for reverence. Wow. This is a very long way of answering the question! Basically, I try to find balance between my opinions and letting things be, while trusting in the human need for meaning and connection and hoping that this very difficult phase for traditional religion will lead to some sort of rebirth. 

I love a detour essay, and “A Brief History of Prayer,” is a great example of that. On a trip to visit a monastery in Georgia, you instead end up succumbing to a desire to see the ocean and wind up in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The essay is a lyrical, historical exploration of the Wright Brothers’ flight punctuated by notes on the history of prayer—and your own imagining of what might have been the first prayer, “the moment Adam first saw Eve.” What follows is my favorite passage in the book:

…and perhaps because one of his bones had been recently stolen, the cage over his heart had loosened and freed up space for the first prayer to launch from his still-tender chest.

Here, Eve is being looked upon, as we look upon our statues of Mary. We talk a lot about gazing and gazes in literary criticism and in feminist works. Do you think of yourself as a feminist? If so, how does your writing and your Mary fit in?

This is such an interesting question, because, of course, both Eve and Mary are gazed upon—gazing upon Mary is a Catholic tradition, in fact. That said, I do consider myself a feminist. In that section (and thank you for your kind words!) Eve is both an object of enthrallment and the source of essential action as I imagined circumstances for the first human prayer. I suppose I was using Eve (and Adam) to look at the various occasions when humans tend to pray—usually times of tremendous fear and love and desperation.

I’m also thinking that gazing at Mary is more than merely gazing at a pleasing female figure. It is, in some ways, a meditative act. Catholics don’t tend to use this language because it sounds too Eastern or New Agey—but, like candles and incense, a holy image can help center and focus our attention as we pray/meditate.

I have to also admit that while I now see Mary as a figure of peace and love, I rejected poor Mary for years because she seemed such an anti-feminist symbol. As a young woman I was embarrassed by what I saw as tacky Marian displays and a submissive girlish figure. My mother had a bathtub Virgin once and I was not a fan. Now I wish I could go back in time. I’d bring a buckets of pink flowers and plant them at her feet.

In your memoir and in this book, you explore the physical space of your church—a second home to you as a child. We Catholics have been away from our physical places of worship for a couple months now. How is that for you?

It’s been really tough. I’m answering some of these questions on a Sunday after trying and failing to Zoom into Mass. My church has limited resources and the technology isn’t consistently up to snuff. But even when I do manage to connect on Zoom, it’s nice, of course to see people and hear the prayers, but the physicality that is so important is simply not there. Not only the church, but the statues, the ability to receive Communion. I’ve found myself starting to light candles and sit still at home or listen to music and talk softly with my husband every night before bed. It’s not prayer exactly, but the time is sacred and has made the isolation not only bearable but even beautiful at times.

In your memoir, Ghostbread, you worked against the stereotype that says a girl who looks like you can’t be impoverished, can’t live in a slum. I feel like in this book you’re working against the stereotype that says an educated, reasonable person can’t also be a person of faith—that we can’t hold worldly intelligence and mystery at the same time. You write: “Devotion alone may not translate to transformation…But it’s equally true that many of us have been too quick to dismiss it as an essential entry point in our attempt to build meaningful lives.” Thank you for letting this reader in on your journey! What are you working on now? What are you reading?

That’s such a smart way of framing things! I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. But yes, a lot of my writing is about letting people know what can’t be seen or known on the surface of things. I often use a writing prompt with my students that asks them to make a list of things that others can’t tell about them simply by looking at them. The lists are always rich. And you are right on about this book. It was about exploring/challenging that apparent dichotomy (between education and faith) for myself and others.

As for what I’m reading: I just found Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin. Both are very short experimental novels which interest me because I’m working on a very short experimental novel set in Niagara Falls, New York. In fact, I started on the novel before writing these essays. It deals with similar questions—about tradition, religion, family— in a much more embodied way. My main character is a pregnant teen who shows up to her old aunt’s house. The question is what she’ll do about the pregnancy but the action centers around their planning of a communal feast celebrated in certain regions of the U.S., including western New York. So basically, I’m still writing about gritty cities and tradition and what it means to break bread together—how we might find and love each other even as things fall apart.

***

 

coverimage
Buy this book here: nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press

For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is married to the artist Jim Mott and splits her time between New York State and Virginia. Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/

For Part I of my interview with Sonja, click here.

Quotes and bio pulled from the author’s book and website.

***

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

My interview with The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion author Sonja Livingston: Part I

sonjalivingstonbl
Sonja Livingston, author of The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion  Photo credit: Gregory Gerard

What does the term “Rust Belt” conjure for you?

Rust itself requires steel, water, and neglect–three things gritty cities across the post-industrial landscape of America know well. With the decline of industry and population in Rust Belt cities like my native Cleveland and my mother’s native Buffalo, many of the people there have seen their Catholic churches shuttered. With the churches goes the sacred art–statues and other devotional items. Some are lost, and some (almost miraculously) are found again.

In Sonja Livingston latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the award-winning writer goes on a quest to find a missing blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood church in Rochester, New York. Her unexpected return to her home parish offers her “an occasion to travel through space and time to explore the changes in the larger Church and in her own life.”

I adored this book for its lyrical and honest portrayal of a journey of the spirit. It’s a journey relatable to spiritual seekers of all kinds–as rooted in the gritty earth as it is to the sacred. And I loved my conversation about it with Sonja and hope you do, too.

***

Sonja, in your Author’s Note that starts your book, you describe yourself as “astonished,” to find yourself back at your childhood church in Rochester. With all that has gone wrong with our childhood churches in the Rust Belt–and the institution of the Catholic Church–why was this journey the right one for you to take?

Great question. What we’re drawn to really matters! Our memories, dreams, obsessions, worries—these are arrows pointing to our material as writers and human beings. The trick is to trust those arrows—even and especially when they make no sense. I spent lots of time wondering why I kept returning to my old church and while I developed a few theories, the most important takeaway relates to faith. Not faith in the doctrinal sense, but faith in the raw sense. As in, not being sure about something but proceeding anyway.

For me, writing itself is a tremendous act of faith.

That said, there’s no getting around the Church’s problems. Their stance on issues of sexuality and gender, as well the abuse scandals and cover-ups, have sent people packing. When I left church in my 20s, I believed that Catholicism was either good or bad. Going back required that I blast those categories wide open. Most churches and religions are a mix of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, vulgar and holy. To get the good, I needed to put up with some of the bad—not all the bad, or the really bad, of course. Still, love and trouble often go hand and hand. You won’t see that on any greeting card but it seems to be true. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose which troubles visit us—and trouble is, by its very nature, painful. Which is a very long way of saying that this journey was about church but, even more so, about growing my heart enough to contain the mix of pain and joy inherent to all relationships.

coverimage
Buy this book here: nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press

So, the narrative thread that binds your essays of devotion together is the mystery of a missing statue of the Virgin Mary from your childhood church, “Queen of a working-class parish,” you call her. Since this is the Rust Belt Girl blog, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your home parish was like and is like now?

My family of 7 kids and a single mom moved around when I was young—from the northeast section of Rochester to rural Orleans County to an Indian Reservation near Buffalo and back again. The one thing these places had in common was poverty and as I wrote in one of the essays, my family’s one consistency was being among the poorest of families in whatever enclave of poor people we found ourselves.

Corpus Christi Church was a hub we returned to over the years—the one source of beauty of light we could count on when we lived in the city. Like many parishes in the region, it was built to accommodate immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal, in the railroads and textile factories in the late 19th century. Later, their sons and daughters and grandchildren worked production jobs at Kodak and Xerox or as secretaries and bus drivers. By the time I was on the scene (in the late-1970s and 80s), anyone who could afford to left the neighborhood which resulted in empty pews in all those old churches their grandparents had worked so hard to build.

Today, my old church is one a handful of parishes still open in Rochester’s northeast quadrant. I’m not sure how COVID will impact us as human beings in terms of spirituality and faith, but I’m guessing it will be the end for many parishes such as my own which were barely holding on before the pandemic. But for now, the church is still a place of beauty and light in my life—and one I appreciate all the more as its survival becomes more tenuous.

“What is this attachment?” to the Prince Street Virgin, you ask yourself early in your book. The importance of statues and relics and other devotional items can seem pretty strange to non-Catholics. In your essay “The Heart is a First-Class Relic,” you visit a shrine in Montreal that contains the preserved heart of a saint. In your thinking and writing—for a reader—how do you move past the foreign, strange, and even grotesque of our religion to a place that might engender more universal searching?

These essays were, in part, an attempt to explore those aspects of tradition I thought I’d outgrown or never quite understood. Whether it’s the statues at church or the bloody images of Jesus or the use of relics, I’ve come to realize that Catholic devotional practices often underscore the belief that the world is saturated with the divine. If the physical objects and elements at church—like holy water, statues, or stained glass—can be sacred, so too can things outside the building. Which is to say that some of these seemingly strange Catholic traditions are about making the sacred visible, tangible, solid, and real in people’s lives.

I hope this is relatable to people regardless of belief or background. So many of us recognize this in nature—the way the sun lights up new leaves or the pure magic of dogwood blossoms. And no matter how we explain it, often feel buoyed by such physical manifestations of beauty/holiness/light.

The Catholic religion is very much body-centered. Over most altars we see a crucified, bloodied Christ, nailed to a cross. In your writing in this book and your memoir of childhood, Ghostbread, you are very attuned to the body: from girlhood, when your body often went hungry, through adolescence to womanhood. Your reaction to returning to church is described as a feeling—not a lofty spiritual feeling, but a feeling in your body. You write: “…my body returned to a church pew as if it were an old love.” The sense of devotion as a body-centered act—do you feel that’s a bridge even non-believers can cross to understand your essays more fully?

You’re so right, Catholicism is all about the body! The celebration of the mysterious transformation of the bread to Body is the very heart of the Catholic Mass, for instance. To worship is to kneel, to stand, to sing, to cross yourself, to genuflect and bow.

Devotion is not an exercise of the head.

To participate in the Mass, at least for me, is not about “thinking” but feeling and doing. Like “losing yourself” or “falling” in love, the body seems to take over as the mind spins and second-guesses.

Regardless of how we label ourselves religiously, we humans are spiritual creatures and I hope most people will relate to the pull of the body in matters of love or hunger and possibly use it as a way to similarly understand the longing for mystery, ritual and faith.

In your inward journey of devotion, you covered a lot of actual miles—part faithful pilgrim, part objective observer. You travel to St. Brigid’s Well in Ireland, to an Orthodox Catholic celebration in Florida, to a Death and Marigold Parade in New Mexico. Is there a destination that didn’t make it into the book you’d like to describe? 

A few Christmases ago, I attended a funeral at the local Catholic Worker House. I was shadowing my parish priest to write a profile and the weekly Mass he was scheduled to celebrate became a funeral service for a man whose family otherwise couldn’t afford one. This wasn’t a “big” destination—it was only a few miles from my house, in fact. But sitting there listening to the gospel choir while looking at a framed photograph of Dorothy Day and this man in his casket and meeting someone from my old neighborhood—all during the height of the holiday season—caused me to think about poverty and gifts in a new way.

***

Please check back for Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston–for more from this book of hers, for her take on teaching students of writing to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and for what Sonja’s writing and reading, right now.

For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/

Quotes and bio pulled from the author’s book and website.

***

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

What to do with sacred art when churches close?

-ccfcc17ba2079104
Image from the Museum of Divine Statues in Lakewood, Ohio, courtesy of The Plain Dealer

If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything, that thing might be Catholicism. Or, maybe not–given that about 40 Catholic churches were shuttered in Cleveland, Ohio, alone over the last few decades.

As the city’s population waned and its churches closed, some of the sacred art was shipped out to existing and new churches; some wasn’t.

Thanks to a good friend and follower of Rust Belt Girl for putting me onto the story of Lou McClung. A makeup artist with his own cosmetics line housed in a former Catholic school, McClung bought the closed St. Hedwig Church (named for a beloved Polish queen) in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, in 2011, and began restoring its statues. In an article in a 2017 issue of Catholic Digest, McClung said:

I do restoration artwork across the country and I thought it was important to remember where all of these statues came up. The art represents the immigrants and all their hard work and sacrifices that made these [now closed] parishes possible.

The artist lovingly restores the statues and researches and shares the provenance of each piece in the Museum of Divine Statues he founded. Lately, McClung’s museum has been receiving religious artwork not only from the Cleveland area but from all over the country.

Other Rust Belt locales preserving shuttered churches and their art include the Buffalo [New York] Religious Arts Center and the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

McClung’s restoration work for his Museum of Divine Statues is beautiful. Great pics can be found at these sites:

http://www.cleveland.com/style/index.ssf/2017/02/lou_mcclung_restores_curates_m.html#incart_river_home

https://patch.com/ohio/lakewood-oh/new-life-for-shuttered-catholic-church-in-lakewood