“At this moment, here in the rectory hallway, I stood aching with excitement, for suddenly it seemed to me that something might be ahead which grew out of the past, yes, but was totally different, with its own labors and rewards, that it might be deeper and fuller and more meaningful than anything in the past, and that as a priest at Old St. Paul’s, working day by day in this parish I had really been shamed into choosing by the scornful words of a dying friend, I might, through the parish and its people, find my way not again to the simple engagement of the heart and affections, but to the Richness, the Mercy, the immeasurable Love of God…”
The pastor of a church I attended a while ago once told me, “To choose the life of ministry is to choose a life of loneliness.” As a man of the cloth, of course, there’s nobody to talk to, nobody to relate to, nobody to really consider a friend or even a peer.
With the complete absence of romance, the company of only fellow priests in the rectory, confessors, and the dying requesting their last rites, the life of a Catholic priest is even lonelier.
Edwin O’Connor’s 1962 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Edge of Sadness, tackles this loneliness, and in a remarkable way.
The Edge of Sadness is the story of Father Hugh Kennedy, a listless, loveless, hopeless priest who pastors a fledgling church called Old Saint Paul’s and happens to be a recovering alcoholic. He is far from the future he wants for himself, even further from the future he envisioned when he left home for the seminary as he tries to piece together his career and his life while reconciling his past.
The driving plot of this novel revolves around Kennedy’s involvement with the illustrious Carmody family and their trials and, through their interactions, Kennedy comes to learn a lot about himself.
The Edge of Sadness became a bestseller in the 1960’s in part because of its scandalous elements. Edwin O’Connor took direct aim at the popular stereotype of the Catholic priest in America. This was the picture of the priest as a super-competent, authoritarian, but lovable leader; a wise counselor, a gregarious extrovert, and a heroic celibate (who could nevertheless flirt with the ladies).
This novel is certainly no Going My Way, in which Bing Crosby plays the enchanting Father Chuck O’Malley, and none of the priests in this novel come even close to that caricature.
No, Father Hugh Kennedy is a recovering alcoholic who has no friends, who can’t relate to the largely immigrant population of his parish, who doesn’t even want to relate to them, who doesn’t even want to be associated with Old Saint Paul’s. His bishop placed him there as a sort of punishment to ensure that he’d recover from his alcoholism, but he wants to be back at Saint Raymond’s instead; he merely views his parish as a midpoint in his life, a safe haven, “a nice quiet recovery room…for someone who’s licked a Problem,” as his friend, Father John Carmody tells him.
Not that Father John Carmody is any better. He isn’t just as lonely and bitter, but has even gone beyond that. While Kennedy can’t relate to his flock and doesn’t really know any of them, Carmody just plain despises his own flock, and he despises his lot in life for having to deal with them.
Besides the dyspeptic view of the Catholic church of the 1950’s and 60’s, O’Connor also challenges the stereotypical Irish-American of this time period. He discusses the removal of Irish heritage in the minds and hearts of the characters, how they no longer value their ties to the homeland though they’re only a generation two removed from a pig farm in Galway.
The Carmody’s are a prime example of this: Charlie, the 81-year-old patriarch of the family, represents the dying breed—verbose and charismatic, but a cold-blooded penny-pincher all the same. His children aren’t Irish at all—they’re American. Driven by goals, prosperity, wealth, and “happiness,” whatever that means. They’re busy and impatient. “Modern.”
Not the sort of Micks, fresh off the boat, that so defined the culture of late 19th and early 20th century New England.
These two viewpoints make The Edge of Sadness a novel that is filled to the brim with a certain kind of nostalgia and, moreover, regret. Nostalgia for lives that never were, regret for decisions and actions that prevented those lives from being so.
I fell in love with this book almost immediately; I have to confess, though, that it was incredibly depressing. I’ve never felt any lonelier than I did when I was reading this book (except maybe when I was sleeping on the hardwood floor of an apartment that I was squatting in two winters ago; I’m glad I didn’t decide to read this book then—I don’t think I would’ve made it). It’s certainly true that Father Kennedy does come to the very “edge of sadness”, but there is that small glimmer of hope at the end of it, when Kennedy refuses a promotion to Saint Raymond’s to instead continue overseeing Old Saint Paul’s, but with more enthusiasm for his position.
I had to remind myself a few times that this was, in fact, a novel and not a memoir. It reads exactly like a memoir—the thoughts, the feelings, the memories, the characters and their situations—it’s all very real. As if Father Hugh Kennedy were a real person.
That was the only reason that The Edge of Sadness took me a week to finish instead of a couple days. I had to keep putting it down to reflect or to simply absorb the profound psychological and spiritual insights O’Connor had to offer.