In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, a collection of essays part faith memoir, part investigative journalism (though much else as well), Sonja Livingston admits that her return to the Catholic Church was what she ultimately could not continue evading. As she says, “The question is not why I left...The question is why I returned.” But while Livingston does not shy away from aspects of the Catholic Church that are and have been damaging to many, she finds that there is nothing remotely ruined about the Catholic faith. To appreciate these essays, the reader must accept this premise. I came to these essays having once met the author, whose nonfiction I have greatly admired. I didn’t know until shortly before The Virgin of Prince Street was published that she is now a practicing Catholic. As someone who has struggled to stay within the Catholic Church because of my faith in the truth it declares, I approached The Virgin of Prince Street seeking comfort. Instead, I encountered grace.
Livingston’s own beginnings were as an economically and socially marginalized person, and growing up in the 1970s she found comfort in a church probably less laced with fear than the one I experienced in the 1960s (in her case, listening to Cat Stevens records at Mass and making “self-esteem collages” on youth retreats). In other respects, our backgrounds are quite similar, as are our hunger for a place of quiet, community, and liturgy: is this not what draws so many of us who have rediscovered our place within the Church? Certainly, it is evident in her love of the Church’s material culture, symbolized in this lost statue of the Blessed Mother, which “I loved for as long and as hard as I’ve loved anything.”
She begins, too, as many of us have begun, or re-begun— “I sit in the back”— not going up to receive communion until challenged by other parishioners, but in time coming all the way back in. She returns to a place not only comforting, but sensible, to a faith that makes sense of the world. The Virgin of Prince Street is above all a book of the senses, of hunger and desire, fed by flesh, by the Incarnation, and by the belief that the Divine does not exist wholly in the non-temporal world, but that has become part of creation. Within Incarnational belief there is no dualism of darkness and light, good and evil, matter and spirit. This dual construction has existed in every age in one form or another, currently running rampant especially within contemporary non-mainline spiritualties of all kinds that postulate that “God” is wholly spirit. It is clear that in her search for this statue, Livingston is searching for no such thing, as in her essay, “The Heart is a First-Class Relic”:
Relics have been used by humans for as long as we’ve bothered recording such matters and certainly long before. After his death the Buddha’s body was divided and enshrined. A footprint of the prophet Mohammad, his sandals—even the hairs of his beard—have been preserved for centuries in Istanbul. But no tradition is more associated with relics than Roman Catholicism, whose followers venerate bits of wood and bone and cloth too numerous to count...
For so-called liturgical Christians, then, an essential part of our experience is the crassly named “bells-and-smells” aspect of worship: statues, candles, incense, Rosary beads, embroidered altar cloths and clerical vestments. There is no doubt that the depth of our feeling is predicated on and nurtured by just these objects of sensory and feeling experience. If or when we lose them, that loss is as profound as the death of any person whom we have loved. If we return to the beloved, or if the beloved finds a way to return to us, we and they are literally restored to life. We recognize that the center of human meaning is love, devoted love. We do not, however, “worship” relics and other meaningful objects, but venerate them, and, yes, love them as well. Livingston does not “worship” the lost statue of the Blessed Virgin she seeks, but there is still a part of her that loves it enough to seek it out over much time and many miles.
And here is the cornerstone of these essays, the strategy around which they are arranged: will the statue be found? Will the search for it have been worth it? Will she be disappointed in what she finds? And, indeed, what is it, really, that she is looking for? If we place these questions within the context of faith versus reason/science, for many this is no longer even a relevant conversation: there is nothing worth searching for. But as the Church Fathers recognized, there is no dichotomy to be found between faith and reason, that the search for one is a search for the other, and Livingston agrees:
We exist in a sea of hearts. Even when we do not speak of them, they’re there. Big ones. Flabby ones. Old ones churning their way toward their few final pumps. New ones eager as spring birds. Rheumy fluttery valves. Constricted arteries. Barnacled veins. But no matter their quality or the characteristics of the people into whose bodies they’re set...the heart is electric. Science tells us this. Religion too. Here biologist and pilgrim lean in to examine the pink chambers and come away together, eyes wide in recognition.
Seemingly, this is a dynamic and a conundrum that are as old as the Church, which began in marginalization amongst the most marginalized. This truth does not escape Livingston, who skillfully takes the reader by the hand to arrive just here, that where the Church finds itself now is precisely where it ought to be, as she says, “[a] dynamic...Catholicism that once provided such nourishment [now] gasping for breath.” To take us there, she must also take us to an acceptance that what once was—the culture or cradle many of us lost and many have stopped trying to find—simply is no more. That triumphal Catholic Church as it existed for most decades of the previous century is over.
But its message to care for the poor, to hunger and work for justice, its insistence on the rewards to be found in commitment and devotion, even to a sometimes emotionally flat, sometimes outright betraying community—these are both the realities and mysteries of a faith that at once presents an irony and requires acceptance of it: we do not know it all, cannot know it all, and may not find everything we seek within the walls of this Church—but if we find ourselves within its walls, perhaps there is where we ought to be. Livingston concludes simply but with courage:
The problems in the Church are undeniable. I do not let my appreciation for tradition blind me to its abuses and faults, but neither do I let my anger and disappointment rob me of its riches. The aspects of Catholicism that sustain me are rooted in teachings more vital than the institution that houses it...
Livingston’s is literary nonfiction of a very high order, one that claims credibility and yet also, as I see it, recognizes that with this particular endeavor, credibility might be strained or even lost. As does any serious writer who is also a person of faith, Livingston takes a risk in ghettoizing or marginalizing herself with this identification. As she abundantly asserts, the slings and arrows that accompany such declarations are many, and many can have serious consequences for the writer. In the end, however, what is being asked or stated by the larger conversation is, what parts of anyone are acceptable to marginalize, and what parts not. It is still acceptable to marginalize the voices of Catholic writers, but in offering these essays, Livingston challenges that assumption in as elegant a way as the reader may find anywhere.
The Virgin of Prince Street shows us the Church that still is—and for those of us who are believers, the Church that the Holy Spirit still inhabits and through which She still gives life and light to the world. It is exactly in telling what was and what is, and in not shirking either, that Livingston has taken a risk worth taking. The discovery that it is not the material comforts themselves—embodied in churches, candles, communities, even history and tradition—that we seek, but the human need and longing for commitment, devotion, and service to the poor and to the other. These materials allow us to find what we have sought, and this is what is most significant. The Virgin of Prince Street is beautiful in its craft. It is also important enough in its message that any Christian, indeed, any person of faith in the world right now, ought to encounter.
Poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer Adrian Gibbons Koesters holds an MFA in poetry from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, and a Ph.D. in fiction and poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has taught creative writing. Her most recent work, the novel Miraculous Medal, is forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in May 2020. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.