Catechism: A Love Story is an intimate collection of seven lyric essays, each named for one of the Catholic sacraments. With passion, honesty, and verve, they explore the Quaker idea to “let your life speak.” In a book by that title, Parker J. Palmer, whose many publications call for greater authenticity in community and in educational institutions, redirects this phrase from its usual connotation where our actions bear witness to our deepest values; he instead invites us to listen to the patterns and turning points of our lives in order to discover our “hidden wholeness.” In these deeply spiritual essays, Julie Marie Wade listens with precision. In so doing, she reveals the grace of her own story of love, family, and identity. Artfully integrating a variety of topics like mathematics, The Sound of Music, a serious fever, and poetry (especially Adrienne Rich), Wade finds metaphors for her personal search, questions them, redefines the central issue, and in the end allows universal qualities to bear the resonance of truth for her own experience. Because she is listening this deeply, readers don’t experience the essays as mere information but as a rich blend of storytelling in which to get caught up, as poetry to tighten the knot of emotion, and as analysis to name nuances more exactly.
The subtitle of the book reflects its narrative urge, the author’s story of nearly marrying a man but instead meeting her first lover and growing into a more true love, one she never could have imagined for herself. Putting it down like that, as if it were a one-sentence answer to a standardized test, sacrifices all the questing and questioning in which the book engages and invites readers to consider. Just a list of the queries that accumulate over the course of the essays is an indication: Why love? Was love inevitable? What’s the difference between heresy and progress? Was I the man in my relationship? Had I chosen my genre too soon?
This last question indicates one element that makes these essays “lyrical.” Wade’s use of images and metaphors not only embodies concepts but also creates new resonances of meanings. For example, she wonders why we need to “punch the dough of sadness into story.” While the book’s structural metaphor is the sacraments, one for each essay, she makes each ritual her own. For example, in “Baptism,” taking a bath is as redefining, in Wade’s construction, as taking a new name in a religious ritual. “Holy Orders” reflects on the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but it goes beyond that. It also explores the line that divides an attempt to become more authentic by stretching beyond proscribed forms in natural, healthy ways, from the mistake of heresy, which means adopting beliefs beyond the orthodox. The implied questions are: Which orders are holy and so require obedience? And how does one know?
Another set of Wade’s metaphors involves mathematics, like the transversal, a line that intersects two or more other lines. In a narrative, a transversal could be any turning point in a character’s trajectory, but in a life’s story, who knows when a lifeline will be crossed? Wade’s idea is so much more compressed than any paraphrase, like: At what point does an eager-to-please young girl who understands “happily ever after” in traditional family terms pivot her thinking to consider other Afters? Each mathematical concept feels integrated into the essay in which it appears, but in a later essay, Wade takes on the metaphor directly.
Remember how we learned the story of math? It was literature or sociology; it surprised me. The numbers had intentions. They formed their own societies. They had the will to multiply themselves, the will to combine. They also had the will to divide.
Her ability to pace a reveal like this so that all the earlier references to math get gathered up in her reflections on story and her own story is artful. To then go further and observe that “in algebra, we learn about the Xs and Ys. It is a study of a certain kind of love,” all the book’s themes are present. And it is all prefigured in the opening sentences of the first essay.
Before, there was a Once and an Always, a smooth envelope with a clean sheet of paper inside. The Future appeared mathematical, province comprised of formula and calculation.
Another lyrical aspect of Wade’s use of language is her play on words. “Had I chosen my genre too soon?” unifies her reflections on the role and power of narrative, as shown by her observation that “the world is, as I always suspected, a poem. . . . The world is a fevered poem,” and her own efforts to write her own story. The word “genre” then indicates her choice to “get fianced” too early, as if in writing she chose her story before knowing enough about her choice. But the closeness of genre to gender is like an object and its shadow, demonstrating how marriage in her upbringing implied to a man. In similar ways, sometimes more obliquely and other times more directly, Wade explores words and phrases, like the euphemism of “going all the way,” the ambiguity of “out,” the delicacy of how the word “incarnation” includes the flower, and her childhood confusion of the words of the Lord’s Prayer, not as “hallowéd” but as “hollow wood.”
All this lyric intensity enacts the passion of Wade’s inquiry. The essays are not constructed to deliver arrived-at conclusions; instead, readers are invited into the questioning. From the first essay’s statement that the future appeared as clean and determined as a mathematical formula, the book sets off through Wade’s experience to doubt this assertion, to begin to search for another way of conceiving the future trajectory of one’s life (as a poem or other piece of literature), and then to claim that metaphor. If our lives are more like a novel than a formula, then it must be written, but even when scenes and characters are introduced, they can be interpreted in more than one way. Respect for such ambiguity—no, actually, Wade revels in it—is one powerful theme that emerges in these essays. Even more essential, for the book and for each of us, is the emerging power of self-determination that Wade discovers along the way. Claiming one’s “hidden wholeness” is a life’s work, and this book demonstrates one person’s passionate engagement in the process.
Each essay in Catechism: A Love Story is spare and lush simultaneously, as is fine lyric poetry. There is nothing extra; even the music of the language contributes to the story and the feeling. Reading such well-constructed essays that are arranged this deftly into an integrated whole is deeply satisfying. It is nothing short of elegance.
About the Reviewer
Edward A. Dougherty is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Grace Street (2016, Cayuga Lake Books), and six chapbooks, including House of Green Water (2015, FootHills Publishing). His poems formed the basis of "Where Sacred Waters Divide," a choral creation by Will Wickham, a version of which is available on YouTube, and his emblems have been displayed at the Atrium Gallery and Word & Image Gallery. His is a professor of English at Corning Community College.