Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review: 'The Virgin on Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion' by Sonja Livingston

Faith is a tricky thing. And it's a tricky thing to write about as well. People can get very defensive about their own faith because it is a deeply personal topic. I was first turned on to The Virgin of Prince Street by an excerpt from the book on LitHub. I was struck by Livingston's tone and writing style so requested the whole book. And I was very pleasantly surprised. Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/1/2019
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
With organized religion becoming increasingly divisive and politicized and Americans abandoning their pews in droves, it’s easy to question aspects of traditional spirituality and devotion. In response to this shifting landscape, Sonja Livingston undertakes a variety of expeditions—from a mobile confessional in Cajun Country to a Eucharistic procession in Galway, Ireland, to the Death and Marigolds Parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Mass in a county jail on Thanksgiving Day—to better understand devotion in her own life.
 The Virgin of Prince Street chronicles her quest, offering an intimate and unusually candid view into Livingston’s relationship with the swiftly changing Catholic Church and into her own changing heart. Ultimately, Livingston’s meditations on quirky rituals and fading traditions thoughtfully and dynamically interrogate traditional elements of sacramental devotion, especially as they relate to concepts of religion, relationships, and the sacred.

I am, deep down, quite a spiritual person. I was raised a Protestant and went to church every Sunday. As such, faith and organized religion were a very big part of my upbringing, but in a very individual and free way. There are many things considered "typically Christian" which I don't believe in, and yet the Domkerk in Utrecht fills me with a sense of home and belonging. I love the hymns, admire the sanctuary that a church can provide and do believe. Moving away from Utrecht removed me, in many ways, from the locus and practice of my faith, yet my belief remains as present as before. In what exactly I believe I still can't exactly define, but this is why The Virgin of Prince Street was such a fascinating book for me. Although Livingston is trying to find her way back to her Catholic faith, rather than my Protestant one, her struggle to combine the failure of organized religion with the beauty of individual faith was still something I recognized and found inspiring.

The Virgin on Prince Street is full of personal essays, all tied together by their author's journey. Many of them, eight in fact, describe her efforts to hunt down the statue of Mary which used to grace her church. This strand of the book is also somewhat of an elegy for the Catholic Church and especially its small-level existence. The tight-knit communities that lived out their whole lives within the walls of a church are slowly fading away, meaning that many parishes are being joined together. On the one hand this enriches a church community, but it also alters it. Livingston adored this statue of Mary, especially in hindsight, and is determined to track it down somehow. During her journey she meets all kinds of people who are devoted in their own way, reaching out to others who may be unsure. The other essays describe other types of devotion. In one, which was excerpted by LitHub, she describes the process of canonization as well as the death of Sister Lilian. In another, she visits Brigid's Well in Ireland. In each essay she expands what we think of as faith or devotion, showing the many different shapes it can take. The Virgin of Prince Street is not a book meant to convince anyone of the rights or wrongs of religion. Rather it is a very person account of one woman's journey towards her own personal devotion.

Sonja Livingston's writing is incredibly honest and open. Whether it is her almost desperate search for the Mary of Prince Street or the emotions roused by a mass held in a jail, Livingston infuses each essay and moment with her own personality. This is also what keeps the essays from becoming overdone or missionary. When Livingston tells of her admiration for a priest and his endless devotion to his community you can feel that her words come from a place of personal need, respect and longing. When she describes her fear of the confessional, something I as a Protestant don't really "get", Livingston avoids getting into the canonical nitty-gritty of the why and how, but rather focuses on our very human distaste of leaving ourselves vulnerable. More than any other book, perhaps, The Virgin of Prince Street has made me appreciate why so many do flock to Catholicism and its rigot and tradition. It has also made me re-examine my own approach to faith and my own need for stability.

I give this book...

4  Universes!

I was sucked in by The Virgin on Prince Street almost immediately. Sonja Livingston is incredibly honest about the difficulties of believing, of returning to faith and of confronting your own fears and doubts in the process. For anyone interested in faith, or struggling with it, I'd recommend this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment