At the conclusion of his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI makes a striking statement about “authentic human development”:
Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace. All this is essential if “hearts of stone” are to be transformed into “hearts of flesh” (Ezek 36:26), rendering life on earth “divine” and thus more worthy of humanity. All this is of man, because man is the subject of his own existence; and at the same time it is of God, because God is at the beginning and end of all that is good, all that leads to salvation…
I have pondered the phrase, “man is the subject of his own existence,” wondering what it means. On one hand, possibly, it could mean very little; every word of a pope is not infallible, much less inspired. On the other hand, I think of the short story by Irish author Walter Macken, “God Made Sunday,” and suspect that the Pope Emeritus was saying something very profound indeed. For this story describes a man who starts by trying to explain his belief in God by describing the course of his own life, and ends … well, you’ll have to read it yourself. You will encounter not proofs, but portrayals of a life that is both all of God and all of man, and you will consider human relationships and human development which reflect the intercourse between God and man—and it is highest-stake fishing.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“God Made Sunday” is a kind of hagiography for a humble man which symbolizes the work of the Supreme Being himself, as He fishes for men even as they fish for themselves. Indeed, the fact that a man, even a fictional man, is the subject of his own existence does not preclude the activity of God. These kinds of stories are the only “necessary fictions,” necessary because they not only delight but also prepare the mind and heart for the supernatural gift of faith by analogies between divine and human life that very much apply to real life.
The text itself is organized by analogy; instead of “chapters” or “parts,” it is divided by the days of the week. This division is not merely organizational, but also metaphorical and even literal. There is also a similarity here to the book of Genesis, especially in the rapidity with which tragedy strikes, and not only once. But as in Genesis, and throughout the Scriptures, tragedies unfold only to be re-folded into deeper victories.
Colmain Fury, the hero of the story (“protagonist” would be too understated a term), is a man of many deaths (of friends and family, of hopes and prospects, even of soul for a time, and finally, of self) and many near-deaths (by water, by fist, and by stone). Deaths of one sort or another are a constant reality in life, a reality that only be disguised by drugs of the physical or technological sort. Such disguises are not available to Colmain as an island-dweller and sea-fisherman. By setting his tale on an island, the most beautiful and most deadly kind of setting, Walter Macken challenges the reader to see for himself if the kind of life that faces death is in fact the best and only kind of life worth living.
Macken’s story renders more relatable strange events of the Old Testament: for instance, the pain of barrenness is relieved with an improbable parenthood in old age and parents are redeemed by their seed. In fact, while being a wonderful yarn on its own, many of its events serve also as a fruitful meditation on episodes from the life of Abraham: from Colmain’s response to a little-understood call to the renewal of a whole people to his great faith as an older man. A response to the skeptical question, “How can the Faith be truly in concord with Reason, when Faith is required in things beyond the scope of reason?” is presented not as an argument, but as an episode. The reader realizes that some things cannot be understood apart from color, which illustrates the great paradox, that the true significance of created things cannot be really understood apart from faith.
To read “God Made Sunday” just for its own sake does not do it justice. It is a story worth reading for the sake of a life worth living. It has something to offer on almost every level of literature. Consider for a moment the modern genres. Do you seek a love story? Here is one that steps up with Irish fire to rival Romeo and Juliet’s in its own way, bearing tremendous passion and depth. What about a Western? Here is pioneering without peer (perhaps exactly because it is harder to rediscover the old than to discover the new). The only thing it misses is a detective story, although even that might be present as the reader delves into the “mystery of Colmain’s heart.”
Like the Bible and many other books, “God Made Sunday” is a summary of human experience. But unlike many other books, it shares this experience in a way that helps us understand God’s care: that He does not abandon us, that He can bring new life out of the very thing that destroys the old, that if He lets our dreams be shattered, it is only so that a greater and more fulfilling drama can be ours. God is ever a fisher of men. Colmain Fury might not be a real man, but his life shows what “authentic human development” looks like. His story is a real way for us to understand our own lives as the subject of our existence and also as the handwriting of God. In the end, only the divine life is good enough for humanity, as Pope Benedict said. Cast off with “God Made Sunday” and get a feel for this truth. Meditate over this portrayal of what the transformation from “hearts of stone” to “hearts of flesh” looks like. Perhaps it will help you see what it means to be the subject of your own existence, and an angler in the great fishing drama of humanity captured famously by Chesterton’s Fr. Brown:
I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.