f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: <em>God: Stories</em>—Bausch's <em>Design</em> and the Shifting of Souls

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, December 22, 2003

God: Stories—Bausch's Design and the Shifting of Souls

Christmas falls this week and I’m headed back to the land of cheesesteaks, independence, and cranky sports fans for a week of familial warmth and gift-sharing. That said, there will be something to read today, tomorrow, and on Wednesday at least. In fact, all three of those entries will be discussions of stories from a collection called God: Stories. This is fictional short stories collected by editor C. Michael Curtis (Senior Editor at Atlantic Monthly) and they represent some of the major fiction names of our last century including Dubus, Updike, O’Connor, Roth, and more. Curtis himself is a monumental, if lesser known name in fiction, editing one of the most prestigious short fiction sections in America today. He’s also served as editor of a companion collection called Faith Stories.

This collection will serve as a touchstone after weeks where I haven’t made much progress in a longer work of spiritual fiction. Or a week where I’m simply reading a mystery or a book whose themes aren’t relevant for this web page. Short fiction makes for some of my favorite reading and I urge all of you to either seek this collection out or seek out longer collections by the individual authors herein.

The story to be discussed today is Design by Richard Bausch. Bausch is important enough to have had a number of his stories put into a collection by Modern Library, however, I admit to not having read him broadly. I’ve read his novel Violence and it would fit well in our previous discussions of bleak, moral novels who fail to even entertain the notion of a happy ending. You understand the meaning of violent language—the actual percussion of the words start beating at you—that child experts warn us about so frequently.

His story, however, is a much quieter tale. It is a story told from the 3rd-person limited perspective of a middle-aged Father Russell who finds much to concern him with his neighbor—elderly Baptist pastor Reverend Tarmigian. What distresses the father isn’t theological or anything to do with the two men’s assumably differing religious beliefs—instead Father Russell is worried that the Reverend is sick.

The story flits from their interactions over a course of days in the late autumn to Father Russell’s own discouraged thoughts. Russell is a bit of a brooder, a worrier who isn’t facing middle age well.

…the matter of greatest faith was, and had been for a very long time now, that every twist or turn of his body held a symptom; every change signified the onset of disease. It was all waiting to happen to him, and the anticipation of it sapped him, made him weak and sick at heart.
Coupled with that, Father Russell is doubting his calling. He’s suffering what can only be called a slight psychic breakdown and the ravaged face and body of his neighbor only seems to make things worse, especially since the old man doesn’t seem to acknowledge it in any way.

The story, in the end, seems a meditation on how we face up to the challenges of our faith. God is not mentioned in the story, but He is present in the Father’s guilty doubts and He is present in the Reverend’s quiet acquiescence. He is present because the talk here is of the mortal and the flesh and the tendency to not be able to lift our minds past that to the promise of what remains beyond.

Something was shifting in his soul, Bausch writes of his weary and embattled Father and I think we need to acknowledge the truth in that for all of us. God bless the disciple whose faith only deepens, whose love for God never flags in all the days of his or her life. The rest of us face some shifting in our souls and often it takes a Reverend Tarmigian to show us (not teach or instruct, just show) that small word from God.

Tomorrow we’ll look at how the God of Moses became the God of the slaves in James Baldwin’s Exodus.