Edwin O'Connor, The Edge of Sadness (1st ed.: Little, Brown, 1961; Loyola Press, 2005).
A friend described Edwin O’Connor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Edge of Sadness, as a book about nothing and everything. It is an apt description, for not much happens externally. Yet, I have rarely lingered over a book the way I did over this one. It tells the story of Father Hugh Kennedy, a middle-aged, recovered alcoholic priest, and his friendship with and reconnection to the larger-than-life Carmody family. The Carmodys and Kennedys have been intertwined since Fr. Kennedy’s father, David Kennedy, and Charlie Carmody, the domineering Carmody patriarch, were boyhood acquaintances. The Carmody children—John, Helen, Dan, and Mary—were boyhood friends of Father Kennedy. Father John Carmody is Kennedy’s seminary classmate and the more “successful” priest of the two. Helen is someone Kennedy could have seen himself marrying had he not been called to priestly celibacy.
When the novel begins, Father Kennedy has returned to his boyhood home in an unnamed New England diocese. He is returning from an extended exile in the west, at a treatment center called the Cenacle, where he has worked through his debilitating alcoholism and destructive self-reliance. On his return, Kennedy’s benevolent if enigmatic bishop has assigned him to Old Saint Paul’s, which used to be a bustling city parish. Now it is dying and populated by the waves of immigrants who make their way to the diocese. The parish is not quite dead enough to be on the chopping block, but not quite alive enough to survive past the next pastor or two.
The re-entry of the Carmodys into Kennedy’s life, his interactions with them over the course of the next months, and the emotions and memories that surface because of these events are the premise of the story. That hardly seems like the recipe for a potboiler, let alone a minor literary masterpiece. And yet it is. O’Connor’s prose, and the emotional and spiritual landscape covered by his novel are, quite simply, achingly beautiful.
Within the seemingly pedestrian story of Father Kennedy reconnecting with the Carmodys, there arise a number of stories within the story. First is a vivid portrayal of the inner emotional and spiritual life of a priest and what that life says of our own spiritual lives. Second is the story of the ending of one age and the beginning of another: the book was originally published in 1961, and it portrays both the deep spirituality and shallow piety that coexisted at the time. This is a period that foretold both the collapse of the Church after the Second Vatican Council, and the amazing intellectual gifts from the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in that same era. Third, the book makes concrete a theme articulated by Martin Buber, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger: that success is not a name for God, nor is it a Gospel category. Father John Carmody is by all lights the more successful priest. His parishes flourish. He seems to be in favor. Father Kennedy, on the other hand, is a recovered whisky priest stashed in a moribund, overlooked parish. Yet, in the end, grace shines through more deeply in his priesthood than in Father Carmody’s. While O’Connor’s protagonist is a priest, the novel is ultimately about how, when all is stripped away, each of us must rely on God alone.
As Father Kennedy reengages with the Carmodys, we learn about his life and fall from grace. Kennedy was an only child raised by a widower. Nine years before the book begins, he watched as his father died of cancer. The manner in which O’Connor describes Kennedy’s suffering is profound:
And so my father died. All through his illness I had said my Mass for him each morning; every day and every night I had prayed that he might be allowed either the miracle of recovery or the blessing of a happy death. These prayers were not answered. My father did not recover, and he died witless and in pain. And why this should have been I have no idea at all. He was a very good man who had lived a very good life—yet he died a very cruel death.
The death is not the cause of a crisis of faith or a profound moment of doubt: “[W]hile there was ache and grief enough, there was certainly never the slightest thought of personal rebellion, of a turning away from God because an unanswered prayer.” Rather, Father Kennedy recognizes that after his father’s passing his “life began to change, and it was now that I began to do heavily and steadily what before I had done lightly, occasionally, and in a very different spirit, that I began to drink seriously, and to my own danger, and to the danger of my parish.” And with his drinking, Father Kennedy distances himself from his friends, his parishioners, and even the two curates under his charge. He sank into an “eagerness to get away.” What Kennedy emphatically did not do was turn to the Lord until it was too late.
After a particularly sobering moment, Father Kennedy notes:
And then, finally, I did what I should have done from the start. Shame, pride, may have held me back; I don’t know. But now I remembered that I was God’s priest; I went for God’s help. I went desperately, because by this time, I was badly frightened—but the discovery I now made frightened me even more. For I found that, just when I needed to most, I could no longer pray. I could kneel, I knew the words, I could say the words—and they meant nothing.
Father Kennedy realizes that he had let his priesthood wither because “little by little the unimportant had become important . . . those things which belonged properly on the edges of my life had in fact become the center.” He recognizes that the young, zealous priest he had been, has become a middle-aged priest who was “little more than a recreation director: a cheerleader in a Roman collar.” This leads to a precarious situation in which a priest “suddenly finds that he can talk more easily to a parish committee than he can to God.” And that is a most dangerous situation for a priest—or anyone—because “in a great crisis . . . he will reach” out to talk to God, he will reach to pray and “it will not be there.”
And that is exactly what has happened to Father Kennedy: the bottle replaced God. The Bishop eventually sends him out west to the Cenacle where he spends four years learning to pray again, ministering to American Indians, and reclaiming his priesthood. At the Cenacle, Father Kennedy learns a lesson, essential for us all, but especially crucial for the priest, that one must be a man of prayer. Unless a priest is a man of prayer, unless his life “is daily deepened and enriched” by the lifeblood of prayer, then, when he “meets the inevitable disappointments, crises, or sometimes just the sudden burden of his loneliness, he may meet them with an emptiness where fullness should be, and the result of that will not be a happy one.”
And, so, having learned to pray again, to rely solely on God, Father Kennedy returns home chastened, but deepened. Father Kennedy goes to Old Saint Paul’s with its aging infrastructure, its non-English speaking parishioners, and its Polish-American curate, Fr. Danowski, full of zeal, earnestness, and idiosyncrasies: all expertly rendered by O’Connor. And it is in this context that the Carmodys return to Kennedy’s life to heighten and draw out the lessons learned at the Cenacle.
To tell more would be to tell too much. Suffice it to say, O’Connor tells a profound story of how, through the concrete circumstances of one’s life—even a life broken by failure and sin—one can find one’s way “to the Richness, the Mercy, and the immeasurable Love of God.” We can find our way to Him—or rather He can lead us back to Him—when we recognize our utter poverty in the face of our own weaknesses and brokenness, our total dependence on God alone.
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.