Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Review: Vestments by John Reimringer

Once in a while a book crosses my desk and I say, "Wow, I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!"

Vestments by John Reimringer (Milkweed, 2010) is a must read for pastors and clergy serving in parishes (yours truly) or seminarians who are currently in ministry formation, or for anyone remotely interested in Christian spirituality. This is not a "feel good" book but a work which takes you to the depths of hell and despair and back again. It is a book that shows the reader that life, especially the spiritual journey, is not so neat and tidy but quite messy and raw. The reader encounters such moral questions as the place of celibacy and sex in ministry, abortion and the problems surrounding it, the role and place of family, and the ups and downs of friendship. Reading Vestments reminded me of the work of Elizabeth Strout, Andre Dubus, and Raymond Carver, authors who show the grittiness of life without glossing it over.

The cover art, reminiscent of a stained glass window at Church, is very attractive. The cover includes several lower income houses at the crack of dawn with smoke billowing from their chimneys but the artist has covered that image with a luminescent purple and mauve, as if you were looking through a stained glass window. The artwork is a nice touch because the book invites us into the lives of two young men who are in seminary formation and who will live the rest of their life, perhaps, in a parish setting.

I do not want to give away the story line, but suffice it to say we meet a very dysfunctional family, the father is a high school dropout, functional drunk, and who is both verbally and physically abuse to his former wife and children. His son, the main character, enters a Roman Catholic seminary. During this time we see him in action, learning theology but also dealing with celibacy and the major vows which he will undertake. He struggles not only with his future ministry in the Church but with his messed up family. I have met many families in my life but none as colorful as his family! They would be a case study for any pastoral counselor!

We also see his friend who is someone whom all too often I have seen in ecclesial settings as well, the "professional pastor" the one who envisions ministry as a profession and career. In many ways he is under the temptation of power and authority, having little trouble keeping his vows yet breaking them with his secret lover, his live in girlfriend who also is the local barmaid.

John Reimringer is a master storyteller, he weaves this book like a master weaver. Characters are neither all good or all bad, neither all darkness nor all light. Everyone has warts and wrinkles and also light and goodness. As a reader I was mad, I wanted the bad characters to "get their due" yet Mr. Reimringer doesn't allow that. His story, like the Bible, shows us life and humanity through the lens of how God might envision it, not as we do.

While searching online about Mr. Reimringer I learned that it took him nearly ten years to write Vestments. I hope his next book doesn't take that long, this is one reader who is hooked on Reimringer's prose.