Essay collection provides glimpse into a fully Catholic life

The Thorny Grace of It: And Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics by Brian Doyle (Loyola Press, $14.95)

Four out of Five Stars

Reviewed by Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

Brian Doyle’s The Thorny Grace of It contains a series of vignettes that bring to life everyday experiences of grace.  Most of the short pieces are the author’s own experiences, ranging from childhood memories of installing window screens at the end of winter to his first meeting with his post-college boss.  Doyle’s style effortlessly weaves the poignant with the humorous, making each an enjoyable read.


“The Brilliantine Coattails of Lust,” which I first read in the March 2013 issue of First Things, comically describes a preparatory assignment for the Sacrament of Confession.  The young Doyle must solicit aid from an older sibling; Kevin, the eldest, takes time from his mountain of homework to instruct his young brother as to what the priest would like to hear in the confessional, full of made-up sins.  The amusing episode is told from the perspective of second-grade Brian Doyle, who adores his eldest brother and remains in awe of the time Kevin takes from his homework to help him.

This episode serves as preparation for the three pieces centering around Kevin’s death: “His Epic Head,” “His Last Game” and “The Country of Who He Used to Be.”  The first is a joking piece, combining many memories of Kevin that have to do with just how big his head was.  The second describes an outing of the two brothers, as Kevin is dying; they drive together in the country and watch a pick-up basketball game.  The last of the trio wanders around Kevin’s four-year home at the University of Notre Dame, an old dorm still in use.  These pieces provide a glimpse into the fraternal relationship over a lifetime.

The section “There are Many Ways to Pray” speaks of grace in unexpected places, from basketball to buses to butcher shops.  “The Ballad of Jimmy Ward,” follows Ward, a basketball prodigy, through his enlist in the marines and his return home, sans his left hand, changed by war into a promoter of peace.  “The Woman in the Vast Blue Coat,” tells the story of a Chicago bus ride in which one of the passengers, the blue-coat wearing woman, dies.  Doyle watches as the bus driver treats her abandoned body with loving-kindness.  The presence of God is evident on a cold Illinois morning, through an ordinary man presented with an unusual circumstance.  “Mr. Kim” hilariously describes the generosity of a local butcher, who hides his kind heart behind a gruff exterior. These stories convey the complexity of life: life emerging from war; tenderness in the face of death; compassion masked by a rough personality.  

In the final section, “The Rich Soil of The Past,” Doyle pays tribute to people of his past who were agents of God’s grace to him, from the nuns of his grade school and his scout master to the people who did his laundry while a student at the University of Notre Dame to his first boss in Chicago.  Like many of the stories, each piece finds the right blend of humorous and heartwarming, while avoiding sentimentality.

Doyle’s varied collection illustrates the richness and complexity, joy and sadness, of life, and God’s work within it.  It is a refreshing glimpse into a fully alive and fully Catholic life.

Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer and math tutor living in Oklahoma City.