The subtitle to this book is Letters from a Most Unlikely Friendship, and it consists of a series of letters with some occasional background comment between a “lapsed” Catholic (although none of the authors use that word) turned “agnostic with pantheist leanings” and a well known Sydney Catholic priest, Tony Doherty.
Amazon these days offers a kind of virtual book browsing that one used to do in a bookstore before making a choice. It will give you a sample before deciding to press the “buy” button. I had my doubts about a book like this because letters can be as boring as the chapter in Ulysses where James Joyce lists Leopold Bloom’s household invoices – very important for the bill payer and letter writer, but hardly riveting stuff for an outsider. However, it makes a huge difference if the letters are well written, and they cover topics of universal interest. In this case, they are the work of two gifted writers. Piper is a professional writer, director and actor as well as being judge of literary prizes, so it is not surprising that this shows. Doherty, apart from practising his writings skills with weekly sermons and educational material has also contributed to radio and television.
Despite my misgivings about this kind of book, I was at the time making heavy weather wading through one of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels, and thought it might be a lighter distraction. It turned out to be an unstoppable distraction, because I hardly put it down before finishing it.
It is a kind of literary love story expressed mainly through emails and the occasional old fashioned letter, between two people separated by age, geography and faith. It is autobiographical in quite a different way to the usual because rather than the reader being directly addressed, the authors are talking to each other, with each email or letter peeling off one more layer of the onion of their personalities.
The authors seem to have one thing in common, and that is an acceptance of doubt. Piper mentions how she looked at other religious faiths, but rejected them “because most of them had women as vassals or foot soldiers” which she found “disappointing at best and infuriating at worst.” On the other hand, she finds Dawkins to be “a strident testosterone heavy voice of certainty.” Doherty is not all that explicit about his doubts except to say that he is not sure what happens after death: “Sometimes Christian believers appear to be free of confusion about death. That is not my personal experience. Faith should never be confused with certainty…I do not know what happens when a human being dies.” Doherty explains how the creeds arose and despite reciting one each Sunday, “most still struggle to understand its meaning fully. Sometimes I find myself asking, “why couldn’t they have just left us a story?”
Phillip Adams, a professed atheist, gets a mention, and fortunately Doherty does not try to repeat the assertion, as some true believers have done, that he is really a believer in atheist’s clothing: “Funnily enough I see him as a person continually searching for the nature of human belief but perhaps not using classical religious language…classical religious language, not to be abandoned thoughtlessly of course, can sometimes block off genuine inquiry into the mystery surrounding human belief.” Adams is, if anything, a soft atheist who respects the integrity of people who say that they have a relationship with a supernatural power, be that Yahweh, Jesus Christ, Allah or Krishna. But it is still a mystery for him, possibly for the same reason that believers cannot understand why everyone else doesn’t climb on board their particular version of the revealed truth. The old explanation that this resistance to the true faith is due to satanic influences or one’s mind being poisoned by the fomes peccati, the smouldering of sin, generally thought to arise in the pubic area, no longer has any traction.
There is a touch of John Boyne’s novel, A History of Loneliness in Doherty’s discussion on how the sexual abuse crisis had affected him personally. The novel tells the story about a good Irish priest, whose best friend, another priest, turns out to be a child sexual abuser. The priest watches his position in the community over a couple of decades turn from being an object of almost universal adulation, trust and affection to being a pariah where the wearing of a clerical colour attracts abuse. Tarring with the same brush seems to be a common human failing.
This book doesn’t solve any mysteries about the human condition, but simply restates them from the authors’ perspectives. Its value is in the description of a friendship developing over time in trying to understand these mysteries and the different ways of coping with them. As I was reading it, I was reminded of A.C. Grayling’s excellent little book simply titled “Friendship”, in which he explores by reference to classical, religious and other sources the kind of friendship so well described in this correspondence.
Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014)