Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"You suffered with them, and now you are theirs."

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by American author Margaret Craven is a very short novel (just over 150 pages), but don’t let its thin spine fool you – its themes run deep: a community’s experience of suffering and death, the struggle to preserve tradition in the face of progress, the growing generation gap, the fruits of spiritual simplicity, and the essence of the priestly vocation.

Craven’s novella, set in the 1960’s, follows Mark Brian, a young Anglican cleric sent by his bishop to be pastor in Kingcome parish, a remote First Nations (Native American) village in British Columbia. The Bishop has learned that Mark only has a few years left to live, but he chooses not to tell Mark this; instead, the Bishop assigns Mark to the most difficult parish in his bishopric in hopes that the assignment will teach the young priest the true nature of his vocation.

At first, Mark does not feel at home in Kingcome, but gradually, the priest and his people learn to accept one another’s differences, to work together to provide for one another’s needs, and most of all, to live together as the Body of Christ. Throughout the book, Craven makes it abundantly clear that the village lives as one body, and its people suffer and survive as a community. In one particularly beautiful passage, she writes that, as the village prayed together at sunrise after a hard winter, “it seemed to Mark that he felt the burden of winter lift as from a common shoulder, and heard the sigh of gratitude rise from a common heart” (140). It isn’t long before Mark realizes that he and the tribe must work together – not to prosper, but merely to survive.

As Mark observes the life of the community he shepherds, the tribe’s appreciation for simplicity teaches him the importance of voluntary poverty in the priestly vocation. When Mark first arrives in Kingcome village, the old vicarage where he must live is falling down, but he refuses to let a new one be built when he sees the condition of the other dwellings in the village. After Mark has served in Kingcome for some time, the men of the tribe offer to help him build a new house. Mark writes to his bishop to tell him the good news, and the bishop replies: “You suffered with them, and now you are theirs, and nothing will ever be the same again” (87). That, Mark learns, is the heart of missionary life, and of his priesthood: entering into the lives of the people one has been sent to serve, giving oneself over to them, and learning to suffer together, to “bear one another’s burdens” for Christ’s sake (Galatians 6:2).

The greatest burden Mark and his people are asked to bear is death, but even that burden is lightened when death is seen for what it really is: the door to eternal life. The death myth of the people of Kingcome – the myth of “the talking bird, the owl, who calls the name of the man who is going to die” (19) – helps Mark to see death in a new way, and more importantly, to realize that to live his vocation, he must constantly die to himself; he must lose his life in order to find it (Matthew 16:25).

Near the end of the novel, the Bishop comes to visit Kingcome village, and his words to Mark resonated with me in a special way. As a missionary, I've learned that it is always hard to say what one has learned from an encounter with Christ’s poor, but the Bishop seems to get it right:

“Always when I leave the village,” the Bishop said slowly, “I try to define what it means to me, why it sends me back to the world refreshed and confident. Always I fail. It is so simple it is difficult. When I try to put it into words, it come out one of those unctuous, over-pious platitudes at which Bishops are expected to excel…

“[F]or me it has always been easier here, where only the fundamentals count, to learn what every man must learn in this world.”

“And that, my lord?” [Mark asked.]

“Enough of the meaning of life to be ready to die.” (144)

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a must-read for missionaries, seminarians, and avid Catholic readers alike. Its story may be simple and brief, but its presence will linger long after you've finished the last page.

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