What Readers Say:
FROM THE PASTOR: February 7, 2010
I recently had the chance to re-read a wonderful novel which I discovered, somewhat randomly, during my years at Loyola College. As near as I can tell, it is the only novel of an author named Mark Bailey; entitled Saint, it claims to be “a novel of intrigue and faith.” The “teaser” lines on the cover of the paperback state: “He is a miracle of science, a messenger of God. And he has returned.”
The “he” in question is St. Peter. The book asks us to believe that a bio-genetic researcher in California has made a breakthrough in “memory resurrection.” By concentrating and injecting DNA from one subject into another, Dr. Andrew Shepard has managed to transfer the consciousness of the DNA donor into the recipient. Eventually, he obtains a strand of DNA from the bones of St. Peter and succeeds in “resurrecting” Peter’s personality and memories in the body of a Portuguese fisherman, Nicolao Soares.
I am no bio-geneticist, so I can’t really say how plausible the science is. I am, of course, interested in faith, spirituality, morality, and theology; and the novel poses some interesting questions in those areas. (Is the researcher “playing God”? What happens to the personality and memories of the fisherman “host”?) Dr. Shepard happens to be an ex-Catholic; “science is his religion, the search for truth in the maze of genetics his mission.” We gradually learn that the death of his six-year old daughter from a brain aneurysm has destroyed his marriage, along with what was left of his faith. Thus, he wrestles with the age-old problem of theodicy: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why do horrendous things sometimes happen to good and innocent people?
Even more interesting is the “what if” aspect. “What if” we actually had St. Peter here in the present-day world and Church? What questions might he answer for us about Jesus – what He really was like, what He really said and believed, and so on? And if Peter’s testimony conflicted with the inherited tradition, would it be welcome?
Not surprisingly, in the novel, Peter is somewhat astonished by what Christianity (even the word is new to him!), and the Catholic Church in particular, have become. Still, at one point, he muses about the constancy of the human condition. “People don’t change so much. In my time they were simpleminded, willing to take literally the things their leaders told them then. You still accept today. What I see on this television, these assurances that the right medicine, the right shampoo, the right leader, the right pair of jeans will give you a perfect life, is no different from the village fool in my day believing some magic potion will make him attractive to women, when what he really needs is to eat fewer onions and learn a trade and stop loitering about the well annoying other men’s wives. Everyone wants easy answers, in your time as much as mine. It’s not the people, only the things they desire, that change.”
There is much wisdom in “Peter’s” reflections, I think. In fact, having been programmed by the media, we almost certainly have far greater expectations of instant gratification and easy answers than did Peter’s contemporaries in 1st- century Palestine. What remains constant, however, is the desire – a longing for purpose, for meaning, for direction. And what also remains constant is that real answers, answers that actually “work,” are never quick, easy, or black-and-white. Real answers are found in and through relationships, over time. And real answers always remain partially shrouded in unfathomable mystery.
Near the end of the novel, when he finally succeeds in having a face-to-face conversation with his successor, the present-day pope, Peter offers an even more challenging observation. “I see too many believers using their faith as an excuse. They choose their Christ or Yahweh or Buddha or Allah or whatever name they call God by, figure they’ve found the answer, and stop questioning, stop their search for truth.” He suggests instead that “finding” and even naming God – that is, affiliating with and studying a religious tradition – should be just a beginning. And he argues that the Church’s mission should be to learn, as much as to teach.
He sums up: “You have the power to make each moment count. Live each hour consciously, gratefully, generously. Give something to every person and every creature you meet…. Look them in the eye and feel their concerns for a moment; give to them your undivided attention. Better yet, share the humility of your own spirit…. Understanding grows from humility of spirit, from learning, not from the conceit of knowledge. Give that which you most desire to another person.” In other words, live by the “Golden Rule,” some version of which exists in almost every major religious and philosophical tradition. Jesus said it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Simple? Yes. Easy? Never.
©2010 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J. Old St. Joseph's Church, Philadelphia, PAThis book should have been a New York Times Best Seller. As far as I know it did not make that list. But the plot is great, the biotechnology is great, and the plot twists at the end are excellent. A slightly better way, or more plausible theory, for memory transfer should have been come up with. It was not really scientifically plausible. A little better editor and better science and this would have been a perfect book. ( )