Brian Doyle, God rest his soul, may be the best spiritual writer you haven’t read. I knew him only through his writing and a couple of email exchanges. Still, I mourn his death as I would an old friend’s.
I did not know he had been ill, battling brain cancer in fact, and so the news of his passing, which I read in the middle of a sleepless night’s aimless scrolling through social media, shocked me. Because the way Brian wrote — and forgive my familiarity in referring to someone I didn’t actually know by his first name — was so alive. His writing was lyrical and magical, yet so very real and so very sweet. I confess — and I’m pretty sure Brian would approve of my using the word "confess" — that I am only acquainted with his nonfiction, having yet to read his fiction. But I love what I’ve read, because in the Jesuit tradition, Brian truly found God in all things. And I mean all. Whatever subject he wrote about became something holy. Reading his work always left me a more enlightened, more alert person.
I always knew that we had a lot in common, Brian and I. I didn’t know until he died that we were the same age, but I’d assumed we were pretty close by his almost painfully familiar verbal snapshots of a Catholic childhood. Our similar themes and struggles involved being parents and Catholics and Catholic parents, as well as being writers and Catholics and Catholic writers. These themes, and the struggles therein, could fill many pages, and they did. How do you raise brave, thoughtful children and write in a way that is true to yourself and keep one eye out for God in all things and ask a lot of questions of yourself and others and all along continue to be a practicing Catholic? As I said: many pages.
Brian emailed me in 2003, when he edited a collection called “Best Catholic Writing” for Loyola Press, asking if he could include an essay I’d written for the Jesuit weekly magazine America. I was over-the-moon delighted by this honor. When I received my copies of the published book, I found that he’d included a work of his own about the tragedy of Sept. 11, which was moving and lovely and unutterably sad. I frequently came across his essays and poetry in the same Catholic publications for which I often wrote. There were plenty of times when I thought, “Dang: I wish I’d written that. Because that’s exactly what I think.”
Because of our paths crossing in print, I felt a writer’s kinship with him, and at one point I emailed him to propose that we write a joint book, in which we would address contemporary Catholic issues from a woman’s point-of-view (mine), and a man’s point-of-view (his). I thought this was a brilliant idea, and I wish I’d kept the email in which he let me down oh-so-gently, saying with humility he was not wise enough to speak for his gender, and that he had many projects already cooking. At the time I failed to realize how far out of my league Brian’s writing career actually was, a fact he kindly did not mention.
Brian died on May 27, and I’ve read several heartfelt tributes to his life, to the warm rare earthly light that has been extinguished too soon. I’m saying my piece two months late and a dollar short, but I don’t really want to move on from the physical reality of him. I want to continue praising Brian’s body of work, all the while missing the stories he did not get to write. Writers are especially fortunate to live on in the indelible words that they have put on paper. The things we write about are ephemeral, but the written record of those things lasts, even longer than our memories and our lives. We can still read the mighty works of St. Augustine and St. Teresa of Avila, of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. They remain accessible to us, thanks to the written word. Brian’s writing, riotous and pensive, delicate and deep, will stay with his readers, and stick around to greet new readers, and for that we are grateful and blessed. Still, I mourn his passing. I grieve in spirit with his family and actual friends. I imagine Brian would chide me for closing with lame literary reliance on old Shakespeare, but here goes:
“Goodnight, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”