US Catholic Faith in Real Life

USC Book Club: Grace Notes

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September 2012:

Grace Notes

By Brian Doyle


Loyal U.S. Catholic readers need no introduction to Brian Doyle, whose musings, reflections, essays, short stories, and poems have truly graced our pages ever since 1979, when Brian worked here for a year as an associate editor.

“I am here to sing grace under duress,” he sums up his vocation. “I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter.” This collection of 37 of his best recent stories wonderfully captures Brian’s unique combination of quirkiness, humor, depth, heart, faith, and wisdom. Whether he reflects on marriage, parenting, miracles, sin, basketball, the “Coherent Mercy,” or the “skinny Jewish guy,” Brian’s prose consistently encourages all of us to look deeper and strive toward that “crucial wriggling possibility for what human beings might someday be.”

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, Executive Editor,  U.S. CATHOLIC

Grace NotesACTA Publications says: Be prepared to take a beautiful, breathtaking, tear-jerking ride on some of the most accomplished, outside-the-box writing you’ll ever read. In 37 short snapshots, Brian Doyle writes about his discovery of the incarnated Spirit of God in the most unlikely of people, places, and things.

Paperback: $14.95

Available at bookstores or from ACTA Publications: 800-397-2282 or shop online at

Order now from Liturgical Press.

General Book Club guidelines

Discussion questions:

Prologue: The Genius of American Catholicism

1. What do you think is the “genius of American Catholicism”? Why?

2. Do you think it is great that Catholicism is “illogical, unreasonable, unthinkable, unprovable, nonsensical, counter-cultural, and in direct defiance of all evidence and human history”? Why or why not? Give examples from your own experience either way.


A Sin

1. What is “a sin” to you?

2. How do you get over sins you commit?

Advice to My Son

1. If you were going to give advice to a son or daughter, what would it be?

2. What is the best piece of advice you received from your parents or those who raised you?

Journal: Ash Street

1. Describe the street you remember the best. Why do you remember that place more than others?

2. What does a sense of place have to do with your spirituality? Explain your answer.

The Senator

1. Describe a warm memory you have of a one-to-one experience with a loved one.

2. What for you is “one of the loveliest sounds there ever was or will be”? Why?


1. What does silence do for you spiritually? How and when do you find it?

2. Is God found only in silence? If so, why is it so? If not so, why is it not so? Give some examples.

Their Thin Bony Shoulders

1. Name your favorite woman religious or holy woman. What about her do you love?

2. “We cannot let ourselves despair at the greed and cruelty of the world, and sometimes of our church, because these sisters do not despair….” React to this statement.

The Next Eleven

1. Can the marriage commitment only last eleven minutes? Why or why not?

2. What is the perfect marriage for you?

Rec League

1. What is the most fun you have had with children? Describe what happened.

2. What is the saddest experience you have had with children. Describe what happened.

A Child is Not a Furniture

1. What does it mean to you to say “a child is not a furniture”?

2. What are the joys of having children? List them.

Why Do We Say One Thing About Children But Do Another?

1. How do you think we as a society treat children? What can be done to make the treatment of children better?

2. Tell one story you know of a child who was treated badly or a child who was treated well.

All Legs & Curiosity

1. What does it mean to “let go”? Give an example of a time you had to let someone go so they could flourish.

2. Why do kids grow up so quickly? What can be done to stop it?


Cool Things

1. Name three cool things in your life. Be specific.

2. “I believe in believing, which doesn’t make sense, which gives me hope.” React to this statement.

Mute Riven Blessed

1. What is a holy spot for you where someone has died?

2. Do you believe in life after death? Why?

On Miraculousness

1. Name a “miraculousness” that you have experienced in your life.

2. “I have seen too many kids who are verbs to not believe we swim in an ocean of holy.” What does this mean to you?

Pong Ping

1. Are you “alert to the profligate generosity of creation? Why or why not? Give examples.

2. What have you learned from observing other religious traditions? Be specific.

The You of You

1. What is a remarkable name of a person you have known? Why is it remarkable to you?

2. How do you deal with the death of a child?

The Word

1. What do words mean to you? How do they define your spirituality? Give examples.

2. Explain how you experience the difference between printed, spoken, and electronic words.

A Note on Pornography

1. What are some things other than sex that can be pornographic? Why?

2. “As a culture, as a religion, we say one thing and do another, and we have become so used to living this way that substance and appearance are in danger of becoming the same thing.” React to this statement.

Irreconcilable Dissonance

1. What is the most important thing that keeps a marriage going?

2. What is the worst reason for getting a divorce that you ever actually heard?

The Terrible Brilliance

1. Is there really “a way for us to live amidst the sea of death”? What is it?

2. “The terrible brilliance of our faith is that there isn’t one Christ, there are billions, and each one suffers for and saves the rest, in ways that we will never understand.” React to this statement.

One Night

1. Do you have a story that made you “shiver and pray”? Tell it.

2. What are universities for? Expand on your answer.

The Order in Which People Are Admitted to Heaven

1. Who would be on your list of those “to be admitted without review by committee”?

2. What should hell be like if you were in charge of sending people there?

His Father

1. Have you ever been so embarrassed and sorry for another that you just stood “silent and useless and frozen”? Describe what happened.

2. How do “stories turn into prayers”?


Let It Go

1. Did you ever have a mystical experience? If so, describe what happened. If not, why do you think you never did?

2. What do you need to “let go”? What is stopping you?

Litany of the Blessed Mother

1. Make up one new title for your own mother or other important woman in your life. Why did you chose that title?

2. What are the differences between a mother’s care and a father’s care? What would a Litany of the Blessed Father contain?

A Note on Secrets

1. Have you experienced an “ocean of secrets” about anything or anyone? Describe.

2. “Whenever you are sure about anything, you are certainly wrong, isn’t that so?” React to this statement.

Six Women

1. Who taught you about yourself? Tell a story.

2. “We would have a far healthier church if we were far more honest about love in all its wild and confusing forms….” Agree or disagree? Why?

That’s Just How He Was

1. Have you ever watched someone die? What happened?

2. Are you ready to die at any time? Why or why not? What would have to happen for you to be ready?

Going to Jail

1. How do you feel about people in jail or prison? Why do you feel that way?

2. What else happens in society that you don’t watch? Why?

The Knock

1. What is the spirituality of the work you do? How do you remind yourself to be spiritual in the midst of your daily work?

2. How can you be more present to others in their time of grief or mourning? What specifically can you do? Will you do it? Why or why not?

What It’s Like to Be Hit By a Bullet

1. What do you think of all the random violence that is happening in our society? Can anything be done about it? What might you do to lessen it?

2. How do we make the effects of violence more real to people?

In the Infirmary

1. When was the moment you stopped thinking of yourself? Describe what happened.

2. “I’ve been going to college ever since.” React to this statement.

Homework Problems

1. Where do you find humor in your life? Give some examples.

2. Who is the funniest person you know personally? What makes him or her funny?

Your Final Exam

1. What are examples of great “distances” you have experienced in your life?

2. What is the distance between “who we are” and “who we might still be”? Explain your answer.

A Note on Power

1. Are there “a million acts of incredible power and poetry” that occur every day? If so, describe one that your observed recently.

2. “Power that doesn’t work for the powerless is only flash and glitter, vanity and chaff, a hall of mirrors for staring endlessly and uselessly at yourself, which is a good definition of hell.” React to this statement.

What If?

1. What do you think is the purpose of religion? What “desperate dream” do they keep alive?

2. Have you ever experienced a “flash of connective energy with your fellow beings”? When? What happened? How did you react?

What Am I Doing Here?

1. What are you doing here? Be as specific as you can.

2. The author says he is “here to point at shards of holiness.” What do you think he means by that? Does he succeed?