Alexandra Barylski on Pádraig Ó Tuama
This is a book about truth. A book about facing the truth of your own life and naming it. Call it addiction. Call it adultery. Call it I hate you. Call it I hate myself. Call it breaking down. Call it salvation. Call it anything so long as you call it the real, for in any true logos we find the hope of what we need made flesh.
With the right word, we can all be a poet or a child, summoning who or what we need to our side. This is a book that makes you believe again in the power of words, that a language exists for your deepest sorrows and desires. It may not be the language you were born into, but if you find that language you will find all you need to know about a God incarnate who is able to kiss you here and now. If a true word flies from your tongue, then you need not fear.
But this book is also about how we limit ourselves through language. “When we are at the end of ourselves…we baptize ourselves with names that are far from the only truth about us.” If speaking truly is the healing spell we cast when we call a real name, then our own lies are the curse we keep hurling at our hearts when we look into a mirror.
When you read this book, you will discover that our search for answers to our most real questions becomes muddled. We don’t often know the difference between the stories we’ve slapped together to survive and the stories that offer life overflowing. But there is a way.
The way begins, again and again, in the words “I don’t know.” Those words open the magic of Ó Tuama’s book. He is willing to stand before us and to confess the road to life begins in letting go of all you thought you knew about your self. Or as Krista Tippet says in her foreward, “Pádraig’s words that point at God point back at who we are and who we can be.” But who are we? We are people full of strange, hurtful, beautiful, deceptive, and wondrous stories. Weaving these into one, coherent life begins with the confession: I don’t know who I am. But I’d like to know who I can be. This is the first step to God.
Welcome to the ignorance that heals and praise be to the places that reveal our longing for our own truthful story. As the pages turn, one begins to hope that fiction and poetry, the last words we cling to when we’ve rejected the Word so many religious people have warped for us, might be the place where we can begin to “discover something more true than the half-truths we’ve taught ourselves.”
If you believe words can save you, then you believe (conscious or not) words can damn you, too. In this beautiful book, a man whose spent years living toward heaven’s Hope while in hell gives us comfort. No matter how often you doubt. No matter how often you tell lies to survive. No matter that those falsehoods imprison you in a pit of waste. Hold to the hope of a good word, to Elves singing in Rivendell and Lothlórien, to someone speaking your name with truth and authority so that you can wake up and begin living.
Until we share in Ó Tuama’s “I don’t know” we can not begin to heal. I met a philosopher the same summer I first read this book. I could not have written this review then, and what follows is indebted to hours listening to that philosopher’s love of wisdom. But I knew then that In the Shelter was a book I needed by my side. Ó Tuama said of himself what I feared to say of my own self.
In the first few pages, you follow him as he wanders around NYC with “no where to go and hours to waste.” He is unable to make up his mind “about what to do-either with the day or [his] life.” How many miles have I walked in cities for the same reason?
For years, I might have said I already had enough. I might have told you I already got what I wanted. But half way through the book, I found myself crying with this dear, beautiful man in the aisle of a grocery store while John Denver played in the back ground. Whatever version of the story is yours, we all have the same search. For what? The “possibility of love. The possibility of being loved.”
I would have rushed him with a fierce and holy hug if he’d materialized in the little NJ diner where I was reading. Hope trickled into my heart. Praise be to the “small conversion” that so surprises us by the “ordinariness of the desire.” But is it so ordinary? Who among us has the courage to speak clearly and truthfully of our desire? Many of us can not produce an honest response when asked where we prefer to eat.
“The cruelty of our half-lived lives is a false story.” Yes, it is. One with many lies about where we would like to eat dinner. But still we search for love. And searching for love we search for truth. To confess a desire for a love that one can live in is the beginning of all confession, which is really a big word for the idea that if you tell another human the absolute truth, you might begin to heal.
Our desire for love calls us to honesty. To confess with your mouth that deepest human longing is to begin to believe you, too, might be raised from the long dying of days by the touch of another’s hand and a love that loves that you have the faith of a mustard seed. How beautiful to watch this man move one of his mountains. How beautiful that the next chapter praises all our bodies and the Word made flesh: Truth incarnate.
And by now I remember that I’ve always believe God could come to us in human form. That on any given day, bogged down by our own half-lived lives of lies, a hand might reach out across a table or an escalator. Hands might prepare a meal you didn’t know you needed and arms might pull you into an embrace you desire so desperately because you’ve forgotten human touch might ask for nothing in return. I believe that the more we confess that we want to love and be loved, and the more we speak true words, that God will give us the desire of our heart. His love for us will manifest in meatballs and hugs and tender, holy kisses.
So what begins in faith finds flesh in true words and stories. But there can be quite a lot of doubt and failure in the truth. But I have learned that’s actually the point: to honestly own up to all that’s wicked and wonderful inside of you.
In the final chapter, Ó Tuama recalls the story of Peter and Jesus, who has just asked for the third time if Peter loves him. Peter says, “Lord, you know everything,” which Ó Tuama interprets with such clarity. It’s not a “declaration of omniscience,” he says, it’s Peter’s confession: “I know you know I’ll fuck this up” (three denials and the cock crows). And there’s Jesus “saying ‘Alleluia.’” Or, as one of Steinbeck’s most beautiful characters would say, “once you no longer need to be perfect, you can be good.”
In The Shelter is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s meditation on the power of breaking free from our false stories into a truer story, into arms that love us, one small conversion at a time.
Alexandra Barylski is the Executive Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. She received her third degree from Yale (MA in Art & Religion), is an award-winning poet, and an experienced writing coach.