Oct 21, 2013

For the Love of Books: A Prayer for Owen Meany

Here at The High Calling, we are word people. We love books and we love to hear about books you love. On Monday mornings in October, we've asked a few of our readers to share about a book that has influenced their life in some way. Today we welcome writer Shawn Smucker to the table.Shawn is the author of Building a Life Out of Words, the story of how he lost his business, his house and his community, then found happiness making a living as a writer. He lives deep in the woods of southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and four children.

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I wasn’t really in the mood for a life-changing experience. It was 8:00 in the morning, and mostly I thought I would be happy if I could keep my eyes open for the 75-minute class and then make it to chapel. But I was about to meet a little boy with a strange voice, the son of a quarry owner, the batter who hit a ball that killed a woman. His approach to faith and doubt and destiny would change my life.

My professor in that 8:00 Intro to English class was Dr. Downing, a California native who brought her west coast fashion and flair to our small, central Pennsylvania wilderness. She wore wide belts and bright colors, talked excitedly about heteroglossia, and scrawled giant, red checkmarks in the left margins when she thought a point was brilliant.

I lived for those red checkmarks.

I remember more of the individuals in that class than I do from any other class I took in college: the studious red-head who sat at the front of the class and answered all the questions (now a professor); the thoughtful girl with the long brown hair (now studying and writing abroad); the guy my age who looked like a boy and glided late into class every morning, bedhead hair in all directions. Their faces are etched in my mind, and I’m Facebook friends with many of them to this day—almost 20 years later.

But there was one person I met in that class who would impact me more than any of them. One person who I feel that I know better than most friends I’ve made over the years.

His name is Owen Meany.

He was a character in a book.

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

This is the first line of John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it could just as easily be me talking. Sometimes I think I am still a Christian because of Owen Meany, a strange, small boy whose uniquely aggravating voice can only be accurately represented throughout the book in all caps.

One particular scene has stayed with me. In it, the narrator is standing in the darkness with Owen Meany, just outside a Catholic school where a statue of Mary Magdalene has disappeared into the gathering dusk.

“YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE – EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN’T SEE HER?” he asked me.

“Yes!” I screamed.

“WELL, NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD,” said Owen Meany. “I CAN’T SEE HIM – BUT I ABSOLUTELY KNOW HE IS THERE.”

To me, the passage communicates something about the relationship between doubt and faith, the knowing and the not-knowing. It’s a relationship I know well, one that Irving’s book has helped me to navigate.

As the book progresses, Owen Meany has a recurring dream about his death, how he will die, the date he will die, and how his death will fulfill his purpose on earth. He has a strong belief in purpose, that God has created him to do ONE THING, and he dedicates his life to preparing for that mission.

It’s a compelling way to view life, and late in the book he says something that gave me the courage to fulfill my own purpose, to chase my dream of becoming a full-time writer: “IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”

Brave words. True words.

I’ve read A Prayer For Owen Meany at least 15 times in the last 28 years, and every time I get to the end, I don’t want it to happen—that ending. But it does. It hurts me like it did the first time, every time. It never changes.

And then, as I read that heartbreaking last line, “O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking you,” I realize that it never could have ended any other way.

Image by Duncan Harris. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Shawn Smucker.

 

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