portrait-of-brian-doyle

On a pilgrimage to Brian Doyle’s hometown, I encountered joy

A literary journey leads to a new openness to trust and hope.
Arts & Culture

I was 2,400 miles away from the urgency, assault, and angst of my home, standing on my tippy-toes and a stool to reach the relics of a man who had inspired a pilgrimage. I sought nearness not to bone or blood like early Christians who traveled to sacred geographies of martyrs, but rather to spines on a top shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The writer who inspired my journey is deceased but not a saint—not yet, at least.

In the self-proclaimed “City of Books,” it was a bit disappointing to find only a shelf-and-a-third dedicated to a native son. But when I spotted a binding with the words “lean stories of spiritual substance,” I reached for it. I had done enough homework to know exactly what I’d find inside: honest, humorous, poignant, and sometimes breathless tributes to the “little things that were not little”—spouses, children, parents, friends, faith, and God; the author’s love for them; his love for the world; and, always, his joy.

Amid the bookshelves, I said a prayer of thanksgiving for both my journey and this destination: physical nearness to the spiritual witness of a faithful writer, Brian Doyle. The longtime Oregonian had died years earlier at the age of 60 (from what he in his characteristic self-deprecating style called a “big honkin’ brain tumor”), but fortunately for the rest of us he left behind six collections of essays, two nonfiction books, two “proem” collections, a short story collection, a novella, three novels, and several anthologies. He was published in top literary journals and magazines, earning him three Pushcart Prizes, a Catholic Book Award, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and other honors.

This was the second to last of seven pilgrimages I planned while struggling through a protracted divorce and annulment to untie the knot of a decades-long marriage to an abusive alcoholic. I had devised an approach I hoped would direct me back to myself and toward deeper spirituality, not unlike ancient pilgrims who journeyed to holy places in search of renewed faith and nearness to God.

My process went something like this: Read essays, novels, and poetry by writers who professed in their work, both explicitly and implicitly, a strong—if questioning—Catholic faith; research physical locations where each lived, worshipped, and found insight; then hit the road to witness the places where their values were formed, churches where their faith grew stronger, and cemeteries where their bodies found rest. I made the trips solo. Because any intended outcomes were highly personal, I never included a living writer or interviewed family, friends, or critics of deceased ones as a journalist would. I rarely set an itinerary either, so I could remain open to every possibility. I was not running away so much as seeking something to run toward, so I put planning into the hands of a compassionate God.

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That first day in Portland, a city I had never visited before, I walked back to my AirBnb with a bag of Doyle paperbacks, relishing the rare gift of a rainy morning of beautiful words enjoyed over cups of tea.

I first discovered Doyle in an essay he wrote after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. “Leap” tells the story of those who jumped from the inferno. The author’s spare sentences, telling details, and staccato style are unflinchingly direct, but the meanings he makes manifest even in tragedy point toward hope and joy. In this brief essay, and in all his work, this amalgam yields unforgettable poignancy.

“A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped,” the essay reads, in part. “[It is] the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires.”

On a walk in Portland the next day, I studied a mural on a downtown building: one red hand above, grasping a white one below. Less a prayer than a pull toward the sky, toward salvation. Doyle’s stories pulled me up more than once from the depths of domestic disaster, loss of self-confidence, and doubts about my faith. He was an effective apologist for the faith precisely because he admitted all the flaws of the church as “illogical, unreasonable, unthinkable, unprovable, nonsensical, countercultural, and in direct defiance of all evidence and human history. Isn’t that great?” (Grace Notes, ACTA Publications).

Because Doyle was editor for 26 years of a magazine published by the University of Portland, I took a rideshare to his former office in Waldschmidt Hall. The staff was exceedingly gracious and recommended that I purchase at the campus bookstore a collection of Doyle’s essays published by the university just after his death. Then, hearing the noon carillon from a bell tower between Waldschmidt and the Chapel of Christ the Teacher, I walked a route Doyle likely strode many times, toward broad doors carved with a radiant sunburst, opening to pews and an altar dappled by popsicle-colored beams from abstract stained glass.

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Like traditional pilgrims, I always included the sacraments as part of my journey, as suggested by the Vatican’s “Pilgrimage in the Great Jubilee,” which states, “There, in fact, the pilgrim’s conscience is moved, there he confesses his sin; there he is forgiven.” Also, Doyle once made this sanctuary near his office stand as a metaphor for the entire Catholic Church: “The windows above me . . . catch these timbers of sun and focus them on the human comedy. I think about how I’d be a lot less of a man if I didn’t have ways to wake up to what I can be if I harness mercy and humor and wisdom and attention and prayer and humility and courage and grace” (“The Thorny Grace of It”). Thanks to his words, I experienced the consecration that day as he did—“a miracle, and a meal, in that exact order”—and found solace, if not forgiveness.

In online research before my flight from Ohio to Oregon, I noticed some references to a park built in the writer’s memory, but my smartphone app yielded nothing. So I headed to the public library in the Lake Oswego suburb where the writer had lived with his family. I knew from experience that librarians are often the best sources of local information. Sure enough, in response to my question, a staff member led me past shelves and public computers to a line of upholstered chairs facing a large picture window. She met my questioning gaze with a smile, waiting for me to notice the words painted across the wall: “Brian Doyle Memorial Garden.”

I recognized outside a re-creation of the fictional Mink River from Doyle’s popular novel, complete with a statue of the mythical crow, Moses. I stood mutely, straining to hear the gentle babbling of the brook beyond the glass. Quiet is so rare these days, even in libraries, but there was no chatting, no electronic alerts, no overheard phone conversations. The silence was reverential.

Even as a child, I felt at home in libraries. I had been writing and illustrating homemade books from the time I could hold a crayon. My best summers were spent almost entirely among the shelves of the library across the street from my home. Unfortunately, leisurely summer days flipping pages in a public book haven ended after my daughters became teens. It took a far-flung journey to remind me that I not only needed that time and space with words, but I deserved it.

“Pilgrimage is a symbol of life,” Pope Francis once wrote. “It makes us imagine that life is about walking, it is a walk. A soul that doesn’t walk . . . through life seeking God and for the Holy Spirit to move from within, is a soul that ends up in mediocrity and spiritual poverty. Please: do not stand still in life!” The decision I made to end my marriage was certainly not standing still, but that journey left me exhausted.

I took a seat facing Doyle’s oasis in the library. On my left was a woman asleep in a high-tech wheelchair. She snored lightly as her companion swiped and tapped on a cell phone. After about five minutes, the two women left. They were replaced immediately by a gentleman who, though fully attired for the outdoors, dropped chin to chest and began to snooze. It seemed the Brian Doyle Memorial Garden was equivalent to a kindergarten nap mat, a fitting tribute to an artist who sought to make his readers pause, appreciate, and accept ourselves and others.

I noticed in the corner a stack of papers next to a framed photo of Doyle. The warmth of his dancing eyes and smile behind a neatly trimmed beard beckoned me closer. I picked up a handout and returned to my brightly colored chair.

At the top of the page were the words “Last Prayer.” I knew Doyle frequently penned tributes to lives ending or ended, those of parents, friends’ parents, friends, and family. I was often called on to do the same for my family when an obituary or a funeral prayer was needed. Doyle and I both understood that times of mourning can also be times of hope. In that moment, I was mourning.

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“Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever,” the leaflet began.

A gratitude list followed, in Doyle’s signature run-on sentences, quirky prayers of attention without periods or pauses lest a moment of grace pass by unnoted. The last sentences, however, stopped me short. I felt Doyle once again hoist me up from shifting sands to solid ground:

I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago. . . . Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart.

I had no idea then where the path of my life would lead, but suddenly it didn’t matter. I knew myself again. I accepted myself. I trusted that God loved me too.

A few weeks after my return home, I met a kind stranger. He held both my hands in his, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “I hope someday you will see yourself as I do, through my eyes.” I like to think that my future husband saw a souvenir of my pilgrimage, what Doyle once called a “shimmer of something”: my new capacity for joy. 


This article also appears in the October 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 10, pages 17-19). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Tim LaBarge

About the author

Jean P. Kelly

Jean P. Kelly is the host of the podcast about lectio divina, “Read. Pray. Write. Searching for Answers, Finding Grace.” She is currently a novice Benedictine oblate at the St. Meinrad Archabbey.

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