The Question of Faith
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
The Dearly Beloved
By: Cara Wall
When my husband and I first were married we lived on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. These were two wonderful years. It was post 9/11, downtown was booming again, and life before children and real responsibility was carefree and wonderful. The hardest decision was where to have brunch on Sunday. These were good times and they were happy times. The location of our apartment was so perfect; just a couple of blocks from Washington Square Park, centrally located and easy to get to SOHO, the West Village, the East Village, and Union Square. We loved walking around the neighborhood, people watching, shop browsing, and trying out all of the delicious eateries that Greenwich Village is known for.
Some of my favorite neighborhood buildings were the two churches just up the block. An Episcopal church, Church of the Ascension at 10th Street and 5th Avenue, and First Presbyterian Church at 12th Street and 5thAvenue. Against my mother’s better judgment I often attended church at one of these churches on the weekends. My husband was in school at NYU and often had to meet with his group on the weekend, so I would church shop. Growing up, my family led by my mother, was extremely Catholic and in their eyes, attending a church that was not Catholic was the worst sin one could possibly commit (besides living in sin). My Catholic guilt stayed with me right up to the moment when I walked through the threshold. But once inside, the services healed me and it was an hour of complete and utter peace.
My friend Lisa from high school recommended this week’s selection. I had seen it on the shelf at the library but a story of two clergymen didn’t necessarily capture my interest. Lisa said it was good, and we often like the same kind of books, so I decided to try it. When I realized what church the two clergymen in the novel were called to, I was instantly sold. The name of the church was changed, but it was the church on 12th Street and 5th Avenue.
This wasn’t my only reason for reading this book. Faith and more specifically the lives of clergymen is not a subject I often read about and I was ready for something “new”. This is a beautifully written story of faith, beliefs, why some have faith and others do not, and most importantly, it is the story of marriage. The novel follows four people, two couples, and their journeys through life.
This is the story of Charles, Lily, James, and Nan and how their paths eventually merge. The novel starts with individual chapters about each of the four characters, which eventually leads to each of the couples meeting.
James is a young man from the working-class section of Chicago. He comes from a family of six children. They are poor, working-class, lapsed Catholics with a father who fought in the war and drowns his pain in alcohol. James, unlike his siblings, is given the opportunity to go to college because he shows promise in academics and has a wealthy uncle in Ireland who sponsors him. He is eager for a new beginning, to escape his neighborhood and make a better life for himself. He attends the University of Chicago.
Nan is a Mississippi girl whose father is a minister. She is the only child in a well-off family. Her father is the kind of minister who had a “deep and abiding faith in the Lord, as he called God, and a deep and abiding empathy for Those Less Fortunate”. He wanted to raise Nan with the same empathetic values and takes her with him on his pastoral rounds. Nan learns about faith and empathy from a very young age. She is also a talented musician who attends Wheaton College outside of Chicago to study music. It is in Chicago while playing in a concert that she meets James.
Charles is the only son of a Harvard professor. He was born into an academic household and takes his studies very seriously. He enrolls in a course at Harvard with his mentor and decides that his calling is in the clergy. He meets Lily, a Radcliffe student while studying at the library. The first time he speaks with her, she makes it clear to him that she doesn’t believe in God and she never will believe. Lily comes from a broken childhood. Her parents were killed in a car crash when she was young and she has never recovered from the loss. She grew up very lonely, although she was raised among a group of boisterous aunts, uncles, and cousins. Lily has decided that she would be very content to be left alone with her studies. When she meets Charles, she thinks she has no intention of ever dating or marrying.
What brings them all together is Third Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1963. The world is changing and this little church in the heart of Greenwich Village is in the center of it all.
Charles and James are hired to be joint-pastors and split the job fifty-fifty. One was hired for “a certain dignity and intellect” and the other hired for his “spark to pull us from our reveries”. Together they would be the complete package. And from day one, these two men admire each other and work well together, each filling in the shortcomings of the other.
The same is not to be said for the wives. Nan being Southern raised, is a polite and sunny girl, full of color, songs, and life. She wants to fully immerse herself into the life of a pastor’s wife, similar to the life her own parents had led. Lily, a college professor at The New School, is nothing short of an academic snob and has no time for Nan’s over-eagerness. Lily has no intention of ever attending the church services. She doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t want to be part of the church or be friends with Nan. She simply doesn’t have the time or the inclination to make friends at all.
Life goes on, James becomes the preacher who wants to preach about social justice, civil rights, and the war – everything that is relevant in the world and the injustice of it all. The Third Presbyterian parish doesn’t want to hear it. They know that these things are going on, but they don’t want to be reminded about it every Sunday. Charles is a different kind of preacher who talks more about faith and his sermons are more scholarly studies of the bible and pastoral teachings.
Through the years, these two men have to help each other out and build each other up. One picks up where the other leaves off. Through the years as each one faces hardships and tough times, the other steps in to carry the burden for both. Their relationship defines a true partnership and friendship.
This book is not just a book about religion and faith, but also a book of marriage and friendship. Wall titles the book, The Dearly Beloved because these are the words a minister uses in a marriage ceremony.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God to join this man, and this woman in holy matrimony.
Part Three of this novel focuses on the two couples when they embark on new chapters in their lives with children. As you and I both know, life changes when couples have children. Your relationship with your spouse changes, your relationship with your friends change, and your faith very often changes. I found myself praying every day for the safety of my children, especially in infanthood. I can remember praying throughout my pregnancy for a healthy baby, and also remember the first night home from the hospital, praying that the baby would make it through the night. Months later, I was praying that they may someday sleep through the night. I am now a woman full of faith, belief, and prayer. It is what gets me through motherhood every day of my life.
You may question my choice for this week and think that you have no interest in reading a book about church. But I urge you to read this beautifully written novel about marriage and how marriages overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable. How can Charles, a devoted clergyman be married to a woman who has no faith? This is a hard novel in that none of the relationships are easy but they are real. These are four very flawed individuals and Walls doesn’t try to sugarcoat it. I found myself questioning which of these four characters I actually like, and to be honest I liked and disliked all of them at different parts of the book. These four characters evolve and grow throughout the novel. They learn to forgive and they learn to let go. Isn’t this what life is all about?
The Dearly Beloved
By: Cara Wall
Publication Date: August 13, 2019
Simon & Schuster