Reviewed by Christine Sunderland
The title of this stunning collection of prose and poetry, The Prayerful Kiss, references Psalm 139 which begins, “O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me” (KJV), exploring God’s creation of man. And so, in his first meditation, Francis Etheredge asks, “When does conception begin?” Does it begin with a kiss, a prayerful, intentional kiss, a kiss that is open to life in the context of marriage?
Mr. Etheredge has gifted us with a profound and touching collection of paired meditations and poems. Drawing on his own life of searching for meaning, searching for vocation, and searching for God (sometimes without knowing it), the words ring true, seeded in the pain and joy of his own fallen humanity.
He travels the humble road from sinner to saved. His anguish is tangible. He confesses, echoing Saint Augustine, that he has not always accepted life, not welcomed the unborn he has fathered, growing in the womb:
But then the child was aborted. Whatever was half-thought about the existence of a beginning, an initial moment of animation, the various possibilities of our lives, the pain of discovering that that child’s life has been abruptly, terribly ended, was a pain as uninvited and prolonged as the joy had been brief and brilliant. Thirty years on, however, this child is as present to me as every other child; and, even if I cannot explain it, I am conscious of a fatherhood that I cannot forget. (50)
His fear of commitment to vocation and marriage is finally overcome by an enlivened faith, overcome by the living Christ in his life. He has dodged and hedged and turned away from the choices of life – marriage, career, priesthood – until, at the age of forty, he sees that God the Creator can re-create him, give him a new beginning. He finally hears and obeys Our Lord’s words, go and sin no more.
With God directing him, he discovers his vocation. He commits to marriage and being open to life, to welcoming the children conceived in marriage. He trusts God and can now obey him, for he sees there is no other way. He will not fear suffering; he will not fear the unknown. He is reborn to a life of life.
The poems and meditations begin to reflect this new life of family and children. Some are painful to read because they are so real. “Losing Her” speaks of his young daughter being led away by a stranger in a market, but a prayer prompts him to look to the checkout stand and call her name: “First a fruitlessly nervous first call,/ barely audible,/ and then a second,/ louder,/ more blasting naming of my child/ which unlocks the hand/ leading her away/ to let her return and stay.”
“Freezing” describes the horror of embryos frozen for research in this brave new world of genetics challenged by bioethics: “Freezing/ is indescribably stopping a beginning:/ a beginning begun in the outward mixing of what/ God personalized through recognizing/ His own work in the unnatural handling of human ‘potters’.” (65)
Francis Etheredge is finally able to say he has been given grace to start again: “This poor man called and the Lord heard him (Psalm 34:6); and, after over twenty years of marriage, those words have not ceased to have their meaning but, rather, have grown roots in the very depths of my being.” (85)
And as for vocation, he decides he must write to explore “the myriad and challenging questions” of life but also to “wake up to the need of others to be able to read what helps to be written.” (90) Why write? Write for both writer and reader, he says.
He then considers writing and the nature of words and the Word of the ultimate Creator: “Writing is like finding a word,/ His word, while unsplitting,/ making one word in all that exists:/ giving the reason/ faith finds in science/ the image of itself.” (96) He considers Christ and His Church, the grace of God turning his inwardness outward and giving him faith.
And so his faith is “enfleshed” in this moment of belief. His heart was locked, just as the doors in the upper room after the resurrection were locked. But Christ entered, bringing life: “Thus breath will enter you and cause the ‘bones’ to ‘live,’ receive ‘sinews,’ flesh and skin, ‘and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”(Ezekiel 37:5-6)
The profound themes of life and death and grace not only carried notes of Saint Augustine, but also the rhythms and pace of T.S. Eliot. There is a profound seriousness of purpose, a dark night of the soul in an unbelieving world, redeemed by the bright dawn of Christ.
Not only do I thankfully recommend The Prayerful Kiss by Francis Etheredge, but I believe it should be a part of every English Department’s studies. I’m looking forward to the second offering in this trilogy, Honest Rust and Gold, and the third, Within Reach of You (En Route Books and Media, 2020, 2021 respectively.