All is grace

‘All is grace’ were the last words of pioneering theologian Karl Rahner before he died, but they also thread their way through Brian Doyle’s latest book, The Wet Engine: Exploring the mad wild miracle of the heart. One of the joys of my reading this year has been the discovery of this editor of Portland magazine. In this book and his earlier work, Leaping, he is clearly a spiritual writer of the first order, someone who uncovers grace and its first cousin, love, in every aspect of life. Because writing for him is a form of contemplation and prayer, he sees this ‘skinny book’ as ‘a sort of prayer of thanks that my son is alive and stubborn as stone’, and ‘that there are such complicated and graceful people as Doctor Dave …’

Liam Doyle was born without a ventricle in his heart and Doctor Dave McIrvin is the cardiologist who cares for, and perhaps saves him. After learning from Dave the many complicated operations facing his son, Brian Doyle ‘hid himself in the thicket of facts and diagrams’ and read everything he could find to immerse himself in the mysterious ways of the heart. This ‘thin, intense, odd little book’ is an invitation by the author to ‘wander into the wet engine’ and study its mystery with him.

The second chapter, ‘Heartchitecture’, is ample evidence that Doyle has been a meticulous researcher. He takes us on a fascinating journey through the workings of this 11 ounce unit that feeds a vascular system comprising ‘sixty thousand miles of veins and arteries and capillaries’. After considering the intricate engineering of the heart, Doyle reflects on all those outstanding students of the heart, brilliant surgeons like Christiaan Barnard, ‘all over the world, for thousands of years, men and women exploring and healing the wet engine’.

When he names Brian Barratt-Boyes of New Zealand in this part of the globe, I looked in vain for mention of our own great heart doctors Harry Windsor and Victor Chang. We must be satisfied with a passing reference to an Australian doctor, Doyle’s companion while watching a heart operation, who speaks ‘Australian, a smiling sunny language which takes me a minute to get the pace and rhythm of ...’

This book, however, is much more than a cardiovascular travelogue. We meet some wonderful people on this journey—bravehearts like Hope, Doctor Dave’s mother, who was imprisoned during the war by her own American government for having parents from another country. In that camp, ‘you could not escape that wind. It would find you. It lived with you’. Was she bitter? ‘No, I am not bitter’, she says. ‘No. Bitter is no place to be. But I do not forget.’ Then there is the fascinating character with the exotic name of Hagop Hovaguimian, a colleague of Dave’s, who spends three months a year working in Oregon and the other nine months in his home land of Armenia. Dave refers to him as ‘a genius surgeon who has saved thousands of lives in America and Armenia, and invented a hospital’. A talented classical pianist, Hagop says of himself: ‘I don’t play the piano much any more. I stopped feeling the need to play. But I love to do operations. I love the parents and families of the children. I love the sick people. This is love. It’s an addiction for me, I think’.

This is love and this is what this book is all about; a father’s love for his son, a surgeon’s love for his patients. In his ‘heartful of patients’, Dave recalls people like Tessa. ‘She had a single ventricle. Her parents were bikers. They raised horses down in southern Oregon. Her mother had a plastic leg and her dad, Ivan, who was the nicest man you ever met, he was about six-foot-twelve. Enormous man. Played football for the University of Southern California. Nicest guy. She made it.’

It was the great Jewish author Elie Wiesel who said once that ‘God made man because he loves stories’. Stories are prayers for Brian Doyle, and ‘love is the story and the prayer that matters the most’. The Wet Engine, therefore, is pre-eminently a spiritual work because it touches and probes the heart on nearly every page. Doyle reminds us that the heart is the seat of the soul. ‘God is the engine. God is the beat.’

In a chapter entitled Imo Pectore—‘in the innermost recesses of the heart’—Brian Doyle reflects on those cardinals appointed by the Pope but, for political reasons, cannot be publicly announced. Their names are held by the Pope imo pectore. So it is with our own hearts. There are secret words in every heart. He reminds us that ‘our hearts are not pure: our hearts are filled with need and greed as much as with love and grace; and we wrestle with our hearts all the time. How we wrestle is who we are’.

As one who wrestles with the heart on many issues, I can thoroughly recommend this book. It touches the heart in so many ways, and one cannot ask more of a spiritual writer than that.  

The wet engine: Exploring the mad wild miracle of the heart, Brian Doyle. Paraclete Press, 2004. isbn 1 557 25405 2, rrp $29.95

Christopher Gleeson sj is the Director of Jesuit Publications.



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