By Elizabeth Scalia, OSV News
Anthony Mancini, “Ashes”
Tolmitch Press, 2023
278 pages $16.00
“To love, it is the most creative and godlike act of all.”
In Anthony Mancini’s “Ashes,” the line is uttered by a Concetta, a Sicilian woman living in post-war Taormina. It is 1949, and she has spoken those words to a German Jesuit priest, Father Anton Weiss, who has recently retired from ministry and moved into a rectory in this small, picturesque town with plans to “write and meditate.”
Yet uncertain of exactly what he will write, Father Weiss — having spent decades producing scripts for Vatican Radio in Rome — has faith that something will come out of his journaling, as indeed it does.
The Jesuit’s arrival in Taormina has coincided with the renewed burbling threats of Mount Etna, who – being a living being to the population of Messina — is alternately belching flame or spewing noxious steam but never quite committing to fulfilling its natural potential for drama and mayhem. In this way, Etna is not unlike Father Weiss, whose potential in retirement is revealing itself in fits and starts, and in ways entirely unpredictable to his own idea of himself — of what he has been, and what he imagines he might like to be.
If that sounds reminiscent of the declaration of the Confiteor (“in what I have done; in what I have failed to do, through my fault…”), it’s no accident, but part of the literary charm of this evocative novel, which will remind some of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” in its imperfect priest-protagonist.
Father Weiss has been a very dutiful priest, and faithful to his vows to this point, but Taormina is shaking him from the ground up, and not just because of the volcano. Recounting an ancient love (and betrayal) in the face of beautiful young attractions, his celibacy is threatened — he begins to want it to be threatened. When opportunity comes, however, his priestly instincts overpower his desire, for the sake of what becomes, in Concetta’s prophetic words, “creative and godlike” love.
Father Weiss is still a Jesuit, however, and when a newlywed comes to him with concerns about her husband, he indulges happily in a bit of too-clever-by-half reasoning that has become stereotypical of members of the Society of Jesus. The author, himself Jesuit-educated, seems to enjoy it, too.
The residents of Taormina run the gamut from the thoughtfully sophisticated to the simple and unquestioning, and they by turn prick or soothe Father Weiss’ conscience as his spiritual strength ebbs and flows. Having for generations been overrun by history (or Enta’s ashes), the Sicilians have become practical in their morality and in these impoverished post-war years, their survival depends in part on the tourism of writers, romantics and wealthy gay men with a taste for local farm boys; for them, judgment takes a back seat to getting by. The peasants among them are as superstitious as they are devout, and not terribly interested in whether their priests are truly celibate. Concetta, for instance, may well be the mistress of the pastor in whose rectory she works, eats and sleeps. Her unclear status is as meaningless to her neighbors as the possibility that she also may be a “strega,” a witch, with the powers of prognostication and healing.
Ultimately, this is a book about love and honesty — and the kind of honesty it sometimes takes to love. Those with a taste for either/or Catholicism and readily redemptive outcomes may find “Ashes” a bit difficult to like in its pointedly both/and ambiguities, its frank – but never explicit — treatment of sexuality and its puckish willingness to indulge in gossipy speculation (about, for instance, Pius XII and his helpmeet, Mother Pascalina), without ever going beyond or judging it.
For readers who have been waiting for a Catholic literary novel to come along and challenge them, however (or even shock), “Ashes” may prove to be a satisfying read whose complexities remain interesting long after the rather too abrupt conclusion has been reached.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.