Review: Fearing the Stigmata

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To be Catholic and in one’s twenties is to be something of an anomaly, if our current cultural landscape is to be believed. The occasional Theology-on-Tap group notwithstanding, there is a dearth of media from the Church directed toward those of post-confirmation, but pre-married-with-children age – and even less that isn’t solely focused on sexual ethics. Matt Weber, a 28-year-old Harvard graduate with a laid-back sense of humor, seeks to address that scarcity in his book, Fearing the Stigmata. A breezy memoir with a cheerful perspective, his book is an enjoyable illustration of what it means to have an active spirituality, particularly in one’s post-college years.

Weber’s book is an affable, meandering collection of stories from his childhood through graduate school experience at Harvard. He has an honest writing style that at times borders on plain; he also has a wealth of little anecdotes on which to draw to illustrate his worldview. Some of Weber’s stories are genuinely funny, such as his accidentally coming across like a kidnapper while babysitting a young boy. A few are melancholy – his description of his grandmother’s passing, and his attempt to bring her Communion before she died, managed to be quite affecting in only three pages. The majority, however, are simply pleasant; they draw a picture of an earnest, easygoing young man with a devout Catholic faith who is simply trying to be a part of the culture but not a product of it.

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Jean-Francois Millet’s “Angelus”, above, is mentioned by Weber as a favorite

Stigmata has the most momentum when it hews closest to Weber’s two main goals: examining how to live as a twentysomething Catholic in today’s world, and describing his journey toward hosting his own television show. Weber noticed that his local Catholic TV station’s programming skewed either very young or very old in target – there was almost no content directed specifically at him. When he emailed the station to suggest they fill that need, they instead offered him a chance to pitch his own TV show, which was picked up, expanded, and remains quite successful. Other vignettes in the book illustrate his (perhaps excessive) worries about being a person of faith at Harvard grad school, his first experience with non-Catholic education. Though his initial feelings of outsiderhood could, for some, make his Catholic-school past seem a bit too insular (surely he wasn’t completely bereft of friends from other [or no] religions?), Weber is warm and insightful when describing his eventual acceptance of the diversity of his new surroundings and the higher-than-expected prevalence of religion among his peers. He is eminently relatable for lifelong Catholics when he describes his overwrought adolescent moral quandaries or effectively conjures up the feeling of intimacy in a quiet, musicless daily Mass.

The titular story best sums up his lighthearted approach to the anxieties of a young boy wrapping his mind around complex religious matters. As a fourth grader, Weber asked why Saint Francis had dots on his hands and feet in all the pictures he saw, and learned about the concept of stigmata. He asked his religion teacher why Francis received the stigmata, and was told that it was because he was such “a good Catholic”. Naturally, a young Weber went home that night intent on sinning a little. He wanted to be good… but not that good. His book raises well-observed issues about how to make faith an integral part of one’s identity without shoving it in people’s faces or unnecessarily separating oneself from others. From the gaps between his stories, Weber exudes a confident contentment with his religious life, which encourages the reader to try just a bit harder to find spiritual wealth in everyday tasks.  At one point, he makes an apt comparison of church attendance with going to the gym: it is important for one’s spiritual muscles not to get flabby, and if left alone too long they can atrophy. And just as bingeing on fatty foods creates an urge to hit the gym as soon as possible, so should straying from one’s conscience be met with a desire for confession and worship. Nowhere in Stigmata is there the sense that Weber has ever viewed the Mass as an obligation or annoyance; that refreshing attitude translates into an engaging book.

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Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace”, another painting mentioned in the book

Not every narrative in the book ties in so elegantly with the central thesis, and one wishes that perhaps a few musings had been cut to make room for further elaboration on the ones that do. Though each chapter is at least diverting, and the stories average 3-4 pages each, there are a handful which seem more like stories to reminisce over with family, rather than fodder for a memoir. A few other anecdotes pique the interest right away, but then gloss over the resolution – a tale of walking away from being witness to a potentially violent altercation one night demands more than just a quick wrap-up in two pages, and the experience of foreign-language Masses in other countries would have benefitted from elaboration. The authorial voice is genial enough, however, that even the feeling that the book tends toward being a fruit salad of memories doesn’t hurt its readability.

Fearing the Stigmata is an amusing, easily relatable memoir which will get the reader thinking about little ways to try for a more active spirituality. Whether volunteering for the church choir (even though he can’t sing and can only play the harmonica), stopping at a tiny Marian grotto in the city every day for lunch, or creating a TV show to cater to an underserved cultural demographic, Matt Weber is clearly a well-rounded individual who enjoys tending to his spiritual health. His first book, while plainspoken, is a quick, light read and a welcome message of faithfulness to young-adult Catholics.

 

Fearing the Stigmata by Matt Weber is available at Kaufer’s for $13.95.