Real Life Conversion Story Inspires Literature
Author Interview with Robert Joseph Dagney, Effigies in Ashes
by Lisa M. Hendey
Sometimes art inspires life and sometimes life inspires art. In the case of Effigies in Ashes (Xulon Press, August 2005, paperback, 416 pages), author Robert Dagney credits his own faith journey with providing the structure that enabled him to combine a series of writing projects into a novel of faith and the power of prayer.
“I wouldn’t have been able to write my book if I hadn’t come back to the Church,” shared Dagney. “Before I did that, I had two seemingly disconnected short novels and several short stories with no structure to bring them together into a cohesive whole. My conversion experience provided that structure.”
Effigies in Ashes shares the compelling conversion story of writer Bill Casey. Seemingly adrift after a series of spiritually alienating experiences, Casey seeks out the advice and counsel of a priest with whom he was formerly acquainted. Casey shares with him his writings, two short novels which were actually inspired by events in author Dagney’s own life. Those who have found themselves questioning faith topics will be truly inspired by the dialogue in Effigies in Ashes. Hard questions are answered. Difficult issues are faced. Author Dagney does not shy away from them, but rather charges at them head on, blending faith teachings into Casey’s own journey toward spiritual wholeness, attained through a heartfelt confession and the power of prayer.
In “real life”, author Robert Dagney faced his own faith crisis. Today, he is employed as a charge nurse at St. Catherine’s Infirmary in Saint Vincent’s Seminary at the Miraculous Medal Shrine, which provides a backdrop setting for much of Effigies in Ashes. The infirmary provides care and comfort for aged priests and brothers of the Vincentian Community.
I had the opportunity to converse with Robert Dagney via email regarding his book Effigies in Ashes, his own spiritual journey, his work as a health care professional, and his writing. I am pleased to share his responses.
Q: Please briefly introduce yourself and your family.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia by good and loving parents, my father Walter (Bud) and my mother Margaret, who brought me up catholic and sent me to catholic grade school, high school and college. I’m sorry to say, however, that I began to stop going to church in high school and by the time I was 30, I had apostatized from the catholic faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that someone who is in the state of mortal sin can come back to the faith through the normal process of supernatural life, by sacramental confession, but when a person apostatizes it takes a miracle to bring him back. I like to think that my life and my book are a manifestation of that truth. I truly believe that it was my mother’s prayers, the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the prayer treasure of the faithful that brought me back to the Church. I’m single. I never married. The loss of my faith is the primary reason for my not getting married and having a family of my own. With the loss of my faith, I had lost who I was and it is very difficult if not impossible to have a successful marriage if you are not truly yourself and we can only be that true self when we are united with Jesus Christ. My only immediate family is my mother, my father died 32 years ago, and a brother who is currently a fallen away catholic himself, someone who my mother and now I myself pray for everyday.
Q: Please briefly describe the plot of your book.
The story begins in Saint Vincent’s seminary at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Philadelphia. A writer, Bill Casey, wants to talk to a priest, Father Joseph Gallagher, a boyhood friend, about an experience he had in Ireland in 1973 with some mysterious woman who he once believed was the Triple Goddess of Ireland but now thinks it was the Blessed Mother. He also had some experiences in Seaside House, a pediatric rehabilitation hospital in 1984 that he doesn’t understand. He wrote two short novels about those experiences but he now believes that he didn’t tell the truth about them and he doesn’t understand what really happened and he is hoping that Father Gallagher will read his books and tell him where he went wrong in them. Father Gallagher after meeting with Casey gives the books to another priest, Father Michael McDonald, a retired literature teacher, to read. As Father McDonald reads the books, Casey decides to go to church for the first time in many years and after having an inner vision of the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist he goes on a journey to confession and reconciliation with Jesus and the Catholic Church.
Q: To what extent is the story of Bill Casey based on your own life experiences?
All of the essential experiences are based on my own life: growing up, in the army and in Vietnam and in Central America. The story set in Ireland, The Circle of Stones, is essentially true to life. I did meet members of the Irish Republican Army there in Ballinskelligs and I was offered money to take information to Belfast concerning a shipment of guns. The short novel, The Story of a Swallow, is based on my experiences as a pediatrics nurse, although it is not the depiction of an actual night in a pediatrics hospital. Inexplicable healings did occur there, however. The nurse, Katie Neary, is a fictional character. The children are composite characters and I’ve changed their names and rearranged their faces. In the framing story, some of it is based on my own experiences, the inner vision of the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for instance, but the conversations with the priests are fictional, as is the confession in the chapter Laughter in the Confessional Box, although it represents to some degree my own experience.
Why write fiction as opposed to spiritual memoir?
My book is a true story told in a fictional fashion. I think that there is more freedom in writing fiction than in writing a straightforward spiritual memoir or autobiography. By telling it as a story, I could use literary techniques such as metaphors and analogies that suggest other levels of reality which are essential in a spiritual story. Echoes and referents also enabled me to connect different parts of the narrative. Also, it is difficult to remember actually what was said and what happened in actual events and so there is always a certain amount of invention in telling a story, anyway. With the use of fictional characters, such as the priests, I could move the story along and provide background to the conversion experience. Also, I didn’t realize it consciously but by using pseudonyms like Bill Casey and his fictional characters James O’Rourke and the young boy Dangme, I was able to develop the theme of effigies or false selves that have to be burned up so that I, and all of us, can become our true selves and become a new creation in Jesus Christ.
Did you find spiritual value or growth in writing Casey's story?
Yes, I did. As I wrote the story, I needed to research and read books on theology and scripture and spirituality. I had taken seven or eight courses in graduate theology at Saint Charles Seminary and those courses provided me with the background that I needed to better understand what I had experienced.
Q: Your book is so interesting in that the story encompasses and includes two novels by the main character, Bill Casey. How did you decide to take this unique approach to telling his story?
It wasn’t something that I planned but when I was finishing it, it seemed to me that was the way it was supposed to be written. First, I wrote the short novel The Circle of Stones. (It was originally entitled Redemption and it was my master’s thesis in creative writing school.) Then I wrote The Story of a Swallow and several of the short stories. But they were all like pieces of a puzzle that wouldn’t fit together. After I came back to the Church I gradually began to see my stories as part of a larger narrative, that they were all connected, that all of the difficulties that I had experienced in my life were not caused by the army or by Vietnam or by being knifed but by my loss of faith and my own sinfulness. Then I decided to frame those stories by my conversion experience and all of the pieces fell into place.
Q: I know that you are in the nursing profession. How has your nursing impacted upon your writing?
Some of the skills that one needs to be a nurse are the same as those of being a writer. You need to be observant and pay attention to details. You need to listen to what people are saying and how they say it. You have to empathize with them and that enables you to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Has writing made you a better or more caring health care professional?
I think it has made me better and more caring because I had to spend time reflecting on what I was doing.
Q: Please share a bit of information about working at St. Catherine's infirmary?
St. Catherine’s Infirmary is a unique place to work. It is not a hospital and is not a nursing home in the strict sense of the word. It is connected to St Vincent’s Seminary and the Miraculous Medal Shrine which is the mother house for the Eastern Province of the Vincentian Community. Their priests come there when they are unable to take care of themselves anymore or when they need to rehabilitate themselves so that they can return to their duties. There is a chapel there where they can go to mass and pray. I have learned a lot from the priests that I have met there and I am happy that I have been able to help them in whatever way I could.
Q: What is your hope or the central message you hope to share with this book?
I want people to know that God is truly with us, that prayers are answered (especially a mother’s prayers) that miracles do happen and that even in the worst of sinners we can see the face of Jesus Christ.
For more information on Effigies in Ashes visit http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1597813184/catholicmomcom
Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including http://www.catholicmom.com and http://www.christiancoloring.com, and an avid reader of Catholic literature. Visit her at http://www.lisahendey.com for more information.