Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth highlights the relationships of all ages of humans with the sacred figures that become instrumental in their lives. These associations are every bit as fragile as the ones we experience between humans. Saints are reflections of history, serving our needs of the moment and modeled around our desires. They exhibit, in a word, our "understanding" of a changing, sometimes confusing world. We hang our hopes on them, and when they answer our call, we are heartened. We elevate them, but at the same time, we give them life.
We learn, often through the technique of story telling, that suffering makes saints and that pain is the ladder to heaven (pg. 21). On the other hand, God is viewed as always having a reason for sending pain. Sickness and sin are synonymous. A distinction is made between genetic illness/birth trauma (no fault, hence saintliness) and the moral failure alluded to in acquired sickness. The paradox is elaborated upon when Orsi notes "there was only one officially sanctioned way to suffer even the most excruciating distress: with bright, upbeat, uncomplaining, submissive endurance" (pg. 26). The idea that someone else is always worse off is also imparted (the ultimate example being Jesus). In their acceptance of pain, Catholics were "stronger... better prepared to suffer" (pg. 33) than their rebellious, whining Protestant counterparts. The Catholic culture advocated self-control, self-denial, sacrifice, and delayed gratification (pg. 34).
Sprinkled throughout the book are examinations of saints and those "blessed," such as Margaret of Castello—born blind, crippled, hunchbacked, and a dwarf—representing the unborn and the unwanted. Not yet canonized 600 plus years later, it is speculated by the less fortunate that "someone like us" (crippled) in heaven is not viewed favorably by mainstream society. For the disabled, Margaret's holiness became a sign of their own presence. If there was someone up in heaven like them, then people like them could be recognized on earth (pg. 46).
Mary, the Mother of God, is examined in detail in the second chapter. The Blessed Mother has, through history, been more honored and more feared than any other holy figure. Even Jesus is challenged with the punch line, "Is that any way to treat your mother?" (pg. 50). There has been much discussion over this Marian devotion—to affirm it or to minimize it? The dialogue continues to this day. Not mentioned is the fact that Pope John Paul II had a special affinity for Mary, elevating her to a status even more central to the Catholic Church during his reign. The book dwells on the more progressive side of the church, which was at the same time removing Mary's image from view, along with Novenas, etc. But Mary also has a dark side. "Ignore me, and you will suffer, she says" (pg. 61). On the other hand, if sought, "the Mother of God denied no one her compassion" (pg. 67).
Next, we depart from Mary and ask "How do religious beliefs become material?" (pg. 73). A fascinating discussion ensues on making the abstract concrete in the form of relics, saints themselves, and so forth. This mostly focuses on children and their lack of attention span. To assist, in 1940, the Junior Catholic Messenger outlined church manners by depicting (artistically and in words) every problem behavior ever expressed by children in a church setting. These include "Timmy the Termite" (pew-chewer), "Turnabout Mary" (eyes everywhere but the altar), and "Bertie Bumper" (pew-kicker). A special section on children's guardian angels follows, showing the "materialization of the moral life in Catholic culture" (pg. 106).
The story of the beautiful, youthful St. Gemma follows and is intertwined with similar sufferings (because they were drawn out) on the part of the author's grandmother. "Suffering... was fundamental to the way that Catholics understood themselves and claimed a place for themselves in American culture just before and after the Second World War" (pg. 129). The sacrifice of each woman was measured up against the other, often leaving a mirror image behind. The scattered form of writing undertaken in this section is unorthodox, but powerful, due to the poignant substance that it is examining. In the end, we learn that endurance is virtue, to these two women and likely many more who embrace the true meaning of Catholicism.
The analysis that ensues touches on meaning making, the bridge we build between the sacred and the profane. While the point is not openly made, it appears that life (and what one makes of it) is not true reality as much as it is personal perception.
Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, is given discussion near the close of the book. What we learn from this is how we, as scholars, distance ourselves from our faith and rationalize its existence to the point that its real meaning begins to escape us. We are finally "too knowledgeable" to actually "get it" anymore. It would be appropriate to fit this with the early Comtean outline of the Hierarchy of the Sciences. We can most easily study that which is farthest away from us personally. Hence, the planets came first in the history of scientific study while studies of human behavior were tackled last. It is hardest to understand what is closest to us—ourselves. And in striving for objectivity, we often handicap ourselves still further.
Orsi's book concludes by recommending a multiplicity of stories told regarding the "meaning" of religion to those immersed in it and... "experiencing one's own world from the disorienting perspective of the other" (pg. 204). This is the bridge between heaven and earth which can be assembled not only inside of the Religious Studies classroom, but within our scholarly work in the field as well.
While the book does not possess an even flow at times, there is much to be gleaned from it on a number of compelling levels—surface stories, deeper comprehensions, new unique insights into the saints, and much more.