Witnesses to the word

Distinct Catholic authors find inspiration in faith

by Luke Eggleston
Sun staff writer

“Logos” is an important term in Christianity. Normally translated as “the Word,” it often connotes the Word of God specifically.

So it comes as no surprise that the written word is an important part of many Christians’ faith.

Both Justin Fatica and Rachel Guido deVries are committed to the written word.

Although they share a common passion, their outlets for expressing that passion are very different.

For Fatica, the written word is simply another medium for transmitting his message of the love of Jesus Christ and his Hard as Nails Ministry. Fatica will use any means available to espouse his experiences as a Catholic Christian. He has used television, radio and the traditional pulpit to convey his message.

On the other hand, for deVries, the written word is a celebration of craft. Although a devout Catholic herself, deVries’ passion for language was cultivated through secular experiences.

DeVries began writing at the age of eight. The daughter of working class Italian-American parents in Patterson, N.J., deVries does not recall what drove her to write at such an early age. Without a patron or teacher to explain to her how one becomes a professional writer, deVries pursued a career as a registered nurse. After studying at the St. Joseph’s School of Nursing in northern New Jersey, deVries accepted a position at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, putting her dreams of writing for a living temporarily on hold.

In 1974, her career in medicine took her to Kenya. There she met British author Sarah Levine, an encounter that she marks as the beginning of her career as a writer.

“She took me very seriously. She didn’t think I was ready to publish but she took me very seriously and that was like the very beginning because I had never shown anybody anything,” deVries said.

When she returned to the U.S., deVries pursued her career in earnest, first studying at the University of Rochester. That summer, she moved to the Syracuse area to study at the now-closed Women’s Writing Center in Cazenovia and then accepted a full scholarship to study creative writing at Syracuse University.

Her first book of poetry, Arc of Light, was published in 1978. She now has four books of poetry published. Along with Arc of Light, she has published How to Sing to a Dego, Gambler’s Daughter and The Brother Inside Me. In addition, deVries published a semi-autobiographical novel, Tender Warriors, and an award-winning children’s book.

She said it would be too difficult to establish one or even several literary influences, but deVries is quick to cite her mother and father as important figures in shaping her imagination. Indeed, much of her writing is preoccupied with Italian-American culture, which she believes is fading from the landscape of the multi-ethnic U.S.

“It’s just a dying culture and it was such a family oriented culture with so many wonderful things about it,” she said.

DeVries attempts to imbue her poetry with a musical dimension. She said the solitude of Cazenovia is ideal for inspiring her creatively.

“The silence that Cazenovia offers me has really influenced how I can conceptualize and ideate. I like to think that my poetry is lyrical. I really love the image. I’m not really like a plain speaking poet so much, although you may look at things and disagree. But I really like the craft. I think it’s just a beautiful craft,” deVries said.

Like certain famous poets such as T.S. Eliot, deVries has found her faith to be a source of inspiration as well. A visit to St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse resuscitated a faith that had been dormant in her for over three decades.

One of her recent poems, “Imperfections,” was published in the Christian magazine Sojourners:

Imperfection is the place where the spirit enters,
the small hole in your shirt, the loosening threads
of carpet, the ache in your soul for forgiveness.
Where the camel waits, where the eye strays,
where the hand reaches up, empty of all but breath,
is the place where the soul begins, its gravity mightier
than we may ever know. There, where the rug unravels
like a rope of time, where pockets bleed their secrets
between the seams. In a widow’s eyes words appear
lit up like stars in a deep sky: If God is all we believe, soul and sorrow and bliss, the
soul is stone and lattice,
ligature and air, and it lives in the body’s secret lapses.
How grateful then to know imperfection’s door swinging
open and closed, how good to be humbled.

Mary Sinnett met deVries when she began attending St. Lucy’s Church. Sinnett has attended several of deVries’ writing workshops and the two have become close by volunteering together.

“When I think of Rachel, I think of one of the workshops when Jerry Berrigan, our mutual friend, walked up to her and said, ‘Rachel, you are a poem,’” Sinnett related. “She doesn’t write about faith, she is faith. When you hear her read, that’s what you feel. She isn’t just reading words, she’s reading herself.”

In addition to writing professionally, deVries is dedicated to bringing poetry to the community. Most recently, she taught poetry in the Oswego and Liverpool School Districts.

She also organizes readings, “poetry slams” and holds book signings.

Fatica, by contrast, has found the written word to be a struggle of sorts. The publication of his book, Hard as Nails, which is named after the ministry he founded, is a testament to faith and one’s potential for overcoming obstacles.

“The message is that this [book] is something that’s possible. If you asked anyone in my family who was the least likely to write a book, they’d say me,” said Fatica, who is also a transplant to Central New York from northern New Jersey. “I can barely write an email.”

Several years ago, while teaching freshman theology at Paramus Catholic High School, Fatica suggested that he might write a book. When his students responded with laughter, Fatica issued them a challenge, “I said, ‘If I write a book, will you give your lives over to Christ?’”

Fatica said he can’t be sure whether or not those students have lived up to his challenge, but the anecdote expresses the source of his motivation, his Catholic faith.

He wrote the book in a flurry of inspiration during the summer of 2005, but finding a willing publisher was difficult.

After he moved to Syracuse, the full-time evangelist experienced a miracle of sorts through a chance encounter at Shoppingtown Mall in DeWitt. While passing the food court, he felt compelled to introduce himself to a random stranger sitting there.

“I walked right up to him and told him that he’s amazing and that God put it in my heart to tell him he’s amazing,” Fatica said.

As it happened, the stranger was himself a published author and the two began plotting how Fatica might have his book published.

Fatica said he could have easily brought Hard as Nails to a small Catholic publishing house or even self published the book. As an evangelical, however, he wanted his message to have as large a platform as possible. In order to find such a stage, he approached literary agent Cathy Hemming, whom he describes as “the biggest agent in New York City.” Twice, she turned him down, but he persisted and obtained her services. Hemming ultimately landed him the kind of large publishing house he sought: Random House.

He secured a major endorsement when former Syracuse Orangmen and current New York Giant David Tyree agreed to write an introduction for the book. Previously a little-known back-up wide receiver on the Giants squad, Tyree became a household name after his performance in Super Bowl XLII when his improbable catch inside the New England Patriots’ 30-yard line. The catch catapulted the team to a 17-14 win over the previously undefeated Patriots.

Fatica met Tyree in 2008 at Syracuse’s Blue and Orange Game and the two became close friends.

“When I saw him, we connected. We’re both about Christ. He’s about Christ and I’m about Christ,” Fatica said.

Fatica also achieved a level of fame when the documentary “Hard as Nails” was broadcast on cable network HBO.

The book was inspired by the sorrow Fatica saw in those around him.

“This book was on my heart because of the pain I saw in the young people and in adults,” Fatica said.

He explained that the book is based on a series of pillars including “sharing your story,” “sympathizing with the weaknesses of others” and “stepping outside the box.”

He is quick to emphasize the importance of community in having the book published. The acknowledgements section spans four pages. He made special mention of Bishop Thomas Costello and Father Henry Pedzich, pastor of St. Michael’s Church, where Fatica’s Mega Youth Worship group is based.

Fatica is currently conducting a series of book signings and other promotional activities. Friday, Feb. 6, he made an appearance on the USCCB’s nationally broadcast radio program.

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