Crisply written, filled with memorable stories, and with a pace that makes it impossible to put down, Kevin Wells’ Burst is a compelling contemporary Catholic memoir of the way God “zigzags” into our lives just at the moment when the darkness threatens to eclipse the light and the temptation to despair is at its height. The word “burst” refers to the author’s physical illness that brought him near death—a massive brain hemorrhage. But that physical affliction seems almost minor in comparison to his marriage- threatening discovery of infertility, the adoption scams that seemed to undermine the hope for parenthood, and the brutal murder of his uncle, Thomas Wells, a beloved priest. With its focus on things falling apart, Burst is a counter to the Gospel of Success so prominent in popular Christian literature of our time. Only a fraudulent theology could promise Easter Sunday without Good Friday, and redemption without sacrifice. For all its direct honesty about tribulation and horror, Burst is from start to finish a hopeful story, a proclamation of the victory of God’s grace over sin and death—of the way, as Wells puts it, God turns “sad poetry into stunning and beautiful verse.”
Wells’ initial training in the reading of divine verse occurred in his upbringing in a large Catholic family in a suburban parish outside Washington, DC. His childhood could not have been more ordinary or typical. Burst includes nearly as many references to the Baltimore Orioles as to the Catholic faith. Wells grew up as a huge fan of the Orioles, especially of the clutch-hitting Eddie Murray. He describes calling up the nerve to put his arm around a date in a movie theater as summoning “Murray courage.” He chose to attend Loyola University in Baltimore so that he could take in more Orioles games, and pauses in his narrative to note that the parish he attends in Ellicott City is the church where Babe Ruth was married. Yet his childhood was also deeply Catholic in the inconspicuous way in which the regular practice of the faith (confession, Mass, the Rosary, and devotions to saints) was woven into daily life.
An aspiring sports-writer, after college Wells moved to Florida, worked at a local paper, caught a big break and big thrill when he persuaded the irascible and reticent Eddie Murray to give him an interview, and landed a job writing for the Tampa Tribune. While in Florida, he met Krista, also a Catholic from a large family; they would eventually marry and move to Maryland, where Kevin could take up a more secure job in his family’s construction company.
Agreeing that they had no interest in a child-free first year of marriage, Kevin and Krista soon faced the painful realization of infertility, an affliction that breaks up many marriages. Tensions rose, especially over the use of in vitro fertilization. Husband and wife split into opposing camps, reduced to walking around their apartment “like ticked-off zombies.” In an effort to set them on a unified path, Kevin arranged a meeting for the two of them with his uncle, Father Thomas Wells, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Father Wells, known as Tommy to his family, was a hugely popular priest in Washington. Born with a gift for stringing words together, whether from the pulpit, at the dinner table, or in the midst of a large party, Wells had a way of meeting ordinary Catholics— from the happily devoted to the angrily lapsed—precisely where they were on their journey toward God and inspiring them to take the next step forward. That is not to say everyone took kindly or immediately to his direct presentation of the truths of the Catholic faith. Living without a “verbal straightjacket,” Wells had other gifts, most notably of warmth and wit, that tempered his bluntness and made people love him even as he was telling them they were on the wrong path. In the large Wells family, Tommy was an imposing presence. Once on a family vacation, he blew up his brother’s (Kevin’s father’s) car, returned to their home, rang the door bell, and, holding the license plate between his fingers, deadpanned, “Here’s your car.” In an annual Christmas ritual, he would hand out the presents to his nieces and nephews with sarcastic commentary. At Christmas, he would also have a dinner for the kids and manage, over the course of the evening, to find one-on-one time with each of them. Anyone who knew him well or witnessed him saying the words of consecration at Mass knew that his greatest gift was neither his wit nor his warmth, but his devotion to the Eucharist. A man who seemed to spend most of his life laughing became transfixed in reverent awe in the presence of the sacred body and blood of Christ.
His approach to Kevin and Krista on that warm summer night, when they came seeking consolation and clarity in the midst of their suffering, was personal and pastoral. There is a wonderful lesson here about preaching the truth in charity. It is one thing to suppose that the difficulties we face excuse us from the burdens of the law of our faith; it is another to uphold the law unflinchingly. It is a third thing to present that teaching in such a way that the sacrifices we are being asked to make can be seen as opportunities for drawing closer to God. As Kevin Wells reflects a number of times in Burst, God’s love aims not so much at consolation as at “total intimacy.” He invites us to “consecrate our pain to him” and let “die the stubborn parts of ourselves that resist” sacrifice. This was precisely the message Tommy communicated to Kevin and Krista concerning the Church’s teaching on in vitro fertilization.
At the end of a long evening, the priest promised them, “I’ll be there for you through it all.” Three days later he was dead in a brutal homicide after a break in at his rectory. The murder itself, the funeral (attended by more than 2,000 mourners), and the search for the killer—who was found 10 days later in a van containing articles stolen from the rectory—became the lead story for the Washington, DC media for weeks to come. The accused confessed to the break in and the murder. For the family and friends of the slain pastor, the horror of the loss itself would be eclipsed a year later by the sudden change in the murderer’s story.
The trial in 2001 coincided with the rise in media coverage of the sex-abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church. A cynical but crafty defense suddenly emerged. The accused had acted in a sort of self-defense, using his knife to attack the priest only after the priest had made sexual advances. Family and parishioners who had seen Wells interact over many years with families, young children, and teens on retreat were in utter disbelief. The accused took the stand, admitted that he had completely changed his initial story and that he had no explanation for how so many objects from the rectory ended up in his residence, but stuck to his new story nonetheless. The jury convicted him and then, in interviews, said they had not bought his story.
Throughout all of this, Wells’ family members, who did not hesitate to denounce the claims, also did not hesitate to pray with the killer’s family or to pray for the killer himself.
In various places in the book, Kevin Wells notes that he often reflected on the final words his uncle spoke to him, his promise to be there for him and Krista. They could have had no idea of the trials they would face. Besides the murder and the trial, there were other struggles, perhaps the worst of which was a series of failed attempts to adopt. After having provided regular financial support and waiting expectantly for the birth of a child, whose in utero photos adorned their refrigerator, they received the call that the baby had been born and was waiting for them in a room on the fourth floor of a certain hospital. Driving into the hospital parking lot, Kevin noted with some trepidation that the hospital had only three floors. Entering the hospital, they were told that not only did the hospital lack a fourth floor, it had no maternity ward. They had been scammed.
Kevin and Krista spent the following weeks reeling from the devastating nightmare of hopes dashed in a most cruel manner. In his anger at God, Kevin signed up for adoration “not to adore but to excoriate. It had never been like this before.” Keeping his regular weekly commitment for months, he “flung complaints and questions toward the Host,” while his Savior remained “cold and soundless.” Then, as he settled into the ritual in a way his Catholic him to do, he began to notice something other than his own anger and dashed hopes. He began to notice the nameless others—the quiet, startling devotion of those who showed up for adoration before, during, and after his assigned time. God zigzagged in and
Kevin’s “voyage to the heart of darkness” began to “change course.” Kevin and Krista were eventually blessed with three adopted children. Reflecting on the experiences, Kevin finds most memorable the “majestic sacrificial love” of the biological mothers who brought the children to term in difficult circumstances, knowing that they will immediately place their children in the care of others.
Settled into the ordinary happiness of domesticity and family, Kevin’s life once again fell apart. On a January night in 2009, he awoke in great pain, and found himself unable to walk straight or see clearly. Blood vessels in his brain had burst. Rushed from a local hospital to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Kevin and his family witnessed his condition gradually worsen. After numerous attempts at treatment, the seepage of blood was, doctors feared, beyond their control. Learning that Kevin was near death, Father Stack—a priest friend of Tommy’s—drove from his parish near Washington to the hospital in Baltimore. What almost no one knew—largely because Father Stack feared being considered “kooky”—is that the priest had recently become involved in the ministry of healing. As Father Stack and a friend drove to Baltimore, they began calling upon God, Mary, and the saints, particularly local saints such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, for the healing of Kevin. When they arrived at the hospital, Kevin was conscious. When Father Stack asked Kevin whom he wanted him to call upon, Kevin said, “I need Tommy.” As they invoked Tommy and the saints, a light filled the room. The angiogram the next day revealed that the bleeding had stopped. What precisely caused the flow of blood to stop remains a mystery. For Kevin, it is further testimony of his uncle’s “reach,” his fulfillment of his promise to be there for him even from beyond the grave. Indeed, Tommy’s reach has left such a mark on the local community, in the form of vocations to the priesthood, that the reference to “Wells guys” is now common in the Washington archdiocese. Kevin’s brother David was recently ordained, and DeMatha Catholic High School, which Kevin and David attended and where Tommy sometimes preached, now has seven alumni studying for the priesthood.
Burst is a bracing and inspiring story. Peppered with apt quotations from saints, the book is not heavy on theology, except by way of powerful illustrations of the lived truth of the Catholic faith. Early in the book Kevin Wells describes his introduction, at a Jesuit retreat, to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. At the core of the Exercises is a series of meditations on Scripture in which we are invited to imagine ourselves as participants in the scriptural scene and thus to come to understand our lives in light of Christ’s life. Kevin Wells employs precisely such a meditative technique with his own life, as he discerns in the interstices of events the providential hand of God. His book does something that we are all called to do at various points in our journey of faith: to reflect concretely on the work of God in our lives, especially his work at those moments when things fall apart. This is the sort of Catholic memoir of which we would be happy to see many more.
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