Damian J. Ference
Because I went to Catholic high school, and because I really didn’t begin to read for pleasure until my sophomore year of college, I was late in coming to meet J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden Caulfield. My public school friends met Holden in their junior year of high school, and some of them still swear that The Catcher in the Rye is the best book they’ve ever read. I even recall reading an interview a few years ago of Slash, the former guitarist from Guns N’ Roses (and high school drop-out), who insisted that reading Catcher changed his life, as he found in Holden the only character that ever seemed to relate to his own awkward experience of adolescence.
There is something about Holden Caulfield that is attractive. He’s funny, quick-witted, sarcastic, honest, smart, insightful, and searching, yet he feels entirely out of place and terribly misunderstood. And, like all good characters, once you meet him, you can’t forget him—like it or not.
Whenever I visit New York City in the winter, I can’t help but think of Holden in his red hunter’s cap, taking a drag off a cigarette while walking down Fifth Avenue, doing his best to avoid the goddam phonies. And I’ve never been able to walk by the carrousel in Central Park without looking for Phoebe, going round and round on the back of a frozen horse, no matter what the time of year. Indeed, although it is a bit embarrassing for me to admit, I do think there is something very “cool” about Holden Caulfield, and some part of me secretly wants to be like him.
When I first read Catcher in my junior year of college, my absolute favorite part of the book was when Holden explained to Phoebe that all he wanted to do all day was stand on the edge of a big cliff, making sure that the kids playing some game in the field of rye didn’t fall over the edge. I bracketed that entire section with a blue pen. A couple of years later, when I read Catcher for the second time, that business about keeping the kids from falling over the cliff remained my favorite part, but this time I underlined the entire section with a red pen and then wrote “Priesthood 173” on the first page of my book, which is where I always make a personal index. Every time I’ve read Catcher since, I’ve stopped on page 173 and thought to myself, “this is what the priesthood is all about.” I always thought of Holden standing on the edge of that cliff as an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and I loved that all he wanted to do all day was to save people. That all changed about two years ago.
After four great years of parish ministry, my bishop sent me away to do some graduate work in philosophy. The transition threw my world off balance. After four years of preaching, teaching, visiting the sick, burying the dead, working with teens, running RCIA, hearing confessions, blessing homes, and doing all the things a parish priest is supposed to do, I spent a couple of years studying philosophy full-time, and I missed being a parish priest. While I was away I lived with a religious community, so I wasn’t alone, and of course I kept up with my breviary and celebrated Mass every day like I had in the parish, but Lord did I miss parish priesthood. In my mind I knew that I was doing what I had been called to do as a grad student, but in my heart I felt like I wasn’t much of a priest anymore, since I didn’t have a flock—since I didn’t have anyone to serve or save.
I got in the habit of putting inspirational quotes on my corkboard, which was just to the left of my desk, in order to keep motivated. A few months into my first semester of graduate work, I typed up the section of Catcher from page 173, printed it, and hung it on my corkboard with four dark blue pushpins, which matched the color of the ink of the quote. I looked at that quote just about every day and thought, “That’s what I miss about being a parish priest; I miss saving people.” At the time, it seemed right. I was sad and homesick because I had no one to save. My priesthood now consisted of studying Latin, reading philosophy books, writing philosophy papers, and living with about thirty friars in a religious house—but I was a diocesan priest. I often thought that if I could only get back to the parish and have some people to save, then all would be well again. But I knew that after my graduate work I was going to start a new assignment teaching at our college seminary, so I wasn’t sure what to do.
Enter Flannery O’Connor. I’ve read everything O’Connor has ever written at least twice, and I can’t get enough of articles and books on her life and her work. (I even made a five-day pilgrimage to Georgia over the summer to come to better know her and her art.) Brad Gooch is the author of what has recently been hailed as the definitive O’Connor biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, and it was this book that was responsible for adjusting my vision of Holden Caulfield. I had known that O’Connor had read Catcher when it first appeared in 1951 and that she liked the book, but Gooch notes that once the “Catcher Cult” became hip in the late fifties, O’Connor grew suspect.
O’Connor’s issue with Holden Caulfield, Gooch argues, is “the naiveté of his savior complex.” In other words, rather than humbly recognizing his brokenness and his own need for a savior, Holden believes that he is the savior. Holden is at the center of his own world, and everything revolves around him. He’s actually not very mature for his age, although smoking cigarettes, going with prostitutes, and cussing may make him appear so. Under the edgy surface of his coolness, Holden is a selfish boy who can’t see himself as he really is.
Gooch notes that in The Violent Bear it Away, O’Connor takes a nice jab at Holden’s messianic daydream through her character, Rayber, who wants to “gather all the exploited children of the world and let the sunshine flood their minds.” Holden’s savior complex is naïve, but that doesn’t mean that it is not dangerous. O’Connor is Catholic enough to know that every human attempt to save the world fails, and if pushed far enough, such an attempt will ultimately end up in the gas chambers.
Earlier in Catcher, Holden remarks that he likes Jesus, but that his disciples annoy the hell out of him. He observes, “All they did was keep letting him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples.” Because Holden can’t see that he too keeps letting Jesus down, that he himself is in need of redemption, that the story of the disciples is his story too, he cannot be saved. In other words, he’s stuck. Because he can’t recognize his own selfishness, Holden can’t mature; he can’t grow.
Flannery O’Connor’s critique of Holden Caulfield was ultimately a critique of me. As a parish priest, I had often fallen into the ever-so-subtle trap of thinking that I was the one who was doing the saving, neglecting my own need for salvation. I wanted to be the good shepherd protecting his sheep, and the cool guy making sure that no kids fell over the edge of the cliff, while forgetting that I was one of the sheep, that I was one of the kids. Salvation apart from Christ is no salvation at all—it’s actually damnation, yet it’s a very tempting path to travel.
The Catcher in the Rye turns sixty this year. Will I celebrate the anniversary by reading Salinger’s great book, once again? You bet, but it will be with a new set of eyes this time. And maybe I’ll put a new Holden quote on my corkboard. This time, it won’t be about salvation, but about ministers: “They all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don’t see why the hell they can’t talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.”
Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.