Report on the Catholic Literary Imagination Conference

(The photo of a young Flannery O’Connor was found at Southern Literary Trail.)

Two weeks ago a large group of writers met in Los Angeles for a conference titled “The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination.” We Catholic writers are usually pretty isolated—I had never been in the same room with any of the other Dappled Things editors before. Most of our business is conducted by email, phone, or Google Hangout. And there I was, chatting over a tessellated spread of books with Joshua Hren, our managing editor!

My journey began on Thursday with my husband coming home early from work. Sean and I spent an hour packing up the car with a folding crib, jars of baby food, a white noise machine, and everything else we thought a 9 month-old baby might require in a strange land. It’s about six hours from San Jose to Los Angeles, and even though we figured that little James would sleep most of the way, we had never taken him so far from home. He did sleep, fitfully, and by the time we stumbled into our hotel room around two in the morning he was wired. Grinning and panting like an energetic puppy, he bounced up and down in the portable crib while his parents stared in pained amazement. Somehow we all managed to sleep.

The hub of the conference was a large, airy tent that had been set up in a courtyard next to the Catholic Center at USC. Here we could make our first decision of the day: whether to greet a celebrated novelist or snag a cup of coffee first. (I may have gone for the coffee.) The walls of the pavilion were lined with journals and presses displaying their wares. Joshua Hren was representing Wiseblood Books and Dappled Things, and I am proud to report that his table was always surrounded with conversation and laughter. I got to meet Angela Cybulski, Matthew and Deirdre Lickona, and Joseph O’Brien, and we talked about everything from the controversial criticism of Yvor Winters to the terrifying stillness of the Mojave desert.

After lunch Tobias Wolff read his short story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” This was a great reading which brought out the story’s funny jabs at academia, making the ending even more shocking. Later, in the evening, Ron Hansen read the opening of Mariette in Ecstasy. Beautiful contemplative fragments of description, like a “slab of bread dough” that “rolls as slowly as a white pig.” Shades of Hopkins’ nature journals, or Into Great Silence. The next day I thought of Mariette when D. J. Waldie talked about his fragmented novel of southern California suburbia, Holy Land. That book has been praised for revealing the unlikely Hopkinsian grandeur of suburban L.A., and it seems to me that this feat is both the vocation of every writer and something characteristically Catholic.

I was a bit nervous because my own panel was coming up, but it turned out just fine. I got to meet Mary Ann Miller, whose anthology St. Peter’s B-List was reviewed in Dappled Things, and Bill Baer, who created a journal I love, The Formalist. It turned out that all three of us wanted to talk poetry, and Bill’s talk on how he founded The Formalist made it easy for me to segue into my own thoughts on metrical poetry and our advocacy of it at Dappled Things. I did try to stir the pot a bit by warning against formal poetry that is too Augustan and rational—I prefer the weirdness of Hopkins and Yeats and Eliot. Mary Ann’s exploration of Catholic literary anthologies had me wanting a bunch of new books, and we had a lot of fun talking afterward.

Day 2: Sean and I ate breakfast with Earnest McBride, son of the civil rights activist of the same name, and he told us harrowing tales of his time as a Freedom Rider. He was at the conference as a journalist, and after playing with James and telling us his life story he headed for the Jesuit Literary Imagination panel.

I went to hear James Matthew Wilson, Paul Mariani, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talking about being a Catholic poet in the 21st century. James said many things that resonated with me, for instance: “It is no easy thing to write a devotional poem, to figure out how I might write a genuinely devotional poem that does not retreat from the world to the chapel, one that comprehends the world only because it has already seen the truth of the cross.” I, for one, have a planned sonnet sequence that I’ve barely started for this reason. He went on to explore why the Inferno is more popular than the Paradiso and to ask why we have a resistance to “poetry conceived in supernatural joy.” Paul Mariani’s lovely reading and explication of “The Windhover” and of John Berryman’s poems seemed to offer an antidote to such resistance, and Angela reminded us of how the “efficacy” of words in the sacraments has given Catholic poets an awe of the power of words even outside of Mass, confession, weddings.

Next, Barbara Nicolosi moderated a panel about being a Catholic writer in California. I was excited for this one, since Heather King, Carol Zapeta-Whelan (“Neighbors,” from the last issue), and D.J. Waldie would be there. A lot of love and reverence for L.A. and Fresno, cities that often get snubbed. The Spanish heritage of California came up a lot. And there was a lively discussion of being a writer in the shadow of Hollywood, how you tell people in L.A. you’re a writer and they say “What show?” (Incidentally, James Franco is working on a film version of D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land.)

After a reading by six of Greg Wolfe’s students, there was Mass, the gospel and homily being read by Ron Hansen, who as you may know is an ordained deacon. Finally, we ended with a poetry reading by Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, and Angela O’Donnell. One poem of Angela’s sent that shiver and stinging of tears that I haven’t felt from a poem for some time:

St. Vincent

“The best way to know God is to love many things.”—Vincent Van Gogh

What Vincent loved of sky he told the crows.
He taught them blue and the long note of want,
the rut and whorl of time that comes and goes,
God’s face in the field, drawn and gaunt.
What Vincent loved of earth he told the trees.
Their branches writhed like flames when they heard
how every leaf and bole at last is seized
and falls like olive stones and evening birds.
What Vincent loved of salt he told the sea:
the play and savor of the friends of Christ,
their sails taut, each mast a wood-crossed T,
the empty boats afloat on waves of light.
What Vincent loved of fire he told the fire,
then placed his wounded hand upon the pyre.

By the end of the conference I felt much more connected to my fellow Catholic writers and to the literary life in general. It’s fun to snark about literary conferences (I love Kay Ryan’s “I Go to AWP” with all the love my grinchy, introverted heart can handle), but this one was intimate, based more on our common love of Christ and Hopkins and O’Connor than on striking poses. I mean, I tried to be cool, but it’s hard when you have a nursing infant around.

Would go again.

Renewing Liturgy the 1911 Way

Almost any parishioner can tell you the Catholic Church has a liturgical crisis. What many don’t know is that the liturgical crisis itself is old news, and maybe the solution is too.

Typical popular narratives treat the liturgical crisis as strictly a post-Vatican II phenomenon related to liturgical innovations from the 1960s. Two popular stories around these innovations vie for attention. The first claims that the changes in worship achieved the Council’s goal of increasing full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. According to this narrative, the liturgical crisis is that the reforms have not gone far enough. The liturgy still retains a shred of  patriarchal clericalism that irks enlightened parishioners. The second narrative claims that innovations (at least those not directly called for by the Council) unsurprisingly and unfortunately involve at times a confusion of roles, a watering down of symbolic richness, and a forgetfulness of what symbols remained. These innovations have in places rendered the inspiring insipid. Little surprise should be expected, therefore, when seminaries and pews lie empty. The innovations amounted to a loss of the Church’s mother tongue. (I mean more than just Latin, here.) The generations that followed Vatican II forgot how to speak the language of the liturgy…sign language.

Romano Guardini, in his early 20th-c. work, Sacred Signs, provides a solution to the liturgical crisis and the desire for renewal expressed by the Popes of his own era. For just a moment, put aside–if you would be so kind–the solutions suggesting more change or less change. Instead, consider the possibility that it is the worshiper rather than the liturgy that ought to change.

True liturgical renewal calls the worshiper to remember the forgotten language of the sign, to recall the union of the body and soul. In Guardini’s words, “what does help is to discern in the living liturgy what underlies the visible sign, to discover the soul from the body, the hidden spiritual from the external and material” (intro). “For it is not liturgical scholarship that is needed,–though the two things are not separable,–but liturgical education. We need to be shown how, or by some means incited, to see and feel and make the sacred signs ourselves” (intro). Guardini hopes to draw the distinction between these modes of understanding: knowledge about liturgy, and knowledge of or in the liturgy. In athletic terms, liturgical renewal requires a kind of “muscle memory” for the soul.

To learn the liturgy requires not the sprinkling of meaning onto strange, alien signs, but rather a spurring forth into bodily expression the real state of the soul in a moment of worship. As Guardini suggests, we should “start off in the simplest way with the elements out of which the higher liturgical forms have been constructed. Whatever in human nature responds to these elementary signs should be fanned into life” (intro). Central to his insight is the notion that something in human nature responds to the elementary liturgical signs; their meaning, that is, corresponds to some fundamental orientations of the human soul united to and expressed in the human body.

As my efforts will pale in comparison to this master’s, I will allow him to speak for himself. Consider with Guardini the meaning of “hands.”

Every part of the body is an expressive instrument of the soul. The soul does not inhabit the body as a man inhabits a house. It lives and works in each member, each fiber, and reveals itself in the body’s every line, contour and movement. But the soul’s chief instruments and clearest mirrors are the face and hands.

Of the face this is obviously true. But if you will watch other people (or yourself), you will notice how instantly every slightest feeling,–pleasure, surprise, suspense,–shows in the hand. A quick lifting of the hand or a flicker of the fingers say far more than words. By comparison with a language so natural and expressive the spoken word is clumsy. Next to the face, the part of the body fullest of mind is the hand. It is a hard strong tool for work, a ready weapon of attack and defense,–but also, with its delicate structure and network of innumerable nerves, it is adaptable, flexible, and highly sensitive. It is a skilful workmanlike contrivance for the soul to make herself known by. It is also an organ of receptivity for matter from outside ourselves. For when we clasp the extended hand of a stranger are we not receiving from a foreign source the confidence, pleasure, sympathy or sorrow that his hand conveys?

So it could not be that in prayer, where the soul has so much to say to, so much to learn from, God, where she gives herself to him and receives him to herself, the hand should take on expressive forms.

When we enter into ourselves and the soul is alone with God, our hands closely interlock, finger clasped in finger, in a gesture of compression and control. It is as if we would prevent the inner current from escaping by conducting it from hand to hand and so back again to God who is within us, holding it there. It is as if we were collecting all our forces in order to keep guard over the hidden God, so that he who is mine and I who am his should be left alone together…

But when we stand in God’s presence in heart-felt reverence and humility, the open hands are laid together palm against palm in sign of steadfast subjection and obedient homage…it may be a sign of inner surrender. These hands, our weapons of defense, are laid, as it were, tied and bound together between the hands of God.

In moments of jubilant thanksgiving when the soul is entirely open to God with every reserve done away with and every passage of its instrument unstopped, and it flows at the full outwards and upwards, then the hands are uplifted and spread apart with the palms up to let the river of the spirit stream out unhindered and to receive in turn the water for which it thirsts. So too when we long for God and cry out to him…

There is greatness and beauty in this language of the hands. The Church tells us that God has given us our hands in order that we may “carry our souls” in them. The Church is fully in earnest in the use she makes of the language of gesture. She speaks through it her inmost mind, and God gives ear to this mode of speaking. (14-15)

There it is. Doubtless you will never fold your hands the same way again. May we all “carry our souls” in our hands. Where are your hands right now? Where is your soul? Let the liturgical education begin.

 

A Litany for Our Time

The names of the twenty-one Coptic Christians martyred by the Islamic State have been released. Let us appeal to some of our newest allies in heaven for their intercession, that the senseless violence will end.

 

Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, pray for us

Sameh Salah Farouq, pray for us

Ezzat Boshra Nassif, pray for us

Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, pray for us

Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, pray for us

Magued Soliman Shehata, pray for us

Mina Fayez Aziz, pray for us

Samouil Alham Wilson, pray for us

Bishoi Stephanos Kamel, pray for us

Samouil Stephanos Kamel, pray for us

Malek Abram Sanyut, pray for us

Milad Makin Zaky, pray for us

Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, pray for us

Guerges Samir Megally Zakher, pray for us

Youssef Shukry Younan, pray for us

Malek Farag Ibrahim, pray for us

Mina Shehata Awad, pray for us

Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, pray for us

Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, pray for us

Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, pray for us

Guerges Milad Sanyut, pray for us

2015 Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize

After careful consideration, our judges, Matthew Lickona and Arthur Powers, have selected the stories that will win the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. Look for the first and second place winners in the upcoming Easter issue of Dappled Things!

First Place:

“Ends of the Earth,” by Anthony Lusvardi, paints a fine portrait of a faith not so much tested or lost as exhausted. To use an image from the story, the way has been blocked by a great pile of mud and muck. The Methodist aid worker at center of the story is a stranger in a strange land, homesick and uncertain, doing right without any real hope of doing good. Stymied and stranded, he must engage with the place where he does not want to be, a world of poor Indians, a world rendered with compassion and without condescension. The author shows a good eye for detail, and earns his epiphanies.

Second Place:

“Polish is for Prayers,” by Gabrielle Pastorek, is the story of an aging Polish-American farmer, narrated by his nephew. The story gently unfolds, offering the reader continuously deeper insights into a strong, taciturn character and touching on the ways that men deal with loneliness and loss.

Honorable Mention:

“Bev Trimpy’s Dog,” by Ryan Rickrode

“The First Time I Died,” by Simon Sylvester

“The Order of All Small Things,” by Faydra Stratton

“Carney in Love,” by Christian Michener

The Lamentations of St. Gregory Narek

St Gregory NarekIn the late 10th century, an elderly Armenian monk determined to set down words in a book as if they were his body, the meaning of which was to be his soul.

I am a living book

Written like the scroll in the vision of Ezekiel,

Inside and out,

Listing lamentations, moaning, and woe.

His thoughts were to be his living testament, sighs from the depths of his heart. The prayers that St. Gregory composed have indeed lived on in his native Armenia and they are recited and loved to this day. They have endured persecution and genocide and emerge today as a gift from the local Church in Armenia to the wider Catholic Church.

St. Gregory of Narek was recently declared to be a Doctor of the Church. There are now 36 holy men and women to be recognized as such. Some of the names on the list might surprise you, Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine, yes, these are men renowned for theological acumen and massive amounts of brain power. The honors given to them are no surprise, but also recognized are Saints John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegaard. In what sense are we using the title “Doctor” if our list includes poets and uneducated mystics? Clearly, we are not referring specifically to technical facility in philosophy and theology. The common denominator is not education, but that the list is composed entirely of saints.

Narek Monastery

Narekavank in southeastern Turkey

Those who are wise, or doctors of the science of the Cross, are those who are nearest to the divine essence, for it is God from whom all wisdom flows and God towards whom all wisdom returns. If we desire to be wise, we must make our way as close to Him as possible. Yes, academics are helpful (and necessary, especially for those of us without the grace of infused contemplation) because knowing the object of our desire helps us to love it better, but ultimately it is love that brings us into the divine plenitude. The Catechism helps us understand when it teaches that Christianity is a religion not of the book but of the Living Word. For this reason, many of the wisest members of the Body of Christ have a wisdom that may seem simple or foolish to those who do not have the eyes to see. They are communing directly with God and their science does not entirely belong to this world. Instead, it circles about and encompasses the world, explaining it with a knowledge that supersedes it. This is the knowledge of who we are, where we are from, and to where we are going.

This being the case, it is fitting that many Doctors of the Church are not so much academics as they are poets. Poetry is the language of the whole, of that which might be and ought to be. A good, beautiful poem is a mirror reflecting heavenly realities that are otherwise unknowable.

St. Gregory of Narek is a mystic, and his greatest contribution to the Church after his sainthood and prayers, is a book of poems. The Book of Prayers, or Book of Lamentations, is a collection of 95 poems. I was completely unaware of their existence and was quite touched by what I began to read. His work is a treasure that deserves attention. For instance, this one is still prayed today by Armenian priests in the Divine Liturgy as they ascend to the altar:

We beseech you with outstretched arms,

Tears and prayers,

As we appear before you,

You, who strike terror in our hearts,

Judge us as we approach with trembling and fear,

Presenting first this sacrificial offering of

Words to your power that is beyond understanding

If Gregory is a saint and a Doctor of the Church today, if his writings continue to be relevant and move us, it is because they are poems that find their eternal wisdom in prayer to the everliving God. The poems know the source of their enduring beauty. They return to that source and give beauty back from the depths of the human soul. In doing so, the poet and all who wrestle with his work are ennobled, carried up to heaven like incense from a thurible.

The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,

I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,

Placing the fruits of my wavering mind

As a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul

To be delivered to you in the censer of my will.

 

Compassionate Lord, breathe in

This offering…

The Habit of Perfection

Hopkins

A young Hopkins looking every bit the romantic poet

It is early in the year 1866 and Gerard Manley Hopkins is contemplating a long Lent. He is a future cleric for the Church of England, studying at Oxford, and heavily under the influence of the aestheticism of Ruskin. He has a bright future. He has been privately writing poetry for some time now, but is beginning to feel as though everything about his present situation is actually trending toward glorification of self. This is not at all what how he desires to live, and for a sensitive soul such as his, this is not a nagging thought to be brushed aside and thought of no more. He longs to serve God humbly and truly. Even the poems he has agonized over and painstakingly crafted begin to feel as a weight around his neck. Many of them are burned never to be read again.

During Lent, many of us impoverish ourselves by denial of simple pleasures. This is a good habit. But Hopkins wants more. He wants to achieve a habit of perfection. To accomplish this he must sacrifice everything, for saints desire only God. Not only are the poems discarded, so too is his comfortable Anglicanism and beloved Oxford along with career and friends. He enters a personal Lent of uncertain duration, trudging on pilgrimage to the grim-grey factory town of Birmingham to consult with the most famous and downtrodden of all Catholic converts in England, John Henry Newman.

Hopkins2He becomes Catholic and life changes forever. Eventually he begins writing poems again, but no one cares to read them. A few are published here and there but he really only has two interested readers while he is alive. He also enters the Society of Jesus and is more or less a pastoral failure, eventually shipped off to exile in Ireland to teach at a failing university. And yet, at the end of his illness-shortened life, he lies on his deathbed far from home and cannot help but repeatedly exclaim, “I am so happy. I am so happy.”

By what standard is this man able to claim happiness? He has finally reached the end of his life-long Lent and in the process has found himself completely, totally impoverished along with Our Lord. Perhaps we do not really believe this when we are told, but the experience of the saints teaches that there is no greater joy than the happiness of the Cross.

I often reproach myself that I give too little to God, am overly concerned with creature comforts, hesitate to fully place my own sacrifice on the altar to be joined with that of Our Lord. Perhaps this is why Gerard Manley Hopkins is my hero. He faithfully accomplished what it seems I cannot. He was not a successful man, but he was holy and he was happy. In the end, he shows how God cares for those who are weak and humble, feeding us with his very lifeblood and clothing us in marriage garments as gorgeous as lilies of the field.

I’m getting ahead of the liturgical season, though. The lily-coloured resurrection garments still await. We are still in the dark night of Lent. Back in 1866, while still agonizing over the decision to enter the Catholic faith, Hopkins reflects on the approach of Lent and achieving The Habit of Perfection. This one evaded the flame and emerges as a sign to us of eternal love.

 

The Habit of Perfection

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Last week was one of the most life-changing weeks of my entire life. My life–or what I thought would happen in my life–changed drastically. Twice.

It all started on February 2nd, when I launched a Kickstarter appeal to fund a production I wanted to do on the California Missions. Here’s the video for that appeal:

It was just two weeks after Pope Francis announced that he’d be canonizing Bl. Junipero Serra, and since I was born in San Diego, I’ve always loved the Missions, so the series was a no brainer for me. Our goal was lofty–we had 45 days to raise $50,000 to produce a 10-13 episode series in English and Spanish in time for the canonization in Sept., in addition to everything else I was already doing. But I knew that if God wanted it to happen, it would.

Part of the reason why we decided to launch a Kickstarter appeal was because we wanted to know, once and for all, if people really cared enough about The Faithful Traveler to help us produce it. Funding has always been an issue. We produced the first series on our own, and while our Holy Land series was sponsored by Select International Tours, there are always fees and other things you have to pay for that add up. Eventually, we started getting invitations by other sponsors willing to cover our travel expenses, which was not only amazingly generous, but made us feel so much better about how people felt about our program. Some people got it and saw the value in supporting it financially. And we were so grateful. But, again, there are always more costs involved in producing a travel series than just the travel expenses, and those costs added up. Aside from what we were spending to produce the series, neither David nor I have ever been paid anything for the work we do on the show. It’s always been a labor of love for us.

So we decided to do a Kickstarter project.

At some point in the Kickstarter appeal, I mentioned that I saw the incipient canonization of B. Junipero Serra as a sign that I should do this project that has long been in my heart. I also said that the real sign that would prove to me that God wanted this series to happen would be whether we raised the funds we needed to produce the series.

I got that sign. In one day.

The first day I launched the Kickstarter appeal, I received an email from someone I’d never met or heard from who thought our project was so worthwhile, he wanted to donate all $50,000 of what we needed.

I thought it was a joke. Wouldn’t you?

Clearly, this was the sing I was looking for! God was saying that He liked The Faithful Traveler and he wanted more, right? He had to have motivated this person to make such a generous donation, and while others continued to make their own extremely generous donations on the appeal, I knew already that the series was going to happen.

Then, last Friday, I got another sign. (Don’t ever say God is silent…)

Looking back now, it makes me laugh. Have you ever gotten a gift that you like, but when you see how hard it is for the person who gives it to you to continue doing so, you have to tell them, as gently as possible, that they don’t have to give it to you anymore?

I imagine that’s what God was thinking.

To avoid getting too personal with a story that is not my own, my husband suffered some health setbacks last weekend that put him in the hospital. After a weekend of sleeping alone and thinking about what life would be like without him, I shot this.

I am so blessed, I can’t even count the ways.

I am blessed that I married a guy who wasn’t even Catholic and then went on to not only convert, but to indulge me in this crazy idea of producing a television show about Catholic travel!

I am blessed that God gave me the ability to produce a television series that wasn’t half bad… Wait. Scratch that. It was awesome.

I am blessed to have been able to travel to so many amazing places and to meet so many wonderful people.

I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to tell others about how much I love my faith and I love the Church, and to hope that it made some kind of a difference in their life.

I am blessed to have been invited to write here, and to share with you all my silly stories and to invite you to join me on adventures. Thank you for indulging me.

Now, I am blessed to be able to step back into the shadows with my husband who is still alive and move on to the next adventure, whatever that is.

This will be my last post at Dappled Things, and while my stay here was brief, I’m grateful to you all for hearing what I have to say.

For now, if you would do me one last favor and please pray for me, as I finish up these last two productions of The Faithful Traveler. But most especially, please keep my husband David in your prayers.

Thank you. And so long.

*Oh, and that title is from Douglas Adams’ mind-bliowingly awesome book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you haven’t read it… go read it. It’s one of my favorite books.

Take a Swing Break

swingWhen I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a Broadway star, so I took every acting class and auditioned for every show that I could cram into my schedule. As you probably know, the first rule of acting is that it is not supposed to be acting–that is, the actor suspends his or her own feelings, thoughts, and identity in order to completely empathize with the character he or she is playing. One important tool my teacher used to help us achieve this was to have her classes play like small children. We would run around school, a bunch of seventeen and eighteen-year-olds playing Tag or Simon Says or Duck-Duck-Goose. The idea was to help us let go of our self-images and inhibitions, to forget what others thought of us and open ourselves to the emotional world of a five-year-old, a world of endless possibilities. No matter how sophisticated or simple, malicious or benevolent the character we needed to portray, the first step in becoming that person was to get rid of ourselves.

As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, it strikes me that my teacher–a crusty old dame who, as far as I know, practiced no religion–was instilling in us would-be actors very excellent Christian principles. We are not called to be ourselves in this world; we are called to be Christ to one another. The first step in becoming a good Christian is to empty ourselves and allow a new creation to be born.

If you are pondering how to approach your Lenten journey this year, allow me to suggest that you go back to being five years old. Play Red Rover. Hop on a swing and let your imagination soar. Build a pillow fort in your living room while you tear down the carefully-constructed walls of your everyday persona. You do not need any children to do these things with you, but of course, games are more fun if you can share them. If you do not have young children, then go borrow some. No parent of little ones will object to an offer of free babysitting. Faith, like talent, is only free to mature when it is not strangled by self-doubt or pride, both of which are hard to maintain when you’re whizzing down a slide. So, why not make Lent fun this year? Repent, and come unto the Lord as a blank slate, like a little child.

Friday Links

A literary study finds that all modern narratives derive from the classic “Alien vs. Predator” conflict; along similar lines, Kirsten Andersen explains the reason why 50 Shades of Awful has been a commercial success; Prufrock ponders political poetry; the Poetry Foundation brings you some poems for Valentine’s Day; and Nick Ripatrazone, one of the most talented among the new generation of writers who are Catholic, talks to Kevin Catalano in a marvelous new interview at The Spark.

Till They Have Faces

When Thorne Smith liberated the gods from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the results were as disappointing as they were hilarious. His 1931 novel, The Night Life of the Gods, involves an eccentric scientist, a mischievous leprechaun, and the Greek gods set free from their pedestals to roam the streets of Prohibition-era New York. The story is witty, absurd, and strangely poignant. The gods are, at first, delighted by the joys of swimming pools, department stores, and illicit whiskey. Venus enjoys a good deal of attention, with and without arms, and Neptune is fascinated by fish markets. But in the end it is all too much for them, and for us. “In a world that has forgotten how to play there was no room for the Olympians,” muses Meg, the leprechaun. True enough. The gods become statues again. And so, in terms of interest, does everyone else.

Would they fare any better, now? The Icelanders are building their first pagan temple in a thousand years. One wonders what kind of welcome Thor and Odin would find on the streets of modern Reykjavik, if they were restored to life. Those who plan to frequent the temple hasten to remind us that the gods are merely metaphors, which seems a little unfair. These are gods without faces: they have no personalities, they demand no sacrifices. They are museum pieces: missing an arm here, a head there, stripped of their paint, cold, austere, damaged, and distant. What life the statues of Greek gods now have for us is in their material history: the hands that shaped the stone, the eyes that first beheld them. It’s something to meditate upon, certainly, although a place like the Metropolitan can overwhelm the imagination. But it’s not the same as what we’re looking for.

To live in a world that is charged with the grandeur of God is no light undertaking. The gods of Thorne Smith are both playful and terrifying. It is their playfulness that makes them terrifying and masks it at the same time. They are above consequences, even more so than their Homeric antecedents; they are also, of course, without consequence, because this is a comic novel, not an epic poem. But for Smith and his protagonists they are also alive in a world that has forgotten how to live. That is why we seek them out, desire their company, and overlook their terror. Unless we cannot, in which case we run the other way. No one in their right mind now would want to live among the Greeks, the Romans, or the Vikings, let alone their gods. Nor should we worship their statues, unless we are prepared to see their faces. But they can still remind us how not to be statues. Thorne Smith was right about that much.

It should be pretty clear that the gods will not save us from a world without God. One might say that they have had their chance. But one might also say that we are living in the Golden Age of mythology, and that is an interesting thought. The gods were never so free to be themselves as when they stopped having to be gods. Somewhere between statues and metaphors, they still roam free in the Metropolitan, and everywhere else. But with what faces they will meet ours in this present age remains to be seen.