Confessions of a “Catholic” Novelist

A weak novelist?

A weak novelist?

The New Republic recently published an article that’s gotten a bit of popularity around the web. Novelist William Giraldi penned a 4000-word screed against Catholic novels and novelists ironically titled “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist.” Giraldi, himself an admitted heretic and apostate, wants to dismiss the idea that the Catholic has anything worthwhile to bring to the art of the novel, as a foundation to explain why he does not wish to be called a Catholic novelist:

The linguistic and narrative maneuvers of the Catholic novelist have at-hand explanations, ready-made motives, and so his characters tend to be denuded of complete and unique individual agency, of their own necessarily individual will. For the truly Catholic novel, there’s only one way to read it: the Catholic way. And any novel that can be read only one way isn’t a novel at all but an advertisement—or, worse, agitprop. If you want to know the aim of the avowedly Catholic novelist, the aim of his characters, of his storytelling sensibility, check in with the Gospels, the sacraments, the papacy, the Holy Ghost, the liturgy, the Mass. The Catholic novelist must, by definition, come to the novel with his epistemology embedded like a tick, his ontology fully explicable by deference to his faith…. Inside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood can never be just water, bread, and blood, and that’s a damning disadvantage for any writer.

Now, I have no other knowledge of Mr. Giraldi or his work. I had never heard of him before his article appeared in my blog reader feed. It might be that his novels are very well written and structured, that his imagery is rich and solid, dreamlike in the best possible way. But I cannot take seriously the intellectual meanderings of someone who pens something so ignorant as, “Sometime after my eighteenth birthday, I saw that Aquinas was no match for Nietzsche, and then Augustine lost by knockout to Hume.”

William Giraldi

Perhaps that’s beside the point–although if Mr. Giraldi can throw in a cheap shot, so can I–and the main point is ostensibly the aesthetic one: Can a Catholic write a novel in a Catholic spirit that succeeds as a work of art? But is that really what concerns him? “Here’s what I know with an almost religious surety: to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist,” he tellingly writes. He is worried about being thought a fool in the eyes of the world after Commonweal and First Things started praising his book. He knows that the wider critical apparatus of the world hates anything that even smells of portraying serious religious experience in a positive light. Catholicism is like a sinking ship that Giraldi does not even want to be close to on a life raft, lest he be sucked down with its whirlpool.

Is there anything worth salvaging in this short piece of anti-Catholic agitprop? Mr. Giraldi does actually say something rather interesting in response to a selection from a Walker Percy essay,

[M]ost erroneous is the assumption that a novelist requires a dogma such as the Incarnation as “a warrant” to probe the enigmas of human living. Why not just probe them? You don’t need a monotheistic guarantee of mystery: Your fellow humans will furnish it for you every day, don’t worry…. Referring to Flannery O’Connor in his essay “A Cranky Novelist Reflects on the Church,” Percy contends that “the truly Catholic writer knows” that “it is only through the particularities of place, time, and history … that the writer achieves his art.” Why it would take a “truly Catholic writer” to figure out what good writers have always known—E.B. White advised: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man”—is a tad baffling.

This, I think, is perfectly true. It is a natural truth that man–and a man–is a mystery full of interesting enigmas which the novelist can explore, and this belief needs no supernaturally-revealed warrant. The pagans of old knew that a man was interesting without the slightest bit of divine revelation (“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide…”). Even when one ignores the existence of God and of the multitude of open doors between the spiritual and physical worlds, man himself is a mystery of preternatural heights and depths. Hamlet’s “Piece of Work” speech could be expressed by a materialist as easily as by a monk, because it is too self-evident to ignore.

After all, man is created in the image of God, and we could not say it were so if he did not share in some of his Creator’s mystery.

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

We all know that the contents of the bookshelf hold the key to the inner mind. What a person reads is the raw material for how they think. This personality quiz is not that.

No, I have chosen a far more abstract and less reliable method. It has the virtue of not only being quite inaccurate but it is also my own invention and has very little practical application! The method relies on the actual, physical arrangement of the books themselves. In this heroic attempt to truly judge a book by its cover, no account is taken of the actual subject matter or content of the writing. Apply this method at your own risk. It does not work but at least it can create hilarious misunderstandings and prejudices that will entertain you and your friends for minutes at a time! Anyway, I hope this amuses you.

(Any similarities between actual people and the personality types listed below are inadvertent.)

Read on to find out who you are…


The Aristocrat

stacks on the floor

You are lazy and/or upper class. Because of the ennui from which you are sorely afflicted, it is too much of a bother to sort your books. You do not re-read and have a good memory of what you have already read. When you read a book the whole experience is what matters: the coffee shop you were in, the smells you smelled, where you were sitting… you remember your life by recalling what sort of books you were reading at the time. You use holy cards as bookmarks. You refuse to check out books from the library because another person you don’t know might have touched them. You either are a genuine eccentric or attempt to give off the impression of eccentricity. You read whimsically, regularly, widely, and the books simply pile up as you finish them one after another. Often you read two or more books at a time. Many of them will be un-locatable later, you know this at the time you are adding it to the stack and don’t care. Reading is probably a pure pleasure for you and your reference books are kept to a minimum. When you were in school it grated on your finely tuned sensibilities to be pressured into working through a reading list for class.

You have a dark side that we cannot ignore. All of the above may simply be a ruse to hide the fact that you are obsessively goal oriented and your habits may have developed because you read so aggressively that you really have two, tightly controlled collections: that which has been read and that which will be read soon. Your personality is carefully manicured. You are doomed to spend your life fighting the desire to organize your books, full well knowing that to do so would be to admit that you might, after all, be a sensible person.


The Auteur

carefully arranged as a harmonic visual

You are the type of person who asks every acquaintance you have if you ought to purchase a particular book, which version, which dust cover is most attractive, but always a hardback. You insist on giving extensive tours of your bookshelf to guests. You like to hear positive feedback about the aesthetic sensibilities evinced by the physical beauty of your collection and you take great joy in the quality of the materials that go into making each book. You are an extrovert and like to read books with others and discuss them later. After consulting with friends for months you will purchase a book but immediately be dissatisfied with the way it fits on the shelf and sell it cheaply to your friend who has his books stacked on the floor.

We are not talking about a visual arrangement as simple as descending size or matching colors, that would be too easy. There is a mysterious orderliness in the organization that is unexplainable to others but you know it when you see it. The calculus has to do with the quality of the artwork on the dustcover, the size and weight of the book, the way in which the title is printed, and the general spiritual atmosphere cast by the contents inside. We know this but the exact formula itself is ultimately a mystery. When the books are in perfect harmony with each other, this gives you a sense of supernatural peace.


The Librarian

ordered alphabetically

You are a librarian. Literally. You and other librarians are the only ones who would organize anything in this way. You are type A. You appreciate the books specifically for the ideas contained within and are not a collector. They are valuable as a reference library and you have probably saved your college textbooks in case they come in use later. You are precise in your statements and cautious in placing any academic opinions when conversing with others. You do not loan books out because, even though you don’t particularly care about the aesthetic qualities of the physical book, you take care that they are in good condition. Others aren’t careful with them and they have returned to you in the past with creases and small stains that displease you. You discriminate carefully and dole out your reading time to only those books that are truly worth it. You will never take a flyer on a random book from the discount bin at the local bookstore. That would be crazy.

You have abundant organizational skills but either don’t consistently put them into use or overdo it so much that you derive no benefit from being organized in terms of efficiency or time saved. The organization of your bookshelf is a thin veneer over an ocean of turbulence. You do not have music on while you read, you require complete silence and may even sit at the kitchen table or a desk because relaxing on anything upholstered prevents you from concentrating. You set goals to read either a certain number of minutes per day or books per year.


The Normal

by general subject

This is how books are supposed to be arranged, right? One friend I queried about the physical arrangement of his books did not even understand the question; after all, there is only one, normal way to organize books. It had never occurred to him that there was any other.

At your best, you are thoughtful and hospitable. You form the vast majority of humankind and there is something commendable in the way you fit into and form the dominant culture of book-organizing. It is a sign that you are at harmony with the universe. At your worst you fit in a little too well, without question. Or, if you do question you keep it to yourself. For instance, you patronize the nearby chain-coffee shop franchise because it is convenient and consistent but don’t really like it. That’s where everyone else goes, though, and it is better not to cause a fuss. Occasionally the siren song of the best seller list entraps you and you read a popular novel. You feel silly for doing so but you really shouldn’t.


The Resigned

stack of unread books on the nightstand

You are a parent. Children have destroyed all of your books by reinterpreting their contents as so many coloring pages. The few remaining good ones, i.e., all of your Laura Engels Wilder, have been brazenly re-appropriated and used as instruction manuals for how your entire family will now live. Your children now call you Pa and are demanding a butter churn.

You have no energy left to give and as soon as you begin to read at night you fall asleep. It has taken you years to read the first chapter of a historical biography. You have started and abandoned Infinite Jest at least 3 times. You probably gave up the pretence of being a reader years ago. In spite of all of the above, you are very happy.


The Capitalist

on a kindle

You have fallen into a modernist, techno-Heideggerian cult* and must extricate yourself immediately. You have good intentions but we are all worried about you.

*Or, as the Holy Father would have it, a “technocratic paradigm” run by economic Overlords.


The Student

piled onto a cinder block and plywood contraption

You are in grad school. You have not yet blossomed into the person you will one day become. You eat fried eggs on tortillas every night so that you can save money to afford to purchase more books. Your parents don’t understand you but don’t worry it should only be temporary. You are passionately interested, at this point in your life at least, in one or two subjects at most and your book collection is largely limited to these topics. A lot of your books have post it notes sticking out of them where you marked pages to go back over later. You will never go back over these pages later. In spite of this, you are a creature of hope, exemplifying for all the world the power of an oft-overlooked virtue. Seriously, though, you need to eat better. You are going to get sick.


God Speaks in Polyphony

polyphonyLast week, my church choir and I sang for the funeral of one of our long-time members. A terrible thunderstorm raged for the entire hour of the funeral Mass, shaking the windows in their frames and causing someone’s phone to scream the high-pitched wail of the Emergency Broadcast System. The pastor began his sermon with, “I knew Roy was musical, but I never knew he played the drums.” It was impossible not to find some connection between the storm and the life of the man we had come to celebrate. Was Roy, who was always soft-spoken in life, finally letting loose in the hereafter? Or was he up in the heavens whispering to the angels, “Shhh!” Our deacon assures me it was the former; another choir member insists on the latter; but no one who was present could escape the idea that the two happenings were connected by some spiritual truth. God spoke to the grieving in that thunderstorm, and we were reassured.

…Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Elsewhere in the city, streets were flooding, trees were being struck by lightning, life and property were jeopardized. Such things can hardly be regarded as acts of consolation carried out by a loving God. Nor is there anything unusual about a summer thunderstorm in Louisiana. They happen frequently, the result of very explicable meteorological phenomena. No deities need be invoked to account for them. To think that the thunderstorm was divinely timed to coincide with the funeral smacks of unenlightened superstition. Surely, we college-educated denizens of the twenty-first century allowed our grief to make us grasp at outdated spiritual straws.

I wonder how often such rational arguments have steered people toward despair. How ardently we humans long to hear the voice of God, and how resolutely we convince ourselves of His silence. We cannot reconcile the idea that a noisy instrument of destruction might also be a healing whisper of God’s eternal love. There are plenty of reasons to blame modern culture for our inability to accept such paradoxes, but in the wake of this very musical funeral with its boisterous natural accompaniment, it occurs to me that most of the music in our popular culture–even the very best of it–is complicit in training our minds to insist that life can sing only one tune at a time. One melody must dominate the song, while the harmonies march along in lock-step to support it. There may be room to elaborate and embellish, but there is no room for counterpoint, for an alternative point of view.

It is no wonder, then, that the narrative of a storm’s natural causes and effects–more widely understood than any private grace–should overwhelm all other narratives. We hear a theme that is loud, catchy, and obvious; it must be the melody. Any note that does not support it, any rhythm that refuses to be synched, cannot be part of the same song. We permit our empirical understanding to drown out the seemingly divergent voice of the divine. But this is not a triumph of science over superstition. It is a failure to listen to polyphony.

I suspect that, for the average American non-musician, the sum total of polyphonic music he has heard in his life amounts to a few random snatches from the occasional film score. Polyphony demands a great deal of its audience because, no matter how many different lines there may be, each of them is equally important. Every line is its own melody, a complement to the others, but neither synchronous nor subservient. That musical lines should move independently–weaving over, under, and through each other without recourse to ordinary chord progressions, without respecting that the soprano note must remain above the alto–is a difficult concept for modern ears to accept. Polyphony refuses to be reduced to something you can hum, yet it is rarely dissonant and undeniably beautiful. The voices sometimes echo each other, borrowing bits and pieces of each other’s themes, occasionally arriving at a cadence where they pause and breathe together. Then they go on, each to its own lofty heights or plunging depths, carrying the same text in different ways, until they all arrive at a single harmonious end.

This is what was happening at my friend’s funeral during the thunderstorm. Nature–that constant pedal-tone of life–carried on with its habitual song, but overlaid with it were other lines, equally important. Comfort for Roy’s friends and family was only one. Someone else might have heard a condemnation, a call to change his ways; another might have thanked God for a welcome rest from his labors because his job was rained out that day; those who feared the storm’s consequences had an opportunity (whether or not they made use of it) to unite their sufferings to the Cross and thank God for His mercy. God’s melodies are innumerable, written from the beginning of the world with a line for every single one of us to hear and heed and call our own. Every planet, every raindrop, every atom of creation dances to the song. It is not a song of harmony, with all the voices neatly aligned. It is polyphony, an intertwining of related strains, and we, with our finite minds, will never be able to read the entire score. We will never fathom the theory that structures it, but this is not our task. We need only pray for the grace to listen and join in, while we trust that the final cadence will come.

Now sit back and feast your ears on polyphony.

Dante Gets Political

"Dante in Exile," Annibale Gatti

“Dante in Exile,” Annibale Gatti

On this day in history, 15 June 1300, Dante Alighieri became one of the six priors of Florence. He was around 35 years of age. Even though he served for only two months, his activities–which included the banishment of his own rivals–would be enough to result in his exile two years later.

The Divina Commedia, while written almost a decade later, would be chronologically set two months before his taking of a political office, during the Holy Week of 1300. The decision to set his infernal and celestial journeys shortly before his brief political career certainly demands the question be asked: Why would a man who had been told by the souls of the deceased about his impending exile proceed with his contentious career?

Nowhere in the Comedy is the fictionalized Dante commanded to continue with the actions that will result in his banishment from Florence. One presumes that the poet-politician could have taken the warnings of the damned and the blessed as an opportunity to keep his head down and avoid the troubles that would surely come his way. Nor does it seem that he suffers from amnesia at the end of the poem.

Perhaps Dante–the real one rather than the fictionalized version–wished to grant a grander scope to his exile. By setting his tour of the afterlife just before his priorship, Dante takes control of the situation and makes his actions a part of unchangeable Providence. Dante makes himself a partner in the working out of the Divine Will. After the pope had sided against Dante with the Black Guelphs, the poet could retroactively condemn the papacy’s intrusion into worldly politics by penning a set of similar heavenly condemnations.

The Inferno begins the evening before Good Friday, the night in which Christ asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. While Jesus was strengthened by an angel, Dante is strengthened by his hero Virgil and his old love Beatrice. Dante is midway through his life’s course, about the same age as Christ at his Passion. The poem is not so much a comedy as a Gethsemane. The poet imaginatively drinks the cup of his future to the full, embracing his predicted suffering rather than fleeing it.

Truly, what else was there to be done, except drift off silently into a smoldering bitterness? Dante called upon all the courts of Heaven to his aid in condemning the evils of his time and place, using the height of his poetic genius to confirm “Heaven’s” judgment in the hearts of men.

And there it has remained to this day.

Allegory in a Dream

The night after I drifted farther from the center of the purity path than I had in some time, I had this dream. It was strikingly vivid and full of minute detail in a way that dreams rarely are. I wrote it down for my own benefit, only to discover that it might serve as a good mediation for more people than myself. I hope it will.

I was on my way to a theater with some old friends, walking through a town that looked like 1940’s America, when I realized I had left my keys behind.  When I turned back to retrieve them, everything suddenly looked like an Irish countryside instead of that town. I decided to try to take a shortcut and went off the road. On my left, as I went through the moors, I saw through the mist an enormous ruin of an old gothic cathedral, with heavy, moss spotted stones and an open roof in most places, and a multitude of small rooms coming off the main body of the church at every level.

I walked to a side entrance and carefully pushed open the tall, damp, heavy wooden door. A few steps in, I heard voices and I saw lights coming from somewhere below me. I found myself at the back of the main church and saw the altar at the end of a long, uneven aisle, far away from me. I looked down, and saw a vast hole in the floor, opening to level upon descending level, as far as I could see, with a narrow but strong stone staircase winding in squares along the edges of every level. There was the sound of wedding bells, far off, and on each level I saw a medieval bride in procession, with a heavy cathedral train spread out in a great length behind her, bridesmaids in simple medieval dress attending either side of the train. Each bride had vibrant dark red hair, very curly and long, flowing down around her arms, and shrouded by a finely-wrought and impressively long lace veil that followed the length of her cathedral train. The veils framed each face on a sort of tall and wide headdress of white flowers and silver drippings that piled several inches above the forehead and off to the sides above the temples of each bride. I could see the expression on the face of the bride on the highest level, just a few feet beneath me; though her attendants had downcast, sober faces as they held the edges of her train, her eyes were lifted up as she smiled hugely and insipidly. But she was entrancingly beautiful nonetheless. She walked slowly and regally, taking each step deliberately (all the brides at all of the levels stepped in time with each other), but going in a continuous square around the level she was on, never rising higher. There was no staircase that led up; presumably she would continue walking where she was, not realizing, in her vapidity, that there was no way out.

Some of the brides below her, though, had found a staircase. Just as slowly and regally, they were ascending one level at a time. They were equally radiant, and all seemed something out of a dream, even within my dream. There was an ethereal, other-worldly quality to the whole picture that I saw through the floor, and it left me in wondering, confused amazement.

I decided to explore the rest of the cathedral ruins, thinking maybe I could find someone who would explain to me what I had just seen. I realized, to my consternation, that the door I had come in was gone, so I turned to my left, and through some dark rooms at the back of the church, I found another staircase, this time of heavy wood, leading up to another level. As I moved toward the staircase, I heard the sound of a child crying, and realized that a thin small boy with dark curly hair was sobbing in a little heap in the hidden underside of the staircase. I bent down to see if I could help him, and he reached his arms up around my neck so I could pick him up. He was wearing almost nothing, and his skin was dirty. I cradled him in my arms like a baby, supporting his head with my hand, and turned his face so I could make eye contact with him and try to calm him. All at once his subsiding cries turned to maniacal laughter, and his mouth widened into a demonic grin until it was almost the only thing on his face. His scrappy arms with sharp fingers began scratching at my face, gouging deep gashes across my cheeks and eyes and lips as I screamed in fright and pain, and tried to drop him and push him away. Hardly able to see, I ran up the stairs, but he clung to me and continued to scratch at my face, neck and shoulders, tearing slashes through my clothes as he cackled. I felt fat drops of blood splashing from my face to my chest, leaving large red spots all over my off-white linen peasant’s shirt.

As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, still unable to fight off the demon, I saw a man walking calmly towards me and cried for help. He reached in with one hand and easily plucked the creature away. It screamed as it was tossed back down the stairs and disappeared around a dark corner. Gasping and trying to calm myself, wiping blood out of my eyes, I looked at the man who had saved me. He was wearing a light brown robe with a knotted white rope around his waist, had a trimmed, pointed beard and an unwearying but peaceful warrior’s look to his thin face and stature. He was taller than I, and yet his height came more from the aura of subtle indomitability than his physical form. He might have been St. Joseph, or one of the early founders of a monastic order. I asked him, as I regained my composure, what that thing had been, and what the brides below were doing, and what they meant.

He answered with a stern but not unkind economy, “That is one of the demons disfiguring you because you love your intended more than you love God. They will continue to torment you until you have learned to put your loves in the proper order. The brides below are caught in their circular procession, close to marriage and yet unable to marry, for the same reason. You cannot take shortcuts to find the key, and you cannot marry properly unless you love God more than anything else. You will not find a door out of this ruin until you have worked here for many years and learned to love.”

He turned away to resume his own work, explaining as I looked past him and saw a busy scene, all under the open daylight of the roofless cathedral, that he and the other saints, and other workers I saw, were all there to help me and people like me to learn to order our loves. Some of the industrious crowd I could see were like me, but had started some time ago and were on their ways to sainthood. There were large drafting desks with piles of notes of accounts that needed to be calculated, and there were also mountains of fine cloth to be washed and folded and sorted. In some ways the room looked like a sacristy; there were long, narrow drawers to hold vestments, and other wooden cupboards among the remaining labyrinth of stone rooms and crannies.

As I took my first step out of the corner, preparing to join in the tasks at hand, an enormous stone gargoyle, tall and thin, swung suddenly into my path and began to advance on me, towering over me, prepared to crush me. I determined he should not win, and that I would conquer him with my own strength, and crack him till he fell to pieces at my feet. I realized, after I took my first swing, that I had barely impacted him at all, and he began to grin with the same long, wide demonic leer of the savage child. He moved in closer and faster, and his shadow blocked out the light as I backed into the corner and tripped on my hem, stumbling away from him. All at once I realized I couldn’t defeat him on my own, and that he was moments away from crushing me. I raised my arms above my head to shield myself and cried out, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect me!” I heard a wild sound of stone being crushed, and felt debris rain down on my hair and hands, and then felt warm sunlight. I opened my eyes, and the gargoyle had vanished, leaving only some light gray dust and rubble on the floor.

I blinked, and saw the man who had plucked away the first demon. He looked over his shoulder from where he was busy at work, nodded curtly, and said, “Well done. Now begin your work. Clean that cupboard, and then those drawers, so we can put away the priest’s vestments.”

I opened the cupboard he had indicated and a small animal came out, the size of a raccoon, but not fitting a description of any animal I knew. It leapt at my face, screeching, determined to attack me, but I stabbed it swiftly with the sharpened end of my broom handle, and it disintegrated. I nonchalantly brushed away the dark cloud it had left hanging in the air and looked inquiringly back at my guide, who had calmly watched the whole episode. He gave another curt nod in answer to my implied question. “Yes. With each task given to you, a new demon will come from the dirt, some large and powerful, some more easily defeated. You must destroy each one, and so you will gain your freedom as you clean and prepare the dark spaces.”

As he finished speaking, I heard a trumpet sound from far away. Everyone in the room smiled radiantly as they paused their work, and looked expectantly at the stairs. I saw a bride ascending, and she was simply dressed. She no longer had a train, and her bright red hair was all loose and flowing, covered only by a white lace mantilla that fell to the floor, meeting the hem of her dress. Rather than the six or eight attendants I had expected to see, there was only one. She looked at the bride now, rather than at the floor, and she smiled serenely. And the bride, no longer grinning vacuously at the sky, smiled a private, shy smile as she looked at the ground and was a little embarrassed at the pleased attention of the joyous onlookers. She walked across the room with an unhurried surety in her step, and a door opened in the stone wall across from where I stood, surrounded by wheat stalks and golden light. It opened to a brightness I couldn’t see, and she and her attendant stepped up into it. I ran to follow them, to try to see where they had gone, but the door closed before I could reach it. It disappeared, and the stone wall grew back.

“She has finished her work,” said my guide, “As you shall.”

Towery City

Poet, translator, and classicist A.E. Stallings has been nominated for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The post was established in 1708; if elected, she’ll be the first woman on a list that includes Matthew Arnold, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney. Stallings herself has a few remarks. Angela Taraskiewicz has more to say in an essay for the Valparaiso Poetry Review that touches on strings, female storytelling, and classical mythology.

In other Oxford news: at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carol and Philip Zaleski discuss Oxford’s Influential Inklings and their enduring cultural legacy. Elsewhere in England and the British Isles, Robert MacFarland is teaching us about landscapes, languages, and landspeak, ever since the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to refine its vocabulary in ways that would make Hopkins weep.

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Luminous Mysteries


For a Playlist for the Glorious Mysteries, click here. For the Joyful Mysteries, click here. For the Sorrowful Mysteries, click here.

The First Luminous Mystery – the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River

Wade in the Water by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company

Don’t close your eyes for this one.

The Second Luminous Mystery – The Wedding Feast at Cana

Mvt. 3, “The Wedding Feast at Cana” from the Oratorio Il-Qalb ta’ Kristu (The Heart of Christ) by John Galea, performed by The Sofia Collegium Symphony Orchestra

Sung in Maltese

The Third Luminous Mystery – The Proclamation of the Kingdom

The Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov

Vladimir Martynov is a contemporary Russian composer. The Beatitudes is sung in Church Slavonic.

The Fourth Luminous Mystery – The Transfiguration

Kantyk Mojżesza (Canticle of Moses), composer unknown, sung in Polish

“Sing to the Lord because of His great power and glory!”

The Fifth Luminous Mystery – The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

Pange Lingua by Anton Bruckner, text by St. Thomas Aquinas, sung by the Concordia Chamber Choir

Sing, my tongue, The mystery of the glorious body, And of the precious Blood That for the world’s salvation The fruit of a noble womb, The king of the nations, shed.

For the complete translation, click here.


Pope Francis Book Club

Move over, Oprah, there’s a new Book Club in town!

At his last Wednesday audience (May 27th), Pope Francis invited every engaged couple in the world to read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Speaking of the book in an audience that reflected on the time of engagement, Francis exhorted:

It is necessary that young people should know it [The Betrothed], that they should read it. It is a masterpiece, which tells the story of an engaged couple that suffered so much pain; they travelled a path full of difficulties until they arrived in the end at marriage. Do not leave aside this masterpiece on engagement that Italian literature has in fact offered you. Go ahead, read it and you will see the beauty, the suffering, but also the fidelity of the engaged couple.”

“Necessary,” no less! That’s high praise. We might ask, why does this novel (perhaps the second best-known of all Italian literature) take pride of place for fiances? The answer is that the novel embodies Francis’ vision for marriage preparation in the Church: an extended time of hard work on love. Francis calls engagement “the time in which the two are called to work hard on love, a participated and shared work that goes in depth.”

But what would such “hard work on love” require? While his audience was no systematic treatise on marriage preparation, I see an overarching goal and two pegs in Francis’ plan for engaged couples. First to the goal. Francis sets for its goal the attainment of the conditions necessary for couples to fruitfully celebrate the marital sacrament, thereby receiving the grace of strengthened indissolubility. The work itself will be “hard work on love,” but as we said such a phrase needs content. Francis focuses in on one of the principle fonts of love: knowledge. Francis envisions a journey in two kinds of knowledge to pair with the flourishing of two kinds of love: (1) a “pedagogical journey” in the discovery of human knowledge of “man” or “woman” in and through coming to know intimately one’s fiance; and (2) a “spiritual journey,” of the couple coming to spiritual knowledge of God together into Scripture, into the sacramental life of the Church, and into the prayer characterizing the domestic church. Each journey in knowledge invites a further falling in love, a further appreciation of the true, good, and beautiful as more clearly visible in the beloved. At the same time, my own distortions of what is lovable become more apparent and beg for correction. Finally, such a journey will take time and conscious effort.

Each of these these points (human knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and conscious effort over time) deserves its own treatment, however brief. First, as to time and conscious effort, Pope Francis seems to mean for the betrothal period to be long enough to reasonably accomplish its pedagogical and spiritual goals at the level of knowing each other and knowing God. As to its duration, “The covenant of love between a man and woman, a covenant for life, is not improvised; it is not made from one  from one day to another. There is no express marriage: on must work on love, on must journey. The alliance of love of man and woman is learned and refined.” God’s six days of creation, as a work of love, “Created the conditions of an irrevocable, solid alliance destined to last.” An engagement “is a course that goes slowly ahead, but it is a course of maturation. The stages of the course must not be burnt. Maturation is done like this, step by step.” These and other passages suggest the extended time couples should devote to marriage preparation–time enough at least to read Scripture and The Engaged together.

As to knowledge of each other, we must remember that the lover can only love what is known in truth. Love follows knowledge. Increased knowledge of the beloved augments love, which in turn inspires the lover toward yet deeper knowledge. Stunningly, Francis openly takes to task any who would claim cohabitation apart from marriage as a fruitful means to gain such an important knowledge of the promised spouse. “Yes, many couples are together for a long time, perhaps also in intimacy, sometimes living together, but they don’t really know one another. It seems strange, but experience shows that it is so” (emph. mine). What does it take to know someone? Kudos to Francis, who tells the engaged that it is a sharing of the most important questions of life reflectively, and the most important experiences of prayer, spiritual reading, and works of mercy together.

What is it that couples come to know at the human level during their engagement? Francis seems to think the engaged come to know “man” and “woman” in and through this man or this woman. An interesting claim. Francis seems to hope fiances will learn fundamental, universal truths about their complementarity–not so much the specific, unique idiosyncrasies of each partner. Again, a refreshing, though not novel approach. The resonances with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body cannot but fill the mind here. Just as Adam discovers woman as gift to him and thereby discovers himself as gift for Eve, so too do fiances discover in steps what it will mean to give and accept irrevocably oneself and the other as total, fruitful, faithful, free gift of love. Francis mentions 1 Cor 6:15-20, one of Paul’s injunctions against fornication, and bemoans culture’s refusal to take Paul seriously: “The strong symbols of the body hold the keys of the soul: we cannot treat the bonds of the flesh with heedlessness, without opening some lasting wound in the spirit (1 Cor 6:15-20). Certainly today’s culture and society have become rather indifferent to the delicacy and the seriousness of this passage.”

In the realm of spiritual, or divine knowledge, Francis sees three elements:  (1) “the Bible, to be rediscovered together, in a consious way”; (2) prayer, both liturgical and “domestic”; (3) and the Sacraments, especially confession. Francis mentions explicitly Jeremiah, Hosea as examples of God’s having betrothed himself to a faithless people, a people whose idolatry amounts to adultery, a people, however, whom God will journey with until they become his bride made spotless in the blood of Christ. , and 1 Cor 6:15-20. He calls this reading of the Scripture “essential.” How many marriage preparation programs require daily Scripture for the engaged? How many, furthermore, require confession? Francis doesn’t even mention Eucharist but rather confession. That emphasis is amazing in itself.

As Francis says, “Love itself demands this preparation, which makes possible a free, generous and sober decision to enter into a life-long covenant of love.” Couples who prepare will be able to “truly receive one another ‘with the grace of Christ'” through the “lovely celebration of Marriage in a different way, not in a worldly but in a Christian way!” Prepared couples are initiated into marriages of “surprise!–to the Surprise of spiritual gifts with which the Lord; through the Church, enriches the horizon of the new family.”

Let us return, now to where we began. Those who have read The Engaged will immediately see how this masterpiece weaves together the long-term, pedagogical, and spiritual journey into the graced knowledge and love envisioned by Francis in this audience. For those who have yet to read The Engaged, there’s no better time to join the Pope Francis Book Club!

I will leave you with a final thought-picture. For me, it is a great joy and encouragement that our Pope envisions a world where a priest could plausibly reply in the following way to couples seeking marriage in his parish: “God bless you, and congratulations! Go read The Engaged, by A. Manzoni, and we’ll meet in a month to talk about it.”

May God grant us this grace!



Drama is a Mirror

I saw the film Age of Innocence a while back and loved it. Controversial opinion alert! This is Scorsese’s best film.

Are you serious bro

Another criminally underrated work of art, but I digress.

I’ve been hoping to read the Edith Wharton novel on which the movie is based and finally got around to it this past week. It is a fantastic read and there is much to discuss, but what interests me the most is the way in which each of the two books making up the novel begin at the Opera.

In Wharton’s mind, 19th century New York City society is nothing more than an elaborate play. The setting may be a concert hall, but the real dramatic performance is taking place offstage where the upper class gaze at each other through binoculars as they act out vignettes in private boxes. Each person is not so much an authentic human being but, rather, a created character molded by societal expectations. The dictates of form and etiquette are faithfully observed, each small deviation speaking worlds of meaning. True opinion is tirelessly obscured and those who stumble in even the most minor way are excoriated.

Edith WhartonWharton herself was raised in such a society and has since made her escape. Clearly, she sees in her upbringing both good and ill. At times, societal pressure has a civilizing effect, forcing responsibility, for instance, on Newland Archer to honor his commitment to May as well as exerting the conditions by which he is enabled to subvert his own desires for the good of his children. And yet, Wharton herself escaped such conditions and sees many of the formal expectations as artificial and harmful. There are those, such as the Countess Olenska, for whom mercy and forgiveness (if indeed this is what should even be required for her situation) are out of the question. She is marginalized, pressured to resubmit herself to an abusive husband, and ultimately, firmly but oh so politely escorted out of New York for the continent never to return.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines drama as mimesis, an imitation of nature. As practiced by human beings, imitation has a moral purpose and for this reason we understand that it is ordered to displaying either goodness or badness. Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse. The artist actually contributes to the shape of the narrative and has an independent, moral voice. This is to say that he is not filling the role of journalist. The moral instinct is distinctly human, and our drive to create drama (Aristotle calls it poetry) is written into human nature.

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. Herein lies both the blessing and the curse. We are a mixture of goodness and badness. It follows that drama will highlight both aspects, what Aristotle calls Comedy and Tragedy. The blessing is the ability of the artist, like Wharton, to praise the good and question the bad. The curse is the ability of a skilled artist to confuse and invert the two.

Aristotle attempts to tame drama by insisting on formal elements. Here he departs from Plato, who sees not the potential but the danger. In Plato’s ideal republic, poets are treated with caution and many of them are not welcome. They are forced to justify their existence. Why? Artists have the power to sway men to false belief through an appeal to the emotions. A drama can distort reality through the skill of the writer and actors, clandestinely departing from nature and corrupting an unwitting audience. In the Republic, Socrates elaborates that a drama is dangerous because it, even though fiction, produces very real emotional reactions. It is capable of seducing us away from reality and thus, if it is to remain a part of culture, must prove that it is being honest. Wharton maintains that we view the formal structures of our societal interactions in a similar manner. These formalities are a kind of drama and must always seek the truth of things and thus be in service of the human being.

Jane AustenAnother author who makes use of the dramatic arts as analogy is Jane Austen. In much of her work she is concerned to show the difference between superficial, false impressions and the often very different underlying reality. It’s right there in the titles: Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. Appearances are often false and the emotions misleading. This is no less the case in Mansfield Park, the heroine of which is the misunderstood Fanny Price. Fanny, it is said, is a character who appeals to precisely one person—Jane Austen. Everybody else hates her (I kind of like her, so now there are two of us). She is too…good. My theory is that we are all simply ashamed in comparison. The objections are elaborated by CS Lewis’s Screwtape, who says that Fanny is,

a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) …Filthy, insipid little prude!

Appearances are deceiving, though, and Fanny is no prude. Perhaps we think her so because we don’t understand her motivations (What I mean to say is that I am often primarily motivated by peer pressure and so find those who are not to be inscrutable). Rather, let us say that she is virtuous. When her cousins embark on an amateur production of a play, she disapproves not because she is an uptight puritan but because she knows it will upset her uncle Sir Thomas, for, “His sense of decorum is strict”. The play, based upon Lovers’ Vows, is an opportunity to go against the grain of reality. By the acting of it, the participants are able to make-believe romances and engage in illicit flirtation. It turns out that, in Mansfield Park, the play is a prophetic instrument. It seeps into the formal social structure of the group itself, imposes a false narrative, and causes lasting unhappiness. Fanny seems prudish and odd only because she resists the false narrative that is cast by the play. Instead, she stays true to reality and in the end is proven to have chosen the more felicitous path.

The play itself, we might note, is prophetic in the sense that it begins to bend reality around it like a black hole bends light. The play has little value of its own but is able to distort the outlook of those who participate. The lives of those around Fanny do not end happily, in part because the play has encouraged a false perspective of the moral life. Subsequently, happiness is sought in all the wrong places.

There is great power in art. The artist has the ability on the one hand to produce that which leads to true beauty and on the other to seduce the unwary. A robust culture will produce all manner of art: visual, song, poetry, drama…we need not shy away and eject them from our perfect republic as Plato would seem to have it, but beautiful art is always in service of humankind, an explication of goodness, and always maintaining an honest even if challenging moral perspective.

I suppose that as this essay winds down it is morphing into a sort of encouragement wrapped up in a warning to Catholic artists. You are needed. However, what we need is not a false aesthetic movement that mimics the distorted Lover’s Vows of our day. It seems to me that this is precisely the sort of stuff that both Wharton and Austen critique. We very much need to continue developing a true, challenging, beautiful, and living tradition of art in the Church. One that, even if at first glance is strange or unexpected, reveals itself to the inquisitive, thoughtful, wonderful, and ever opening up on the endless vistas that have been divinely stretched through all of creation, including most particularly within the human soul.

A Fellow of Infinite Jest

(Credit: Hachette Book Group)

(Photo Credit: Hachette Book Group)

What is one to do with David Foster Wallace? As much as I admire his writing style, his self-effacing humility, and his frequent brilliance, I have never quite connected to the man’s work. Like many in my generation, I have read a few of his essays and short stories. I have even made a few vain attempts at reading his magnum opus, the door-stopping Infinite Jest. But he lived in a strange other-place where reality is so complex as to lack any simple, unifying principles. It was so terrifyingly despairing that one can barely pull back from the brink. The first Wallace short story I ever read was “Incarnations of Burned Children.” It was almost my last.

All this came to mind after seeing the new trailer for upcoming biopic The End of the Tour, featuring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as his interviewer.

Mr. Wallace was a north star for many lost young men and women of my generation. They were attracted to his compassion and to his apparent insight into the reality of our distorted existence. Was he a post-modernist guru? A cliched reclusive genius? A novelist disguised as a surfer dude? A Hemingway obsessed with cleaning his shotgun?

David Foster Wallace the author is difficult to enjoy, but David Foster Wallace the man is impossible to hate. Even a casual fan like myself felt a long-lasting and numbing anxiety upon hearing of his suicide. By hanging himself from his patio rafter, he joined the company of Virginia Woolf, Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Ernest Hemingway in the group of authors who made their own way out of this world. It is a dubious company, indeed.

I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning?