February 2: A Feast of Manifestation, Purification, and Candles

If you read this earlier blog On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas, or if you are otherwise acquainted with how many events in the life of Christ have been associated with January 6, you know that the history of the feasts celebrated on that date is rich and complex. February 2 also has a rich and complex history, so it’s worth taking some time to look at the multiple events that the Catholic Church has celebrated on this date over the millennia.

Feast of the Forty Days

We have an eye-witness account of a celebration of the forty days after Christ’s birth from the 4th century A.D., before the Church had even given the feast a name. A nun named Egeria, who came from what is now Spain, wrote in Latin to her religious sisters about what she saw and did during her three year pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other religious sites from 381 to 384.

Egeria's Itinerary

Egeria’s Itinerary

In what is the oldest surviving record of a Catholic pilgrimage, Egeria described a Mass in honor of the feast of the forty days after Christ’s birth, which she observed in Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 14. The Church celebrated the feast on February 14 because the birth of Our Lord was observed, along with Epiphany, on January 6 at that time. When the celebration of Christmas was later moved to December 25, the date of the feast of the forty days was naturally moved back also, to February 2, forty days after the Feast of the Nativity.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

“All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”
“Egeria’s Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem”: Egeria and The Fourth Century Liturgy of Jerusalem. Based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme’s Christian Worship (London, 1923).

Egeria's pilgrimage on a Spanish postage stamp

Egeria’s pilgrimage on a Spanish postage stamp

The “Meeting of Our Lord,” “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” “Presentation of the Lord”

At some point, the forty days feast acquired the name “The Meeting of Our Lord,” and it is still called by that name by at least one Eastern church. Whom did the Lord meet at that meeting? Even though He was only a baby, He was recognized by two very old people, a prophet named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna, who each separately had been praying and waiting for the long-promised Messiah, the Christ of God. In His encounter with Simeon and Anna, the Lord also symbolically met and was recognized as the Christ by His people, Israel.

Meeting of the Lord, 15th C Russianicon

Meeting of the Lord, 15th C Russian icon

Some time before the eighth century, the date of February 2 began to be celebrated as a Marian Feast, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (“In Purificatione Beatae Mariae Virginis,” in Latin), which is still celebrated on February 2 on the 1962 liturgical calendar. Jewish law said that a woman was ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after a girl and that afterwards a mother had to make a sacrifice to be purified.

The thought of a woman being labeled unclean after having a child is distasteful to modern sensibilities, and the fact that a woman had twice as long a time of ritual uncleanness when she bore a girl child as she did with a boy child could be a reason for resentment in women of our era. I am inclined to think there are always positive explanations for these kinds of practices that sound unfair or unreasonable to the modern ear. Whether the child was a boy or a girl, I can imagine that the time of ritual uncleanness offered a new mother precious time to be relieved of all other duties to be free to devote herself totally to her newborn, and so the birth of a girl baby would give a mother even more time to rest.

St. Joseph carries the two doves required for purification of a mother. Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Menologian of Basil II, 1000

St. Joseph carries the two doves required for purification of a mother. Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Menologian of Basil II, 1000.

February 2 is observed as the Presentation of the Lord in the revised 1969 calendar of the Roman rite.

What Do Candles Have to Do with It?

Nunc Dimittis from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - 1416

Nunc Dimittis from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – 1416

Whatever name you observe it under, Purification or Presentation, February 2 is the feast day that is also commonly known as Candlemas, from the custom of blessing beeswax candles on this day for use in the church and in homes. The association of this feast with candles and light came about because in the Gospel of the day, Simeon speaks of the infant Jesus as the “light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

In Luke, Chapter 2, verses 29 to 32, Simeon said: Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The choir sings the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.

Below: Photos from the blessing of candles and procession on Candlemas 2013 at St. Margaret Mary Church in Oakland, CA, with Canon Olivier Meney, Episcopal Delegate for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite

Image 3Image 4Image

Candlemas 1871, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

Candlemas 1871, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

When DOES the Christmas Season End?

“When does the Christmas season end?” is a question with a complicated answer that is related to the date of February 2. In the secular world, Christmas Day is the end of the commercial “Holiday” celebration, but for Catholics it is only the beginning.

In the traditional Roman calendar, the Christmas season ends forty days after Christmas, on February 2. Some Traditional Catholics, like me, leave their Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. The poet Robert Herrick would have approved; this poem of his describes the taking down of the Christmas greenery on Candlemas Eve:

“Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”
—Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

One of the liturgical revisions made after the Second Vatican council moved the ending of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord in the new calendar. The Baptism of Our Lord used to be observed as part of the feast of Epiphany, until 1955, when Pope Pius XII instituted it as a separate feast. Pope Paul VI set the date for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord to be the first Sunday after January 6 or, “if in a particular country the Epiphany is celebrated on 7 or 8 January, on the following Monday.”

Differences of opinion about when Christmas actually ends are nothing new. For example, here is a poem from colonial Williamsburg:

When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.

The gentry in the poem were missing the point: by drinking and eating as if it were Christmas all year, they weren’t celebrating the feast of Christmas any more, just gormandizing. Just like we moderns do . . . But at least none of the people in the poem would be likely to take the Christmas tree down and throw it out the day after Christmas. They’d hold out at least until January 2, “When New Year’s Day is past and gone.”

Candlemas Eve: Time to put all the Christmas stuff away until next December 25

Luke 2:22-40 Explains It All to Us

We can find all of the doctrines about this unique feast of both Christ and the Blessed Virgin in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-40, which is read that day.

  • The law required the first-born son to be presented to the Lord and called holy, and so Mary and Joseph brought Christ the Only-begotten Son of God to present Him to His Father in the Temple.
  • They brought Jesus to the Temple on the fortieth day after His birth to observe the Mosaic law that a woman was ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a son.
  • As part of the purification requirements, they brought the two doves acceptable for a burnt offering and a sin offering when the mother was poor and couldn’t afford a lamb.

(Of course, Mary did not need to be purified. She who was immaculately conceived was not impure herself, and she could not possibly have been made unclean by giving birth to the Holy One of Israel. The Church teaches that Mary observed the Law in spite of the fact that she was above it, from humility, as an example of obedience, and so as not to cause scandal.)

    • The Spirit of God had told Simeon he would see the Messiah, the consolation of Israel, before he died, and Simeon came into the temple that day prompted by the Holy Ghost.
    • When Simeon saw Jesus, he prayed the song of praise that we know of as Nunc Dimittis or The Canticle of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis comes from the first words of the canticle in Latin, “Now you dismiss …” ).
    • Simeon under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost proclaimed Christ the Light of the Gentiles and the glory of His people, Israel.
    • The holy widow, Anna, who was always at the Temple, also recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and then she talked about Him to everyone “who looked for the salvation of Israel.”


Luke 2:22-40 (Douay-Rheims)
22 And after the days of her purification, according to the Law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord:

23 As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord:

24 And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons:

25 And behold there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was in him.

26 And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law,

28 He also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:

29 Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace;

30 Because my eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:

32 A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted;

35 And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity.

37 And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.

38 Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.

39 And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their city Nazareth.

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong, full of wisdom; and the grace of God was in him.

Photo credits: Roseanne T. Sullivan and Sancta Trinitas Unus Deus: Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco

Candlemas 2014

FeatureCandlemas 2014 cover for web

Restoring Faith in Fiction: A Visit with Walker Percy and Paul Elie Joseph O’Brien


In the Dark Sally Thomas
The Adagio Ian DiFabio
Entreaties Alfred Hanley


The New Pope Talks About the Contents of His Briefcase Dante Di Stefano
Welcome Talk Charles Hughes
Cave of the Hands, et. al. Marci Rae Johnson
Paul, On the Road Again Marci Rae Johnson
Fissure Tim Kearns
Chumping Tim Kearns
Creature Song Travis Biddick
The Pregnant Angel’s Tale Ralph La Rosa
Adoration Lawrence O’Brien
Sonnet in Spray Paint Mike Aquilina
The Apocalyptic Rag Mike Aquilina


Following the Bellman: A Review of The Oracles Fell Silent Glenn Arbery

Visual Art

Faith Filled Women Patricia Brown
Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity
St. Therese of Lisieux
Edith Stein
Mother Mary Lange
The Mother
My Mother’s Ear (Mary)
Mom on Monday


Tim Kearns

Blue-armoured, somnolent, and taped
hands poised—as if in measurement
of the day’s haul—the lobster sits
beside the scale, like Scorpio
to Libra in zodiacal
parody: his deliverance
or Thermidor waits on the stars.

Tin buttresses shoulder the shale,
rattle with each raw gust of wind,
and cast themselves the stopping place
for blinkers, wiping spectacles;
marauding down the lines of stalls,
and baring heads and witness to
the spawn-eyed fish and knots of shells.

Crustaceous greetings worry at
the glacial banks behind the glass.
The lobster, though, sits pretty on
a chopping board. And one boy stands
glued to the spot, hooked as it were.
Indifferently the knife falls—
breaches the saddle, saws the tail.

For all its arms, it could not see
off this. Perhaps the boy wonders
how it must feel to be thus rent,
and how an unabated breeze
might tease his nerves with salty rime,
before he turns to find his kin,
and I check in with mine.

Tim Kearns is Head of English at Kilgraston School in Scotland. He has had a number of poems published in the UK, and has recently edited Selected Poems of Sherwin Stephenson, 1947-49, due for publication in December.

Cave of the Hands, et al.

Marci Rae Johnson

They couldn’t write so they drew themselves.
On the cave walls they drew their own bodies
and the bodies of the animals they killed,

which were also gods. They drew calcite spirits,
dancers black with bat excrement, hands
for holding power. The eye. The tooth.

Only the left hand, which could strike the right
cheek, leaving the other free for contemplation.
We also killed the god who came. In our paintings,

though, he looked like us. Fat baby, barefoot
child. A man with secrets. We killed him because
we were hungry. Because the other cheek refused.

Marci Rae Johnson teaches English at Valparaiso University. She is also the Poetry Editor for WordFarm press and The Cresset. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Redivider, The Curator, Books & Culture, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, Rock & Sling, The Other Journal, Relief, The Christian Century, and 32 Poems, among others. Her first collection of poetry won the Powder Horn Prize and will be published by Sage Hill Press later this year.

Following the Bellman:

Glenn Arbery

The Oracles Fell Silent
by Lee Oser
Wiseblood Books, Feb. 2014
262 pages, paperback, $13.00

In Lee Oser’s boisterously funny and quietly moving new comic novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, the center of attention (though not necessarily the main character) is a blustering, insecure British rock icon from the 1960s named Ted Pop. World-famous since his youth, Pop—his real name is Theo Pappas, Jr—has been knighted by the queen, which puts him in the near-mythological company of such figures as Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Like them, Sir Ted has the means to acquire almost anything he wants. As the novel opens, for example, he covets a beach house in the Hamptons with a deck on the Atlantic and an observation tower “whose glass walls appeared to be cut out of bright blue air.” A blank check for the realtor gets him the house (despite allegedly stiff competition). But the main thing Sir Ted craves—vindication for his contribution to The Planets, the ’60s band he formed with the legendary Gabriel “Johnny” Donovan—can’t be so easily managed.


The Oracles Fell Silent is available from Wiseblood Books.

In framing Sir Ted’s anxieties, Oser imagines a version of the endless controversies among fans about the genius of bands. Who was more important to The Beatles, Lennon or McCartney? Did the Allman Brothers ever match their early brilliance after Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash? Sir Ted’s immediate problem is that a recent biography by a man named Ginger Drake, The Life and Fall of Johnny Donovan, not only belittles Pop’s musical importance to The Planets but even suggests that he was responsible for Donovan’s fatal fall from a London rooftop in 1969. To even the score, Pop hires his daughter’s lover, the naive, intermittently religious young narrator of the novel, Richard Bellman, who will ghost-write Sir Ted’s memoirs.

Thrown unprepared onto this glitzy Olympus, Bellman plays a role in the novel a little like Nick Carraway’s in The Great GatsbyCompetent but unsure of himself in this world of wealth and fame, he’s the observer of the “great” who is steadily drawn into the maelstrom of Pop’s career. Because he’s Sir Ted’s assistant and supposed confidant, he’s the one who might have access to the lucrative secret of what actually happened on that rooftop. He attracts the attention of people willing to pay him a great deal for it.

But in more important ways, too, he turns out to be the real center of the action. After the comic uproar of the novel dies away, it becomes clear in retrospect that young Richard has been a major force. He is a witness but also a crucial participant in the drama of Ted Pop’s coming to terms with the truth about Johnny Donovan, who was not so much a rival as a saintly character with a genuine genius and perhaps even a celibate in the sex-mad world around him. Richard is not an innocent. But despite being subject to most temptations, Richard is a believer—Sir Ted says early on “You won’t be when I’m finished with  you”—and it turns out that there are things he can’t do, lines he can’t cross.

“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” asks Flannery O’ Connor in a comment that very much applies to this novel. “I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

O’Connor’s Georgia of God-haunted atheists and backwoods nihilists is a far cry from Oser’s Hamptons, where the only burning religious question is whether Daisy the Pig, a bronze statue that had “occupied a place of honor in front of Hill’s Butcher Shop and had done so, though seasons of plenty and seasons of famine, for one hundred and twenty-nine years,” should be removed. It seems that it’s offensive to Muslims, at least according to the self-promoting, bestselling, and hypocritical imam Omar D.

Oser is a superb satirist of pretensions. He skewers rock stars like Sir Ted or Tom Bram, who like to display his phosphorescent vampire teeth; academics like the magisterially condescending Prof. Candy Swash, “Chair of Thing Theory” at Harvard; predatory journalists like the perennially sexy and unscrupulous Veronica Lamb. He’s also wonderful at details, as in his description of Sir Ted’s cook, who buys “lottery tickets by the roll” because work “was an untimely imposition, a lingering streak of bad luck, an incidental hardship until something much better came along.” Richard’s priest in the novel is Fr. Stan Nitzsche, who won infamy in the early days of the pill with a book called Pandora’s Pillbox.

What’s bracing about Oser’s work is its absolute lack of puritanism. Like Walker Percy, he suspects that Catholics might already be acquainted with sin. He fearlessly depicts sex, he reports the bad language, and he doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable humor. For example, Sir Ted goes to mass for reasons of publicity, but then puts the host in his pocket and later brags to Richard (who has been told by Fr. Stan Nitzsche to retrieve the pocked host and consume it), “I ate it with my blueberry-cheesecake ice cream.” The joke, of course, is on Sir Ted himself, as his real name suggests: Theo from theos, God, and Pappas meaning “priest” in Greek. Despite his cavalier blasphemies, he’s unable to escape the inner question of responsibility for Johnny Donovan’s death that he’s outwardly trying to put to rest.

But even in Richard’s most ridiculous experiences, there is no brooding condemnation, either of himself or of others. Oser knows the America he depicts—this culture of decadent excess and arrogance—as fully as Richard Ford knows the Jersey shore. It’s by no means a realist novel, however, but something like a tongue-in-cheek allegory, as one begins to suspect when Sir Ted meets his match in Hurricane Gabriel and the mystery of Johnny Donovan’s death finally comes to light. Oser’s novel makes its readers ask which oracles they’ve been attending and what might happen in their silence. Young Richard Bellman—it’s worth thinking about what a “bellman” is—emerges largely unscathed, and with an essential quiet dignity. There’s no triumphalism here, no relegation of souls to heaven or hell. Oser’s gift is making it deeply attractive to come back to the sanity of worshiping what deserves it.

Glenn Arbery has taught literature at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, and the University of Dallas. He has served as Director of the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; senior editor for City Newspapers in Dallas, where he was an award-winning film and theater critic; and contributing editor of D Magazine. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004) and, most recently, The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010). He has published and lectured on a range of authors, including Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He has recently finished a novel, and at present he is working on a book about Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate with his wife Virginia.

The New Pope Talks About the Contents of His Briefcase

Dante Di Stefano

Asked what was in the black briefcase
that he carried onto the plane by himself
en route to Brazil, Francis said he had
a razor, a breviary, a book about St. Teresa,

a razor because favelas rise like stubble
all over the world, a razor because turning
the other cheek often exposes five o’clock
shadow, a razor because the meek

shall inherit the cutting instruments,
a razor because the meek shall inherit
the sting no styptic can staunch, a razor
because the sharp edge recalls Gethsemane

and Gethsemane is the world right now,
a breviary because prayer requires prompting
even among the holy, a simple breviary
because a flock forgets the shepherd’s staff,

an ornate breviary because the basilica
of orchard, the basilica of forest and field,
obliges its priests to chant down the Babylon
of Rome, a breviary because the liturgy

always takes place in the dirtiest street,
a book about Saint Theresa of Avila
because recollection leads to devotion
and devotion leads to ecstasy, a book

about Saint Theresa because the prayer
of quiet culls a blessing from tears,
a book about Saint Theresa because if you
have God you will want for nothing,

a book about Theresa because the church
canonizes a new saint every minute
as if desperate to bludgeon us into heaven,
a razor, a breviary, a book about a saint,

because Christ has no body now on earth
but yours, and you have no baggage
now on earth save what nicks, what abridges,
what records, what beatifies what sorrow.

Dante Di Stefano is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. His poetry and essays have appeared recently in Shenandoah, The Hollins Critic, The Grove Review, Brilliant Corners, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. He won the 2013 Academy of American Poets College Prize and was the first place winner of the 2012 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award. He is also a poetry editor for Harpur Palate literary magazine.

Restoring Faith in Fiction

Joseph O’Brien

Editors’s note: On December 19, 2012, Paul Elie’s essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published in the New York Times, sparking a year-long conversation that this journal has followed with great interest. Now, exactly a year after the original article appeared, we are following up with Elie on the many responses to his piece. This interview is an online preview of our upcoming Christmas edition.


Paul Elie

There is an indistinct moment of passage on the north-south corridor of U.S. Interstate 55 where the Midwest becomes the South—and it’s located somewhere in the lower middle half of the state of Missouri. It is a place that is no place, as the novelist Walker Percy might have put it; somewhere between the last scattering of hay bales, left where they fell from balers, basking in the mid-autumn sun, and the first maculation of cotton bolls bursting forth with pallid punctuation from their russet-rusted shrubs. It is a moment on the perpetual roll of asphalt ribbon where upland’s gentle roll exhausts itself into a certain undeniable flatness, a place where tasseled corn rows surrender to tow-headed cotton fields.

This past October, on my way to New Orleans I found this indistinct moment of North yielding to South. My brother-in-law and I were presenting at the second biennial Walker Percy Conference, Oct. 11-13, sponsored by Loyola University. For five years I had lived in Dallas—which has more in common with the Midwest than most people would care to admit—before settling in southwestern Wisconsin—which has more in common with the South than most people would care to notice. But this recent journey through Cotton Country was my first look at the South, at least by car and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that in making the trip I experienced the same sort of recognition-through-displacement common to many of Percy’s works.

Conferring honors

The Walker Percy Conference was first launched in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Percy’s debut novel The Moviegoer being published and winning the National Book Award. A cadre of like-minded Loyola University academicians and personal friends and associates of the late novelist organized the first conference at the school’s newly opened Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Now, two years later as an encore the organizers sponsored a conference on his 1983 work Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Perhaps Percy’s most intriguing work, Lost in the Cosmos is a weird yet satisfying book – a hybrid of philosophical inquiry, satire, cultural analysis, multiple choice questions,  thought experiments and (“What the hell, why not?” you can hear Percy say) even fiction. Perhaps the book most closely resembles Melville’s own loose but not-so-baggy monster, Moby Dick. But Lost in the Cosmos stands well on its own. The quality and quantity of presenters at the conference attested to its enduring worth—with more than 40 papers covering everything from liturgy to pornography to interstellar exploration to mimetic theory to Marshall McLuhan.

For its challenge to the status quo of the modern milieu, Lost in the Cosmos stands as a whip-smart lion in the path for anyone seeking to understand the subjects which most crowded the late novelist’s mind—death, sex, sin, redemption, immanence, transcendence, man’s coarse and always transparent ways, and God’s sublime and often hidden ways. By analyzing and satirizing the self as alienated from itself, Percy draws an exact—and exacting—diagnosis of man’s place and purpose in the universe.

“The self becomes itself,” Percy writes, “by recognizing God as a spirit, creator of the Cosmos and therefore of one’s self as a creature, a wounded creature but a creature nonetheless, who shares with a community of like creatures the belief that God, who transcends the entire Cosmos and has actually entered human history—or will enter it—in order to redeem man from the catastrophe which has overtaken his self.”

Some have called Percy the last of the Southern novelists; others an American Dostoevsky. For editor and writer Paul Elie, Percy makes up one of a vital quadrumvirate of writers who have helped define the mid-20th century American literary experience and the Catholic contribution to American letters. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) is a “group portrait,” as Elie says, of Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until 2012, he was senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing home for all four writers at some point in their career. Although his physical address is still located in New York City, Elie takes up intellectual residence at Georgetown University—where he holds a senior fellowship at the school’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where he is coordinating a partnership between Georgetown and the non-profit StoryCorps to gather, record and share with the public stories on religious belief in the lives of ordinary Americans. He also writes for his blog, “Everything that Rises” (everythingthatrises.com).

Group shot

Because of his advantageous view from high atop the FSG eyrie, Elie is particularly well qualified—perhaps more so than any other writer of our day—to draw the portrait of this writing quartet. The critics seemed to think as much, too, because The Life You Save May Be Your Own was nominated for the National Book Critics Award soon after it was published. He was nominated again eight years later for Reinventing Bach (2012), which explores how technology has helped reimagine the way we listen to music.

By striking a harmonious balance of biography, history, theology, and literary analysis, Elie’s extensive volume on Percy, O’Connor, Merton, and Day provides a long (overdue) view of these four writers, their individual contributions to the 20th century literary and cultural context in which they wrote, and an apologia for their lasting impact in America and in the Church.

Credentials and expertise aside, Elie was an odd choice for delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference. Conspicuously critical of Lost in the Cosmos in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Elie found the work “airless and wearying,” noting that “Percy hectors the reader sarcastically until the book becomes not a test so much as a trap, a test only the all-knowing author can hope to pass.”

“In his novels,” Elie writes, “and in the essays published as The Message in the Bottle, Percy had artfully sketched a recognizable postmodern self—fractious, confused, a pilgrim searching for a path and a destination alike—and had led the reader to identify with it. This time [in Lost in the Cosmos] he reached out of the book and declared the reader bored, lonely, phony, and trapped in a meaningless existence. The reader winds up silently insisting otherwise.”

In his keynote address, Elie acknowledges this criticism of Lost in the Cosmos, but also notes that ten years after writing these words and rereading the book again he is prepared to reappraise the work not as a challenge to the reader but as one to the self—specifically Percy’s own self.

“In its style the book is phenomenally indirect,” Elie said in his keynote, “but in subject, Lost in the Cosmos is a very direct book; it’s a book about the self . . . . It’s a test, yes, but it’s the author, not the reader who is being put to the test. When Percy asks, why is it possible to know more about the Crab Nebulae than it is about the self?—he is saying, ‘Why is it possible for me to know more about the Crab Nebulae than about myself?’ . . . It’s a self-help book and it’s meant to help the self who wrote it first of all. ‘Who are you?’ Percy asks. And he asks because he, whoever he is, needs help.

“I thought, and I’m not saying I’m wrong, that Percy was hectoring his reader and his obtuseness made him impatient. Now, a dozen years later I see that the self who is being addressed in the book, the who, is the self who is writing the book. It’s a polemic with the self . . . inside Percy’s head. The test he’s giving is the one he’s taking; the questions posed for the self are posed by the self at the self.”

Call to pens

Perhaps it was something of this same frustration which led Elie to put down on paper his own concerns about the modern world and religion—and not just on any paper, but America’s self-proclaimed paper of record. “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published a year ago in The New York Times Sunday Book Review with immediate and overwhelming response from readers and writers alike.

“Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time . . . as something between a dead language and a hangover,” Elie writes. “Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

In response, readers, writers, and fellow editors sought to correct or demand qualification from Elie on his thesis. Surely things are not that bad? There must be plenty of fiction out there which takes on God—sincere, honest, sympathetic, even profound attempts to reckon with omnipotence? Suddenly Catholic fiction—and fiction concerned with religious belief in general—became all the rage on the editorial pages of the great American newspapers and journals. Gregory Wolfe’s counterpoint appearing in The Wall Street Journal a month later is characteristic of the reaction Elie’s original bow-shot elicited. As founding publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Wolfe has an understandable hound in the hunt when it comes to Elie’s claim.

“Our instinct when launching [Image] was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues,” he writes in his January 10, 2013 response to Elie.

“Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.

“In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”

It was with some sense of serendipity and good fortune that Dappled Things had an opportunity to sit down with Elie at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference to talk to him about his controversial essay, his response to those who replied to it and what it means for his own writing projects, past, present and future.


*          *          *


Dappled Things: You were baptized and raised Catholic?

Paul Elie: Yes, in upstate New York. I went to public high schools with a strong sense of Vatican II Catholicism in the family, but very much unmoored from city or ethnic culture. It was a very good suburban Catholicism that left me really perplexed by the Catholic experience rooted in being an Irish American or Italian American or ethnic resident of certain parts of Philadelphia or whatever.

I wrote an essay for Commonweal in 1991 about being a young Catholic who had to reckon with two churches at once—the John Paul II Church and the Pre-conciliar Church [“The Everlasting Dilemma: ‘Young’ Catholics and the Church,” Commonweal, 9/27/91]. Andrew Sullivan read that and invited me to write for The New Republic so I caught a break there.

DT: Why did you write the New York Times essay in the first place?

PE: Prior to leaving FSG, I’d had some conversations with some editors at the New York Times concerning various things, such as about who should review which book, etc., and it led me to say first in conversation what I eventually said in the article. At the time I couldn’t write for the New York Times Book Review because I worked for a publisher. The Times is pretty strict; they don’t want people in the publishing community to be writing reviews and essays. I could be pushing FSG authors and taking down authors from, say, Knopf. So I knew that this was something to dig into but I couldn’t do it at the time. When I left FSG I had the opportunity. I knew it would be opportune to do it for December because historically they’ve run pieces of this kind around this time. So around this time last year I presented the idea to them and they went right for it.

DT: In your article, you admit that there are rare exceptions of fiction being written today with faith integral to the story. But why do you feel you have to qualify even these works?

PE: I feel I can’t find them and if I do find them characteristically they’re set in the past. Gilead (2004) [by Marilynne Robinson], for instance, is a wonderful book, but as I say in the essay, it’s a book that’s the exception that proves the rule in that it’s set in 1950s and the man who’s telling the story is already old. The plausibility of his account has to do with the fact that at some level it’s quite believable there were pastors who were thoughtful readers of the classics in 1955. It’s an incredibly challenging novel but it’s somewhat less difficult to imagine such a character into existence when he is said to exist from the 20s to the 50s I think.

Rather I would want to see novels about the quandaries of belief—whether to believe in this religious stuff. Here’s where FSG comes into the picture. I’d been at FSG for about 15 years by now and people knew my interests, so I figure at this point if these kinds of novels are out there, I felt strongly that some of them would have found their way to me. The fact that they haven’t suggests that maybe they are not really there. I felt in a position that I could generalize after reading about 10,000 manuscripts.

DT: After writing the Times article, though, it sounds like you’re ready to qualify that generalization to some extent as well.

PE: Yes, there is a whole shelf in my office in Georgetown of authors who have written me saying, ‘Well, you’ve left out my novel—here it is.’ And I’m hoping to read them and write something about it as a follow up piece. Also, it’s important to say, there is a certain novel of every kind that is just not very good. So the unstated point in the Times essay is that there are no exceptionally good works of fiction in which the quandaries of belief are front and center.

DT: So other writers sent you manuscripts or published novels. What was your response to their response?

PE: The piece came out and one writer said, “Oh, you got my book exactly! It just came out last year.” It turns out I had just left FSG when it came out . . . . Then someone else told me, “You never heard of me, but I’ve been writing a novel, and it sounds like you would take an interest in it. Can I send it to you?” I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I have a lot of work and read so much stuff just because people send it to FSG. But I’m burned out. I lost the habit of reading people’s manuscripts. I try to get to them, but for now I’m not getting to them.

DT: Let’s talk about the people who responded to your Times essay—in particular Gregory Wolfe of Image in the Wall Street Journal last January.

PE: Greg and I are friends and I had seen him last October in Seattle. I think that he’s publishing a lot of interesting work in Image, but a lot of the work he publishes lies outside what I was discussing. What I tried to say was not that there aren’t Catholic novelists or people who write out of the Catholic milieu or background, but there’s a pretty conspicuous absence of novels in which questions of belief as they’re felt in the present time are central to the novel. So it was an active definition. So that leaves out Alice McDermott, who was Greg’s counterexample in his Wall Street Journal article. I went to her book party a month ago—I love Alice. I’ve read all her works, we swap books as Christmas presents, but she writes about the 50s and 60s. It’s just a fact of her work. It changes a bit with her new book, so for Greg to say Alice McDermott? I say, she’s not what I’m talking about.

DT: How does your approach to fiction differ, then, from Wolfe’s, at least when it comes to a faith component?

PE: I think that a lot of Greg’s approach involves what he calls the whispering generation—the present Catholic generation of writers. If Flannery O’Connor said that for the hard of hearing you shout and for the nearly blind you draw in large and startling figures, Greg took that and about ten years ago said, the present generation of Catholic writers are whispering. To a certain extent I think he’s right. I don’t like the formulation though because I think it’s not catchy. Why are they whispering? It’s not like we’re in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted. It plays into all sorts of neo-conservative ideas about what we’re not allowed to say in the culture, which I just don’t think is really true. At the same time, some of these people are whispering so softly that you have to ask whether we would recognize their work as having a religious dimension if it wasn’t part of their biography. There is a lot of work, for instance, that exists in Image that has to do very obliquely or peripherally with the question of disbelief. I think that’s perfectly OK. I’m a complete Vatican II-type of Catholic who says, “Let’s not have a narrow view of culture but the broadest most latitudinarian view of culture possible.” But that said, let’s acknowledge that many of those novels don’t deal with questions of religious belief. It comes in around the sides or it’s not really there at all. This is a non-judgmental active definition. There are a lot of great things out there by the community of Catholic writers in the largest sense, but the question of whether I should believe this religious stuff doesn’t really feature.

DT: The faith is in decline in culture—at least on the face of it anyway. After all that’s one of the reasons Pope Benedict called for the Year of Faith. That same lack of faith, it seems fair to say, is reflected in at least three kinds of readers out there. You have a readership with a fragile faith, a readership antagonistic to the faith, and a readership that’s simply indifferent. So if you produce a fiction that seeks to challenge the reader—the first sort of reader will pull away from the work because he feels threatened; the second will reject it outright as either unbelievable or even inhuman; and the third will simply shrug their shoulders and remain unmoved. How does a work of fiction which proposes a fictional component then capture these sorts of readers?

PE: I don’t go along with that idea at all. I’m not sure I got it from publishing or writers, but I see the book is something written by one person sitting alone in a room and read by one person sitting alone in a room. To ponder that is to realize the variety of readers. Not only is it hard to break readers down into three groups in terms of their religious disposition, and many readers don’t know where they stand on these issues. The view there is a more Thomistic analysis that is very powerful but I’m not sure it’s useful in this sense. Flannery O’Connor says you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much. She also said about her novel Wise Blood, “That belief in Jesus Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” She was writing from the situation you speak of but she figured out how to do it. She figured out how to shape everything in the novel to sympathize with Hazel Motes, who is indignant about the abuses of Christianity which then lead to his attention to doctrinal impurity in Christianity. In so doing, he gives us a grasp of what an authentic Christianity would be. It makes you identify with that in spite of yourself as the reader. That’s what O’Connor was trying to do anyway.

DT: So taking our lead from Flannery O’Connor, what strategy ought the Catholic writer take in seeking to be published—and published widely?

PE: Instead of making blanket assumptions about what is possible and what’s not, you get in there and try to figure out how to get it done. You have to be savvy about what the obstacles are to getting your work read, but your big blanket statements about what you can or can’t do—it wasn’t easier in the 50s. For every better aspect then, there were also worse ones in the culture. You had more believing readers but you had a lot of teachers pushing pious pap on people. You had Cardinal Spellman writing a novel; you had Madame Bovary on the index and on and on. You’re getting me on one of my soapboxes here, but I prefer to work at a more specific level whether it’s in The Life You Save or the Times essay. Let’s look at the works and the twenty ways in which religious belief figures into some recent novels. Instead of saying the stuff doesn’t exist, I’ll work through 20 examples of how it does appear and then wind up by saying but still the central religious experience isn’t there in the way I yearn for. So what do we do? We look to non-fiction, other countries’ authors, we keep hoping, and we try to make the work ourselves.

DT: Have any of the responses to your essay caused you to change your mind on any particular point?

PE: Oscar Hijuelos1 wrote me a letter saying I should look at his novel Mr. Ives’s Christmas— which I should . . . . Jeffery Eugenides thought I hadn’t done full justice to his novel, the marriage plot. One plot in his novel involves courting a woman and he’s a manic depressive and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The other plot has to do with another man courting this same woman who is having deep religious yearnings that lead him to India and working with Mother Teresa. So the man who is the manic depressive is the serious major story and the guy who is having the religious experience is the comic story. The fact that it’s put together in that way—is suggestive of our time. The religious plot is the source of comedy and the guy with the supreme nervousness is the serious plot, instead of the other way around. But the summary of the book got suppressed [in the editing process at The New York Times] and doesn’t make the point as clear as I would have liked. Jeff said he didn’t think I did justice to the religious side of the novel. But I know him so we’ll patch it up.

DT: Why was it important for you to see it published in the New York Times and not say First Things or Commonweal, some publication at any rate, which would be friendlier to the idea?

PE: Oh, it’s a different conversation at the New York Times. The paper is much more widely read and there is a need to develop points for people who don’t share certain assumptions. For example, in Commonweal you wouldn’t have to keep open an eye for the idea of whether there ought to be a place for religious belief in fiction. So it forces you to go down to the root and it’s a more challenging piece if you do have to write an article that is easily found convincing by the people who read Commonweal . . . . I think that among sophisticated religious people there is a hangover mentality from the culture wars that there is a censorious secular elite who won’t allow certain ideas into their publications in any form. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it ever was. In every age it’s taken a certain amount of cunning on the part of the writer, and moxie and shrewdness.

DT: Which is something that you touch on in your book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

PE: Yes, that story is the story of The Life that You Save May Be Your Own in many respects. For instance, Thomas Merton would figure out a way to write about monastic life that made sense for a literary publisher. To find a way to write poems about the monastic hours that would resonate with the people who bought City Lights books. My experience of my four protagonists in that book is one of people who don’t accept blanket statements about the hostility of the culture and the possibility of doing certain things with their writing. They went and found ways of doing them. In that respect, I thought I could get this piece into the Times. All I needed was to get the right person to read my email and that’s what I did.

DT: Was faith and fiction always in the forefront of your mind as an editor for FSG and a writer in your own respect?

PE: I went to Fordham and a Jesuit professor at Fordham . . . taught literature courses where he brought in the notion of Christian humanism. He said I should read Flannery O’Connor. I was a freshman. I went to get O’Connor’s stories but I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man—her name like Tennessee Williams’s, one of these Southern names. Then I read (founding FSG editor) Robert Giroux’s introduction to her complete stories where he evokes Flannery so vividly and unforgettably that I was off—and he compared her to Thomas Merton. Right from the beginning, the moment I encountered O’Connor I encountered Merton at the same time. I was about 18 years old. So already this group portrait was emerging.

DT: How did O’Connor become the entrée into the picture that would eventually emerge for you in The Life You Save?

PE: Time passed. I didn’t get the O’Connor stories at the time I was a freshman at Fordham. Then in London I bought Mystery and Manners, which had a photograph of O’Connor on the cover, not like the American editions. It was a Baber Edition. I bought it at a bookshop and read it in a square in London. I was so knocked out by the sense of surprise that this was the religion in which I’d been raised. Yet she was setting the Catholic faith out in a way that was different from ways that I’d come to know. I was already most of the way through a Jesuit education. It shocked me into life. I was approached by a woman in the square who asked me for money. I didn’t have much money; I was a student abroad and gave her a ten pound note—such was my sense of what Jesus, Francis, or Flannery O’Connor would do at that moment.

DT: That sounds more like something inspired by Dorothy Day than Flannery O’Connor.

PE: Yes, so then I somehow followed the connections to Dorothy Day and bought her selected writings in the basement of the Corpus Christi Church bookshop in New York. It was the church where Merton was baptized near Columbia University. I volunteered at a Catholic worker near there. Then to finish the portrait, I didn’t really discover Percy until I was actually working at FSG. I tried to read The Moviegoer on a really hot summer day. I sat on a fire escape in a New York apartment and I just didn’t get it. Then I went to work at FSG where Percy’s nonfiction works were on the walls with his secondary works and commentaries and things like that. So I found that through his interviews—such as the Esquire interview—Percy explained what he was trying to do and that made his work intelligible to me.

DT: With all the writers in your basket, so to speak, how then did you proceed?

PE: As I began to plan the work I thought, ‘Let’s not be so strict and straight and New Critical about this.’ If O’Connor’s essays and letters opened her fiction to me, and the recollection by her publisher opened her fiction to me, and Percy’s essays opened his fiction to me, I have got to figure how to put all these pieces together and not consider their non-fiction as secondary work. Let’s look at it all and one thing led to another before I figured out that these four people were connected in certain ways and if you figured out when things happened you could put the pieces together. Look, for example, in Lost in the Cosmos for a reference to Flannery O’Connor as a certain kind of artist . . . It became fun to do it—and I’m still having fun.

DT: It seems this concern for faith in fiction is something that’s been on your mind since you began down the road of literature in the first place. Were your book and the Times article inspired by things you saw magnified at FSG, a publishing house with a well-known sympathy for fiction that includes a faith component, or did you write it in reaction to the general drift of culture?

PE: It wasn’t magnified by what I saw at FSG but it was confirmed there. I wrote the Life You Save out of a sense that there ought to be a book of this kind. It doesn’t exist. So following the example of certain writers I thought I had to do it myself. More specifically, there was this Catholic generation that were obviously connected and working the same questions from different angles. The books they were writing could be about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Walker Percy—but where was the book that tells their story as one story? It doesn’t exist, so I boldly decide to try it. In the same way, I feel the lack of books that address religious quandaries and the works of fiction.

DT: Was there a certain sense of frustration working at FSG or the publishing world in general that led you to this next phase in your life as a fellow at Georgetown?

PE: No, FSG was a great place. It was my Fulbright and ultimate graduate school and family in some ways—and still is my family in some ways. The simple fact is there are only so many hours in the day. I left 45 books behind that were in process, and I edited 15-20 books a year, many of them over 500 pages. Editors at places like FSG are doing more editing than ever. So writing two long books, I have three children, we homeschool them, and I was teaching a course at Columbia at night after the recession hit. It was madness to try to sustain all that. So when Georgetown had the imagination to figure out how to do something like this [the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs] and make it central to a faculty member’s efforts . . .

DT: In September, Ignatius Press’s fiction blog “Novel Thoughts” celebrated the new presses appearing around the country—including Labora Editions, Wiseblood Books, Tuscany Press, and Korrektiv Press. Do you see these new presses as a sign of hope? What sort of hurdles do they need to overcome—and are they a viable way of getting out the sort of fiction-cum-faith that you’d like to see published?

PE: It is a sign of hope definitely. Not just as a functional way of getting the books out there, but also as a calling forth the work and creating currents for these energies to run down. Because these presses exist, works will get made that didn’t have a prospect of getting made. We forget now how many small presses and projects there were at midcentury. It wasn’t just Robert Giroux editing everyone’s work. There were lots of small presses [such as] Jubilee Magazine . . . . In his essay on Hawthorne, Henry James says it takes a lot of culture to make a little literature. So the existence of so many presses in this one area—that’s the lot of culture that it takes to make a little literature.

There’s a danger, however, in losing the sense of discrimination. In that sense for me to work at a press that had a Catholic element in its tradition but is not a Catholic press, such as FSG, was a good challenge. I still had to convince other people who didn’t give a hoot about the somewhat subcultural thing we’re talking about—faith and all that entails—unless it was a really good book. Damned, if they really loved Gilead, but they don’t need to reflect how it would play out among the Calvinists in Michigan, they just read it as a work of fiction. We don’t want to engage in special pleading for our kind of book at the expense of a tough minded disinterested judgment about whether the books are good.

Stanley Kaufman died the other day. He was 97. The film critic for The New Republic, he was also the editor of The Moviegoer. So here’s this Jewish guy from Manhattan who’s worked in publishing, and he winds up editing The Moviegoer because it’s about movies. The agent sends it to him because he’s a movie critic. Kaufman forced Percy through two or three rewrites, helping him fix the title, bring out parallels between The Moviegoer and [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger, and urging him to write the epilogue which becomes a sort of final accent and flips the book back around and makes its Catholic dimension more explicit. All of this was through tough insistent editing. This guy didn’t care if Caroline Gordon said Walker Percy was going to be the next great hope for American Catholic fiction. He just kept pushing and pushing and we have the book we have today because of it. The best way we can move this forward is to have presses, journals, and conversations, but also to really insist on celebrating the great work and calling out the bad work and making the stuff in the middle the best work it can be.


Time did not permit the interview to explore Elie’s current project—which attempts to address the lack of faith in fiction about which his essay complains. However, after his keynote address, Elie once again acknowledged what he had done in his Times essay—that he was working on a novel.

“I am tremendously excited about it,” he says. “I love doing it and I have a lot of journalism down and oftentimes writers set their nonfiction against their fiction as the true thing. Having worked full time for eighteen years at FSG, I now have something like a writer’s life. It’s tremendously exciting. To be able to give this talk and not writing it from ten to midnight but writing it during the daytime is really exciting. This is my main work now . . . .

“I’ve tried to be attentive to the kind of book I want to write and the one I ought to write. I’m trying to write the kind of book my kids will read when they’re 17 years old, when they’re reading adult books but still won’t suffer an adult book any longer than they have to. When they put it down it ceases to be interesting; I guess that’s what I’m trying to keep in mind.”

1. The day after I interviewed Elie, the Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis. We couldn’t know this at the time, of course, but in retrospect it seems to add a particularly bittersweet flavor to Elie’s response—and serves to remind us that while writing seeks an immortality of sorts it remains, no matter how urgent, a project tied as anything else human to our own individual and mortal timelines.

Joseph O’Brien is editor of Tuscany Press, as well as an award-winning journalist and a poet. He lives with his wife and nine children on a homestead in the Driftless region of rural southwest Wisconsin. He is the staff writer for The Catholic Times of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.