The pilot for Jim Gaffigan’s new sitcom, loosely based on his life, is now available for free on his website. Try not to squirm as he tackles the outrage industry and our modern anxieties about religion head on. Matthew Lickona wants you to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Wilfred McClay ponders the nature and aim of the liberal arts, and he wants you to stop calling them the humanities. Stephen Bayley yawns at contemporary art.
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” –ascribed to Mary Flannery O’Connor
It’s hard to know where to start with describing Dean Koontz. He made himself widely known as a Catholic author a few years back in a set of interviews with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. Prior to that, he was known mostly as Stephen King’s closest competitor for volume of work as a suspense/thriller/horror novelist. (Indeed, the length of the man’s bibliography is jaw-dropping.) Is he a serious novelist or a schlockmeister? A subtle commentator on the human condition or an exploiter of cheap thrills? Maybe a competitor with Michael Voris for worst Catholic haircut?
Before being introduced to the Odd Thomas series, my only exposure to Mr. Koontz’s work was his 1988 novel Lightning, a mostly forgotten but interesting time travel story. The protagonist Odd Thomas is an unusual sort of action hero: young, humble, self-deprecating, and able to see dead people. This series has some intriguing (if unsubtle) explorations of moral themes and modern problems.
Thankfully, Dr. Stephen Mirarchi, an English professor at Benedictine College, has written up a short exploration of the Odd Thomas series, focusing on its Catholic themes:
Like many great Catholic authors before him, Koontz knows that writers who are believers get it wrong when they try to represent the divine in their works as a departed God, not substantially present among us at all times. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s famous line about the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Koontz instead embraces the “hidden in plain sight” view of literature—an “Adoro Te Devote” (“I devoutly adore you”) kind of writing that delivers the substance of Catholic teaching under the species of ordinary literary devices. Koontz writes Odd as a character who, in light of the Catholic tradition, responds to the extraordinary gift of seeing souls in Purgatory by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—the evangelical counsels that keep Odd’s life simple, and his heart ready to serve, as he often reminds us with an amusing aside. Odd doesn’t call them that, in so many words, but Koontz’s depiction is something more than implicit, even as it’s just short of explicit—hidden in plain view.
Please do read the whole article over at the Homiletic & Pastoral Review site.
Two weeks ago a group of students and alumni from the University of Dallas got together to record an album, gathering in one of the crummy old student apartments that we’ve all loved to hate. They crafted a beautiful and real collection of songs, poems and reflections, some original, some traditional. I loved going to UD for so many reasons. The week in which this album was recorded was an incredible testament to the best parts of that school; a young alumnus had just died very unexpectedly, and alumni from all over the country, even one young alumna teaching as far away as Korea, dropped everything without hesitation to come back to Irving to be with each other, remember their dear friend, and stand by his young widow, Emma.
From the album description: “Anyone who knew Andrew, or had only met him, knew that he lived most of his life in music. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who ever met him without his guitar on. So it was natural, when those of us who first learned of his sudden death and were struck down and sick at heart—, it was natural that we only wanted to hear songs, and only songs that reminded us of him.” Like so many UD students before him, he was also a great lover of poetry and literature, particularly works by Wallace Stevens and James Joyce. All of this is reflected in the tribute his friends have put together. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There’s no fancy editing, no polishing and perfecting—it’s just exactly what it is, exactly what it is meant to be: a group of friends remembering and honoring one of their own, complete with a few tears, and drinks raised to him. Someone made some short videos of the recording process; here is one of those:
Andrew leaves behind his wife, Emma, who was set to graduate this spring, his baby girl, Charlotte, who had her first birthday just after he died, and a second baby girl, due to arrive this fall. You can download and listen to the album for free, or make a donation to help his family, on this page. And, please share it with your friends and families.
Whatever else one may say about a Hogwarts education, it’s clear that it enjoys an advantage over most other schools in the realm of practical philosophy. Instead of bewailing the fate of the humanities, perhaps it’s time to realign our priorities and focus on the true issue at hand: the fight against evil. To that end, therefore, we present The Defense Against the Dark Arts Reading List for immediate adoption by English departments, classical academies, and Comparative Literature professors.
Aristotle, On Dreams
Cicero, On Friendship
The Song of Roland
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress
In this lovely springtime month of May, the month when we honor all mothers and Our Blessed Mother in particular, I thought it would be fitting to offer a meditation on the rosary. Since my Playlist for the Stations of the Cross received some positive feedback, I decided to offer another meditation through music. God willing, I will post playlists for all four sets of mysteries. (I do not promise to get them all finished during May, but no worries; I have it on good authority that heaven accepts prayers in June.) While we are still celebrating Easter, and while Mary’s crown of Mayflowers is still fresh, I thought it best to start with the Glorious mysteries.
Please feel free to use this meditation any way you choose. You can play the music underneath each decade of your rosary; you can listen to the songs before you begin each decade; you can use the music as its own separate prayer; or you can use your imagination and put it to some other use. My only hope is that it helps draw you closer to Christ through His Mother.
The First Glorious Mystery – The Resurrection
Sviatïy Bozhe (Holy God) by Georgy Sviridov
I could not find a full translation for this piece. The language is Church Slavonic. The composer was a darling of the Soviet Union, recipient of the Stalin Prize, the Order of Lenin, and a Hero of Socialist Labor. He wrote this in 1992, after the Soviet Union had fallen. God is good.
The Second Glorious Mystery – The Ascension
Psalm 47 by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium, Japan
God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. All you peoples, clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness. For the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, is the great king over all the earth. God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy; the Lord, amid trumpet blasts. Sing praise to God, sing praise; sing praise to our king, sing praise. For king of all the earth is God; sing hymns of praise. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne.
The Third Glorious Mystery – The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Give Good Gifts, Shaker Hymn
“Peace, joy, and comfort gladly bestow,” for these are the fruits of the Spirit.
The Fourth Glorious Mystery – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Sonata 14: The Assumption of Mary by Heinrich Ignatz Franz Biber
The Fifth Glorious Mystery – Mary is Crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth
Regina Caeli, Gregorian chant
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia. For He whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia. [Now] has risen, as He said, alleluia. Pray for us to God, alleluia.
My wife’s most recent labor changed everything.
To the woman walking her dog down our street around noon a week ago, it was likely just another beautiful spring Saturday. As she passed our living-room window she may have been considering her to-do list, the sound of the birds, her heartburn, or any number of the mysteries of the universe. Chances are, however, her mind never wandered near the truth of the miraculous happenings just beyond the window and drapes 10 feet away. As she left our vantage, I wagered the timing ripe for a jest on just this fact. It was good for a laugh, a moment of levity generally appreciated by every woman I’ve witnessed deliver a child (a grand total of 1). What’s funnier still, is that I, who have only witnessed labor and never labored myself, would wager to write about labor and delivery.
To labor for and deliver a child unto the world, though, is no laughing matter. Such a feat requires the exertion and focus of running a marathon–without the fun of changing scenery or the thrill passing that racer right in front of you. No, laboring is like a marathon where the runner doesn’t set her own pace, and the finish line moves. What’s more, if you are in a hospital setting, it’s like trying to run a marathon while having needles poked in you, fluorescent lights on you, strangers talking about your “progress,” beepers beeping at you, and instead of wearing your favorite running-shorts, -shirt, and -shoes, you have to don a 1980s track suit and velcro New Balance shoes (the ones your Grandpa has). [Full disclosure, I own a pair of these.] Perhaps the most important difference between the marathon and the labor unto birth, though, is this: for the runner, the cramping, fatigue, nausea, thirst, and pain might overwhelm, and she might well decide to throw in the towel halfway through the course, ending her race with a sad but understandable failure. Not so for the laboring woman, though. Ironically, unlike the runner she cannot stop, yet “giving up” is among the more successful strategies she could employ. While no runner ever completed (let alone won) a marathon by giving up, many a birth story I’ve heard (or witnessed) hinge on just such a surrender, a giving up, an admission of impotence, a desperate petition to the Lord for respite. Common phrases include: “I can’t do this! I’m going to die! From now on, we’re adopting!” A whispered prayer, “Jesus, just one break here, Lord. Just one break.” An earnest request – “pray for me.” It seems common for a woman to find her road through labor to delivery shortened by a move found in no athlete’s playbook anywhere ever: surrender.
Wait a second. This blog is supposedly about Catholic arts, literature, poetry, and theology. NOT sport psychology. Hang with me. We’re almost there. Bear with one more series of athletic tropes.
As an athlete, I knew the most important ingredient in victory was the “eye of the tiger,” wanting it more than the other guy, pushing harder, digging deeper, and all those typical metaphors. You get the picture. Well, as a husband and witness to 6 births, I have learned from my wife that some of the typical strengths of the athlete are the bane of labor and delivery. Chief among them, I found, was my favorite… “trying harder.” The laboring woman has little room, it seems, for “trying harder.” Relaxation, comfort, even the appearance of sleep, befit the laboring woman best. No adrenaline allowed! If there is work involved, it is the work of relaxing, of getting out of the body’s way, cooperating with the mystery of the labor of which the woman both is and is not the agent. She at once labors and receives labor. She simultaneously delivers the child and is delivered of the child. How strange, mysterious, and wondrously perplexing! I couldn’t let these paradoxes go.
The theologian in me had to find or give an account of this reality. Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bradley (in their many books) both offer strong analyses of labor and delivery suggesting and developing psychological and physiological accounts for the importance of surrender in labor, but they don’t satisfy the theologian, or any spiritually curious person. For example, Bradley describes labor has having three emotional signposts accompanying the three stages of labor: excitement, seriousness, and self-doubt. The woman tends to experience self-doubt during the final stage before pushing, namely, transition. Bradley notes that the coach (husband) should celebrate (inwardly) this sign, as bearing witness to the near end of labor. The husband must simply reassure his spouse with praise, expressions of her progress, and encouragement. Bradley does not, however, offer overmuch explanation for whether the self-doubt is instrumental toward or merely a sign of the near terminus of dilation in labor.
Some interesting theological work on labor and birth exists (e.g., the Episcopalian pastor Margaret Hammer’s Giving Birth), but it wasn’t until my wife described her own moment of abandonment and surrender during this last labor that I realized I was still barking up the wrong tree. The theological key to this puzzle, she told, me, is the birthing tub. Now, you are thinking I’m just crazy. Humor me for a few more sentences before checking your Snapchat feed. My wife loves to swim. She’s most comfortable in the water. She reported to me that the change happened for her, she was able to surrender in total abandon to the labor when she was sitting in the birthing tub, and she realized that she was not really in a birthing tub at all, but she was enveloped in the arms of the God who would bring her through this labor and delivery. She could relax through the contractions, rest when they abated, and cooperate with the grace of this passion, this redemptive gift of self in labor for the life of a child. Only by sitting in the arms of the Father could it be done. This had been her longest labor, and her turning point came with this realization of the Father’s grace in the birthing tub. What God wanted to do for her, in her, without her yet with her. It was mystical prayer. It was no longer acquired labor, but infused labor. It was an experience a person cannot demand but can only prepare for, and remove the obstacles to. The best labor is a gift, received when the toiling mother finally steps out of her own way and into the Lord of life’s way.
My wife’s image of the birthing tub as place of rest in the Father’s bosom, a place where “doing nothing” actually gets the most done reminded me of two other notable “water” scenes that splendidly juxtapose her own experience (thank God). They both deal with the fundamental theological reality behind labor and delivery: humility, gratitude, and mystery over-against pride and lust for power.
Consider the first literary exemplar: Dante’s description of hell’s very center in Canto 34 of the Inferno.
“The emperor of that despondent kingdom / so towered from the ice, up from midchest, / that I match better with a giant’s breadth / than giants match the measure of his arms; / … I marveled when I saw that, on his head, / he had three faces / Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out, / as broad as suited so immense a bird: / I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide. / They had no feathers, but were fashioned like / a bat’s; and he was agitating them, / so that three winds made their way out from him / and all Cocytus froze before those winds.”
Satan, a hairy, three-faced giant with six bat-wings grotesquely appended to his head, sits frozen in a lake congealed by the icy wind from his own furious wings, their endless beating stemming from the font of his own abysmal pride. Satan’s pride, we see with Virgil and Dante, bears the fruit of impotence. His labor brings naught but death. The harder he tries, the stiffer he lies in the ice of his own making. It is, moreover, his desire to be God that imprisons him and sends the wind of his error to chill the bones of any who behold his fate. The laboring woman, therefore, magnificently contrasts Lucifer. Her labor bears fruit best when it approaches the receptivity of the new Eve, the Immaculate One who said as no one had said before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The laboring woman is truly the subject of the labor, but subject of its activity as gift received rather than act consciously undertaken.
Consider the second: Milton’s musings on the great fallen angel in the first book of Paradise Lost.
“So strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence / Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs, / That with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to other and enrage’d might see / How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace and mercy / On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself / Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d” (Bk 1, lines 209–20). Satan here lies cast into a burning lake, the raging flames symbolizing the raging pride and rebellion of his own heart against the God he would not serve. He would rather “reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (bk 1, line 263).
Satan’s hateful rebellion against God, full of passion for power, leads to his own impotence in Milton’s imagination as well. God abandons Satan to his vice, allows him to pile up burning coals upon his own head. The more he grabs for power, the more Truth and Power takes hold of and turns his evil to an opportunity for grace upon mankind. Fastforward to the present day, and we see our technocratic society faces the temptation to attempt mastery over every mystery of human life. Our passion for control, for power, to put creation at our service rather than serve the God who created extends even to the realm of a woman’s labor and delivery. The more women (and men) see birth as a procedure to technologically or psychologically or physically master, the more thrown down they will find themselves. Labor and delivery is not a puzzle to be mastered but a mystery to be received from the hand of a loving God. To be at the service of God in the labor rather than to reign over the labor is the challenge.
It seems to me, therefore, that the warm waters of my wife’s birthing tub could at any moment have been one of three things: the arms and bosom of the Father of life; the frozen lake or self-defeating pride; or the burning Sulphurous wave-pool of passionate rebellion against the God and the natural activity of labor that God created.
The suffering of labor and delivery, it seems, can serve a pedagogical, as well as redemptive function. The woman learns (and teaches her husband) that progress (whether moral or in labor) comes from cooperation in God’s activity, not as over-against my own activity, but as ennobling my own. “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain” (Ps 127:1). The woman is not the master of the labor, but she cooperates with the graced and natural mystery of laboring for and delivering the child. To labor is to learn and teach humility. As to its redemptive character, the woman’s labor can be joined to Lord’s suffering on the cross. A woman might offer her labor for the sake of her child’s soul, for any intention. I have heard firsthand miraculous effects of labor abandoned to God in union with the cross. Moreover, the practice of laboring in grace, praying with and through contractions, disposes the woman (and frankly anyone else witnessing such an event) to radically reconsider the meaning of any and all sufferings and what might be done with those sufferings.
I, for one, cannot but see anew the daily crosses of life from a different vantage, now that I’ve witnessed these six miraculous deliveries of my wife. Having been seen from the birthing tub, the world can never be the same. Every cross is an opportunity to freeze in pride, to burn with passion for power, or to rest (though not without pain) in the bosom of the Father. Thank you, women who labor, for showing us the way.
Immaculate Mary, pray for us!
Daniel Bearman thinks there should be more men in the Jane Austen fan club. Bruce Frohnen is skeptical of sanctuaries for Christian culture, and Rod Dreher responds. Meanwhile, Fr. Dwight Longenecker ponders whether imaginative films smother the imagination, and Stephen Greydanus is ambivalent about the new Avengers, which includes a villain with a God complex.
In the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, he writes,
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us; according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed.
Eyewitness accounts guarantee the truth of the incredible story he is about to narrate.
Dante begins the Inferno thus,
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direst: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover’d there.
Dante, too, has an incredible story to tell and is no less anxious than Luke to claim the truth of the events to follow. He himself saw these things with his own eyes. His experience is not limited to the underworld, and Paradiso begins with a similar statement,
His glory, by who might all things are mov’d,
Pierces the universe, and in one part
Sheds more resplendence, elsewhere less. In heav’n,
That largeliest of his light partakes, was I,
Witness of things, which to relate again
Surpasseth power of him who comes from thence…
If you ask me, what St. Luke and Dante are up to is different. The former is a conscientious historian, the other a poet. But the role of witness is equally important. It is taken for granted that eyewitness accounts establish the veracity of a historical thesis and, as anecdotal evidence, provide explanatory power as the witnesses are multiplied. Does the fact that over 30,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima give pause? Certainly it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Eyewitness is no less important to the artist. Often, we consider art to be a purely imaginative, creative activity, as if a painting springs whole and entire from the genius of the artist’s mind. Perhaps we forget that the imagination requires raw material before it becomes fertile. In order to be creative, we must first encounter the real world, memorize our multiplication tables, study the lives of those who have gone before, you know, the sort of boring education stuff we now skip in our primary schools in favor of unrestrained creativity. However, if we never sit at the feet of history, master the facts, study our grammar, and witness the touchstones of culture, our imaginations will starve for lack of food. This is true for every pursuit in life and is no less so for the artist. Dante understood that his poetry was but a humble witness that revealed pre-existing metaphysical truth.
This was widely understood by most artists up until very recently and there is a tradition of including the portraits of patrons in the paintings they commission, thus placing them virtually into the very scene itself. The donors have somehow come to participate in the reality the artist expresses. So, too, is there a tradition of artists including their own portraits in their pictures. Often, this is misunderstood as vanity but I would suggest the underlying reason is to emphasize the importance of the eyewitness.
Michelangelo Caravaggio famously reacted against the late Mannerist style by creating realist depictions that were highly dependent on the use of models. For instance, in his paintings one often sees the same courtesan portraying different saints. The saints depicted are humble, barefoot, and there is often dirt under their fingernails. This caused quite a commotion at the time because it was viewed by some as crude and disrespectful. It was seen to minimize the transcendent.
In fact, Caravaggio seems to have been attempting to accomplish quite the opposite. As Andrew Graham-Dixon argues in his biography (Some of the criticism below is paraphrased from his work), Caravaggio’s paintings are the perfect visual representation of the Catholic Reformation as idealized by St. Charles Borromeo, who valued a presentation of the faith that had clarity, drama, and aroused personal devotion. Caravaggio presents us with canvases that minimize distraction and intellectual games in favor of striking images that communicate a single, highly developed insight. He is witness to a Biblical story and strives to bring what he has seen in his mind’s eye to life for the viewer. Through his personal witness, he is able to communicate powerfully the pathos and strangeness of a God who acts in history. As the incarnate Christ, God is both hidden in the natural world as a human being and, for those with eyes to see, the transformative figure in all of human history by which we are made like God.
Okay, I’m wandering a bit from my original intention with this post, which was to show a few paintings and comment on Caravaggio’s presence as eyewitness. By specifically seeing what he himself sees we gain the truth of the historical scene. Here is a portrait of him by a friend, see you if can find him in his own paintings:
Betrayal of Christ
Here we see him at the edge of the see holding a lamp. He is straining to see the action, peering through the Gethsemane night. Our Lord is visibly flinching at the kiss of Judas. Notice, however, that the main light source is not coming from the lamp but from somewhere to the front left. Caravaggio sees but dimly. He knows a tragedy has occurred and strains to understand the manner in which the gentle Lamb of God gains victory as a pure sacrifice amongst brutish sinners.
Martyrdom of Matthew
My favorite painting by Caravaggio. He depicts himself as a catechumen running away as fast as he can (the furthest back from the frame), pausing only for a moment to look back in horror. St. Matthew is vested in priestly garb and had been preparing for baptisms. In the early Church, catechumens were baptized nude in a pool of water. The pool was often directly in front of the altar. We can see St. Matthew’s left arm hanging down over the edge. He has already been injured and there is blood seeping through his vestments, perhaps dripping down and mingling with the baptismal water. The blood of the martyrs is equivalent to the drowning waters of baptism, much like the blood and water both spring from the side of Our Lord. St. Matthew himself seems to be bathed in heavenly light during the moment he is murdered by a false catechumen. It is the murderer who has become the baptizer. Perhaps Caravaggio feels as though his mortal sins (of which he claimed many, including trying to smash a man’s face in over artichokes) are keeping him at a distance from the communion of saints.
David with the Head of Goliath
Here is the ultimate eyewitness. It is Caravaggio himself who has been slain. The last sight his eyes beheld was God’s chosen avenger launching a stone his direction. The sadness that is now in David’s eyes was perhaps already present during the battle. Why must we sin and bind ourselves over to death? Why do we grieve God so? For the artist, this question is intensely personal and meditating on the theme brings the point home to me, too. Perhaps it ought to be my head in the hands of the boy king.
The Raising of Lazarus
On the run from the Knights of Malta, moving from town to town, Caravaggio depicts himself in this altarpiece just above the outstretched hand of Our Lord. The hand is reminiscent of the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It reaches out and brings new life. Caravaggio, however, looks the opposite direction. The darkness is closing in on him and he strains to see the light at the entrance of the tomb.
Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
This is thought to be Caravaggio’s last picture and at the time he was in exile for having committed murder. In fact, his output at this time had been curtailed by severe facial injuries received in a revenge attack. He himself is convalescing at the same time he is depicting a holy saint who has been mortally wounded not out of revenge for her vice but for her purity. Saint Ursula has been shot with an arrow by her spurned lover, the King of the Huns. She looks mildly surprise and yet statuesque, beautiful, glowing with inner joy. Caravaggio peers over her shoulder and into the visage of the King. What is it that causes a man to murder?
On one of my bedroom bookshelves sits a forgotten book by a forgotten writer: Norms for the Novel by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. It is an interesting piece of literary criticism that was perhaps very much a product of its time (1953), but also a precursor of things to come. Fr. Gardiner was the literary editor of America magazine at the time, and had written positive reviews of novels many readers considered to be morally repugnant, including Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. He wrote articles defending his broad reading habits, which were eventually collected into the booklet Tenets for Readers and Reviewers (1944, rev. 1952).
He is also possibly a bit infamous both for publishing Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in 1957 and for botching the editing on one paragraph. Other than that minor gaff, I think that Gardiner and O’Connor have many critical affinities, but that would be a discussion better left for another time.
In his endless defense against what he called “the Catholic Philistines,” Gardiner expanded his ideas into the longer Norms for the Novel, thereby covering a broader range of subjects. He is especially interested in moral evaluations, and about not jumping too quickly to the conclusion that a novel is immoral simply because the novelist depicts immoral actions. This was, after all, an age when a Catholic’s decision about whether or not to read a book often went no further than a reference to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. “Too much of the criticism of the novel in our recent past has been based on the assumption that a novel is simply a sociological tract dressed up in a bit of fictional trapping” (vii).
That is all fair enough, although in our present day these thoughts have become rather more commonplace than exceptional. It is more frequent today to read a Catholic reviewer nuancing or excusing questionable elements in a novel than chastising them. An interesting discussion could be had about whether Catholic criticism has leaned too far in this other direction, but Gardiner was surely offering a reasonable counterbalance to the excesses of his own time.
A small selection from the chapter “Fiction and the Art of Living” follows. Most of Fr. Gardiner’s books have been out of print for many years, and it would not be unwelcome to see them published again. His thoughts on the proper approach to Catholic criticism were seminal for what has followed.
The novelist, like any artist, is dealing with two basic but imponderable realities—truth and beauty. The adequacy or the excellence with which he blends these two elements will to a large extent determine his stature in the world of literature. For he must blend the two; if there is no basic truth in his work, its appeal to the reader’s heart and mind is spurious; if there is no perceptible beauty, there is no possible engagement of the emotions. It follows, moreover, that a proper realization of the respective function of these two elements will to a great extent determine the justice of the reader’s demands on the author.
What can the reader demand of the author? He can and must demand, as the present discussion has endeavored to show, that the author treat human beings as human beings and human life as human life—in other words that he never portray men as either angels or fiends incarnate. The reader can further demand and must demand that in treating human life humanly the author does not so glamorize the sinful element in his characters as to run the risk of making the reader’s life less human. (65-66)
When do we cross the line from being called to being covetous? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately–a question I should have considered a long time ago–in my life as a writer. I confess that nearly every waking minute of my life, I dream about Having Time to Write. Uninterrupted time alone with my computer and my characters–Ahhh! When people ask me why I am a writer, I tell them it is because if I don’t write, the voices in my head will keep me awake at night. Fictional people literally scream to be let out of me. I remember being four or five years old, desperate to learn how to physically form letters on a page so I could finally start putting stories down on paper. If I am doing my real job, or driving, or cooking, or helping my children tie their shoes, odds are that I am also working through structural problems in a novel or composing dialogue in my head. The inability to escape these mundane tasks to transfer my thoughts onto paper (or microchips) leaves me distracted and on-edge. Writing is my calling, or so I have told myself for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I am writing Great Things that will change the world; but my writing time is a form of prayer, time spent exploring mysteries both human and divine. In recent years, I have also learned to view it as a ministry by which I convey a little of the love God has shown me to whoever reads my words. But if God has given me this calling, this gift, whatever it is, why doesn’t He give me time to fulfill it?
As a seemingly unrelated backdrop to this battle raging in my heart, my four-year-old son recently developed a love of baking. (It is not coincidence that he also has a deep, abiding love of sugar.) In particular, he embarked on a quest to bake banana bread. Insistently, continuously, he begged to make banana bread, even after I let him bake cookies (our house being empty of baking soda to make the bread rise at the time.) “Today, we will make banana bread!” he would declare, day after day, because asking politely is a skill he stubbornly refuses to learn.
Now, banana bread is not a necessary component of life. In a post-apocalyptic world, no one would trek across a bombed-out nuclear wasteland in search of it. Neither was I going to drop everything, put dinner on hold, make a special trip to the store for baking soda, just to indulge my son’s desire to bake it. But banana bread is one of the little joys that add beauty to life, and baking it together as Mom and Four-Year-Old is especially lovely. So, some days later–after we had made our regularly-scheduled trip to the grocery store and a rainy afternoon presented itself–we set about the business of measuring and mixing, teaching and learning and bonding. I let my son take credit for the finished product even though I did the lion’s share of the work.
…And I discovered a new way to think about my writing.
God does not need me to tell stories. He has no need of my little talents any more than I need my four-year-old to help me make banana bread. I could do it perfectly well by myself. So, too, God already understands life’s mysteries, and if He wants to convey any insight about them to the world, He certainly has better tools at His disposal than my poor, gasping words. My stories are not essential nourishment; they are banana bread, a sweet something extra. Yet my Father allows me to create them because writing is time that He and I spend together, time that is cherished and filled with love. Just as I cannot let my son bake banana bread every day–because how would we eat it all? And when would we go to the park, or chase caterpillars in the yard, or pretend to be birds?–I must accept that my Father knows best, and He will give me no more than it is good for me to have. He knows that a little banana bread will cheer me, but too much will sicken my soul. And He has shown me that, no matter how I struggle with my stories, no matter how much of myself I invest in them, I will always be just the four-year-old helper who takes the credit while He does the actual work.
So, I am not going to covet writing time anymore. I will discipline myself the way I have been trying to discipline my son, and remember to ask politely. “God, is it time now, please? No? Okay then.” “Today, God? Please? Thank you, Father.” For I do not live by my own feeble words, but by the ones that come from Him.