Fifth in a series
Reflecting on the Catholic novel as I have been writing this series of columns, I have become increasingly aware that Catholic novels have been a wonderful gift in my life. This series of columns is my attempt at inviting readers of this series to experience that gift. I started reading Catholic novels in senior year of high school and I have read them with some regularity since then. It still amazes me that for many people who have gone through several years of Catholic education, especially on the high school, college and graduate level, the Catholic novel is still a treasure hidden in a field. Why so many Catholics seem unaware of the great Catholic novels that are available is a puzzle to me.
When I was a student in the major seminary, I only read Catholic novels during vacation periods, almost never while residing in the seminary building. I believed that while at the seminary I should limit myself to reading philosophy and theology books. In fact, I think I was critical of my fellow students who read novels instead of philosophy and theology books.
Looking back, I suspect that my attitude grew out of some combination of pride, narrowness and ignorance.
I have come to believe that Catholic novels often contain marvelous philosophical and theological insights. What makes those novels a special gift is that the insights are woven into stories.
Everyone loves a good story. I find a story with a Catholic theme can be entertaining, informative and inspiring.
In the wonderful book, “Mystery and Manners” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957, pp. 237) Flannery O’Connor writes the following:
“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.
A gift of any kind is a considerable responsibility. It is a mystery in itself, something gratuitous and wholly undeserved, something whose real uses will probably always be hidden from us. Usually the artist has to suffer certain deprivations in order to use his gift with integrity. Art is a virtue of the practical intellect, and the practice of any virtue demands a certain asceticism…” (p. 81)
O’Connor’s comment about how the fiction writer receives a gift that enables him or her to write increases my awareness that the writer of fiction is a gift-giver. He or she has a vocation to tell stories and the stories can greatly enrich the readers’ lives. In some mysterious way, the great Catholic novels can illuminate life’s greatest mysteries. They can help us appreciate more deeply the meaning of the awesome monosyllables: to be, to live, to love, to die.
Working out of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical vision, O’Connor writes the following:
“St. Thomas called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us.
As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.
For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single minded respect for the truth.” (pp. 82-83)
What a wonderful vision of the vocation of the artist! I am reminded of something Pope Saint John Paul wrote in his “Letter to Artists”: “God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ’in the image of God’, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.”
I have a list of over one hundred novels that I have re-read and assigned in adult courses on the Catholic novel. I have checked over twenty-five of these novels that I recommend to anyone who wishes to read some Catholic novels. Some others on the list I have crossed out for one reason or another.
If anyone reading this column would like a copy of the list with the recommended titles checked indicating my recommendation, that person should send me a stamped self-addressed envelope at the address of the Tablet and I will be delighted to send a copy of the list. Perhaps some readers of this series of columns will become as enthusiastic as I am about reading Catholic novels.