Arts and Culture

Catholic Novels Offer Countless Blessings

Sixth in a series

IN LAST WEEK’S column I quoted Flannery O’Connor’s statement that the only reason a person has to write fiction is because the writer believes that he or she has a gift. That statement of O’Connor’s has stayed with me all this past week and has moved me to return to the notion that novelists are gift-givers and we are the potential recipients of their gifts.

A few weeks ago I had no plan to write about gifts and gratitude during this Thanksgiving season, but perhaps either providence, my subconscious or some other mysterious reality moved me to return to the gift of great literature and the gratitude that we owe to novelists as gift-givers.

The more I think about the influence that the practice of reading Catholic novels has played in my life the more grateful I become. I am confident that the Jesuit priest at Xavier High School in Manhattan who introduced me in my senior year to the Catholic novel is now with the Lord in heaven. Nevertheless, I plan to remember him in gratitude tomorrow morning when I celebrate Mass at St. John’s University.

Every gift says something about the giver. Some gifts reveal more of the giver than other gifts do. The novelist offers a self-gift in the novel. By writing a story, a novelist is, at least implicitly, revealing himself or herself. The writer is on every written page and a unique relationship can grow up between the writer and the reader. In writing a Catholic novel, an author may be sharing his or her deepest insights.

Recently, I came upon the following insight from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

Every novel we read, tells us, not only something about the characters in the novel, but also something about ourselves. A great Catholic novel may be telling us the most important truths about ourselves. The Catholic novel, I believe, can help us see ourselves under the light of God’s love.

Shortly after discovering the insight from Fitzgerald, I came upon the following comment from author John Steinbeck:

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

I’m wondering if his view is a minority view today. Recently two people involved in the publishing world told me that no novel whose content might be related to Catholicism will get published today. That frightens me. Has the reading public become that secular? Is there no demand for such literature? I have a mantra that I have been repeating to myself and to some friends. It is the following: “We can be disappointed but we should never be discouraged.”

I believe the mantra because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The battle has already been won by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It is easy to succumb to the temptation of discouragement. Being a Catholic is not easy in the contemporary world. Maybe it was never easy. Perhaps to some extent, a Catholic always has to be counter culture. At times, it seems discouragement might be a proper response to the myriad problems we face, but I don’t think it ever is.

During this Thanksgiving season, I have been reflecting on the countless blessings I have received. Writing this series of columns has made me aware of how much I have received from authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Alice McDermott, Walker Percy, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Morris West, Ron Hansen, Shisaku Endo, Flannery O’Connor, Edwin O’Connor, J.F. Powers, Piers Paul Read and others. Spending time with the Catholic novels penned by these authors has been a great gift.

It seems to me that Catholic novels are still a treasure hidden in a field. If this series of columns moves some readers to sample the treasure, I will believe that any effort I put into writing the columns will have borne fruit.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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