IN REFLECTING on the experience of writing this column, I find it interesting how, without any conscious planning on my part, some themes come together in my mind.
For example, I recently re-read two novels that I read several years ago. When I first read them, I don’t recall noticing that they dealt with a similar theme. In re-reading them, however, I noticed the connection almost immediately. The novels are Morris West’s “The Devil’s Advocate” (William Morrow, 1959, pp. 319) and Mark Salzman’s “Lying Awake” (Vintage Books, 2001, pp. 181).
The Art of Storytelling
I have come to believe that every great novel tells us something important about ourselves. Of course, the book has to do this in the way proper to a novel. What I mean is that a novel should never be proselytizing or preaching. When the Catholic novelist Walker Percy decided that instead of writing scholarly philosophical essays he would try to reach a wider audience by writing novels, he said to his wife, “I have something to say and I am going to say it.”
There could have been a danger that he would not produce works of art, but rather veiled homilies. Because of his extraordinary skill as a novelist, Percy never fell into the trap and produced six excellent novels.
When my bishop sent me away to get a doctorate in philosophy many years ago, I had just concluded four years as a parish priest and had not studied philosophy in nine years. For most of my first year in graduate school studying philosophy, my term papers read like homilies. For example, I would be tempted to end a term paper on the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche with something like, “Let’s say three Hail Marys for Nietzsche!”
I have never tried to write a novel but if I did, I would have to guard against preaching. There is no proselytizing in “The Devil’s Advocate” or “Lying Awake,” but I think in each novel there is an important insight into holiness.
The first line of “The Devil’s Advocate” is: “It was his profession to prepare other men for death; it shocked him to be so unprepared for his own.” The line refers to Msgr. Blaise Meredith, a Vatican bureaucrat who has learned that he has terminal cancer and has at the most, a year to live. His name seems ironic because in his own eyes he is anything but ablaze with zeal. He is assigned to be the devil’s advocate in a cause for canonization. His role, of course, will be to find reasons why Giacamo Nerone, around whom a cult is developing, should not be canonized.
As the plot develops, we learn more and more about Nerone, but we also learn more and more about Meredith. What West does brilliantly is shift the emphasis in the novel from the holiness of Nerone to the holiness of Meredith.
In the novel, as he investigates the actions of Nerone, Meredith encounters serious pastoral problems and deals with each of them beautifully. Either he was always a holy man doing his job in the Vatican, or the experience of immediate contact with people who need help has helped him to become holy.
“Lying Awake” tells the story of Sister John of the Cross, who for several years in the convent suffered what might have been the dark night of the soul, the feeling of being distant from God. Eventually, she begins to have ecstatic illuminations, which seem to be intense mystical experiences.
I marvel at Salzman’s ability to describe these experiences. After Sister John has these experiences she is able to write beautiful poetry, which is so good that it wins prizes.
Unfortunately, Sister John also suffers severe migraine headaches which make it difficult for her to follow the routine of the cloistered order of which she is member. Eventually, her superior insists that she see a doctor, who informs her that she has a small tumor behind her ear which can be easily removed through surgery. The doctor warns her that the removal of the tumor may mean that she no longer will have her ecstatic illuminations. He suggests the illuminations may have been epileptic.
Does this mean that what Sister John took to be special graces from God can be explained away through medicine? What should she do? What is God’s will for her at this moment?
I won’t reveal Sister John’s decision, but I do think that she reaches a new level of holiness at the end of the novel, a level that is not directly connected with the illuminations.
I once met a professor of theology who taught theological courses by having the students read novels. Reflecting on “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Lying Awake” and other Catholic novels, I can understand why this might be a good idea. It might help students to see the relevance of religious faith.
Father Lauder, a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of two books on Pope Francis. The most recent is “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).