Arts and Culture

Novels Can Transform Our Consciousness

Third in a series

WHILE WRITING this series, I have been thinking about something Frank Sheed wrote many years ago in his book “Theology and Sanity.” He correctly claimed that sanity means living in the real world and that religious faith unveils reality at its greatest depth. I recall Sheed saying that novelist Graham Greene writes as though the headline on the morning paper was “Son of God dies on a cross for us.”

Today we receive many messages about ourselves, our neighbors and at least occasionally, about God. Many of those messages are very different from the Christian message and some seem almost directly opposed to it. All of us need more than a homily on Sunday to enable us to allow the Christian vision to be predominant vision in our consciousness.

Friends are probably tired of hearing me ask: “What are you reading?” A steady diet of similar books can have a profound influence on both our consciousness and conscience. Reading a serious book is inviting an author into our lives and allowing the author to share with us what he or she thinks is important.

Reading Catholic novels when I was a student in college and in the seminary and also during the years after my formal education had ended has been a real blessing in my life. The drama in Catholic novels can make the truths of the Catholic faith seem more real and relevant. The world of faith can seem more real than the ordinary world, the world of sight and sound.

There are many ways to nature our consciousness so that we see reality from a Christian viewpoint. Prayer, reading Scripture, celebrating the sacraments, making retreats and days of recollection come to my mind immediately as ways to allow our faith to color our consciousness.

Another way is by reading Catholic novels. Recently, I was re-reading a provocative essay by Russell Kirk on the moral imagination. He writes:

“When literature has lost sight of its real object or purpose, literature is decadent. What then is the end, object, or purpose of humane letters? Why, the expression of the moral imagination, or to put this truth in a more familiar phrase, the end of great books is ethical – to teach us what it means to be genuinely human.

“Every major form of literary art has taken for its deeper themes the norms of human nature …

“Until very recent years, men took it for granted that literature exists to form the normative consciousness – that is, to teach human beings their true nature, their dignity, and their place in the scheme of things. The very phrase ‘humane letters’ implies that great literature is meant to teach us what it is to be fully human…

“Now I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies… Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence through allegory, analogy, and holding up the mirror to nature. The writer may, like William Faulkner, write much more of what is evil than of what is good; and yet, exhibiting the depravity of human nature, he establishes in his reader’s mind the awareness that there exist enduring standards from, which we fall away; and that fallen human nature is an ugly sight…

“The better the artist, one might almost say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, commonly is the method of the literary champion of norms.”

When I first read some of the Catholic novels that have influenced me, I just had to share them with my friends. Calling attention to how wonderful some novels were became a kind of mission for me. I don’t recall anyone telling me they were disappointed with my recommendations.

One reason novels are so attractive is that everyone loves a good story. Elie Wiesel said that God created us because God loves stories. What the great Catholic authors accomplish is that they communicate truths of the faith through story, not through a format of questions and answers. The stories that these authors create is not only informative but often inspiring. Reading a Catholic novel should provide an experience that is not only interesting but enjoyable.

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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