One of the essays by novelist Valerie Sayers that I mentioned in last week’s column is titled “Being A Writer, Being Catholic.”
It has some important insights into what makes a novel Catholic.
I find the topic of the Catholic novel interesting and important for several reasons, one of which is that I believe that many people involved directly in the new evangelization do not realize that there is a treasure of Catholic stories available that can help readers deepen their Catholic vision of reality.
In a course that I teach at St. John’s University, Jamaica, on the Catholic novel, I try very hard to help the students see that there are important implications if a person chooses to view reality from a Catholic point of view.
Making God Tangible
All of the authors whom I ask the students to read in the course present a Catholic vision of the meaning of a human person and the meaning of a human life. That vision is exceptionally profound, I believe, because it is based on God’s revelation. These authors present this vision not in textbooks but in stories, stories that are dramatic tales that often make the meaning and mystery of God almost tangible.
In the last 35 years in an adult education program that I conduct on the Catholic novel, the students and I have either read or re-read approximately 170 Catholic novels. This course has been a great educational experience for me and I hope for the students as well.
Valerie Sayers writes the following:
“Writers choose their subjects in pretty much the same way all of us choose our dreams: subjects pursue writers, not the other way around, and often it is the least tasteful and/or the most threatening subject that insists on being explored. The subject may or may not be identifiably Catholic, but certainly a Catholic vision of the world will inform every word a writer chooses. If we aspire to Catholic writing, then we had better let the Gospels propel us.”
Commenting on the task of a writer to enter into the mind and heart of a fictional character, Sayers writes:
“The act of identification, it seems to me, is a writerly affirmation of the Gospels and their call to see ourselves in others. Christ’s story, after all, is the ultimate act of identification, the narrative of God’s willingness to take on human skin.”
In the philosophy and literature course that I teach at St. John’s, a student who took the course almost 15 years ago returned to lecture on Shisaku Endo’s novel, “Deep River.”
An outstanding student when he attended St. John’s, I invite him back every time we are going to discuss Endo’s novel. When he took the course, he didn’t think the novel was a Catholic novel. He still doesn’t. I do and so I invite him so that students will benefit from both viewpoints.
What I love about the session every year is that I am forced to think more deeply about the novel and to consider a view of the book different from my own.
I think some of the objections that the guest lecturer has to calling the book a Catholic novel can be handled easily. However, his claim that the novel promotes a relativism, suggesting that one religion is as good as another, has to be taken seriously. Certainly one of the main characters, Otsu, a seminarian, does have a relativistic view of religion.
My position is that just because one character embraces relativism does not mean the novel endorses relativism. My opinion is that the numerous Catholic symbols and images outweigh the view of one character. Eventually Otsu gets ordained and spends his time helping the sick and crippled into the Ganges. He believes that this is what Jesus would do if He was in Calcutta.
One reason “Deep River” is such an interesting novel is that it is the only novel I know of that has many references to other Catholic novels, and Otsu seems to be modeled on the young priest in George Bernanos’ “The Diary of a Country Priest.”
Teaching this course this fall semester has been a great experience for me. I hope that the students’ encounter with great novels has been both enjoyable and profitable for them.