Arts and Culture

Story Writing and The Catholic Faith

LATELY I HAVE been thinking about the nature of story in relation to the Catholic faith. Perhaps it is because two of my favorite writers, Mary Gordon and Alice McDermott have either had a novel recently published (Gordon) or about to be published (McDermott). Maybe it is because of the film festivals I moderate, or the adult education course on the Catholic novel that I have moderated for many years. I am always looking for films or novels that might stimulate serious reflection on what it means to be human. Often a film or a novel can touch people more deeply than a lecture or a philosophical or theological text in a book.

Whatever the reason, the nature of story, and the nature and meaning of the Catholic faith, have become joined in my mind recently. Looking for something to read that might enlighten me about some intrinsic relation between Catholicism and story, I came upon “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” a short essay by Walker Percy in a collection of Percy’s writings and talks: “Signposts in a Strange Land” (Edited with an Introduction by Patrick Samway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Noonday Press, 1961, pp. 428, $15).

I have learned a great deal from Percy. I like his essays as much as I like his six novels, and this short essay did not disappoint me. In my freshman philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I have the students read one Percy novel. I want them to experience philosophy in a novel format and not just in textbooks or in the writing of a famous thinker-philosopher such as Plato or Aquinas.

After a few brief, but interesting comments on why Catholics writers write, Percy admits that while no serious writer can be sure where his or her writing comes from, he has the strongest feeling that the Catholic faith can be a great aid to the novelist. He goes on to say that if one was to design a religion for a novelist, he could think of none better than Catholicism. He writes the following:

“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening – and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament on the move in a real world of real things, a world that is a sacrament and a mystery: a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” (p. 369)

I know some people think of religion as a projection – a kind of gigantic security blanket – that believers create to get through life. I think authentic religion is almost exactly the opposite.

In his book, “What Is God? How to Think about the Divine” (New York: Doubleday, 1986, pp. 143, $14.95) John Haught, commenting on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, writes:

“The name Whitehead gives to the emerging quest for more and more intense forms of ordered novelty is adventure. Religion is adventure.

“The term ‘adventure’ immediately suggests risk. Any adventurous proceeding necessarily involves an element of risk without which there would be nothing truly ‘ventured.’” (pp. 88-89)

What is risked in religion? Everything! In acts of faith and hope a person risks the entire meaning of his or her existence. In making a life commitment to God, which is what being Catholic entails, a person is refusing to settle for what many people who identify themselves as “unbelievers” profess, namely that there is no God or life beyond the grave. Some “unbelievers” claim that to express belief in God and in an eternal union with God is just wishful thinking.

If a Catholic takes his or her religion seriously, his or her life will be deeply meaningful and joyful, but it will not be easy. Central to the Catholic faith is following a God Who died on a cross. Catholic faith calls people to identify with that crucified God, and to love not only God, but also all whom God has created.

There are Catholic novels in which God is the main character. To write such a novel that qualifies as excellent literature must be difficult. To read such a novel is to risk being deeply touched and profoundly challenged.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).