After I finished writing last week’s column on Alice McDermott’s reflections on the similarity between the artistic creative process and the process of religious faith in her new book What about the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, pp. 242, $27.00), I continued to think about what Alice had written.
I find both her comments on the artistic creative process and the process of religious faith provocative. I suspect that I will be thinking about them the next time I read a novel and the next time I engage in formal prayer.
As I mentioned in last week’s column, I frequently lecture in philosophy classes at St. John’s University on the nature of artistic creative intuition. My interest in the topic continues to increase because of my interest in theater, literature and film and also from reading philosopher Jacques Maritain’s insights into the creative process.
Of course any genuine experience of religious faith depends on the Holy Spirit, but that does not mean that the believer’s experience of faith cannot have some similarity to the artist’s experience of the creative artistic process. Any work of art should have at its center a creative intuition, an insight into reality that moves the artist to create.
This intuition is difficult to explain or even to discuss because it is not an idea. We can articulate ideas and discuss them. We have hundreds of them in our minds because of the various experiences we have had, e.g. house, automobile, shoe, building, etc. etc. If there is a creative intuition at the center of a work of art, that intuition may exist in three places: within the artist, within the work and within the person encountering the finished work of art.
One reason that opinions about what is or is not a great work of art can vary is because of disagreement about the presence or absence of a creative intuition at the center of the work.
Professional critics of artistic works should be very sensitive to the presence or absence of a creative intuition in a work of art.
Alice writes the following:
“Without doubt — in the creative process, as well as in the process of religious faith — we are often just following along, filling out forms, limiting our freedom to be taken by surprise by those true impressions that constitute our unexpected moments of grace, those unexpected moments in which our Creator, or the ideal form of the novel, attempts to make itself known to us.
Complete certainty, total adherence to dogma, to foregone conclusions, to the glib reply, cuts us off — in art as well in faith — from revelation, from the discovery that we didn’t know we knew. Smug assuredness in faith as in the creative arts, cuts us off from glimpses of essence, of perfection, of what seeks to reveal itself, that we didn’t even know enough to look for but that strike us, if only momentarily, as exactly what we hoped to find.” (p.183)
Alice’s reflections on the experience of faith strike me as so accurate, such a recognizable description of what I experience, at least occasionally when I pray, that I wonder if she has been eavesdropping on my morning prayer!
If the pandemic has taught me anything about my life of faith, I hope it has taught me the importance of being still and silent with God, or at least sometimes listening to rather than speaking to God. I believe that we can be certain that God the Father and the Risen Christ are speaking to us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Whatever God is saying to us is always for our benefit and growth as persons and as believers. We are being spoken to by Infinite love. Love that is so profound and powerful that we will never comprehend that Love completely. It is love that is never absent. God is always “Yes” in relation to us.
Alice concludes her essay on faith and literature with the following remarks:
“Look, artistic inspiration, like religious faith, does not come to most of us with the beating of wings or the leaping of flames or the cinematic, middle of the night aha moment that cuts to an acceptance speech at Stockholm. It comes through long effort, through moving ahead and falling back, through working in the dark.
It comes to us in moments of passionate intuition and over long days and nights of painful silence. It arrives in the usual yet miraculous confluence of ordinary events. It comes and goes. It leaves us in doubt. It is sustained by doubt. It is the work of a lifetime.” (p. 187)
For years I have thought of Alice’s novels as special gifts in my life. Now I think of her reflections on faith as a special gift.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.