It is fascinating to me that this series of columns on the relationship between faith and the arts has turned out to be a delightful trip down memory lane.
Numerous people in my life who have helped me appreciate the importance of art have spontaneously appeared in my memory. In some cases I can recall words spoken to me more than 70 years ago about the importance of literature. The words are as clear to me as though they were spoken yesterday.
When I was a senior at Xavier High School in Manhattan I was blessed to have a Jesuit priest as my teacher in a course on English literature. At the time I was taking the course, I had no idea what an impact this Jesuit’s insights into literature would have on me.
He assigned, as one of the novels we had to read, Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock.” I had never heard of either Greene or his novel. I had no idea there were novels such as “Brighton Rock.” The main character is a 17-year-old criminal named Pinky, a murderer, who is a Catholic.
On one level, the story is a crime story; on another it is a story centered on the mystery of Catholicism. Thanks to Greene and my Jesuit instructor, I was hooked. Right now I am recalling a statement the Jesuit priest probably made more than once in the course:
“Say you don’t like Graham Greene’s writing, no problem. That’s a matter of taste. Say he is not a good writer, you’re wrong!”
How often in the past 70 years have I appealed to that clear articulation of the distinction between a subjective reaction to a work of art and an objective judgment about the value and significance of a work of art?
As I mentioned, once I read “Brighton Rock” I was hooked. In the subsequent 70 years since I read “Brighton Rock,” I have read 23 of Greene’s 25 novels, many of his short stories, and his play, “The Potting Shed,” which, except for Shakespeare’s works, is my favorite play.
Greene’s novel “The End of the Affair” is not only my favorite Greene novel but my favorite novel. Because I teach “The End of the Affair” in my seminar on the Catholic novel at St. John’s University, I don’t know how many times I have re-read the book.
What I do know is that every time I read the book it seems as though God is jumping off the page at me. Years ago, I often found reading Catholic novels more inspiring than I found reading some so-called “spiritual books.”
For a short time I felt guilty about this, but I decided just to be grateful for the inspiration I received from reading the novels. The Spirit breathes where He will! We are co-creating the story of our lives with the Holy Spirit. The stories that we read can play an important role in how we shape the story of our life.
I know the experience that I had the first time I read “The End of the Affair” is not unique to me. After author David Gibson, now the Director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University, read the novel, he became a Catholic.
A former student of mine, now a Holy Cross priest at the University of Notre Dame, recently had a group of students in a discussion group read it, and they were so enthusiastic about the book that the next book they chose to read was Greene’s masterpiece about the “whiskey priest,” “The Power and the Glory.”
I think of the Catholic novels as a treasure hidden in a field. Years ago I met a graduate of a Catholic college who, as I recall, majored in English literature. Not only had she never read any of Greene’s novels or Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, “Brideshead Revisited,” she had never heard of Greene or Waugh.
My “apostolate” of promoting the reading of Catholic novels has been a mixed bag of successes and failures. I have failed to persuade anyone who teaches English literature in a Catholic high school or college to teach the Catholic novel.
My friend, Brother Michel Bettigole, O.S.F., and James D. Childs edited a fabulous anthology titled “The Catholic Spirit: An Anthology for Discovering Faith Through Literature, Art, Film, and Music” (South Bend, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2010).
The anthology was intended for high school students, but it also could be used for college students. Not many high schools used the book, apparently because they did not have teachers who had a background in Catholic studies that would enable them to use the book.
I find that really sad news.
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.