Arts and Culture

The Mystery of Great Literature

ONE OF MY goals as a college professor is to encourage contemporary students to read great literature. I think that a very serious problem among many contemporary college students is that reading great literature has fallen by the wayside. Undoubtedly, there are students who do read great literature but talking with other college professors has convinced me that the neglect of serious reading is an important problem.

How has this happened? I don’t know the answer. Is it that students are distracted and preoccupied with cell phones, iPads and other gadgets?

Is it that students have such a hectic social life that they don’t have time for serious reading?

Is it that their misunderstanding of what education is has persuaded them to approach their education as though it was vocational training?

Of course, students should be concerned about how they are going to make a living after their formal education is finished, but education should not be merely training for employment. Education should help students grow as persons, develop critical thinking, widen their horizons, broaden their perspectives and their understanding of themselves, others and I think, their understanding of God. Reading and discussion should be at the center of any program that is presented as education.

About 20 years ago, I created a philosophy course at St. John’s University based on the Catholic novel. On the reading list were the novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Bernanos, Walker Percy, Ron Hansen and Shisaku Endo. I created the course because I believe such a course should be available at a Catholic university and that students, and especially the students who are seminarians, should read these novels. Those who take the course seem to love the material, but many skip the course because of the reading involved.

The importance of reading is on my mind right now because I just finished reading a truly provocative essay entitled “James Joyce’s Catholic Moments” (Joyce Studies, The National Library of Ireland, 2004, pp. 23) written by A. Nicholas Fargnoli, who is a professor of theology and English. Dr. Fargnoli has an international reputation as a Joyce scholar.

Back in the 1970s, I sat in a on a course on James Joyce at what was then-Cathedral College Seminary. The course was given by Dr. Erwin Geissman, a truly great teacher, and it was one of the most wonderful educational experiences I have ever had. I approached the study of Joyce in four steps: First, I read a chapter in Joyce’s great novel “Ulysses,” and then read a commentary about it. Next, I attended Dr. Geissman’s lecture on that chapter, before finally picking up the book again to re-read the chapter.

I told a priest friend about my approach to the course and he asked, “Is it worth all that work?” I had to reply that it was. I did not know that the human mind could do what Joyce does in that great novel. Taking the course was one of the most challenging and satisfying intellectual experiences that I ever had.

In his essay, Dr. Fargnoli offers a great deal of evidence indicating the profound influence Catholicism had on Joyce’s literary imagination. Though he eventually left the Church, Joyce is a classic example of the insight that it is easier to take the Catholic out of the Church than it is to take the Church out of the Catholic. Joyce’s imagination was saturated with Catholic imagery. Dr. Fargnoli quotes from a letter that Joyce wrote to his brother, Sebastian, trying to explain what he was trying to do with poetry he was writing:

“Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.” (pp. 2-3)

Also commenting on Joyce’s use of the word “epiphany” to indicate a giving oneself away, Dr. Fargnoli writes the following:

“The term suited Joyce’s literary purposes well. From a theological perspective, the idea of a revelation for the benefit of others ties in with Joyce’s original intent in writing poetry when he compared what he was doing with the mystery of the Mass…” (p. 9)

Reading Dr. Fargnoli’s essay has re-affirmed my belief in the importance of reading great literature. To engage in serious reading can transform us and help us to be more receptive to the Word made flesh.


Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).

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