Saturday, January 24, 2009

Catholic Literature

I'm always interested in how people define "Catholic Literature." I tried making a serious study of this question when I was a resident scholar for a year at the Collegeville Institute. Although I was raised a Catholic until 12, I spent the next ten years in an evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal environment, and it is the stories I heard in those churches, the behavior I observed, and that world view that I think has primarily shaped my aesthetic vision. However, I know Catholicism was also formative for me. In the end, I like the idea that there is such a thing as a Catholic writer, and so I've looked for ways to cultivate and understand what that might mean.

I never did get a good definition of Catholic Literature from my self-guided study. For the most part, perhaps like all these classifications of literature, people seem to define it as 1) work written by Catholics, or 2) work about Catholics. As a poet, I was looking for something a little more philosophical, a Catholic imagination. The biggest contribution on this issue is offered by the theologian and philosopher David Tracy, whose work on "the analogical imagination" claims basically that the Catholic imagination is shaped by analogy, in images rather than abstract ideas. That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but it basically works. Catholics are liturgical, whereas Protestants are steeped in sermons. Catholics are drawn to the icon, the symbol, visual images that guide them in their faith, whereas Protestants are sola Scriptura, "proof-texters," focused on the Word of the Bible and its meanings.

It was with great interest I spotted a volume on a bookshelf in our basement a month ago called: Great Modern Catholic Short Stories. It was edited by Sister Mariella Gable, OSB, a Sister at Saint Benedict's Monastery who died in 1985. (I have to note that they misspelled her name on the spine of the book, "Marilla Gable.") It was published in 1942 by Sheed and Ward.

I opened it this morning and found the table of contents organized this way: Ten Stories about Nuns, Seven Stories about Monks, Nine Stories about Priests. As straightforward a definition of Modern Cathlic Fiction as you might find.

In the introduction, she talks about the way these short stories mark a watershed in writing about religious. For the first time, she says, there are stories telling it straight and plain, giving a real view into the lives of priests, monks and nuns. She gives some examples of the earlier type of fiction, including a story that tells of "a young Trappist ... seduced immediately upon hearing the voice of a woman." Of this, she says, "After [James Lane Allen's] portrayal of a monk, the yarns of the Arabian Nights read like stark realism." The collection is a celebration of the ordinary life of monasteries and rectories, and so had my attention. After the introduction, I read two of the stories that were written by monks, although most of the stories in the collection were written by laypeople. One was called "Reading in the Refectory," by Peter Whiffin. It is more a reflective essay than a short story as I think of them. It is a first-person stream of consciousness, a monk who seems to be speaking to us directly about the experience of listening to "holy reading" during mealtime and thinking about his own experience with the kind of piety portrayed in the reading. It's a wonderful story about the disconnect between the reading, that leads the monks into a sort of competition "counting" how many holy acclamations they can make during a period of time, and the simple holiness he observes in another monk who has spent the night with a fellw monk who is dying in his cell.

The second hit closer to home for me. It is called "Monks Die Good" by Jack English, a pen name for Brother Caetan, a Brother of St. Francis Xavier. It tells the story of a burial for a monk, "Brother Raphael," who dies on New Year's Day. It is focused on the physical discomfort of the process-- the hard work of digging the grave, the awkwardness and banging of his knee as they carry the casket down the narrow aisle, the cold when he forgets his gloves, the annoyance of having all the other brothers tell him he should have worn a hat. It's steeped in physicality and in the awkwardness of community life. The monks discuss the imperfect job done by the mortician (too much powder, unevenness of tone), the way the monks move back to the tasks at hand after the burial. Near the end he offers up a simple prayer.

It is a brilliant story, really. I'm going to make a copy to give to the prioress at Saint Benedict's Monastery, Nancy Bauer, who wrote an account for the upcoming issue of our magazine of how our monastery marks death, following the directive by St. Benedict in the Rule to "keep death ever before your eyes."

It is also a Catholic story-- steeped in the physical reality while seeking simple transcendence. That is more and more becoming my working definition.

The copy of the book we have on our shelf doesn't show up on an Amazon search, but another does, published by Sheed & Ward in 1943 and reissued in 1944. I suspect it's the same book, hopefully with her name correctly imprinted on the spine. The title had also changed, more reflective of the contents: They Are People: Modern Stories of Nuns, Monks and Priests. It is long out of print, but there are still a couple of used copies available.

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