[Pleased to present the transcript of a debate between Brian Doyle and Father Charlie Gordon from February 24, 2010 at the University of Portland].
WRITERS OF GRACED MOMENTS
A conversation between a learned erudite reasonable informed reverend professor of Catholic literature, Father Charlie Gordon, C.S.C., and a wildly opinionated headlong Catholic writer (Brian Doyle).
BD: Thesis: Most of the writing that has ascended into The Canon of Great Catholic Writing actually isn’t great Catholic writing at all, and in fact is often, for all we bow and scrape, incredibly dull. Yes, I am talking about Augustine and Aquinas and Georges Bernanos and Dorothy Day. To me they seem very much like Montaigne and Emerson – wise, foundational, great if you want to dip in for a page or two, but so incredibly dull as storytellers, as riveting writers, as commanding and salty narrative makers, that I cannot believe even such an honest and forthright priest as you, Charlie, could argue the point that they could not hold the hems of the cloaks of such masterful Catholic writers as, say, Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus and Bruce Springsteen.
CG: If there were no Augustine and Aquinas there would be no Flannery O’Connor. Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism inspired O’Connor’s vocation as a writer. Art and Scholasticism is rooted in Aquinas. Augustine taught us that the human heart is restless until it rests in God – that there is an infinite, God-shaped emptiness in each of us that nothing finite can ever fill. It’s impossible to imagine O’Connor’s writing apart from this fundamental insight. Similar arguments could be made about the other writers you mention. Nevertheless, I take your point. Beer is made of water, malt, hops, and yeast. You can’t make beer without them. Yet few of the people who love beer feel as strongly about its ingredients. The same seems true of your love of stories. You reserve your passion for the finished product.
BD: Point taken, I say, grinning. Notes: Of course you are right, but if we extend the logic there, the greatest Catholic writer is the gaunt young Jewish rabboni who wandered around Judea some years ago, telling gnomic stories, and the next greatest are the anonymous souls or gaggles of inspired scribblers and editors who composed what we now call the Gospels – all of these men (and perhaps women) thinking of themselves not as Catholics, yet, but as fundamentalist Jews, or, in a label dewy-new then, and probably uncomfortable to wear, “Christians.” Somehow it’s utterly apt and funny that the greatest Catholic writers would be Jewish, or believers in the miraculous divinity of a Jewish man; paradox and mystery being at the very heart of the Catholic genius, and the best Catholic writing.
But maybe we are sprinting ahead of ourselves, Charles m’lad. Let’s back up. What is Catholic writing? What does that phrase mean?
CG: Definitions are notoriously difficult, but for me a Catholic writer is someone whose mind and heart and pen are soaked, marinated, in Catholicism. Ideally, he or she should be the product of a place that has a culture (like Ireland) or a sub-culture (like the Catholic part of Minnesota) that is as deeply imbued with the faith as the individual is. Catholic writing happens when a writer like that sets out to do justice in words to what is – to things the way they are, particularly at a moment of individual or cultural crisis.
BD: Well said, Charlie. “Sets out to do justice to what is,” I like that. I suppose that I think “Catholic writing” is, in the easiest definition, that having to do with Catholic matters, milieus, characters, situations, concerns – easiest seen in J.F. Powers’ stories of monks and priests and rectory life, for example. The next larger circle would be writing having to do with Catholic convictions – work in which “the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation,” as the greatest of American Catholic writers says – work in which the imminence and immanence of miracle is patent, against all sense and reason; work in which characters steer by a certain rudder of wild hope in the storms of the quotidian – Alice McDermott’s novels, say, or Andre Dubus’s glorious late essays. And perhaps the very widest definition of “Catholic writing” is hinted at by another Flannery O’Connor remark: “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.” This last circle is so huge that we could, as you have noted, grinning, call Shakespeare a Catholic writer, yes? But maybe the deep secret of great Catholic writing is that all great writing is Catholic. Maybe even though Catholics don’t own the world, like we did many centuries ago, we can still claim all the best writing, eh?
CG: I say, “sets out to do justice to what is,” to try to head off those whose instinct is to use story writing in an explicit attempt to illustrate or defend a particular Catholic dogma or moral teaching. While the latter tactic can produce good literary “comfort food” for their co-religionists, it is not conducive to the creation of great art. Most of the best Catholic literature, at least in English, has been written with non-Catholic readers in mind, presumably because in the U.S and the U.K. that is the greater part of the potential audience. The works of Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene are the first examples that come to mind in this regard. Much of this wider audience, and particularly the “cultured despisers of religion” among them, dismisses stories with an explicitly apologetic intent as second-rate propaganda. You can’t engage an audience that won’t give you a hearing. On the other hand, when a Catholic writer sets out “to do justice to what is,” by which I mean to convey the truth of the human situation, no reader can reasonably object. And because our writer is “soaked in Catholicism,” Catholic teaching will inevitably be an integral part of the fabric of the story. This will especially be true, as you suggest, of the deeply held Catholic instinct that everything ultimately comes down to the Incarnation, and the belief that there are graced moments in which our destiny depends on how we choose.
BD: Maybe that’s the secret right there to great “Catholic writing,” yes? Graced moments. And they are rife throughout not only what we could with easy confidence call Catholic writing, but maybe in all of most great writing. So I might posit, if we were in a pub with excellent ales between us, that all really fine writing, all writing that is bony honest about human flaw and frailty and the shimmer of hope and sliver of crazy courage, is Catholic – which case we can cheerfully claim Shakespeare, for example, as a great Catholic writer. Which he was secretly anyway.
CG: Whether or not Shakespeare was literally a Catholic, he was literarily a Catholic. He certainly tried to do justice to what is. His characters feel like real people. He was soaked in an understanding of the world that was the product of a thousand years of English Catholicism. His works are in sympathy with that tradition at a moment when it was in crisis. His characters find coherence in terms of the tradition amidst the onslaught of the cultural forces that were destroying it. He apparently stopped writing years before he died. Maybe that was because his society had arrived at a point from which he was no longer able to guide his characters to “happy” endings by light of the old worldview. Shakespeare’s use of language is analogical and allusive in the best Catholic manner, showing little sympathy for the new ideal of single, exhaustive definitions of things. And his stories are characterized by graced or dis-graced moments in which destiny hangs upon a choice. Will Macbeth murder his houseguest? Will Hamlet be or not be? But the graced moments in literature that interest me most happen not to the characters in the stories but to the reader.
BD: O, that is beautifully and powerfully said, Charlie. And I think maybe you are utterly right in that last remark – maybe it’s the case that the very greatest literature of all is that which changes, elevates, opens, cracks, enlightens the reader – that which forces open a door in the reader’s heart – maybe even that which shivers and shakes and rattles the reader such that his mask and disguise cracks enough to let light, however unwelcome that may be, get in. How very often priests have said this to me of their vocational road, that they ran from the hound of heaven, that they fled Him down the ways and paths, and finally turned and could run no more from what they knew to be true, and what they knew they were called to do. And many of the books and writers I admire the most as great Catholic literature are unsettling, shivering, rattling, aimed at deeper water than the usual entertainment or confirmation of what we all assume to be true. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, for example, which is searing and horrifying right from the start, forcing the reader to immediately confront the roil of evil and injustice and cruelty that squirms in human beings, from which only our courage and grace and love can free us. Sometimes I think the only way we really are changed, really are awakened, is by the effect of story. I doubt any lecture has ever caused someone’s persona to crack and allow the truer being inside to emerge, shyly, scared, shining; but I’d guess that happens every eleven seconds through story. Somehow we can digest a story and the best ones stay in us as seeds. We can ignore a great deal, but great stories have an eerie and, dare we say it, miraculous power, don’t they?
CG: I agree that the best kind of story stays in us like a seed, but for me it is often like a seed stuck in my teeth. It pesters and annoys and prevents me from being comfortable. It makes it difficult for me to chew the cud of self-serving platitudes that would sustain a placid bovine existence. Or the story is like a wedge with a dual function. It both cracks open the reader’s heart, and stops it from closing up again. In ordinary circumstances we cultivate the illusion that we are self-sufficient. We think and act as if we were capable of getting what we want from life by our own unaided efforts. I suspect we adopt this stance as a way to cope with our fear of change, suffering, and death. We pretend we are invulnerable to stop ourselves from trembling. The tactic is self-defeating. The protective shell into which we retreat ends up impoverishing our life by repelling love and grace. And sooner or later death comes anyway. It is this illusion of invulnerable self-sufficiency that a story cracks open, so that love and grace can pour in.
BD: Amen and then again amen. I heard a brilliant teacher recently characterize her life’s work as “making her students beautifully and productively uncomfortable,” a phrase that seemed not only wonderfully salty and wise in the ways of education as epiphany, cracking open, awakening, startling, forcing people to confront and challenge old ideas and new ones – all this in service to subtle illumination -- but also salty and wise in the ways of living and loving and insistently trying to celebrate the holy while being inundated by tumult and travail. Disturb us, Lord, when we are pleased with ourselves, said the noted pirate and slaver Francis Drake, when we have dreamed too little, when we sailed too close to the shore, when we cease to try to build a new earth, and I think maybe old Sir Francis was being perceptive about the greatest Catholic literature without knowing it, quite. So, to circle around, and maybe get close to the end of this riveting discussion, the greatest Catholic writers seem to me the ones who ripple and riffle us and make us startle and jump by the eerie depth of their knowledge of us (boy, that’s uncomfortable), by luring us into confrontations with immensely uncomfortable moments of teetering grace (Flannery O’Connor the master there), by wheedling us into staring uncomfortably at paradox, the first law of this particular universe (Andre Dubus the master there, seems to me, and for proof see his extraordinary “A Father’s Story”), by making us stare evil in the eye in such a way that we cannot weasel or sidle away like we usually do (see Annie Dillard’s stunning For The Time Being, or Primo Levi), or by gently leading us into Catholic milieus, and then sweetly and deviously showing us that religious context confers zero when it comes to courage grappling with cupidity – see Muriel Spark, or Morris West, or that unfairly-being-forgotten quiet genius James Farl Powers, or those most wonderful of Irish writers Mary Lavin and Frank O’Connor. I mean, Powers’ brilliance was in part showing that even being a priest was not guarantee whatsoever of any kind of peace or wisdom. Present company excepted, of course, Charlie.
CG: And the next island over from Ireland gave us, in the twentieth century, a remarkable cadre of writers who were converts to Catholicism. A few of them, like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, were, while they breathed, contenders for the title “greatest living writer of English.” Waugh’s faith sustained him in existence. Without the meaning and purpose it afforded, he would probably have descended into self-destructive despair. Greene seemed to use Catholicism as a source of seemingly insuperable obstacles he could surmount in his stories; it was as if he were saying, “Few writers would dare to make a heroine of a casual serial adulteress, but I, Graham Greene, will make you acknowledge that Sarah in The End of the Affair is a saint!” Or “Who but I, Graham Greene, could make a holy martyr of a whisky priest with an illegitimate child?” And in The Power and the Glory he makes it happen. But Waugh and Greene matter to us primarily because their stories are the occasion of innumerable graced moments of the kind we’ve been talking about. Perhaps with writers of their stature we would expect no less. It is more surprising that less-lauded literary converts have provided the same experience for so many readers. I’m thinking, for example, of G. K. Chesterton, who was a kind of mystic of everyday experience, and of the eschatological novels of Robert Hugh Benson, and of Baron Corvo’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, Hadrian VII. Authors like these show it is not only the greatest Catholic writers ever who have the greatest possible effect on their readers.
BD: Aw, well said, Charlie. That sends me off on a mental sprint through the hardly-known but glorious writers of graced moments, that’s a great phrase – the extraordinarily named Breece D’J Pancake, for example, whose one book of short stories is astounding; or Paul Wilkes, whose The Death and Life of a Parish Priest is one of the great American Catholic texts, I think; or the great poet Marie Ponsot, whose work is very often quietly and deftly about resurrection in every sort of way. But the evening draws nigh, Charles, and there is laundry to be done and ale to be savored, so we had better close up shop, and offer farewell, and bow in appreciation of each other’s nutty verve, amen. And then again amen.
Father Charlie Gordon, C.S.C., is a professor of theology and literature at the University of Portland, Oregon’s Catholic university. Brian Doyle is the author of nine books of essays, nonfiction, and “proems”; his novel Mink River was published in October by Oregon State University Press.