“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” — John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Today is the Feast of All Saints. And yesterday was the birthday of John Keats. As random as it may sound, I see an important connection between these two events. But what could this Romantic poet, who lost his Christian faith, and the saints have in common? Simply, they all sought the same thing: Truth by way of Beauty. That they found this truth in different places does not make the message of one or the other less relevant, nor does it make their work any less beautiful. Both — the saints and the literary tradition within which Keats worked — offer the apprentice writer models and mentors to learn from.
A Tradition of Beauty
Thinking of the great literary tradition of poets and writers who have inspired me, Keats represents all that is beautiful in the literature I have read and learned from. George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, A.S. Byatt, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Jane Austen, Henry James, Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Virginia Woolf have been some of my best teachers and have become some of my dearest friends. While none of these writers necessarily wrote from the perspective of faith (and some were entirely without faith), their work still aspires to the creation of beauty and the examination of man’s search for truth. As such, they are apt mentors in guiding the imagination to its appropriate end.
Recently, I have also discovered the vast heritage of the Catholic literary tradition. I am happy to be able to add Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Michael O’Brien, Evelyn de Wohl, Tolkien, Lewis and others to my list of mentors and friends. As a “new” writer of fiction, I find it helpful to stand behind these writers and artists skilled in the gift of conveying beauty and truth through language, watching how they think and move and weave their way towards something ineffable which they feel compelled to try to put into words.
The saints form another circle of witnesses in the great tradition of writing as a means of exploring and communicating Beauty and Truth. St. Therese of Lisieux was a poet and a playwright; St. John of the Cross was a poet and artist; St. Maximilian Kolbe was a writer, editor, and publisher; St. Edith Stein, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales — the list goes on and on — all were writers, poets, artists, and scholars using the gift of language to convey the truth about man’s experience of grace and his search for God.
apprenticeship, doubt, and the Joy of Story
In his book Journey With Therese of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All, Michael O’Neill McGrath imagines a writer’s seminar, with St. Therese apprenticed to two of her favorite saints and mentors: John the Evangelist and St. John of the Cross. He asserts the importance of approaching learning about the craft of one’s art through a mentor/apprentice relationship: “Saints lead us to other saints, just as writers and artists lead us to their own models and mentors. If we want to fully understand what makes a favorite artist tick, we need to explore his or her loves and inspirations. Copying the work of the masters is a time-honored method of learning to draw and paint. We learn from those who went before us, using what we need in the development of our own personality and style.”
As I ponder what it means for me to embark on this new phase of my writing life, I find that idea of apprenticeship is the only one that makes sense. It isn’t that I will seek to write like someone else — ultimately, I must rediscover my own identity as a writer. But I can and should learn from those who have gone before me. As masters of the craft, they teach me HOW to go. Like a child who learns everything she needs from the adults charged with her care, so I see myself learning from the great writers, both the religious and lay people, who have gone before me.
Doubts still often plague me. I wonder what I am doing and why, not to mention how I am going to manage it. I have more than once asked God to take away from me the ideas and characters and scenes that people my imagination if He doesn’t want me to do something with them. Alternatively, I beg Him to guide me and show me the way if, in fact, I am meant to pursue these figments of my imagination and somehow make them real.
When I am tempted to think that writing anything is useless, or a waste of time, or selfish, I am reminded of that indeed my very faith and all Truth and Beauty comes to me by way of the Word, both through the hearing and reading of Scripture. Truth and Beauty are conveyed through history, poetry, song, story, and parable. In his book, Tolkien and Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, Colin Duriez writes that J. R. R. Tolkien thought deeply about God’s gift of imagination as expressed through language. Tolkien believed that “through the Gospels ‘art has been verified.'” Tolkien thought that “human storytelling — whether preceding or subsequent to the Gospel events — is joyfully alive with God’s presence,” leading him to argue “that the very historical events of the Gospel narratives are shaped by God, the master storymaker, having a structure of the sudden turn from catastrophe to the most satisfying of all happy endings — a structure shared with the best human stories. The Gospels, in their divine source, thus penetrate the seamless ‘web’ of human storytelling, clarifying and perfecting the insights that God in his grace has allowed to the human imagination.” Ultimately, Tolkien argued for a theology of story or a theology of langauge. I have to believe that God can and does bless the human use of language to convey truth through story. But I also believe that the intent of the writer must reflect the belief that the aim of art is to raise one’s mind, heart, and soul to God, to the search for the Author of Truth and Beauty.
This does not mean, however, that the Catholic writer does not explore difficult or even disturbing topics in an effort to demonstrate the truths of forgiveness, conversion, and grace. Indeed, we are obligated to examine and explore the truths of our existence, our sinfulness, our exile, our search for God in all its facets. But it’s HOW we go about this that matters. The Catholic writer is bound to portray the truth of the things she writes about such that evil, for example, is always evil and may not be presented as a vehicle for humor or as acceptable in any form. Not all writers who claim to be Catholic write with this in mind. There may be various reasons for this. But not thinking it through seems to me dangerous. It seems there is a prevailing, and steadily growing, force among artists in our culture that thinks it acceptable to frolic and play on the edges of the abyss and that no harm will come to them or others from their forays into darkness. Catholics are not immune to this. Being a Catholic writer in the tradition, I think, means confronting the tendency to bend to and participate in this prevailing force. I can only speak from my own personal experience: I believe quite strongly that there are some subjects not fit to write about, which cannot be viewed as viable through the lens of faith, and which in no way raise the heart, mind, and soul. One needs to choose one’s path of tradition and mentors carefully, because much is at stake.
Choosing the Right Path
In the past, I never imagined myself as part of a group of other writers. Now it seems to me essential that I align myself with this group, for it is the only way I know of to stay the course and remain true to my gift. For a long time, I abused my gift and did not write anything that would raise one’s heart and mind to God. I did not write anything that could have been considered a work of beauty and grace. I wrote things that could, and perhaps still do, harm others. I have to take responsibility for not only what I wrote in the past, but for what I write in the future. As Keats writes about the function of the Grecian urn: “When old age shall this generation waste, thou shalt remain.” The truth is our work lives on long after we are gone. It is the responsibility of the artist to ensure that the work be “a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.'” I am responsible to account for the fruits, good and bad, that come from my labors. I owe it to God who gave me my gift, to myself, to the others who practice the craft, and to those who may encounter the work I do, to choose wisely and walk the paths of truth, beauty, and light. Ultimately, it seems to me now, that this is the only goal.
And even if no other earthly person reads or cares about a thing I’ve written, I know that God will see it — indeed, He sees it now, in my mind, before I ever commit it to paper. Will He be pleased with what He sees? I have to make an effort to acknowledge and appropriately use His gift to me, rather than betray that gift. It’s what He thinks that matters. If I write anything at all, whether it is published or not, I have to be able to see myself apprenticed to and participating in the tradition of creating beauty through art, learning from and being supported by that great cloud of witnesses.
All Saints, by Fra Angelico
This post is dedicated to Rose, M., and Christina, fellow pilgrims and apprentices on the Way of Beauty.