Daniel McInerney recently sent me a link to his thought-provoking piece considering the role and aim of the Catholic writer on his High Concepts blog. It’s a subject to which I continue to give a great deal of thought and have written about here. This topic is also one around which Persephone Writes was conceived and is one of its reasons for being.
Because of this (and because Blogger refused my repeated attempts to post a comment to Daniel’s site), I have decided to provide links to Daniel’s article here, along with my intended comment, in an effort to open up the basis for discussion on this very important issue in Catholic arts and letters today. Please do visit Daniel’s site and read both his article, and this piece by Emily Stimpson which he references, in their entirety.
“I agree with your point about the dearth of great Catholic literature having much to do with the ways in which Catholic writers today approach their craft and you are right in saying we need to choose mentors to whom we can apprentice ourselves in the learning and mastery of our craft — this is essential. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one’s craft is of absolute necessity. The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. The greatest works of fiction are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of great literary works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper — this devotion to the perfection of the craft of which you speak, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, and George Eliot stand in community with Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, O’ Connor, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; devotion to the craft and their common search for truth bring them together.
Great writers write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these things have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fulness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O’Connor was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it. But she did not do this unarmed. And to your point, Daniel, we need to make a commitment to be devoted to our faith first, live and breathe our faith first, educate ourselves and make ever stronger attempts to practice our faith first, before we can even begin to realize what it is to be fully devoted to the practice of our craft. O’Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two — devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft — must walk hand-in-hand.
I have no answers, but I believe conscientious purposeful dialogue on this topic is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. For my own part, revitalizing change has to begin with me: I must make a daily commitment to grow in my devotion to my faith and my craft and to bind myself ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach me to best use the gift with which I have been blessed. And secondly, I have a duty to participate in the conversation and be an active member of the community of which I am a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that this is an issue now, today, at this point in time. It is a clarion call to action. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.
Thank you so much, Daniel, for this post, for raising awareness, and providing an impetus to deeper thought and discussion.”