This book stream on the Café weekly calendar is dedicated to thoughtful Catholics across the board—but particularly to those in active faith formation work whose busy schedules do not permit as much reading as one would need to address the major questions of the day. Reading, professional coursework, structured group study and discussion with your peers and colleagues, among other things, stokes the fire for the teaching experience while boosting your own confidence in ministry, particularly when engaging with adults. In reading the frequent questions on the Facebook Page “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation-Religious Education,” I am struck by catechist isolation from other Catholic parish ministers in their towns or deaneries, from their pastors, from their local diocesan offices, from professional publications, and from the experts in their fields in the outstanding universities of Catholic religious education such as Boston College and Dayton University, to cite a few. [See the breadth of the religious discipline in the undergraduate course offerings in religious studies in Dayton’s catalogue.]
I am also very aware that many of you in churchwork do not have much, if any, discretionary income to purchase or access the best in Catholic writing, be it theology or fiction. Nor are you given much, if any, paid continuing education or discretionary enrichment opportunities. When you have the time, read Kaya Oakes June 28 essay, “When professional Catholics burn out” in America Magazine. When your time and funds are scarce, you don’t want to strike out on a costly book purchase, or worse, devote precious time to “hack writing,” of which there is plenty in the Church book market right now.
I note with sadness [as does Oakes in her essay cited above] that fewer and fewer Catholics are pursuing professional studies at the college level, per research by CARA. There are many reasons, to be sure, but for our purposes here one of the most important take-aways from college religious studies and theology is an introduction to the respected scholars and authors of today. One of the best things I learned from college and grad school were the names of “sources,” i.e., the theologians, the history, the classic and contemporary books and journals, the publishing houses, and the schools of contemporary theological work. However, my own ministry history goes back fifty years, so I have had to work hard to stay abreast of religious education/theological developments over the years.
With that said, I would switch gears and make the argument that reading, and in our context theological reading, is a compelling pleasure that fires our imaginations to penetrate holy Scripture, our long and surprising history, the tradition of courage and wisdom manifested in our leaders and saints, and the almost utopian conceptualizations of renewing the Church in the image and likeness of Christ. Professional reading is work, but “work” in the sense that Michelangelo and Da Vinci, Christopher Wren and Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bronte Sisters and Mark Twain, “worked.” Their sweat brought them joy and fulfillment that makes our world beautiful and uplifting, sacraments of God in a true sense. A teacher, a preacher, a catechist is indeed an artist, not a technician.
As a psychotherapist I often suggest to my patients that they read more; the experience of good literature enhances the management of mood disorders. Some patients become dependent upon tranquillizers, but no one has ever needed a twelve-step program to disengage from the stimulation of reading. When the subject is narrowed down to books that increase theological competence, the question that often follows my assertions here is: which books? If it is any consolation, I have the same problem in selecting texts, and I can lose a whole evening browsing Paulist Press, Liturgical Press, National Catholic Reporter, Kirkus Review, Theological Studies, America, or The New York Times Book Review. Truth be told, I come across some of my best reads from the bibliographies of other good books. There might be some surprise that I include The New York Times among my haunts, for example, but the truth is that some of their editorial writers, notably David Brooks and Ross Douthat, continue to produce valuable works on public morality and church life in America that would enrich any Catholic agenda. The Catholic spirit is not easily corralled in textbooks.
In the preceding paragraph I focused upon works of interest and education in the religious framework. In 2003, however, Paul Elie brought together the histories of four Catholic authors of the mid-twentieth century who did not set out toward the catechetical in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage . Elie’s work describes the lives of four writers whom he considers to be the most significant Catholic authors of the mid-twentieth century, all of whom knew each other to varying degrees. Dorothy Day [1897-1980] converted to Catholicism and lived out her life at the often-painful frontiers of social justice. She is the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, editor of the paper The Catholic Worker, which still sells for a penny to this day, and author of over one dozen books per Amazon. As of 2016 her cause for sainthood is under review.
Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964] was introduced to me about 25 years ago by a colleague who was using O’Connor’s short stories to teach religion to senior high school students. O’Connor’s pedigree was a bit uncommon, a devout orthodox Catholic born and raised in the deep South. [There is a plaque on her Savannah, GA, home across the street from the Catholic cathedral.] A somewhat sheltered young woman, she fell ill early in life with lupus and before her death at age 39 she lived with her mother, wrote novels, and collected peacocks. She is remembered for a quote she delivered during a discussion of modern Eucharistic theology, “If the Real Presence is only a symbol, then the hell with it.”
O’Connor’s relatively few novels are penetrating insights into the rural southern life she knew and explore human motivation and suffering. I don’t believe she set out to write “Catholic novels” as much as she intended to write about the redemption of broken souls. I have only read one work, Wise Blood , which I found surprisingly brutal but possessing harsh truths about the human condition that contributed to my late-in-life sensitivity to human suffering.
Walker Percy [1916-1990] is another southern product who, like O’Connor, lived a portion of his youth in Georgia where, in his teen years, he became a lifelong friend of Shelby Foote [the avuncular storyteller on Ken Burns’ PBS special, “The Civil War.”] Percy attended medical school at Columbia University, but he was stricken with tuberculosis and spent several years in isolation and recovery. He abandoned medicine for a literary career and became a man of letters. At some point in adulthood he converted to Catholicism and began his pursuit of non-fiction social commentary punctuated with six novels combining science fiction with medicine, social disintegration, and the inner alienation of modern man from himself, particularly in the ambiance of a changing southern culture.
I have read one of his novels, The Thanatos Syndrome , written around the same time as the invention of Prozac and growing fascination with social engineering. A fine review of the book and the man appears here. Percy never identified this work as a “Catholic piece.” And yet, as this book was published, Percy was undertaking spiritual counsel to become a [lay] Benedictine Oblate and was buried on the Louisiana Benedictine monastery grounds just three years later. [My wife and I plan interment at another monastery, with the Trappists, in South Carolina—who else is going to pray for your deliverance from Purgatory seven times a day when your time comes?]
The final author cited by Elie is probably the best known, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton [1915-1968]. Like Percy and Day, Merton was an adult convert to Catholicism whose unlikely journey to the Kentucky monastery of the Trappists is chronicled in his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain , which has sold 70 million copies to date. Under the monastic obedience, he did not write novels but is best known for a library of spiritual reflections and later, 25 years after his death, his seven volume diary of life in the cloister, a tale of grace and imperfection I have found intriguing and consoling over the years. He was an inveterate letter writer and corresponded with Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day.
Merton’s non-fiction feeds two passions that every Catholic must embrace: the cultivation of an uninterrupted inner spiritual life coupled with an engagement to bring Christ to the world. Merton traveled as far as Thailand to research the former among Buddhist monks while writing periodic pieces for Day’s Catholic Worker in solidarity with the needs of street people and day laborers.
Elie’s work stirs the imagination of his readers to examine Catholic authors of multiple stripes for new possibilities of spirituality, morality, and mission. The fact that all the authors cited above have been judged superior literary forces is a good lesson that a reader need not choose from between fine art and powerful content for an enriching encounter with a text.