A few weeks earlier I posted a review of Nick Ripatrazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction . Longing for an Absent God explores both the identities of significant Catholic novelists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and their vision of life as impacted by Catholic upbringing. For example, the noted author Flannery O’Connor observes that the Catholic novelist begins from the vantage point of Original Sin, or the flawed imperfections of human subjects, and works along the tortuous road of seeking God’s ever-present grace.
One such author is Louise Erdrich [1954-] who in a 1995 interview stated that she was raised "with all the accepted truths" of Catholicism alongside significant rooting in her Ojibwe Native American roots in Minnesota. Ripatrazone highlights her work as an example of Catholic cross-cultural experience, as many of her novels are inspired by Native American life. I was intrigued by the title of her 2001 work, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and even more so by the premise, a most unusual marriage of Catholic and Ojibwe life.
As this story goes, in 1996 a chancery bureaucrat, Father Jude Miller, is sent to a remote Ojibwe reservation near the U.S.-Canada border to investigate a report of miracles attributed to a Sister Leopolda, a deceased member of the convent community at the reservation. For many decades, the reservation Catholic church has been shepherded by Father Damian Modeste, now in extreme old age and in many ways sheltered and protected by the tribe for his long and faithful service. Father Damian rouses himself for his visitor, for he has much to share…and much more to hide.
Father Damian’s biggest secret is his identity. He is not a priest. He is in fact Agnes DeWitt, who came to pastor this church back in 1912. Her journey began in a convent as a seventeen-year-old postulant who was deriving excessive worldly pleasure from her mastery of Chopin at the piano. Young Agnes leaves the convent in fulfillment of her carnal pursuits and settles for a time with a powerful common law arrangement with a farmer-lover until their relationship is untimely and tragically ended. When Agnes has a near death experience in a natural catastrophe that kills the real Father Damian en route to his mission, Agnes decides to assume his identity in a conversion event that is part existential trauma and part coming home, so to speak, to what was most natural to her. In her first Mass upon arrival, for the convent community, “the Mass came to Agnes like memorized music. She had only to say the first words and all followed, ordered, instinctive. The phrases were in her and part of her. Once she began, the flow was like the river that had carried her to Little No Horse. In the silence between the parts of the ritual, Father Damian prayed for these women in his charge.” [p. 68]
If the sacramental role was assumed so naturally, life among the Ojibwe would be a greater challenge. Her first pastoral crisis, literally hours after her arrival, involved a tribal dispute over wives. This elongated scene introduces not only the major players and families who will love and challenge the priest throughout Father Damian’s career, but it puts into focus the ambiguity that many Catholic missionaries have faced in their attempts to overlay a Western European Christian creed and code upon an indigenous culture. One of the undercurrents of the community of Little No Horse was the gnawing sense of defeat and ongoing irritation at the intrusion of European, and later American, colonialists. In an NPR interview on this book in 2001, the author cited a quote from the Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly, “Conversion is the most loving form of destruction.”
Perhaps as a woman Agnes has a finer appreciation of “loving destruction” and exercises her ministry accordingly. For while she sublimates her earlier feminine experiences of intimacy and love for the sake of her pastorate, she never eradicates her past from her living memory. Her resolve is tested when a younger priest is sent to the mission by the bishop to hone his pastoral skills under Father Damian’s tutelage. It is here that Agnes must make a second conversion, a rededication to her missionary work.
Agnes/Damian, over many years, comes to appreciate and respect her people, in the aggregate and as individuals. Many were Catholic, a good number were not, but Agnes developed close ties with those who eschewed public commitment to a foreign church or, like the tribal elder Nanapush, embraced an earthy but profound wisdom of life from his ancestry and personal observations. Over the chessboard one summer afternoon Damian accuses Nanapush of trickery in his strategy. Nanapush replies, “You’ve been tricking everybody! Still, that is what your spirits have instructed you to do, so you must do it. Your spirits must be powerful to require such a sacrifice.” [p. 232] Nanapush maintains a respectful silence, however, as do the few others who know or suspect that Father Damian is a woman.
The most significant threat to Agnes’ secret comes just before the end of her life in 1996, when the visitator investigating Sister Leopolda’s sainthood cause makes an extended stay, which opens his tired, middle-aged eyes to a great many mysteries beyond Leopolda. But those “demanding spirits,” as Nanapush called them, intervened in salvific ways, if not conventional ones.
If we were to recommend Last Report to a Catholic reading circle, what points of discussion would we submit to the facilitator. Of course, one can argue that this work belongs nowhere near a Catholic endeavor, given the deceit upon which the story line rests. [In August 2020, a priest in Detroit discovered on a home video that his infant baptism was defective and invalid, and thus his ordination to the priesthood was invalid as well. See story.] I do not condone deceit, either, and objectively speaking, Agnes DeWitt’s assumption of the priestly role was wrong on many levels. I would point, though, that our actual Catholic experience in the United States is hardly free from clerical and episcopal deceits. We have learned in recent years that functioning priests were active pedophiles, routinely reassigned by complicit bishops. Are these deceits less egregious than Father Damian’s? Again, as Flannery O’Connor reminds us, the Catholic novelist writes from the ground up, from sin to conversion.
The most obvious talking point would seem to be the issue of women’s ordination, but to raise that issue here is not faithful to the novel’s text. Agnes does not present as a woman priest. The struggle over her role as a Catholic cleric is an internal one, not a tribal issue. It is highly unlikely that the Ojibwe patriarchal mores would have accepted a woman priest in 1912. Moreover, Agnes herself feared that the inevitable discovery of her true sex after her death would shake the Catholic community, leading her to some extraordinary means to prevent this from happening.
However, this novel does raise valuable questions about the priesthood itself and the fashion in which it is lived. There are three priest figures in the tale—Agnes, the young associate, and the chancery visitator. All of them are broken people in some sense, and all are impacted—one can argue favorably--by encounter with the Ojibwe reservation. One can reflect upon a clerical life that tends toward the one dimensional, i.e., a life which resists the impact of two-way encounter in which the baptized enrich their shepherds as much as the other way around. One can argue that even the faux priest dies rich from a life of such communion, a point that is not lost on the visitator, who begins to wonder if he is investigating the wrong saint.
There is, to be sure, food for thought in this story about “evangelization.” In my youth we called it “missionary work,” and every self-respecting seminarian was expected to go through a phase of reflection about going to foreign lands. My order had extensive missions in Bolivia, Jamaica, and Japan, among other places. I will admit that I did not give it much thought, but I understood the common wisdom of the time, “to make disciples of all nations.” In recent years there has been much public discussion about whether the missionaries to what is now the United States were unintentionally colonialists as much as evangelizers to Native American peoples.
The template of Father Damian’s mission to the Ojibwe is remarkably sound. Vatican II permitted liturgical accommodations for the needs of indigenous peoples, but this story for the most part predates the Council [1962-1965] and the Latin Mass would have been normative, even on the reservation. The mission church provided regular confessions, communion was brought to the sick, and those unbaptized were visited and invited by Father Damian. But it was the priest’s willingness to share the full life of the tribe that seemed to have been his most effective witness. Reservation life was harsh by any measure. [Even in 1996, the visitator went offsite when possible for good coffee and hamburgers]. Father Damian mastered to a fair degree the Ojibwe language—no mean feat—and engaged in the various celebrations and sorrows of the community’s life.
Perhaps the greatest witness was the dedication of one entire life to the community. “Greater love than this no man hath, to lay down his life…” There is a universal message here about “making converts.” Talk, even religious talk, is cheap without the sacramental sign of engagement at cost. Agnes DeWitt/Father Damian, the priest without portfolio, crossed a cultural divide to bring a universal experience of Christ, by staying for the long haul to underwrite her message.
One of the pleasures of the Christmas Season was a new acquisition for the Catechist Café Library, Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  by Nick Ripatrazone. The December 7 edition of The Presbyterian Outlook provides an excellent brief review here, but I will add some of my own thoughts as well. The premises of the author are twofold:  to highlight the significantly large number of Catholic novelists and their works throughout the twentieth century, and  to assess the impact of their experiences with Catholicism upon the stories they weave.
I wish I could remember the author [possibly George Bernard Shaw?] who was asked whether he wished to go to heaven or hell after his death. The response: “Well, I suppose I should say heaven as the safe bet, but in truth I think all the interesting people will be in hell.” I am not quite as cynical as all that, but it is hard to imagine a good novelist—and that includes Catholic novelists—who has not come to know evil very well. Our youthful Catholic catechetics has drilled in us the idea that the nature of Catholic living is perfection. The thoughtful adult Catholic comes to appreciate that life is uneven, unfair, cruel, and seeks an interpretive key. The Catholic novelist, true to his or her art, presents a “take” on human existence that brings the eternal to the moment, or at the very least, provides consolation to the soul that for whatever reason has despaired of a tradition once loved.
This work’s author, Nick Ripatrazone, is a student of novels, a critic who has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Esquire, The Poetry Foundation, Outside, The Sewanee Review, Commonweal, The Kenyon Review, and America. He approaches Catholicism and its artists with both admiration and some wonder that more Catholics are not conscious of their American confreres who have made their bones in the literary world. In truth, beauty for its own sake, ars gratia artis, is not a noticeable staple of present-day catechetics. The overemphasis on moralizing from lectern and pulpit dulls the curiosity to see God’s hand in an old sot of a burned-out cleric. Alas, Graham Greene’s “Whiskey Priest” in The Power and the Glory  is a graced moment tasted by relatively few.
Ripatrazone divides Catholic novelists by generation [Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue of 1928 versus Phil Klay’s Redeployment of 2014 and the Gulf War] and by what might be called for want of a better term, intensity of engagement with Catholic life—e.g., cradle Catholics, converts, and the fallen-away. These are not always smooth distinctions--many Catholics never totally break away--and the author’s title seems to emphasize alien former Catholics, those writers who, despite Catholic upbringing and in many cases quality Catholic education, have disengaged from regular practice and write in the quest to find new mediums to address “the mess” of modern living. But a surprising number of those in full communion make major contributions, energizing the possibilities of Catholic conversation with the marketplace of thought and primarily experience .They all bring worthy bread to the table.
Ripatrazone highlights Catholic authors through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but he begins with the ever-controversial Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], a devout if eccentric Catholic woman from Baptist Georgia. Blunt and uncompromising in person and in her works, O’Connor once attended a dinner where new theories of the Eucharist were being discussed, O’Connor famously declared “Well, if it’s [only] a symbol, to hell with it.” She believed in Real Presence, in the host and in human experience. Her belief in God’s immanent presence extended through her short stories and novels, which are not for the faint of heart. Marked by surgically detailed accounts of humans at their worst. O’Connor defended her style, observing that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” I have read Wise Blood  and seen the 1979 movie adaptation with a magnificent performance by actor Brad Dourif. O’Connor is currently enjoying a renaissance of academic interest among with censure in some quarters for her southern racist views.
The author proceeds to Dan DeLillo [b. 1936] as an example of a writer who cannot shake his Jesuit education despite his misgivings about religion, which he describes in an interview as “interesting as a discipline and a spectacle, as something that drives people to extreme behavior.” [Little wonder Wikipedia lists Flannery O’Connor as one of his literary influences.] DeLillo recalled his religion courses at Cardinal Hayes High School as convincing him that he was a “failed mystic,” which may account for an important theme in his works, the outsider versus the crowd. Ripatrazone cites Underworld , End Zone , and White Noise .
Ron Hansen is also the product of Catholic education and a daily Mass attendant, bearing nostalgia for the drama of the Latin Mass. Hansen’s first novels, including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, were not overly Catholic themed. But in 1991 Hansen produced Mariette in Ecstasy, a drama of a 17-year-old postulant in a 1906 convent. I was amazed that such a highly acclaimed Catholic novel slipped under my radar. Ripatrazone calls this “the rare book lauded by both The Village Voice and diocesan newspapers.” An Amazon reader exclaimed “It's the kind of book I would have LOVED to have read in a devout Catholic book group, but only a prayerful group of practicing Catholics who actually live what they believe.” For all of that, Ecstasy “asks readers to follow belief toward its logical conclusion. If the sisters in the convent seek Christ, they must be ready to receive him in their midst. They are not. They are petty. They want a God of the mind but not the body. That, it seems, would eliminate the mystery and neuter their theology.” [p. 29]
Catechists and homilists have the luxury of operating in an a-sensual and a-sexual world of concepts; the downside of this luxury is an intellectual negation of the mystery of the Incarnation, where God assumes flesh, not theorems. The Catholic novelist carries the burden of marrying God’s love and purpose to the human flesh which, though scarred by sin, is capable of communion with God-in-flesh. Catholic novels are not always overtly Catholic in their settings—see Flannery O’Connor, for example, “who loathed devotional fiction”—but they are true to the language of the honest confessional.
The struggle of sexuality, identity, and faith is brought home vividly in Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse . I purchased this on Ripatrazone’s review and have completed about half of it through this writing. Erdrich [b. 1954] operates a bookstore in Minneapolis which includes Native American artwork. She is a thoughtful and eclectic Catholic—her bookstore contains a restored confessional—and she herself is a product of German and Chippewa blood. Her upbringing exposed her to significant Catholic and Ojibwe religious worldviews.
Her Last Report is a tale of a missionary priest, Father Damien, who devotes his life to pastoring a far-flung Ojibwe mission near the Canadian border. But this is no ordinary pastor, and his pre-Ojibwe days take us to his true origin, as Sister Cecelia, aka Agnes DeWitt, a young nun who discovers her sexuality through her mastery of piano classics. The erotically awakened sister leaves the convent for full self-discovery, and after several ecstasy-agony adventures, assumes the identity of a new missionary priest killed in a spring flood in yet another quest for identity, in this case a conversion; upon offering her first Mass at the mission, she experiences a sense of destiny and permanence.
On the face of it, executing a sixty-year ecclesial fraud may strike one as the consummate sacrilege. But human life is deeper than our language’s ability to define or compress it. Erdrich masterfully narrates the inner experience of this faux priest, to the degree this is possible, but also the interior lives of her parishioners. We cannot judge morals till we know the culture, in this case the world of Ojibwe peoples whose lives and outlooks are scarred by Anglo-Saxon intrusion, poverty, conflicts with other tribes, and internal tensions over traditions including polygamy. [Last night’s evening read described the impact on the tribe of the Spanish flu.]
So, this narrative becomes a tale of a broken priest shepherding a broken people. There is prophesy here for Catholicism of 2021, where we are still reeling from the double lives of priests [and cardinals, for that matter] who stole the innocence of children much as colonial expansion snuffed out the integrity of Native American culture. Who indeed has committed the greater sin? Does clericalism eviscerate priestly identity just as sure as false impersonation? Such a question is never asked from a Sunday pulpit, where our sermons are generally the “loathed fiction” that Flannery O’Connor detested. Last Report gives us much to think about in our preconceptions about social justice and particularly evangelization, but there is more to it than that.
Ripatrazone does not carry his book to its logical conclusion, but he implies that the Catholic novelist has been and remains the true conscience of the Church, and for all people of good will. Aristotle, in his Poetics, spoke of drama and tragedy as a catharsis, a washing of the emotions. In our time the tales of Catholic novelists wash away the clutter of frivolity and deliver reflections of the Word that was sent to save us, soul and body.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything