Nick Ripatrazone is representative of Catholic laity envisioned in the reforms of the Council Vatican II [1962-1965]. With the decline in numbers of ordained priests—particularly American born priests—it is up to lay men and women to create and interpret the new paradigms of contemporary Catholic experience. Ripatrazone, a frequent contributor to the Jesuit “America Magazine,” among other journals, is both a creative thinker in his own right and a summarizer and proselytizer of the Catholic literary scene for the general public. In this work he turns to Catholic novelists--those still immersed in the faith, those in alienation, and those selectively engaged to Catholic culture.
Ripatrazone is intrigued with Catholic authors; he admits that the title of his work, “Longing for an Absent God,” is colored by the literary differences between lapsed and practicing Catholic writers, as the former “have felt the severe, sensuous nature of Catholic belief [and] they understand what it means to have God absent from that space.” In truth, Ripatrazone is more relevant than he knows, for the term “lapsed” may very well apply to Catholics still in the pews with some regularity. What better term than “Absent God” to describe the parochial pain of vapid preaching, shallow devotionals, assembly line hymnals, and one-dimensional moral hectoring that thoughtful Catholics typically endure with dogged loyalty to their children or an imbedded hope of recapturing the grace of youthful conversion in an adult medium.
Ripatrazone begins with a treatment of Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], the Deep South Catholic and the only Catholic author of her age to be invited to trendy Georgetown cocktail parties [where she once famously proclaimed to liberal hosts, “If the Eucharist is just a sign, then the hell with it.”] O’Connor famously detested devotional fiction, or as Ripatrazone puts it, “work plied for the arrow of evangelization.” O’Connor’s canon is remarkably slim but brutally frank, rich symbolic journeys to the despair of emptiness. Her unspoken theology, which is true of several of the authors addressed here, is that only the lost and abandoned can truly embrace saving grace when it comes.
O’Connor is an excellent paradigm to open a survey of authors who are remarkably diverse in literary style, subject matter, and theological outcome [intended or otherwise.] Some authors address Catholic life head on. The ordained Catholic deacon Ron Hansen [1947-] made his bones with “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” but Ripatrazone focuses on Hansen’s “Mariette in Ecstasy,” set in a Catholic convent as a more intrinsic challenge to faith and the soul. Catholic institutions—so rich in imagery and rite—have been the setting of much fine literature, and the author examines the writing of Minnesota’s Louise Erdrich [1954-], specifically “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.” Here we have the confluence of a young woman’s search for faith with her impersonation of a missionary priest tending to a poor Ojibwe reservation while wrestling with celibacy and memories of her former convent life. In a strange sort of way this seemingly disheveled tale meets most of the rules of Aristotle’s internal unity, which in our context here we would call saving grace.
Erdrich’s setting of Native American life is an example of the broader settings of Catholic writers. Graham Greene’s [1904-1991] famous whiskey priest character in Mexican-set “The Power and the Glory” is followed by O’Connor’s depictions of southern U.S. culture in her short stories. Walker Percy [1916-1990] is synonymous with Louisiana and the emerging South of the Civil Rights era., and Andre Dubus [1936-1999] the Cajun-born short story writer who described how Catholic sacraments “soothe our passage through life.”
One of the longest treatments in this work is Ripatrazone’s commentary on Don DeLillo [1936-], a chapter called “Cultural Piety: Don DeLillo’s Catholicism without Belief.” DeLillo himself admitted in a 2010 lecture that “There’s no escape from the Jesuits.” DeLillo is the best example of Ripatrazone’s Agnostic Catholic who can never truly break it off. Noting that a Catholic is raised with the idea he might die any moment, DeLillo believes that even his unpracticed adult Catholicism “removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”
“Longing for an Absent God,” at two hundred pages, sets the table for greater exploration of Catholic literary life at a time when American Catholicism, in its “New Evangelization,” has been casting about for a methodology to evangelize and intensify the life of Catholics in the pew, a number which decreases with alarming regularity, for about a quarter century now. Ripatrazone has opened the door to the possibility that Catholic artists of the pen may be serving up realistic templates for Christians torn by sin and doubt and the improbable roads to God’s grace. A gutsy new paradigm for parish adult faith formation?
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