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