Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Writers


My parody yesterday of Joyce Kilmer's Trees was without attribution. I hardly thought it necessary, The original would be almost universally recognized. It may be the worst poem ever written in the English language, but it is wildly popular, as putative "literature" or as a source of ridicule.

It was the first poem I was taught in school, entirely because it was written by a Catholic. Even at the age of eight or nine I recognized it as junk. Soon after, we memorized Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, another poem by a Catholic writer. I can still quote the first verse.

Things didn't get much better in high school or college. Oh, we got non-Catholic classics like Longfellow and Hawthorne, but I never heard of Whitman. It wasn't until I was out of school and on my own that I discovered a wealth of terrific writing by Catholic authors.

Some years ago, I made some recommendations for Catholic students in the college alumni magazine. Here is what I wrote:

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I would guess that most Catholic students who come to Stonehill are only nominally Catholic. The college years are a wonderful time to explore in a deeper intellectual way what it means to be Catholic. Here is a list of ten books that any student could read with profit:

Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions. The Confessions recount Augustine's conversion to Christianity, but the book is deeply shaded by his earlier attraction to Manachaean philosophy -- steeped in guilt and longing.

John of the Cross, The Dark Night. Every journey into faith begins in darkness. John's poetic account of the soul's progress from sense to spirit is gorgeously erotic, evoking the frank sensuality of the Song of Songs.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems. What college student could not identify with Hopkins' earnest search for God -- and the exuberance of his language? The Poems should be read in conjunction with Robert Bernard Martin's superb biography of Hopkins.

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This sprawling Nobel-prizewinning novel set in 14th-century Norway should be read three times: once in college, once during the travails of family life in middle age, and again in the repose of maturity. But only in Tina Nunnally's new translation.

Georges Bernanos, Under Satan's Sun. The Diary of a Country Priest is generally considered Bernanos' masterpiece, but I prefer this darker account of a priest's struggle with evil. No young Catholic should dismiss Satan without first diving deep into the darkest recesses of his or her own psyche.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton inspired a generation of young Catholics to explore a Zenlike spirituality. This autobiographical account of his journey from unbelief to Catholicism, then to the Trappist monastery, should be read with Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton.

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. What could be more incongruous than a Catholic writer in rural Georgia? O'Connor's short stories and novels bring a Catholic sensitivity to the puzzles and travails of ordinary life.

Shusaku Endo, The Silence. If a Catholic in rural Georgia is incongruous, what about a Catholic writer in Japan? Endo's soul-stirring novel tells the story of a young Portuguese Jesuit missionary in 16th-century Japan. The silence of the title is the silence of God in the face of unspeakable evil.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book was written before Dillard's conversion to Catholicism, but it is already intensely Catholic in spirit -- sensual, sacramental. A year by a creek in rural Virginia. A passionate search for God in nature, and a recognition of God's unknowability.

Andre Dubus, Selected Stories. Ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems, comforted and troubled by their faith. Dubus own life was dogged by tragedy, which in the end brought him deeper into the Catholic faith of his birth.

A personal list. Too short. I might have added Francois Mauriac, Simone Weil, Nikos Kazantzakis (Orthodox), James Joyce, Graham Greene, Dorothy Day, Evelyn Waugh, Mary MacCarthy, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Walker Percy, and any number of others. But enough. What all these books have in common is the struggle of faith with doubt. Whatever the outcome for young Catholic readers, they will have experienced the power and the glory of the tradition into which they were born.

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Re-reading this now, I can see that this is a body of literature that would lead one deeper into the faith -- or out. For me, the journey was out, into a robust scientific agnosticism, but having read my way through the great tradition, I know that some part of my soul is marked forever with the chrism of Catholicism.

(I'll be away tomorrow.)