e-mail us

NCR Books

Catholic writers make literature, become conference topics


Nearly everyone scribbles -- our mene, tekel, peres on a nearby wall, from prehistoric cave to inner city and finally to laptop. We holler or whisper for attention, coaxing the horseman not to pass by. Or, uppity, we wag our finger at the world and admonish it to beauty, truth and goodness, in short to be more like us.

Most of our scribblings disappear when the tide comes in. Some endure, by accident or design, significant either for their profundity or just for their longevity. The best of what survives is eventually called literature and becomes not only grist for English departments but the echo the rest of us hear when we try to make sense of the world: authors brandishing well-worn words from far away and telling us we don’t need to reinvent everything because they have been down this road before us and left footprints.

So we, for our part, go back to the authors, massaging them for further insight or shooting holes in them until they confess everything. This is what happens at literature conferences, which are popular in America. Although there is an immense body of Catholic literature, there have been few conferences to exploit it. Professor Russell Elliott Murphy, professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, aims to remedy that.

Yes, in Little Rock

First thing on a beautiful April morning, Michael Raiger of New York University proposes that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “Spring,” representing his “nature sonnets,” and “Carrion Comfort,” representing his “terrible sonnets,” “can be seen to disclose the paradoxical operations of free will and grace at work in the two spiritually opposed experiences of the presence and absence of God.”

At this stage the struggling reporter can only hope the reader is still aboard. This could get serious. Furthermore, continues the unrelenting Raiger, “I locate this spiritual dynamic in the context of the biblical tradition of the psalms, mediated by the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.”

Raiger is a young man with pony tail, currently finishing his dissertation. The attendance, which wobbled between 20 and 40 like the speedometer of a broken-down Buick, was composed half of twentysomething grads and half of more seasoned professionals too lumpy to fit in any category. This was the fifth year of the St. Charles Borromeo Conference on Catholicism in Literature and many were repeaters, old friends now, in touch betweentimes, giving off the kind of energy that could blossom into a movement of some kind.

It’s not a movement yet. The papers were all over the place -- but then, so is Catholicism, not to mention literature. The best a reporter can do is limn some impressions of a unique gathering of people being Catholic in a way that has implications for the long haul.

So back to Hopkins. British, though he “did time” in Ireland. He’s very popular now, hopping around amid mysteries that Bill Gates can’t capture with all his software. “Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” “Spring” begins, a rather unpromising start, but watch him go:

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. -- Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Sean McDowell of Indiana University juxtaposes Hopkins with another Jesuit, the 16th century Robert Southwell. While both poets share a “reworking of the familiar,” McDowell argues, they “treat the workings of the poetic imagination and the emotions differently.” Another major difference was the fact that Southwell was hanged, drawn and quartered in bad old anti-Catholic England, which had to be worse than Hopkins’ banishment to Ireland.

McDowell points out how the scrupulous Southwell tried to cope with a recurring pimple, or two, on the church’s tender psyche: the flesh and the imagination, which could play havoc with one another. The devil, Southwell wrote, has “possessed ... most poets with his idle fansies. ... For in lieu of solemne and devout matter, to which in duety they owe their abilities, (poets) now busy themselves in expressing such passions as onely serve for testimonies to how unwoorthy affections they have wedded their wills.”

And sex, too

One can only hope Southwell didn’t die for the sole purpose of keeping sex off the page. Certain concepts kept popping up at the Little Rock conference -- such as eros, erotic imagination, relatedness -- to remind us that the church’s best efforts to make Catholicism a construct of intellectual beliefs high in our heads have failed to keep the body and its emotional baggage at bay.

Suggested John Neary of St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wis., “An important Catholic insight is that the personal story of concrete feelings, things and people precedes abstract, theoretical, nonpersonal truth.” Neary then brings big guns such as David Tracy, Sallie McFague and Andrew Greeley to bear on “the Catholic or sacramental imagination.” Despite all the warnings in the confessional, this view holds, and despite all the canon laws and catechisms, we can’t -- and shouldn’t -- leave our bodies at the church door.

Continues Neary: “The Catholic sacramental imagination tells stories of connections. ... The vocation of the Catholic academy could be to incarnate these stories and images of connection, community and eros by adopting an erotic model of teaching and learning.”

This urge to make the divine and human a better fit was also reflected in the paper of Paul A.J. Beehler of the University of California at Riverside. In “Catholic Saints and Sexuality” he drew on the lives of several women saints to show that, “increasing steadily from the 12th century on, we find female erotic and sexual experience used to describe the soul’s union with Christ.”

You won’t find that in your basic Sunday homily.

Murphy’s law

Young or old, they write and talk academese in varying degrees, which should not be a surprise. What might surprise many is the extent of their religious knowledge. And beyond the knowledge and the books and poems, various degrees of commitment and aspiration revealed in private conversations as well as public discussion. Being Catholic means something to them or they would not be here. This was, after all, Little Rock.

Professor Murphy is the founder, organizer, director, godfather and inspiration of the conference. He also drives the big van from hotel to campus and later to big raucous communal dinners at nearby hostelries. He has six children, two years old and up. He and his wife see what he’s doing as a ministry -- there is no other way they could survive it. Though born in Rhode Island, all his teaching career has been at Little Rock. Murphy is your favorite uncle, wearing heart and head on his sleeve.

“I’m old enough now to talk without apologizing,” he says by way of apology for that heart on his sleeve. At his age, he says, “there’s not much time to waste.” But there is time to spend: an amateur palmist, after looking at the Murphy hand, said the headline and heartline intersect perfectly. He comes from the working class, he says with pride. “I get bored easily,” he goes on, still trying to explain himself. He paints. One year he painted 150 canvases, but NCR has not seen the pictures.

Murphy took a leave of absence, as it were, from the church for 16 years, missing the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. He came back a man on a mission, “almost a holy man,” he says unselfconsciously. “I’m Rip Van Winkle,” he goes on. As a result, his Catholicism, though quite conservative, seems to remain untarnished by the ideological wars of the postconciliar era. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to say, using the lingo of our day, that the conference was conservative or progressive, or who was which.

Not that Murphy is devoid of agenda. He tells with gusto the events that first inspired the conference. He attended a 1993 convention at a Midwestern university on Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh and was dismayed to find the main speaker, brought over from Dublin’s Trinity College, was an atheist. This, it seems, was designed to bring objectivity to the Kavanagh case. Murphy, who is half Italian, thought this was baloney and decided to do his own conference.

Back in Little Rock, happenstance stepped in again. Someone asked him a chance question about St. Charles. This sent Murphy to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, where he found the biggest of them all was Charles Borromeo, who, it turns out, used to hold symposia on literature at the Vatican and would invite the secular community as well as the Catholic brass. That’s how it became the St. Charles Borromeo Conference.

The people who come and give papers -- and nearly everyone who comes gives a paper -- are the intelligentsia, in the European sense, says Murphy. “If we were a disease, how bad would the disease be?” is one way he poses the question of influence. He thinks the conference is infectious. Nearly everyone who attends will be in touch with 50 to 100 students a year for the rest of their careers, he figures, and they need never mention the Borromeo conference in order to have Catholic impact.

On the third day of the conference, Murphy delivered his “welcoming remarks” for the second time -- for the benefit of those who missed them the first time: a call for “an open and productive forum on any and all issues, reflected in and through the medium of literature, that touch on the Catholic faith.” The Rip Van Winkle factor creeps in when he talks about his faith in a way that it never does when literature, even Catholic literature, is the subject.

Literary potpourri

The conference reflected the stronger voices of women, though ultimately few would doubt that this was a man’s church. Sr. Eileen Quinlan of Chicago’s Loyola University gave a paper on “Spirituality of the Feminine in Mary Gordon’s The Company of Women,” in which the stiff, cerebral Fr. Cyprian gets his comeuppance until he “comes to admit his need of the relationships with the women, the neighbors and the farmland, embracing the feminine values he has disdained all along.”

Dealing with “The Convent as Colonist,” Jeana DelRosso of the University of Maryland describes how writers like Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, Laura Esquivel and Rigoberta Menchú cope in their writings with the conflicts between Catholicism and their individual cultures -- usually with an ambivalence born of Catholicism’s historic complicity in colonialism. She finds similar conflicts between Catholicism and ethnicity in the work of Native American, Chinese American and Caribbean authors such as Louise Erdrich, Gish Jen and Rosario Ferre.

DelRosso concentrates on the childhood narratives of these ethnic female writers, tales in which the Catholic church stars as a liberating force. But by the time the stories are fully told, the church is getting mixed reviews from DelRosso: “We cannot overlook Catholicism’s complicity in colonialism, a role that many women writers of the Americas are determined to address in their novels, memoirs and theories.”

Writers dead and alive

“Whatever you’re doing, come and tell us about it,” Murphy’s current conference credo, is a beguiling mandate to resurrect old gray eminences or beat the bushes for new talent. The Catholic church is so universal a mother nowadays that it leaves no writer untouched, including dead writers.

Take Oscar Wilde. Patrick R. O’Malley of Harvard University takes on “The Church’s Closet: Wilde, the Confessional and English Anti-Catholicism.” Not surprisingly, the Wilde version presents Catholicism as exotic and erotic: “The fuming censors, that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers, had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals, and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.”

British anti-Catholic sentiment of a century and more ago connected the Roman church with perverted sexual escapades, and these in turn with the confessional, adding up to a sinister scenario. In such a climate, and Wilde being who he was, he didn’t have to be a Catholic to be unable to leave Catholicism alone.

But out of all the frolic and flippancy leaps occasionally a startling insight. In a 1900 letter from Paris, Wilde told a friend of a planned trip to Rome, “and this time I really must become a Catholic, though I fear that if I went before the Holy Father with a blossoming rod it would turn at once into an umbrella or something dreadful of that kind. It is absurd to say that the age of miracles is past. It has not yet begun.”

Or take Ernest Hemingway. Joseph L. Liggera of Bridgewater State College, Mass., told the conference how Hemingway claimed to have converted to Catholicism as a young man in Italy. Although he didn’t go on to be a great Catholic saint, his view of the ideal life, whenever it came up, remained primarily a Catholic vision.

“Archetypal concerns about God and prayer surface throughout,” writes Liggera, and they are invariably a Catholic God and Catholic prayers. And Catholic priests. And an occasional church a character stops into, and perhaps lights a candle. And then, in A Farewell to Arms, there is Frederic Henry, who, asked to visit the parents of a priest in Abruzzi, instead visits a brothel -- not exactly the story of Hemingway’s life but no help to sanctity either.

The Catholic religion was “a grand religion,” but he couldn’t muster the conviction to live up to it. “I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic,” says Hemingway alter ego Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. Though unable to live up to Catholicism, Hemingway admires it from a distance, as Liggera sums up: “It appears that Hemingway runs his own values parallel to a church he cheerily accepts but does not believe in. It gives him a structure, something which transcends everything else, most of which fails the test of being the great reality.”

Or take Jean Sulivan. Jean who? He was a French priest who began life as plain Joseph Lemarchand. Joseph Cunneen, for 48 years editor of Cross Currents, told how Sulivan was a university chaplain, ran a monthly paper, a film club, and then became a writer in middle age and published more than 30 books. He took the new name because he admired the Hollywood movie “Sullivan’s Travels.”

A translation of Sulivan’s Eternity, My Love will soon be published, Cunneen announced. It tells the story of a Paris priest who falls between the cracks of church and state during the turmoil of World War II.

Asked why Eternity, My Love and other later novels seemed so disjointed, Sulivan replied that this reflected the brokenness of the world, and that it was up to the readers to put the pieces together. To write, he explained, “is to be on the lookout for fissures in this inhuman world, to discover traces, to reveal love where it seems to be absent. God also speaks when he is not present, through lips that happen to be there.”

Sulivan died in 1980.

Mostly they were dead old writers under discussion. The naive reporter wondered why living, breathing, still-scribbling workers in progress were not getting the same attention as their dead colleagues. Now, when they could use the critique, not to mention the fame and fortune.

Flannery O’Connor’s name kept popping up. Marie O’Brien of the University of Delaware had a paper on the role of Irish Catholic women in America in the last century. John Staunton of Fordham scrutinized works of Kate Chopin and Walker Percy in search of connections. All dead. Some English departments didn’t, at least until recently, allow dissertations on any but the dead, Staunton said.

“It’s in the nature of the field,” explained Murphy. “One is never quite able to determine the value of the contemporary voice, and most of the literature that’s meaningful is so only because it had enough of a cultural history to survive, so that by logic -- and without being a wise-ass -- those who produced it are no longer with us. It’s a given in the culture of academic endeavor.”

It’s all rather similar to the way the church deals with saints.

Still, a few living upstarts did steal in under the tent. Mary Gordon, as already mentioned. Jason Ambrosiano of the University of California at Riverside read a paper on “Blood in the Tracks: Catholic Postmodernism in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.” And Robert P. Lewis of Marist College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., read one on short story writer Andre Dubus.

Dubus’ Broken Vessels (1989) and Dancing After Hours (1996), according to Lewis, “make explicit, indeed luminous, his understanding of the sacramental character of human intimacy and of the artistic process itself. A rugged, tough-talking man in a wheelchair as a result of injuries from a hit-and-run accident when he tried to help a stranger, Dubus has a pervasive, one might say implacable, devotion to the Eucharist. Writes Lewis, “The Eucharist epitomizes for Dubus the human condition: ineluctably fleshly, ineluctably spiritual, and always imperiled. ... The stories ... unfold Dubus’ familiar panorama of betrayal, violence, pain and, even more characteristically, of fear in the face of the awful second chance proffered by life after devastating youthful mistakes.”

Equally living is Berry Morgan, now in her 80s, wheeled triumphantly into the conference for a “live” session by her biographers-to-be Robert Prescott of Bradley University and Fr. Gary Caster of Notre Dame. One of Morgan’s distinctions is to have more stories published in The New Yorker than any writer ever. She read one wry story for a captivated audience. And Prescott explained: “Throughout the body of her work the most ordinary people and ordinary events are charged with the mythical. Where others would see only what is plain or mundane, Morgan sees that is splendid, what is graced. She celebrates the providential.”

Theory or real thing?

The short, magic time spent with Morgan raised for the unlearned journalist another thorny old issue: the propriety of all these papers and scholars coming between the great writers and their potential readers. Rather than reading -- or listening -- about Dubus, shouldn’t one be reading Dubus? One form modern minimalism has taken in the field of literature is the deconstruction and kindred concepts espoused by one Jacques Derrida et al. The rustic journalist has noticed that deconstruction never gets mentioned without other rogue words such as postmodernism also creeping into the conversation or paper.

“My perception of many young grad students,” said University of California Riverside’s Paul Beehler reassuringly, is that “they seem to be very skeptical about theory, particularly about the vocabulary used by the theorist, because it has created a movement away from the primary literature (which) can be seen almost as a perversion of the study.”

A good example of such a lack of modesty is theorist Stanley Fish, who opened a convention in Los Angeles some years ago by saying, in effect, there’s no need to read Shakespeare, you only need to read Fish on Shakespeare.

This deconstruction, explained Beehler, creates a black hole in the theorist’s view of reality: “There is no center, there is no faith, there is no core, and with that comes an emptiness that plays very easily into nihilism.”

Then one begins to realize that literature does matter. The theory trickles down. “It has permeated to popular culture, the sense that there is no solid grasp of values or why they exist. If everything can be deconstructed, then nothing has any ultimate value.”

Beehler and Murphy agreed that the Little Rock conference is, by most standards, as wholesome and free from the Fish follies as the study of literature can get.

But then there’s poet Patrick Kavanagh: Who killed James Joyce?
I, said the commentator,
I killed James Joyce
For my graduation.
What weapon was used
To slay mighty Ulysses?
The weapon that was used
Was a Harvard thesis. ...

That was Kavanagh, the Irish farmer scribbling. He, too, died and went on to become an international superstar, even described as the best Irish poet of the century, in the fullness of time the subject of other theses.

Kevin McEneaney, a poet himself, most recently the author of Longing (Milestone Press, Little Rock, AR 72204), read a paper on Kavanagh. His “diction is simple but not plain,” McEneaney writes, “and the voice of the earth, clay incarnated, is heard both yearning in an impractical manner and singing on the other side of innocence. This wistful, self-mocking voice of the earth spoke to all who stood behind the plow: mortal in consciousness, immortal in ritual.”

A paper by Olga M. Ouchakova, presently at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was about the renaissance of religion in English literature earlier this century. Even more interesting is that Ouchakova is Russian, over on a Fulbright scholarship, her presence a reminder of the bigger world story that neither politicians nor economists nor artists have yet managed fully to grasp.

The search for meaning

We are all, East and West and up and down, trying to scribble the story, all trying to make sense. We seem to be at a moment in human history when our story can be seen only through that famous glass darkly, if indeed there is still a story at all. Amid this uncertainty there is a hankering for absolute answers and surefire truth. But no one knows better than creative writers that the best most humans can do is dance around in a ring and suppose.

In his fine book, Quantum Theology (Crossroad, 1997), Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu writes: “Finally, we humans tried to control the Godhead itself, that divine, mysterious force that fascinates, puzzles and frightens us. And how did we decide to do it? By inventing religion! ... Religion is the greatest idolatry of all time.”

The reason for our current alienation, O’Murchu goes on, is because that scenario has been played out. It no longer satisfies. So people have abandoned traditional religion, leaving a vacuum.

The keynote speaker at the Little Rock conference was Desmond Egan, a poet whose stature, some say, rivals that of Seamus Heaney. Egan read his poems in an understated, moving way, poems about the agony of Northern Ireland, about the laughter and love of life.

But before the poetry, Egan, who reads his poetry throughout the world, talked about that cultural vacuum and our puzzled waiting on a Beckett-style scorched landscape for something to happen.

He talked of a Russian poet who in the bad old Communist days would attract as many as 14,000 to a poetry reading, and whose books would sell a million copies. Now the Wall has come down and Russia returned to the family of nations -- and no one wants to hear or read the poet. Whatever made people hang on the words before, desperation or hope or something else -- whatever it was is gone. A Latvian poet had a similar story -- and these are not people Egan read about, they’re his friends. He mentions someone in Czechoslovakia -- “ironic ... don’t quote me.’ ” A Romanian, ditto, a Hungarian -- “full of irony and misgivings and unease and uncertainty ... not yet ready to write of the archetypes.” Egan finds things no better in France or Japan or England or even his own Ireland. An attitude of “don’t include me,” minimalism throughout, they “never quite get round to confronting reality.”

Maybe, finally, says Egan, the whole country, any country, “has to grow up again for the poets to grow up again.”

It does matter. History seems to say so. Artists as a rule don’t run countries or put the final shape on societies. But they smell change in the air. They smell something odd that might be truth or authenticity. And grab it by the scruff of the neck. And scribble it down. A Dublin monument to Charles Stewart Parnell carries the inscription: “Let others write a nation’s laws if I could write its songs.” The word is in the beginning.

We are between stories, O’Murchu writes. We need a new one to explain our destiny to ourselves. The literati haven’t sniffed it out yet. To judge by Egan’s experience, they’re afraid to grab any reality by the scruff of the neck.

Perhaps the life of imagination is easier in hard times. In his 1971 Nobel lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recalled those he left behind on the archipelago of Gulag, the well-known names and the nameless. “And virtually no one managed to return. A whole national literature remained there, cast into oblivion not only without a grave but without even underclothes, naked, with a number tagged onto its toe.”

But before they went into oblivion, Solzhenitsyn went on, when the camps allowed the opportunity, “there would well up inside us the words that we should like to cry out to the whole world, if the whole world could hear one of us. Then it seemed so clear. ...”

That was then and this is now and almost nothing seems that clear.

Perhaps because we have it all too easy. We’re treading water and the water is lovely. Even if it is shallow, no one would want to make waves.

As we were driven back to the hotel in Murphy’s big van, the talk turned to the relatively small crowd that had turned out to hear Egan the sage or Egan the poet. We had no trouble understanding this. At the end of a busy day of work or play, people didn’t want to get up and go out again, except maybe to the bar or the ball game, that was different. But this Egan -- who had heard of him? A poet? Who needs it?

Few are likely to remember what was on television that night, but we in Murphy’s van agreed that if they had turned out to hear Egan they would remember for the rest of their lives.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998