Catholic Tradition and the Individual Talent

As editor in chief of Dappled Things, a unique magazine of ideas, art, and Catholic faith that is now halfway through its second decade in print, I spend a lot of time at a center (though not the center) of conversation about what contributions Catholic arts and letters can make to the world of arts and letters writ large. Yet as a literary artist, sitting before a blank page in the classic posture of invention, I must prescind from all of those lively conversations and attend to the quality of the work alone. As a result, for a long time, I have been conscious that the most substantive contributions I will likely be able to make to ongoing conversations about the Catholic novel will be, precisely, Catholic novels, or as some would have it, novels written by a Catholic.

In fiction particularly, Catholic writers have generated a long tradition of a faith-specific, and more or less productive, anxiety of influence: some questioning whether religion might unduly distort the artist’s vision, others counterclaiming that devotion of its nature enhances vision. Settle where you will in this ongoing debate, no one can be completely uninfluenced by the traditions of thought in which they are immersed, for better or worse, and however they directly or indirectly acknowledge this—or hesitate to do so. By the time I discovered that I wanted to write fiction, and this for me was very early, I had been so immersed in Catholic milieux from birth that I had already undergone the type of formation which, as St. Ignatius notoriously said, makes a person inalienably Christ’s “for life.”

So, acknowledging my influences and yet acutely aware of the fiction writer’s (or at least this fiction writer’s) inherent limitations as a theorist, I want to say a little here about the philosophical and theological substrates in which my debut novel, As Earth Without Water, grew and why I believe this novel can be classified as contemplative realist literary art.

First, I will describe contemplative realism, which is a subspecies of literary realism whose characteristics have been embryonically or potentially present in realist movements from the beginning, but which was first named as such by Joshua Hren in Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto. Some salient features of contemplative realism include the acceptance of the seen and the unseen as equally valid sources of experience, knowledge, and insight, and a simultaneous close attention and high valuation of life’s sensory and material experiences as somehow reflective or communicative of the spiritual. Contemplative realism endorses, and seeks to ratify through the concrete execution of art, the view of St. Thomas Aquinas that truth is the adequation of the mind to reality, rather than the sum of observations extrapolated from purely subjective experience. This contemplative realism is consonant with the personalist philosophy of Jacques Maritain and with his observations on the nature and relation of truth, art, and the human person in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, all of which were very much on my mind as I first began to spend time with the central characters of As Earth Without Water.

Contemplative realism highly values subjective experience even as it insists on the knowability of stable, objective truth over against all threats to that stability. In Dr. Hren’s words, the contemplative realist “registers the supernatural as harmonious with the natural” and “favors mystery over ambiguity” while practicing what Dietrich von Hildebrand identified as the “aesthetic transposition of evil.” In this way, depictions of evil, vice, and ugliness are made possible without ruining the harmony of the whole work of art as a well-made thing. The transmission of an integrated view of reality, refusing both shallow resolution and unwarranted despair, hovers within the artist’s reach. Much has been said or suggested about the small-s “sacramentality” of the Catholic imagination and how this might connect to the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Contemplative realism offers a substantive way of describing what may be meant by this capacious word, sacramentality, and a stylistic ethos for approaching it in practice.  

This lens for thinking about substance and style is a helpful reference point for the fiction writer to have when approaching subject matter as demanding and as subtle as that presented by Church life in the twenty-first century. As observed by several kind reviewers, As Earth Without Water is a novel of formation, vocation, and the mystery of freedom expressed by the individual will within the limits of the “given” and the pains of life’s “passive diminishments” (a phrase borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin by way of Flannery O’Connor). The context in which I had to explore these themes was through the lives of two parallel protagonists, one male, one female: former lovers who are both gifted artists and who find themselves drawn by choice and circumstance in widely different directions though both, in their diverse ways, deeply desire the goodness, truth, and beauty they find in Christian art and, above all, in the liturgy of the Church. Yet both also face nearly unbearable pain and resistance from the betrayal inherent in Dylan’s having been sexually assaulted by the very priest who first led him to consider a religious vocation: an abuse that represents an unconscionable denial of the goodness, truth, and beauty of the human person—a trampling on the image of Christ in the survivor.

The narration is filtered through Angele’s point of view for two reasons: first, because of a hypothesis that I had about love and vision, about which more later; second, because Dylan’s post-conversion behavior, seen through the lens of postmodern norms, is by far stranger and less immediately explicable than hers. In Dylan, I had on my hands a character suddenly and insistently demanding of himself a total commitment to complete sexual renunciation, when up until not long ago he had been completely promiscuous and cynical about the value or possibility of any commitment, even implicit, to another person.

Perhaps because of the inherent drama of the situation, perhaps also through my immersion in the work of Henry James (the master of tales about renunciation as a Grand Gesture), Dylan’s sudden, total reversal of direction seized my attention. Dylan’s previous choices had resembled those of the person who, in Josef Pieper’s treatise “On Love,” admits in response to a psychiatrist’s questioning that they don’t see the point in resisting sexual indulgence, because “it’s too much trouble to say ‘No.’” Promiscuity had been a path of least resistance for Dylan, for reasons stretching way back into his personal history. But as Pieper suggests, “At first hearing, that may sound like sheerest freedom, but clearly it also means: I don’t really care, it doesn’t matter. The wholly inevitable result is already implicit: … ‘so much sex and so little meaning or even fun in it.’” Most of Dylan’s casual connections, in his earlier life, didn’t have any outright connection to the kind of higher, platonic eros that Pieper, in “On Love,” Karol Wojtyla, in Love and Responsibility, and Romano Guardini, in “The Meaning of Melancholy,” all discuss as an orientation toward the beauty of creation—an idea that has its roots in both classical and early Christian writings and which has marked Dylan’s work as an artist.

Dylan later experiences a real sorrow about his promiscuity that leads him to believe renunciation would be healthier for him. By contrast, Dylan’s lost romantic relationship with Angele participated in a type of desire that, if fully and faithfully honored, might have had the potential to carry him out of himself. Dylan feels his own disconnect from higher emotion as an unavoidable pressure when he is engaged to get married for selfish reasons. He feels the emptiness and shallowness of his relationships also starting to affect his creative practice. And this longing to reconnect with the sources of the beauty that draws him, the “golden thread” he feels compelled to follow, propels him into the movement of conversion.

Later in the story, Dylan is devastated by the violent, violating, frightening nature of the abuse he has endured. The trauma returns his state of mind to the time in his life when his relationships were typically marked by mutual exploitation and despair. So, by returning to Angele, he also seeks to return to a time when he experienced a greater sense of integrity, which may hold some clue to his healing. Dramatic tension arises both because Angele questions his perception of this and because the setting—inside the monastery—works to restrain or forbid any renewal of the sexual aspect of their relationship. The environment demands the same renunciation for her that he has already chosen for himself, even though she is arguably still a little bit in love with him or she might not have shown up at the monastery at his request.

Faced with the persuasive effect of the setting, and the pain of Dylan’s wounds, Angele must explore, for the first time, the potential values of renunciation, a step on the way toward chastity; that is, the “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus . . . inner unity . . . in bodily and spiritual being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2337). This is difficult, since Angele is still linked to Dylan by dynamics that Rene Girard describes in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel as “deviated transcendence” (the erroneous belief that the lover mediates or controls our access to the Good, or somehow is identified with that Good) and “double mediation” (the erroneous belief that each partner possesses something without which the other cannot be fully human or fully happy). Because they have not yet superseded what Girard would call “double mediation” or Wojtyla “double egoism,” Dylan and Angele are stuck in stasis, unable to fulfill the nature of their bond. Not until the plot’s last developments does this lack of fulfillment find its closure and resolution.

That resolution, which naturally I won’t reveal here, makes clear that while certain forms of love—those rising from eros toward agape—can enhance vision, other forms of love, more basely appetitive, can distort vision. The resolution also points back toward the dignity of the human person as rooted in the ineradicable imago Dei, no matter what trauma scars the face of Christ in a soul. Without mutual stability in that dignity, true communion between persons is impossible, while the dawn of that stability opens up hope for peace, healing, and higher forms of love. The art of fiction is uniquely suited to expose this reality, as its proper plane of exploration is the human heart, even when that plane also is, in O’Connor’s famous formulation, “territory largely held by the devil.”

Fiction will always be a common rather than a sacred art. Its re-presentation of grace must always be a partial or analogical one that can never fully be what it signifies. In the contemplative realist aesthetic, fiction draws as close as it possibly can to the sacred, looking over the border into what it can only suggest and never completely make present. Whatever is sacramental in fiction is, therefore, so only secondarily, by the same sort of metaphor that the fine arts necessarily employ, not by the living grace that makes word into Word, human speech into primary reality.

Pressing the artistic function of image and analogy still further, some readers of As Earth Without Water have seen in Angele’s character a reflection of St. Veronica, revered for honoring the “true image” of Christ because she alone dared to approach his wounded face in his Passion and was rewarded with an imprint of that face on her veil. Just such an imprint of the image of Christ in Dylan’s character is revealed and made possible for the reader to receive through Angele’s loving narration of his story, even though the limits, flaws, and failures of that very human love are revealed in the process. The story itself is, if we like, the “portrait” of Dylan that Angele creates, though not on canvas, and the telling initiates some restoration of the true imago Dei in both.

Some scholars have suggested a possible identification between St. Veronica and the woman of the Gospels who, wounded in her own experience of embodied womanhood (an experience, and a wound, symbolized by the distorted portrait of Angele in the earliest chapters), touched the hem of Christ’s garment and was healed. The historical ground may be shaky, but the aesthetic consonance of this association with the novel’s motifs and themes seems worth mentioning. As her name suggests, Angele begins as no more than the messenger of Dylan’s story. Yet this role, as it unfurls, reveals further directions for healing, as it makes clear Angele’s own wounds, her nature as a potential recipient of grace, and her possibilities as a protagonist.