Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.
“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.
While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.
Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.
Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.
Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.
Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.
Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.
Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.
Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”
Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.
Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”
Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.
Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.
Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.
Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.
Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”
Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”
Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.
Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.
Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.
Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.
Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).
Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”
Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”
Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.
Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.
Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”
Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”
Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”
Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”
Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”
Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”
Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”
Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.
Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”
Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”
Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.
Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.
Day 37: Wednesday April 12
“The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.
Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.
Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”
Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”
Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1
This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.
I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”
I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.
My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”
The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”
Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.
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I am a writer because, as a married man, I cannot become a priest. Fittingly, I first met my wife at a priest’s rectory. Father Joe Celia made dinner each Sunday for student parishioners of St. Pius X church at Susquehanna University. Twenty students lined two tables that stretched out of the dining room and into the living room. I came for the gravy, meatballs, and garlic bread — authentic Italian cooking was in short supply in this pocket of central Pennsylvania — and for the friendship of Father Joe. I quit the college’s basketball team when I didn’t land the starting point guard spot as a freshman. My coach told me to have patience; Father Joe added that I could benefit from some humility. I didn’t listen to either of them, and would live to regret it. So goes Catholic guilt.
Father Joe reminded me that I was in college to study, not dribble. He was a patient mentor, and a saint for his willingness to read my terrible first drafts. In one story, I spent thirteen pages going step-by-step through the celebration of Mass. Father Joe gave that one back to me and said he had enough of that each weekend. Summary is sacred.
I missed my family back in New Jersey, but Father Joe’s dinners helped ease the distance. Most of the students at those dinners were weekly regulars, but one Sunday I noticed a beautiful girl sitting with friends in the living room. My first words to her were the less-than-smooth “dinner is ready.” We grew up a half hour away from each other. My AAU basketball practices and home games were played at her Catholic high school. She would run sprints for winter track while I fronted a full-court press, but we never met. It was not yet our time. But it was our time that afternoon. I did not simply fall in love; I collapsed and keeled. After dinner I told my roommate that I would marry Jen. It was an accurate prediction.
Only a few months earlier, I had made another prediction to my roommate. I was going to enter the seminary to become a priest. More specifically, I wanted to become a Jesuit. And by “entering the seminary,” I meant beginning the discernment process that preceded the long formation period. It can take nearly a decade to be ordained as a Jesuit, but they seemed like the best fit for me. They were priests, but they were also lawyers, teachers, and writers.
When I met my future wife that Sunday afternoon, I did not hear thunder. I did not shudder at betraying God. Rather, I recognized that my belief was not meant to develop into ordination. I was not meant to become a priest. I was meant to become a husband and a father. I should have trusted in my family’s history. My own father, while a student at Holy Cross College, was preparing to enter Jesuit discernment when he met my mother. Thankfully, they chose each other.
So much of faith is a matter of similar pivots and choices. Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is confronted by his friend, Cranly. Dedalus does not want to attend Easter Mass, upsetting his mother. Cranly quips that it “is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Dedalus, ever sensitive and defensive, stands his ground, stating that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.” James Joyce’s entire canon is steeped in the Catholicism he rejected. For Stephen, and for Joyce, the poet replaces the priest. Dogma gets in the way. Transcendence is found in art. Although young Stephen dreamt of standing before a congregation, as an adult he would rather be God on the page. I love Joyce’s work, but disagree with his conclusions. He was a shrewd enough Catholic to know that Stephen’s words reflect Lucifer’s, but more importantly, they reveal a dual rejection of servitude to the Church and priestly service to the flock.
Like Joyce, I am a cradle Catholic. I have known no other creed. My childhood was suffused with rosaries, missals, crosses on chains, books about saints, nightly prayers, reflections on the pain and power of the Passion and the Resurrection, and Mass, but it was also saturated with watching the Boston Celtics and taping Hot 97 on both sides of cassettes until Biggie blurred into EPMD. New Jersey is a synthesis of Philadelphia and New York City, of Newark and the Pine Barrens. Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and Irish immigrants have created a folk Catholicism that begins in our cities but bleeds toward the suburbs, where each small parish has its own culture. Here in Jersey, The Exorcist still wounds us, but we return to it, like paying respect to a warning. Weird NJ is not simply a regional magazine; it is a way of life. The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.
Even as a boy, I knew that most devout Catholics did not enter the clergy, but I was always interested in the vocations of priests. They were very much regular men. My priest joked with parishioners after Mass, gave us pep talks before CYO games, and ate French onion soup at Houlihan’s. My interest in the vocation began with those observations, but evolved during college. I moved from studying astronomy, a theology of the stars, to literature and creative writing. Comparative literary analysis fits Catholicism well. Catholic thought is diverse and deep, from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Walter Ong, SJ, and G.E.M. Anscombe. For me, the Bible was the ultimate text: an amalgamation of literary forms, a work that demanded attention, elicited contrasting reactions, and always seemed to reveal fresh meanings after re-readings. It was that intellectual pull, coupled with the beauty of ritual and the opportunity to offer spiritual support to a community that made me want to become a priest.
When I say that I cannot become a priest because I am married, I do not mean to simplify that statement, or to offer it as a complaint. If I were able to become a priest now, that decision would not be my own; it would belong to my wife. And that is one tremendous hypothetical. Catholics know Pope Francis is brilliant, compassionate, and not interested in changing doctrine. My personal desire to become a priest does not alone warrant revision of clerical celibacy. But I remain a practicing Catholic. You might call me an elapsed Catholic, to satisfy the jokes of my lapsed friends. My doubts have never been about God, but about the mechanisms of the Church, the institutional sins. Yet I have been blessed with the acquaintance of wonderful priests like Father Joe. Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have seen priests live as writers. The novelist Ron Hansen, while not a priest, is a deacon in the San Jose diocese. A lifelong Catholic who attended daily Mass, Hansen’s earliest novels were historical westerns, including Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He explains that his earlier subject matter was the result of following T.S. Eliot’s critical precept of the “wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences.” “Frustrated” that his fiction “did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life,” Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel about a stigmatic seventeen year-old woman who enters a convent in upstate New York. Ever since, Hansen has not shied from engaging the mysteries of faith, but believes that fiction writers “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” I appreciate that sentiment. I have never hid my belief, but do not compel others to follow my faith. Like Luke Ripley in Andre Dubus’s wonderful “A Father’s Story,” I “have no missionary instincts.”
Contemporary priests who write recognize they must pass the highest stands of craft and storytelling before engaging the spiritual. I think of the excellent writing by priests at The Jesuit Post, the sharp cultural work of Fr. James Martin, SJ, known by many as the “Colbert Show chaplain,” and the fiction of Fr. Uwem Akpan, SJ. Born and raised in Nigeria, Fr. Akpan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. His short fiction appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Say You’re One of Them. He has noted that while not all priests are writers in the traditional sense, “there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people.” Echoing Hansen, Fr. Akpan is drawn to fiction because it is “exploratory” and “not doctrinaire.” His description could apply to Outer Darkness, a “grounded take on exorcism . . . exploring everyday evil in an idyllic Midwestern town.” The show is currently in development from AMC, and is written and co-executive produced by Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ. These contemporary priest-writers follow in the lineage of 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose groundbreaking poetry intrigues believers and non-believers alike.
This cross-appeal may be why priests make such complex characters in fiction. Consider the priests in The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, not to mention the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Erin McGraw.
Priests and writers have much in common. Priests need to craft homilies that connect with an audience. These audiences range from the standing-room holiday crowds to the handful of daily congregants. A homily must simultaneously inform, entertain, and most importantly, serve as spiritual guidance and replenishment. Priests modulate between abstractions and specifics. They reach for the didactic without becoming pedantic. The celebration of Mass can be a grand ritual, the perfect antidote to a prosaic week, which makes poorly organized liturgical celebrations and flat sermons so obvious.
Even the most dedicated Catholics become uncomfortable in pews. Some are waiting to bring their daughters to soccer games. Others pine to watch football or stream Scandal. They have good intentions, but they offer both subtle and obvious cues when their attention is strained. A good priest will know the limits of his audience; a great priest will help them transcend those limits. He will show them the joy of this time spent together. As Thomas Merton said, “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.”
I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.
I write from a Catholic worldview, but don’t often write about clergy or Catholic schools. Father Joe taught me that lesson, and thankfully, I listened. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I recognize that time spent at my desk can devolve into hours of selfishness, so I need to earn those words. Good fiction can be a form of good works. As a Catholic, I recognize that life is a story of continuous revision, of failure and unexpected grace, and of dogged hope. I am comfortable with the white space of ambiguity and mystery. I have faith, not certainty. To approach God in any other manner deflates the divine. I write and I believe in order to better see the world. Now, more than a decade after I left that rectory convinced I was meant to become a father and not a Father, a writer and not a pastor, I finally realize that I have not traded one vocation for another. I have discovered their common source.
Image via firstworldchild/Flickr
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.