Flannery O’Connor earned her undergraduate degree in social sciences at Georgia State College for Women, a teachers’ college. O’Connor considered that career, but was “rather glad things didn’t work out that way.” She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the rest is literary history.
Although O’Connor admitted that she was “in a state of pristine innocence” when it came to teaching, she had many opinions about the profession. In “The Teaching of Literature,” an address to English teachers later collected into an essay, O’Connor assails the “utilitarian” approach of doctoral studies in English, where it is assumed that novels “must do something, rather than be something.” She expects more of English teachers, who are “a sort of middle-man” in the “standing dispute between the novelist and the public.” Aimee Bender says O’Connor’s voice “often has a scolding edge,” but teachers at all levels would do well to listen.
In O’Connor’s experience, teachers often fell short of helping students see that the “business of fiction [is] to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Her words were a Southern, Irish-Catholic take on a phrase from The Ivory Tower, an unfinished novel by Henry James. For O’Connor, “the mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.”
Her own teachers found ways to “ignore the nature of literature” by instead discussing literary history, examining the psychology of the author, or considering a work’s social application, as if it were a policy document. In fact, if a teacher were “astute and energetic,” she could “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.”
Halfway through “The Teaching of Literature,” O’Connor stops talking about instruction and begins talking about the real focus of her discussion, something that sounds very close to her own work: “Possibly the question most often asked these days about modern fiction is why do we keep on getting novels about freaks and poor people, engaged always in some violent, destructive action, when, actually, in this country, we are rich and strong and democratic and the man in the street is possessed of a general good-will which overflows in all directions.” O’Connor rejects such a sensibility that attempts to “separate mystery from manners in fiction, and thereby to make it more palatable to the modern taste.” The novelist must never be asked to “begin with an examination of statistics rather than with an examination of conscience.” The novelist, and perhaps the teacher, “uses his eyes” in another way, in which “judgment is implicit in the act of seeing. His vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” No tidy literature, and no over-planned, programmatic lessons. The novelist and teacher are both charged with making messes suffused with grace.
In “Flannery O’Connor’s Writing: A Guide for the Perplexed,” (pdf) Michael M. Jordan explains that O’Connor should remain on syllabi because of her “hard yet radiant wit,” her original and powerful representation of a Christian artistic vision, and for her storytelling method, which “uses violence, exaggeration, distortion to shock us into a serious consideration of religious dogmas and mysteries.” To the uninitiated reader or student, these dynamic elements often cause confusion.
As a Catholic, I find O’Connor less perplexing than illuminating. This is not to say that Catholics own her writing. A very lapsed Catholic, Joyce Carol Oates, says it well: “To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly ‘neurotic.’ However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the ‘limits of mystery.’”
Jordan reminds us that O’Connor believed “fiction is art, not primarily moral instruction, not a type of catechism.” That refusal to be clean and tidy in her fiction has unsettled readers and critics on all sides. O’Connor explained that her “violent literary means” were necessary to communicate to the world of her fiction to a secular audience, a readership often “hostile” to religious fiction.
Because her religion so profoundly formed her cultural and artistic senses, O’Connor is difficult for most students. In fact, many of the essential writers my students find the most difficult are Catholics: Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison. This is not to claim that their Catholicism makes them innately worthy of study — a claim that would be laughed away by O’Connor — rather, that their works speak to the diversity and complexity of sacramental visions of the world. In an educational sense, the extent of their religious practice is less important than the appropriation of Catholic iconography, symbolism, narrative tradition, and even the ritual language of Mass. Whether respectful or parodic of the Word, they all have been formed by it. O’Connor was the most publicly Catholic of the bunch, and, notwithstanding Pynchon’s eccentricities, the strangest on the page. Which, I think, makes her worth teaching.
Writer Constance Hale first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s work at Princeton in the late 1970s. Princeton started admitting women in 1969, but the campus was “still a male bastion,” where men greatly outnumbered women on syllabi. An English major who wanted to write, Hale “was aching to read literature written by women, and I was desperate to find teachers who could help me formulate some of the ideas that preoccupied me (like, Who are the muses of female poets? Or, Why do I love Virginia Woolf so much? Or, If women’s literature is invisible in the academy, where does that put me as a young writer?)” Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were given cursory coverage, but writers like Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser were absent. Hale asked her professor why. His answer: “We teach the canon.”
Hale and other students “scoured the syllabi of every English course taught,” discovering that other than courses in the 19th century novel, women were largely absent. The department chair was sympathetic to their concerns. By the end of that semester, a course titled “The Southern Short Story” was created, including fiction by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
Now O’Connor is a mainstay of college courses, but still requires context and explanation. Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., a professor of English and Theology at Loyola University, Chicago, stresses her status as a Southern writer, as a woman in a male-dominated publishing world, and her “identity as a devout Catholic whose faith informed everything she did and ordered all her understanding of the power of art.” At the start of a course, his students know “very little” about O’Connor, “except that I am fanatical about her work.” Fr. Bosco teaches her stories in series of four, beginning with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and sometimes “The River,” but says little “to allow students to register their own reactions to O’Connor’s works.” Only after the second story does he discuss “her Catholic imagination, of the way sacramentality is a kind of aesthetic strategy in her work, and how this strategy is so akin to art and metaphor.” He ends with the existential and religious discourses of “Parker’s Back” (pdf) and “Revelation” (pdf). This is when his classes finally “get” O’Connor. As one student told him, “not knowing the religious aspects of her stories is like not knowing that there is cake under the icing.”
One refrain I heard when speaking with those who teach O’Connor is the need to acknowledge her complexity. Writer Paul Lisicky, who teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program, says “it’s so easy to simplify O’Connor. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. First timers tend to read the stories as satire. Yes O’Connor is poking fun, but she also believes in her characters’ capacity to change–that’s what distinguishes her from a satirist. In the classroom I spend a lot of time talking about all the complexities inside those moments of grace. Those moments (not ‘Why you’re one of God’s babies’ but ‘Why you’re one of my babies’) always manage to demolish a simple interpretation, and that’s what’s astonishing about them. You can’t tame the stories, they refuse to sit still, refuse good manners, and you’re not paying full attention if you’re not destroyed a little by them. Well, destroyed and vitalized.”
Destroyed and vitalized is the best phrase I’ve heard to explain the redemptive power of O’Connor’s fiction. I mean redemptive in the Catholic sense, but more widely so in the narrative sense. The sheer originality of her stories shows students how amplifying their surrounding world can make great fiction. Now, 50 years after her death, when she is a staple of syllabi and the very canon that previously excluded her and other women, it is most important to stress fresh approaches to her work within the classroom.
This, of course, begins in the way we write about O’Connor. Two recent works of note are Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard, a fictionalization of the correspondence and friendship of O’Connor and the poet Robert Lowell, and RT Smith’s The Red Wolf, a book of poems that effectively channel O’Connor’s persona. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a consideration of O’Connor along with Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, remains an essential reference. One of the most original examinations of her work and influence is A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, a sequence of essays by David Griffith. Griffith examines American conceptions of violence in the art and thought of Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, in films like Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, and The Exorcist, and in everyday life (one essay is titled “Regarding the Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House”). Griffith’s locus is the Abu Ghraib prison photographs. He thinks O’Connor would have found them “grotesque,” but in her own definition, that the grotesque “makes visible hidden ‘discrepancies’ between character and belief.” Abu Ghraib unwound American innocence through shock, in the same metaphorical way her fiction disrupts and disturbs us. Similarly, American public reaction to the photographs — the tendency to identify the perpetrators as in no way representative of “us” — is reflective of O’Connor’s “judgment of what she saw as the modern attitude toward ‘redemption’: Everyone wants it, but no one stops to consider its real cost.”
Griffith now directs the creative writing program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, but first taught O’Connor to gifted high school students in Pennsylvania. They were “savvy readers,” “precocious storytellers,” and “astute observers of literary conventions,” but they “struggled” with meaning; they “wanted to leap straight for it and pin it down, like it was the jugular and then sit back satisfied once they felt they had punctured it.” Biographical and cultural context was essential. Students needed to know “how lupus required her to live with her mother on their small Georgia farm; how being a well-read, well-catechized Catholic in central Georgia might cause you to regard Protestants; and how her faith lead her to understand the work of writing.” Those biographical mini-lectures, as well as excerpts from workslike “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (pdf) and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” helped students understand that O’Connor “felt that what happens to the Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ was a moment of Grace.” Students soon “fell in love with Flannery” more than the work of other writers. Her fiction revealed that the best artists held “a sense of urgency, a sense that what they are doing is the working-out of larger, personal concerns and obsessions.” Although the vast majority of his students did not share O’Connor’s religion, her Catholic worldview–an “Augustinian view that all is sacred except sin, or the Kierkegaardian view that even the man knocking at the door of the brothel is looking for God”–so fully informs her work that students benefit from observing a writer suffused with a passion, “that there is a definite philosophy and worldview there underneath all these wooden-legged philosophers, and one-armed hoboes, and Polish refugee farmhands.” Griffith teaches O’Connor “because I love her work and think it is important, but also because it helps young writers who might feel they have strong convictions about the world see that the next step is seeing what happens when you test them in the crucible of fiction.”
Bryan Giemza, author of Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, teaches O’Connor’s fiction at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He admits that her stories “are getting harder to teach” as students become less biblically-literate; “when Manly Pointer makes off with Hulga/Joy’s leg in ‘Good Country People,’ (pdf) they don’t necessarily see it as an illustration of the importance of losing the limb that bars entry to the kingdom of God.” Giemza explains that O’Connor’s “droll humor” often happens when “scripture is misquoted, misappropriated, or misunderstood to suit the purposes of a character.” In that way, students are similar to O’Connor’s contemporary readers, so the hard work of teaching “is helping them to see how often they are tricked into thinking a character is repellent–only to see their own face reflected there. And to demonstrate that grace by its nature is hard, and that hope is by nature a test of faith.”
He recommends her recently released Prayer Journal and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as good starting points for students. Her journal allows him to “point out the various prayer traditions she canvasses and how she shared in the aspirations and worries of someone their age, albeit someone with an incredible depth of field, spiritually speaking. She commands respect that way.” I like Giemza’s method in teaching her popular story. He tells students “things tend towards their ends, that we are creatures of habit, and that virtue has to be practiced. I give them a series of statements to respond to, like ‘I’m basically a good person.’ A majority of my students agree with that position, and aren’t aware that it flies in the face of orthodoxy, and certainly goes against Flannery O’Connor’s belief. They’re usually stunned to learn that no less an authority than Christ said that no man is good. And those who condemn the grandmother have to be shown their own warts, just like those who despise the mother in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ (pdf) with her patronizing coin, need to be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite.”
O’Connor is one of the best at peeling back our public covers and showing those warts. Like so many writers chided for their disturbing content, criticisms of her work are often less about the texts themselves, and more about our refusals as readers, students, and teachers to examine our own lives. Perhaps even more than her odd characters, it is the “stark racism” of O’Connor’s world that pushes away some of Giemza’s students. But Giemza doesn’t want them to blink; “the danger . . . is that students who (think they) live in a post-racial age must still contend with the sins of the fathers, and I am surprised by how many can blithely accept that those sins have been expiated. Perhaps they don’t see its urgency, but here in the region that helped the nation understand its first fall (i.e. the legacies of our foundation in slavery), we have a duty to try to come to grips with it. It remains the essence of the fallen-ness in her work, and its insistence that God is no respecter of persons or the hierarchies of the temporal order, which can be inverted at a stroke.”
Flannery O’Connor makes an appearance in White Girls, a collection of fact and fiction by Hilton Als. In “The Lonesome Place,” Als explains that O’Connor’s “black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world.” She portrayed her black characters in a more authentic way than William Faulkner; she “didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply–and complexly–drew from life.” And O’Connor’s racists were realer, more evil than Faulkner’s bigots: they were the nice ladies who patronized black children on the bus, or the old woman “who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the ‘pickaninnies’ of her antebellum youth.” Those women “wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does.”
Like many, I introduce O’Connor with “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but I think “Parker’s Back” delivers the best intellectual slap. The story’s theological pivot–a misunderstanding of a character’s tattoo of Christ as an act of idolatry rather than iconography–can be explained to students once the story is experienced on a dramatic level.
The story shows how O’Connor’s understanding of bodies was formed by her Catholicism, and through her own suffering from lupus. She refined “Parker’s Back” while home at Andalusia twenty pounds lighter after four blood transfusions, and finished the story within a month of her death in August, 1964. Biographer Brad Gooch notes that O’Connor “devoted every inch of her consciousness” to “Parker’s Back” and another story, “Judgment Day,” and that dedication shows. Parker’s body, identity, and soul transform within the story. He never has a sense of “wonder in himself” until he sees a performer tattooed head to foot. A lapsed Methodist, Parker undergoes a spiritual awakening when he watches the performer “[flex] his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own.” The sight of this man is the first clue for Parker “that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”
Parker soon gets a tattoo, and the process is Catholic in sentiment: “It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing.” Those tattoos are the first thing that simultaneously attracts and repels his future wife, Sarah Ruth. She is a fundamentalist caricature who “insisted that the pictures on the skin were vanity of vanities” and “thought churches were idolatrous.” In order to keep her around, though, Parker decides to get a religious tattoo on his back.
This is where I pause the story. If the students have been paying close attention, they should recognize this is a fool’s errand. Sarah Ruth rejects her husband’s tattoos not because of their subjects, but their defacement of his body. Parker misunderstands this. His conversation with the tattoo artist encapsulates the entire story:
The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
Parker is the classic O’Connor character, a man who cannot “see” or understand those who surround him, whose blindness hides God. His large tattoo requires two days of work, and so he spends the night at a Christian mission, where the “only light was from a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room.” He can only see the “little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares” of the work in progress, not the Christ to come.
When Parker returns home, Christ on his back, sensitive readers know the reunion will not end well. O’Connor is not a writer of mundane surprises. She is a writer of transformations. Sarah Ruth refuses to open the door for her husband, saying “It ain’t nobody I know,” which symbolically could refer to Parker or to the tattooed image of Christ on his back. She screams: “God? God don’t look like that!” Parker asks how Sarah Ruth would know the look of God, and she responds “he don’t look . . . He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She beats Parker with a broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”
The final paragraph is pure O’Connor: “She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was–who called himself Obadiah Elihue–leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.”
Flannery O’Connor reminds us that the best way to read a story is to encounter the work on its own merits. A student, O’Connor writes, needs to have the tools of understanding “proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft. They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.” O’Connor’s interior idea of art helps literature students experience words and not merely project theories. Her fiction helps young writers craft stories and not sermons, religious or otherwise. She warns “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline.” We might think her intonations stern, but we are lucky to have her as a teacher.
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