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March 27, 2008
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faith article
Gay Marriage and the Collective Lie
We are called to love one another, but real love must be grounded in truth. What I would say to Andrew Sullivan then is, I love you, but don't ask me to lie.

The Holy Fool by Harold Fickett

Eternity in the Here and Now
The glittering prizes of secularism are vanity, as is life itself without its extension into eternity. On the other hand, the most humble life when seen under the aspect of eternity is invested with an unimaginable glory.

Feeding Tubes and Gut Reactions: The Role of the Church in Bioethical Questions, by Harold Fickett
The secular world says that in matters of life and death, the individual should be left alone to make whatever decision he wishes. My own experience with my dying father showed me the "hard cases" prove exactly the opposite.

Image - A Journal of the Arts and Religion
"...our focus has been on writing and visual artwork that embody a spiritual struggle, that seek to strike a balance between tradition and a profound openness to the world."

John Paul II: Prophet of Freedom, by Harold Fickett
When he became Peter’s successor, Karol Wojtyla did not forget the Church’s commitment—and his own—at Vatican II to ground the Church’s witness in the freedom of conscience. And on The Day of Pardon, May 12, 2000, the prophet Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church to an unprecedented act of self-examination, and closer to ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God.’

Our Lady of the Global Village:World Christianity Comes Home
The faith I've had the privilege of encountering in the developing world is vibrant, courageous, and typically transcends the often-petty concerns of the West. World Christianity is coming home, and Christians are about to experience the catholicity of the church in a personal way.

Why the Alliance between Catholics and the Democratic Party Has Broken Down
The presidential candidates are never asked the really tough questions, the ones about religion, philosophy and the meaning of life, because these questions threaten to break open the fault lines dividing American society. 

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In my writing I’ve tried to dream up contemporary characters who are capable of belief, and through having a personal relationship with them, so to speak, believe myself.


Without my vocation as a writer, my craft, I'm not sure how I would ever have appropriated my Christian faith. And that's a difficult thing to say for someone with my background.

I come from a family of believers. My parents were evangelical Christians. My father a Baptist preacher. My grandfather a Baptist preacher. And my paternal grandmother was the last of the really hard-shell Baptists—an armadillo Baptist. She was a laywoman whose convictions made the two preachers look like infidels.

These people knew things, and they wanted you to know them. They wanted you to believe them, to accept them categorically: one, two, three. They had what I might call the gift of belief. They thought of themselves as the principal exemplars of what they confessed. They were not only evangelical Christians, but at given moments they represented themselves as the vicars of evangelical Christianity. That word, vicars, would be foreign to them, but their faith, their belief, was so personal that they placed themselves, their persons, in its stead: they were belief.

I seem to have been born immune to belief. At least belief on the order that the rest of my family seemed to be capable of. This made things exceedingly awkward. Actually, it made Christianity frightening. The believers I knew seemed so sure of having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." That phrase is nearly sacred to my subculture. But what does it mean?

People spoke of 'feeling really close to the Lord,' of being 'high on Jesus.' All of this mystified me.
When I was young I tried to answer this question by projecting myself into the mental and emotional lives of the believers I knew. I found this difficult. I knew nothing of what being a Christian seemed to be for other people in their more extravagant representations. People spoke of "feeling really close to the Lord," of being "high on Jesus," and most especially, of the Lord "telling them things." All of this mystified me. I did not even feel properly elated when I went soul-winning, which I was reasonably good at. During my adolescence, rather early on as a matter of fact, I decided that either the people around me were lying about how they felt or I was damned.

My agnosticism continued on into my early college years. In fact, I remember that my most persistent thought in college was: I don't know. I was concentrating then on some of the great questions. Like: does existence precede essence or essence existence? And to that question I could only answer: I don't know. Another question: is evolution true or simply another paradigm that science will inevitably discard? I don't know. Is there a way within literary criticism to talk about values or must texts submit to extra-literary considerations? I don't know.

The problem is that the kind of questions I was examining in college really do matter. They matter intensely. Whether existence precedes essence or vice versa eventually determines such things as whether we start decanting future generations out of glass containers.

Perhaps I was most disturbed because my own ambivalence denied the deepest impulse of my evangelical subculture. The fundamental project of that subculture was to get what we might call propositional leverage on historical moments. Chiefly two historical moments: the sixteenth century, with its Reformation, and the turn of the twentieth century, at the time of the advent of theological liberalism. The cultural messiah that every evangelical household hoped would get born into it was a little boy who would grow up to be the philosopher that finally, once and for all, came up with the ironclad arguments that would positively force the liberals to renounce their positions in sackcloth and ashes and return to orthodoxy. When I was a child I always saw looming ahead of me years of theological and philosophical and biblical education by which I would surmount the intellectual peaks and become the champion of my family and our culture.

What a project! What a project especially for someone like me—a born unbeliever. Someone who couldn't find a way to begin scaling that Mount Everest of content.

So what was such a poor sad son of an evangelical to do?

I wanted to find a truth that allowed for the greatest expression of my humanity.
I did what was most reasonable. I did what I have finally concluded was most spiritual as well: I did what I liked. I didn't seem to have it in me to climb that mountain of content. I liked to play with the equipment of philosophy and theology but finally I had to admit I just couldn't get serious about it. I found, however, that I was pretty good at a whole different kind of process. I was good at understanding how stories worked and telling my own. I think what I have always longed for within my spiritual life has been felt belief. Not a mere assent to propositions, but the kind of truth Kierkegaard demanded: a truth for me. And I am not easily moved in this way, or at least I am highly distrustful of religious forums like worship services as a place to find this truth. Lately I have had the thought that what most secular people despise about the kind of religion they see on television is its manifestly dishonest emotional pattern. There is an exaggeration about it, a stylization, that's not too far removed from professional wrestling. It's an emotional tableau that's only real by virtue of being witnessed. And the assent of the faithful to its reality appears to the outsider as a collective delusion.

I do not mean to dishonor my lineage, but I have to say that the triumphalism of my evangelical subculture had about it this same emotional dishonesty. For me it has been a choice between believing this or believing myself damned. I could not project myself into the religious lives of my vicars of belief because there was not enough honest humanity there to identify with.

So in my searching out a truth for me I was looking not only for a view that was coherent-the beliefs of a paranoid are coherentbut I wanted to find a truth that allowed for the greatest expression of my humanity. I know that instantly this raises all kinds of objections about emotions as unreliable guides to behavior. But I would like to say a word, in a Romantic fashion, for the emotions. Our feelings give us important information about who we are, difficult to interpret as they may be. As long as our blood courses through our veins the change of our pulse and blood pressure will be vital signs, on a number of accounts, including our belief structures.

In my quest to find a truth for me I needed to find a means of knowledge that would be emotionally, as well as intellectually, satisfying. In my first years of college I was a philosophy major. My evangelical subculture was still governing the trajectory of my education. As I went forward in my studies I found that my favorite philosophers were also novelists. Existentialism exerted a considerable influence on me because I had been mesmerized by the novels of Sartre and Camus and Malraux. I found in these authors what I did not find in analytic philosophy: thinkers who were trying to read the text of the world and decipher its meaning. Even though these secular existentialists came to the conclusion that man invents his meaningsthat the universe, in itself, is silent—their method of inquiry, the novel, impressed me as the best way to think about the great questions. In these novels I found a union of reason and emotion; not only did they teach me what existentialists thought, they also rendered what it felt like to look at the world from this point of view. I remember quite clearly comparing how the existentialists thought and felt to my own deepest responses to life. I was attracted to the brave stance of the existentialists, to their rebellion, to what seemed the maturity of looking the world's absurdity in the face and defying that absurdity through sheer exertion of will. One would certainly have to be a man to do that! And at that time I wanted above all to grow up, to prove my own courage.

And yet I could not deny that the world seemed to mean and mean intensely. I could not deny my most basic wish: that the same author who created my heart, with its one desire to give and receive love, had also created the universe as a sign of his love for me and the medium of our union one with another. I wanted God to be there. I found it impossible to give up on what my heart told me: that its very wish could only be there because of his presence. I realized that the existentialists knew this about themselves as well-they had, among their other gifts, a terrible honesty. And I knew that in response to this call of their hearts they had never heard a divine reply.

I could not deny my most basic wish: I wanted God to be there.
And yet, in the midst of the collective delusions of my subculture, its emotional and intellectual dishonesty, I had experienced, I thought, something of God's presence. I'm tempted here to speak in the same ghostly fashion as the subculture, to imply that I saw miracles, heard voices, witnessed changed lives. But it wasn't that. Maybe I had had these kinds of experiences; whether I had or not didn't seem all that important.

What did keep me hooked into the faith, in some way, was that a faithful reading of my experience made a kind of sense that a despairing reading did not. I was plagued by the notion that given faith and despair as interpretive guides to the great text of the world, faith might be able to account for much more. I wasn't entirely sure, but all those Bible stories I had learned as a child seemed to provide significant paradigms that were more true to the diversity of experience than The Stranger.

So what I found in the existentialists helped me to re-discover an important part of my Christian tradition that I might have wandered even further away from through a systematic approach to theology and an affected secular sophistication. The existentialists brought me back to stories as my way of thinking.

I'm not sure many people think of stories as a means of thinking. We think of stories as entertainment, and we think of them as expressing ideas and values. That is not what the person who will write takes them to be. The fictional process (says John Gardner in The Art of Fiction) is the writer's way of thinking, a special case of the symbolic process by means of which we do all our thinking. Though it's only an analogy, and in some ways misleading, we might say that the elements of fiction are to a writer what numbers are to a mathematician, the main difference being that we handle fictional elements more intuitively than even the subtlest mathematicians handle numbers.

To put storytelling and science on a par may still shock some of you. Yes but, I can hear you say, we have sent men to the moon with the technology developed out of science. We have created the atom bomb! Think how powerful science is.

The story of the supremacy of the German race put six million Jews to death in gas chambers. Think how powerful stories are.

As a man thinks, so is he, the Scriptures say. The Holocaust illustrates the connection between thinking and acting. The stories we tell ourselves in all seriousness—our beliefsbecome vitally important. And while philosophy rarely makes up its mind as to questions like, Does existence precede essence, in practice we do make the decision, every day, as to what story we are going to live out.

In talking about the fictional process, John Gardner, once again, draws a startling analogy on how fiction has meaning, how it operates in our life, and how religion, most especially Christianity, has meaning for the believer:

In orthodox Christianity the believer is told that all formal codes, even the shifting codes of situational ethics, are supplanted by "the person of Christ." "I am the Way," Christ says, meaning, by one standard interpretation, that if the believer will give up his heart and soul to Christ, letting Christ's personality "enter in" like a daemonic [motivating] force, he can then act rightly in every situation, because in fact he is no longer the agent; Christ isa divinity who can do not wrong. The believer's actions flow not from any theory of right and wrong but from what an objective observer—a sympathetic non-believer, saywould call an ingested metaphor: the life and personality of Christ. Long and devout study of Christ's life and works has given the believer a model of behavior too subtle and complex for verbal expression but nevertheless trustworthy.

In the same way, fiction provides, at its best, trustworthy but inexpressible [in critical terms] models. We ingest metaphors of good, wordlessly learning to behave more like Levin than Anna (in Anna Karenina), more like the transformed Emma (in Jane Austen's novel) than like the Emma we first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless, knowledge is the "truth" great fiction seeks out.

What I found in the existentialists helped me to re-discover an important part of my Christian tradition.
I think in the act of this composition I have been able to clarify in a new way what "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" means. I am sure we would not want to limit the sense of the life of God in our lives to this literary perspectivefor, at least in my adopted Catholic tradition, God comes to us not only as sign, metaphor, in the Eucharist, but as the signified as well, himself. But a very good way of starting to think of what this means comes through the literary analogy. In Gardner's sense I have a personal relationship with Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

I understand how Bloom looks at the world from the inside out. If Joyce were alive to write another book in which Bloom figured, I feel as if I might almost be able to predict how Bloom would act—in the same way as I might be willing to predict how an intimate friend would act in a hypothetical situation. The communion we have in friendship breaks down the ego barriers in this way. Perhaps I have engaged in this highfalutin investigation only to come up with my mother's persistent advice: do what Jesus would do. But there is a problem here. Most of Catholic moral theology, as I understand it, is based on our friendship with Christ. Are we being Christ's friend? Are we doing what his friend would do? In order to be his friend we might think first of doing what he would do; thinking what he would think.

I am not sure, however, if we are able to empathize with Christ in the way we can with a merely mortal friend or even a fictional character. Chesterton, I think, said that all heresy begins in psychology, meaning that when we try to see the world from Christ's perspective we are far too inclined to see it through our own, and then validate our own perspective by virtue of this inadequate process. Saint Paul, on the other hand, can teach us much. He recommends that we identify with him as he identifies with Christ. That has always seemed to be part of the saint's own often noted egotism. And yet in this context we can see that Saint Paul was talking about the communion of the saints as a key to the Christian life—the way in which the friends of Christ fill out our imaginations of what it must be like to be Christ's friend.

I found my first vicar of belief when I found the whiskey priest in Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory. As I have said, the intellectual and emotional profile of those around me as I grew up, at least in their representations of what it was like to be a Christian, struck me as alien, impenetrable. When I came to Greene's whiskey priest I breathed a sigh of relief and found, at last, a saint with whom I can identify: a man who has violated his calling in hedonistic pursuits and whose main sense of the Christian life centers in his comical inadequacy.

Here is the whiskey priest confronting at the last his leprosy, his disease, his humanity, his death:

When he woke up it was dawn. He woke with a huge feeling of hope which suddenly and completely left him at the first sight of the prison yard. It was the morning of his death. He crouched on the floor with the empty brandy flask in his hand trying to remember an act of contrition. "O God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins...crucified...worthy of Thy dreadful punishments." He was confused, his mind was on other things: it was notthe good death for which one always prayed. He caught sight of his own shadow on the cell wall: it had a look of surprise and grotesque unimportance. What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived. His parents were deadsoon he wouldn't even be a memory-perhaps after all he wasn't really Hell-worthy. Tears poured down his face: he was not at the moment afraid of damnation—even the fear of pain was in the background.He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.

An unbelieving teacher of mine once said: 'I am not a Christian — I hate Christianity, but when I read Flannery O’Connor, for the time that I am reading
her, I believe.'
The whiskey priest's foolishnesshis faithfulness to his mission despite the shambles of his life—was the foolishness I tried to create once again in my novel The Holy Fool. I had found in Graham Greene and the tradition of the Catholic novel of which he was a part a means of thinking along the lines that I wanted to be thinkingand believing. To do this I could not simply imitate The Power and the Glory or the other authorsFlannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, among them—who influenced me. I had to engage in the same process of thinking that they had engaged in: the fictional process. Because I believe in fiction as a method of thinking, I write about what I don't know but would like to. My novel, The Holy Fool, began when I was twelve years old. At that age a friend of my father's walked into our house and broke down emotionally. Like my father he was a pastor. He believed in a creed virtually identical to my father's. And yet the things that he believed had not indemnified him against being broken. I wondered why. For a long time. So I wrote The Holy Fool to find out.

Of course what I was really writing about—I can see clearly in hindsight—was the brokenness in my own life. Some of it I knew only then in the form of the fictionfor there are episodes in the novel that were prophetic of what was to come later. And the method I used there to heal that brokenness was essentially an interpretive method, a trying out of one and another biblical story to see whether such a brokenness could be taken up into the divine mercy.

I mean "could be" not chiefly in the sense of whether God was capable of such forgiveness, but whether God himself could be forgiven for the brokenness of the world, and whether the grounds of that forgiveness might be glimpsed in how such brokenness must be part of his glory. I was trying to understand the theological notion of the "happy fall." In my little way I was writing Paradise Lost, most especially in its prophetic dimensions as a divine comedy, which I suppose all writers who are Christians are writing at all times, everywhere. Here is my spokesman summarizing what he has learned through the course of the drama. It is his description of the Passion. He speaks aloud:

"As his death approached, Jesus must have thought about it more and more. He thought about it in the way you and I might anticipate open-heart surgery. We would know that the surgeon was going to cut us open with a knife from below the neck to our navel. We would know that our flesh would have to be pried apart so that the doctors would have room to operate. We would know that our ribcage would have to be cut down the center with a high-speed circular saw and broken open with a tool like a tire iron and that finally our heart would be placed on a table outside our bodies and repaired while our life was sustained by a machine. As these things occurred, we would be anesthetized, but unless we died on the table, we would return to our senses and know all too well what had been done. Jesus looked forward to his crucifixion in much the same way, except that he knew he would not be anesthetized; he knew that it would be necessary for him to refuse any relief that was offered.

"Why else do you think he prayed in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood? From his first breath he had known the pain of this life, and he went to his crucifixion in the awful knowledge of what it would be like, in detail, to the blackness of the end.

"Still there was one surprise. It was the worst news that anybody had ever had.

"Scourged so that his back looked as if it had been slashed with razor blades. Crowned with a diadem of inch-long thorns so that his vision of the world in those last hours was tinted with blood. Spat upon, made to carry his cross until he dropped from exhaustion. Nailed to it through his hands and feet. Every muscle in his body starting to cramp. His lungs beginning to failhe had to push up with his legs from the peg through his feet to inhale, every breath an agony that only delayed a more terrible pain. In this unimaginable state, Jesus Christ was stunned with a knowledge more horrible than any pain that the flesh is capable of. He cried out, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? And it was at that moment, when the Son was abandoned by the Father, when the Godhead received into itself the full measure of this world's condemnation, that Jesus Christ proclaimed the first credo of every Christian. For I say unto you, beloved, that until we have faith which calls upon God precisely when God is silent, we have not the faith of Jesus Christ. Through our Lord, the Godhead received the knowledge and judgment of hell and death, which is to die eternally aware of being abandoned by God. That was what Jesus Christ knew in that all-encompassing instant on the cross. It is no more than the fate of man and mankind, and no less.

"I took several deep breaths. I heard my next words, like the forerunners of an unseen yet advancing army, already out in the air.

"But be of good cheer! As the Apostle Paul writes in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians: 'If in this life only (that is to say, not in the life beyond the grave) we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that sleep.... For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.' "Because we have a certain hope in Jesus Christ, we must not betray him by our unwillingness to die with him in his uncertainty. And when we are uncertain, we must claim, in our own agonies and passions, that he is our God, my God. As the Apostle writes: 'For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.'"

That final verse always strikes me; it summarizes so well, so tersely, what I have been laboring to say here: that our deepest desire is not merely to know, but understand, and in that understanding to realize the object of our quest: God's love.

An unbelieving teacher of mine once said: "I am not a ChristianI hate Christianity, but when I read Flannery O'Connor, for the time that I am reading her, I believe." I think what I have tried to do in my work is to dream up contemporary characters who are capable of belief, and through having a personal relationship with them, so to speak, believe myself. They are my vicars
of belief.

This is a writer's faith. It is this writer's faith. And as curious as it may be, it has hooks, I think, into that great process of the communion of the saints by which the faith is sustained.

August 9, 2004

Harold Fickett is the author of "The Living Christ", "The Holy Fool", and other books, and is a co-founder of Image Journal. He is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

This essay was most recently published in the Fifteenth Anniversary Issue of Image Journal. It is a shortened version of a public address given at Friends University, and was first published in an Image newsletter in 1993. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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02.02.05   johnxteresa says:
To take the conversation further, the idea is to create a great Catholic culture, that will engage our materialistic society and eventually replace it. Isn't that what we want? So we write and work to bring that idea to life. As Catholics, the status quo has always been to just get along. The cost of entry into this country was to minimize our faith. This is no longer acceptable. The materialists want us to become a quaint outdated de-clawed "faith tradition". Just another cultural oddity coexisting in the diversity sphere. So they work very hard to keep us impotent, unable to impact the culture. As lay Catholics we should engage the culture in our works especially the arts. For us lay Catholics, a dual life is not sustainable. During the working week we fly under the PC radar to avoid persecution, and only reveal our Catholicism amongst ourselves in whispers. It is truly schizophrenic. I suppose it is necessary to make ends meet. But it does not sit well with the conscience. So how do we engage the velvet persecution of the materialist culture? How about a Catholic renaissance. I think we are due for another one. It's often debated whether there has ever really been one. Perhaps one recalls the Catholic writers of the twentieth century in this context. Regardless, isn't it time for one that influences everything, politics, education, economics, science as well as the arts. It takes imagination to do this. Something other than the status quo, which is to just get along and keep your head down. Writers expand the imagination. I never thought of characters as vicars of belief until I read this article. But it expanded the horizon a little bit. It's time again that we have characters that are vicars of virtue as well as belief, rather than vicars of vice and cynicism. When this happens it certainly would be a renaissance. We live in exactly the right historic moment to birth this renaissance. And if it's already alive to nurture it. Materialism dominates our culture. The net effect on people is a spiritual void and a meaningless existence. If you try to stand against the tide, you're quietly dismissed or minimized, but never taken seriously. Look what they tried to do to Mel last year. The success of The Passion should give us hope that materialism does not have an iron grip, and that there is a sea change afoot. Is a renaissance possible with a divided church? In my opinion, the single most unifying force in the church is the Holy Eucharist. If we Catholics could just unite around this single truth, this is Jesus, our faith would fuel a holy revolution. If we are going to solve the current problems it will take imagination, because the status quo is not doing the trick. I can imagine a great Catholic culture. I can imagine a culture life supplanting the culture of death. I can even imagine a Catholic renaissance. But I cannot imagine it without unity. In order for that to happen something has to capture the collective imagination. I see this as the work of writers and other artists. My hope is that we find that unity, and that there are great stories to help us get there. Once we come to belief we will get the culture that we deserve.

01.24.05   DLMurphy says:
Pardon me for entering the conversation so belatedly--I finally figured out why I was having technical difficulties with the Forum, it doesn't like Firefox. Had to fall back on MSIE.Anyhow, I enjoyed Harold Fickett's original article very much, and the resulting conversation here. Both have reminded me, on several scores, of why I find Harold Bloom's writings on the Canon so very interesting. In terms of literary taste and preoccupations, Bloom is a traditionalist--"orthodox" if you will. He hasn't swallowed the garbage about Dead White Males, or H.G. Wells' silly notion that just because something has come later in time it is necessarily better, or even more timely. My goodness, Bloom even quotes Chesterton!And yet Prof. Bloom doesn't seem to operate with the same level of discernment about religion, alas. He embraces the Gnostic view, which he has (probably correctly) analyzed as the "wave of the future" (and the future is here) in the West. I don't have his book to hand, so I can't quote, but his summation of the gnostic approach to religion is precisely the privatized "just you and me, God," form of faith that Harold Fickett talked about, and which can be so dangerous for writers and other artists, who must constantly seek balance between perennial wisdom and their own, sometimes overwhelming, personal visions. The Scylla on the one hand is stale complacency, and the Charybdis on the other is wild and whirling nonsense mascarading as profundity.

01.19.05   Jonathan Kinsman says:
John,You are too kind (and literate!). And more importantly: a good and honest man. I agree, we do play the hypocrite in varying degrees, I more than most (or so my good Jewish wife, Shoshana, reminds me).Learning through literature is the ideal. But what is the canon to be? Remember the skirmishes, flaring here and there in ivory towers and halls of Academe, where "dead, white males" were the bugaboos to be exorcised? Why do we need Cervantes when we can require Angelou? Or Mao? Or any 20th century social scientist? Those times brought to mind Wilde: will our children read Shakespeare to recognize the quotations?So much of our culture (more vulgar than vulgate) is of the trivial. Memorization of sports statistics, who played what character in the second season of "Dynasty."And you have focused my mind, John. San Juan de la Cruz! I remember reading him in the car outside of St. Francis de Sales church when I promised my mother I would attend a later Mass (I was too tardy for the family schedule at 0900!). Instead of going into the church (what an idiot a teenager can be) I would sit in the car and read for an hour or so. Gongora. Cervantes. de la Cruz. St. Teresa de Avila. I had the bilingual editions, thinking I could sharpen my Spanish language skills! My older sister was in college studying Spanish and the books were hers. [Oops, sorry for the madeline episode].St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. I have thought for some time to write an essay or short book on two of my favorite people in History and how similar in thought and insight they are: St Teresa and Emily Dickinson.Maybe we should forget the moniker of the 'Belle of Amherst' and get to her subconscious-Catholicism (she avoided her father's denomination) and call her, rightly, Saint Emily of Amherst! Her garden was the Jacob's-ladder of her soul and her love for God. Her dark night (she wrote of it a few times) always broke to a clearing, mother-of-pearl sunrise. Your garden teaches you the other facets (a good word for this, coming from the diamond) of the Parable. I have another interpretation of it although it pales in comparison to yours, and to mention it would nice (in the Shakespearean sense). Do not bear the world's burdens too much, John. Some days a public wearing of the cross is shame enough in our society. Other days it may be the public saying of grace in Applebee's. Remember the centurion: he was not Jew nor was he a follower of Jesus, but, "only say the word and my servant shall be healed."I have a better idea: let us who are interested come up with a series of statements or positions (as Catholics or as Christian apologists) and each write a short 6 to 9 paragraph comment. That would make fascinating reading!Pax ChristiJonathan

01.09.05   johnxteresa says:
JonathanYour first post was wonderful, you should have your own column, or the Godspy editors should cut it out and make an official article. I don't think you were snitty. A lot of what we do is whining, a lot of it isn't. If a child has to learn about culture, why not through literature? Literature extends the Christian experience. How I would counter your argument, is to say that it is almost puritanical. Not that you are suggesting it, but if we take it to an extreme lets eliminate literature since "If we had the courage and intellect to live the simple, Christ-like life, we would never, ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard." Perhaps reading you out of context since you wasted time on Godspy, and took a few minutes to put your fingers to the keyboard. There is a lot of truth to what you are saying, and I largely agree. Didn't you quote Chesterton? As Catholic Christians how do we express our faith? I say by our works, art, literature, gardening, joinery, even law. I have a garden. I, like Jesus, live in a dry climate. Why would I want a mustard plant to house birds in my garden? The soil is poor and there is never enough water. There is nothing noble in this parable, because the mustard consumes water and nutrients, and the birds eat my seedlings. When I garden I think about this parable all the time and how often it is misunderstood by those folks who live lush climates. Lush climate gardeners pretentiously think of themselves as birds sustained by the kingdom of heaven. In reality my neighbors trees house the little parasites that eat most of seedlings, and these trees take the water and diminish the soil on my property. It is a fact, and I see it every spring. Hence the mustard seed story causes me to think very deeply when I garden, since my view of it is very contrary to the popular interpretation. Like most arid climate gardeners, Jesus's audience, I don't want trees, bushes or birds in my garden. Perhaps Jesus meant that the garden is our egos, and once someone sowes the heavenly seed, the selfish ego garden can no longer flourish as it once did. And if the mustard was an undesirable desert plant, then to actually have it in the garden is foolish. Because what you need to understand about desert weeds is that with a little water they will sprout, flower, and reproduce in a few days. Hence you can never get rid of them. For me the moral of the story is, my selfish ego will be supplanted by the kingdom of heaven despite of my efforts to stop it. I am reminded every single time I weed my desert garden. I think that you were arguing for this, however I get it through a story (i.e. literature), you may get it through a direct teaching. I disagree with your disagreement about joy being a dark fire. In some cases, I think it is. I don't think post-abortive women can simply turn off the pain. However, they have the certainty of forgiveness. Parents who lose a child are not contemplating their navels if they find they cannot get out of bed three months after the beloved child's death. But sitting up in bed after three months is a heroic act. I spent nearly my whole adult life away from Christ. I can't just turn off the doubt engine or erase materialist philosophy after 20 years. But in agreement with what you say, the way to find joy is to act and to live simply. All easier said than done. Like I said in the earlier post, some days for me belief amounts to wearing my crucifix. That is all I can do at that time. My whole post was really in reference to John of the Cross, and the dark night. This is a true state of the Christian experience. For a lot of us, literature helps us view our faith. at many different angles Aren't we really acting when we write, isn't this the full expression of our faith to create a great Catholic culture, with our faith flowing through our works? Catholic authors write, Catholic plumbers plumb, and Catholic lawyers bill. This is action as the full expression of our faith. So I try to express my faith in work. However it does not mitigate the dark night at all. Doubt is part of the Christian experience. Have you ever seen the first 10 minutes of "The Passion of the Christ"? How about the last? I never met Mother, and I have no doubt that she exuded joy. That was one of her charisms. I've listened to her speak and for the most part her style is very serious, and that is all I meant. I don't know if it is yet common knowledge. Perhaps this is just rumor or urban myth. I understand that Mother left behind a very long spiritual journal. It is being evaluated. I don't know if it will be published. I understand from the journal that she suffered from the effects of the dark night. She felt the absence of God too, and I understand for many years leaving her only as she neared death. Perhaps she was overwhelmed by the task, and it caused her to despair. But this is only a speculation on some hearsay about her journal. What you described about your meeting was probably what you felt as a result of meeting a great saint. That did not mean that she did not carry around the effects of Calcutta everyday. The point is that for those of us who have suffered some evil in our lives, joy is often expressed as tears. Nevertheless, tears of joy are still joyful.Most all of what you said in context, is valid. I don't know if it applied to my post, since I was acting or directing my intellect toward God as I was writing about Harold's piece. But in context, your post caused me to think very deeply. We are always working on conversion, and lately my inner dialogue has been more like inner whining. Whining does not necessarily lead to deeper conversion. So thanks for the swift kick in the butt.

11.04.04   John Martin says:
Jonathan, cultural literacy has become an advertising jingle, which we go whistling past the graveyard. H.

11.01.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Harold,Shakespeare delved into the human psyche, its motivations and (wrong, usually) desires. Like our friends Dante and Miguel, Willy knew that human 'types' do not vary due to class, era or religion.Rightly we should recognize these types. Jesus knew them: the gabby Samaritan woman (married how many times??), the loyal soldier, the forgiving father of the wayward son.Yet my beef is that this is not good enough for us (we Americans). We have to get our rationale and reasoning from the likes of Dr. Phil, Oprah, Rosie, Ellen, Southpark, SNL, et alii. This is what is discussed at lunch and work, at school and play: did you see what Oprah bought all those people?? why can't Rosie adopt children with her lesbian partner?? and so on ad nauseum.I've tried putting a little perspective (from the Gospels, or from the Commedia, or from my favorite: Shakespeare) into family- and friend-conversation: it brings on a thumping silence. Maybe its the wrong era, maybe I need to take 'baby steps' and access another of the seven methods of learning and check my fung shei. Egads!Jonathan

10.28.04   John Martin says:
Jonathan, The thing that kills me is the way deliberately comic lines become part of popular culture's accepted wisdom. Greatest example: "I'm taking baby steps." From the movie, WHAT ABOUT BOB? Baby stepping is the theme of the pop psychologist (played by Richard Dreyfus) character's book, whose point-of-view is skewered by every element in the movie. "Baby stepping" is supposed to be a self-evidently dumb idea. That hasn't kept popular culture from embracing it as deep. And yet, those who have read Shakespeare may well find Prince Hal, Lady MacBeth, and Richard III among recent occupants of the White House. Harold

10.23.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Harold,Thank you for your kind comments. I reviewed my epistle and it does seem disdainful as well as written in a snit. I am sorry for this. I do like fiction but not as much as when I was in my 20s. I tend towards science and math books ('Stories of the Invisible,' 'It must be Elegant,' 'All that is Beautiful,' and others of like ilk). Powerful movies (The Passion, Spider Man) regardless of critical opinion, work like the best parables on people's souls. However, to me I find that when discussing a scene from a movie with friends, the deepest disagreements occur on the director's point or meaning (we all agree on what we saw and how deeply it moved us) but we justify our point of view with quotations from fiction (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Greene, et alii) or other scenes in similar movies to buttress our points!!I once heard on KFI (AM640 in Los Angeles) a caller justify his views (rather conservative) on a recent action of the Clinton administration by quoting a character in a movie! He was called on it by the host, John Kobylt. There was a painful pause of a few seconds, then silence. Overpaid professional athletes (oops! an oxymoron!) always seem to quote a phrase from some work of fiction (movie,'show me the money' or song) to add depth (!) to their statements.Fiction is very powerful: look at the booklists. I just don't have the time and there is so much to learn.

10.21.04   John Martin says:
Thanks for your comments Jonathan and Truthonly. You certainly have encouraged me, Truth. I agree with almost everything you say in your postings as well, Jonathan. I just wanted to clarify that the person who spoke to me about "suffering" wasn't referring to my own or any problems attributed to my family. She was speaking about a book called THE LIVING CHRIST, which profiles a number of real people, including John Paul II, who are out in the world doing God's work. She found all the suffering these people confronted appalling. As indeed this fallen world's suffering is. I do think she expected a book written from a Catholic perspective to be more Pollyanna-ish--or triumphal. But as you know, Jonathan, the Incarnation obliges us to apply our faith, as you say, in the concrete details of life, which does indeed bring joy. With Mother Teresa's purity of heart all the time, in my own muddied case, at times. It's hard to tell from postings, since they are necessarily short, but Jonathan, are you disdainful of fiction? Although he didn't write them down, Jesus spoke--and therefore must have composed--the parables. Using fiction as both a "thought-experiment" and also a call to the will was one of his prime teaching methods. So I don't think it's outrageous to believe that fiction can convey spiritual insight.

10.07.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Harold (aka "John Martin"): interesting, well-written essay but I must comment on a few points. The problem (and yes it is the heresy that begins in pyschology -to paraphrase GKC) comes from your Protestant upbringing and for cultural Catholics, it comes from our fair to middling Protestant and/or secular culture. Phrases such as "being high on Jesus" or "feeling really close to the Lord" or "walking with Jesus on this one" (there are so many of these idioms, it would make an interesting study!) demonstrate my point: as long as Jesus is your "personal savior" (A uniquely Protestant American contribution to Christian typos), akin to your "personal trainer" or "family attorney," then whatever was put forth as the challenge to follow Him. Instead, we quote authors or recollect what fictional (!) characters have done when confronted with the "darkness." We may leave the personal Jesus behind but we tend to pick him up when a general panacea is called for.(NOTE: being the token Catholic at Pepperdine University Law School in the late 70s introduced me to many classmates who claimed Jesus (and sometimes God) spoke to them through their spouses. I am serious. A few of these feckless souls claimed that good Associate jobs (in our third year) were the result of being 'chosen' by Jesus for 'personal blessings.')This is what comes from Sola Scriptura. As a (fairly) literate nation, we read and think and ponder and apply what we've read and thought about others of like ilk in same or similar predicaments ('feeling' dark on certain days) and remind ourselves how similar we are to the angels. Rubbish, good friend.You mention "think how powerful science is." Nay, think how powerful APPLIED science is. Then consider how powerful APPLIED myths (your 'stories' told by Nazis) can be. It is all in the application. What we lack (as writers, as men) is APPLIED Catholicism.The Holy Fool would be another name for St Francis. He was truly a fool. Humiliated by others. Poor and scabrous. Rank in smell and put to begging others for his food. That is the way of the Holy Fool. The one who called his own body Brother Ass. That is what Christ meant when he said you must be humiliated for me. The Communion of Saints are all the downtrodden, whether in spirit or in flesh. As writers we should quit contemplating our own navels for enlightenment and write of others (not fictional) who become, like St Francis, Jongluers de Dieu. If someone comments on the suffering in the world and it relates to one of your books, then I think you need to rethink the approach. And I do not mean Pollyanna, either. Suffering is a gift, it (in the words of Christ from John) "makes all things new." Christ suffered for us (believer or unbeliever), there is no call to trump our Lord by pouring it on in our stories or family recollections.Johnxteresa: All that is needed is self-deprecation and joy comes as naturally as sunlight (id est, it may be glaringly bright, shuttered, a half-light, or a twilight, but it is still sunlight!). I met Mother Teresa at Thomas Aquinas college in Ojai in the 80s. She exuded joy. She laughed about everything, especially her own ignorance and foibles in meeting "important" people like authors and politicians. If you are feeling dark then you are still thinking yourself to be the most important person. And that is Pride. Think of others. I disagree with Harold (a rare occasion!) seconding that "joy is a dark fire." Finely minced words but without savor or effect. If we had the courage and intellect to live the simple, Christ-like life, we would never, ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. We would act, we would be perfect like our Heavenly Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48) and be merciful (Luke 7:13). That is all that is required of us to be: merciful. Forgive ourselves and our foibles. Laugh at ourselves. Serve others in love and forgive their sins to us. That is Christ-centeredness. Our early Fathers wrote it so, the Gospels attest to it and the Catechism agrees.When self-importance (really Self-Love, a sin of Pride) reigns among us, then will you hear others calling Christians "a bunch of phoney people pretending to be happy," or beginning every argument with a Catholic with, "If God is good then why does he allow so much suffering?"Novels (no matter how well written) have never inspired me to get closer to Christ or my faith. Who knows, it may be part of the mysterious working of God's will that the Spiderman movies bring the slackers back to Sunday mass? Who knows? But if it does, it will only be for a little while until another cultural "feeling" (novel, play, sports cinderella story, etc.) comes along. Christ was, as expected, right on the point when he typified us as sheep.

09.30.04   Truthonly says:
I am not a writer but wanted to tell Harold how much I enjoyed this article. In fact I was led to tears. What an honest, heartfelt, expressive and challenging article! Thank you Harold for writing it. God has certainly blessed you with a wonderful gift. Keep using it for His glory!

09.07.04   John Martin says:
Marci and John, This is Harold again. Thank-you for your comments, Marci, and for your further thoughts, John. One of the great things about having pieces posted at GODSPY is having these follow-up conversations. All three of us have found in literature and writing a process through which to be more faithful to the whole of experience and ultimately its Christ-centeredness. There is indeed a lot of darkness. Recently, a woman who had just read one of my books said to me, "There's a lot of suffering in the world, isn't there?" I sensed that she expected more inspiration, less troubling reality. At the time I felt sorry not to have obliged. I wish people could see, as you say, John, that joy is often a dark fire. Best, Harold

09.04.04   johnxteresa says:
It's been five years since I returned to the Church. For the most part it has been a great experience. In that time there have been days when the shadows return. Not so much because there has not been grace. It is not the temptation to sin that dogs me, it is loss of belief. That's why your essay was so interesting. To me, the loss of belief is far more insidious than that third glass of wine. I am in a dark place on days when there is no belief. During those days, wearing my crucifix is all I can do, and some days even that's difficult. One of the most direct literary descriptions I've found for those times when the “darkness” returns is in Return of the King. Frodo never quite healed from his wounds. For the most part you are fine, but then there are days when you feel your wound. It really is always with you. Perhaps Tolkien remembers the war, others remember addiction, abuse, rape, abortion, etc The point is they have them. This is the "baggage" that the refugees from the culture of death carry.How do people get to a dark place? This ties into another aspect of your journey. In the beginning of your essay, you talk about how these folks (Christians) were either lying about how they felt, or that you were dammed. This really resonated with me. This calls attention to an unrealistic notion about Christianity, and that is it is thought of as a continual high. This simply is wrong. I think it stems from a misunderstanding of words. So misguided people feign emotions that are inauthentic. If one discusses faith as struggle, you're likely to hear that something is wrong with you. “Where's the joy?” Intellectually honest youth tend to jettison the whole enterprise because they see it all as a lie. I did for nearly 20 years. Christianity in general, represented nothing but a bunch of phony cowards pretending to be happy. Once you mature you see emotions like joy for what they really are. For example, my impression of Mother Teresa is that she is not an outwardly joyful person. However, when I listen to her speak, or read about her, I find that I am left with a sense of joy--a real authentic joy. I think that it is her seriousness, and her devotion to Christ. When she acts out her faith in her work, joy is simply the byproduct. A mature understanding of joy is that it is intrinsic in acts of faith. Even if that act of faith is martyrdom. Have you ever seen pictures of Father Pro's martyrdom? There's some joy there! Maybe Mother's demeanor was the result of where she worked. I suppose it would be hard to not carry a little bit of Mordor with you after walking through it. As long as some Catholics promote superficial joy, and other inauthenticity, I suppose that lots of young people will find themselves not hearing the voice of God. It's really a shame, especially when joy is only a simple act of self-donation away. Back to this notion of residual darkness, one might add a few lines to the end of A Christmas Carol. “Although Scrooge was now beloved and brought great happiness to the people of London, some nights he was beset by sorrow and deep regret for all the years that he could of helped but didn't. He regretted the memory of all the misery he could have averted, but was too indifferent to act. You see the ghosts may have removed the chains but they could not remove their scars.” Maybe you could imagine Scrooge in front of his fireplace later that year sobbing with a snifter of brandy, and then praying, “God please take this regret away from me, I want to feel your presence again!” And then upon waking the next morning he starts an aid-to-women center. If you look at characters as “vicars of belief”, I am just as edified by Scrooge's conversion as I am with his imaginary dark night. If the whiskey priest fulfills his vocation going to his death, I am just as edified. I don't know that I hear God's voice, but since returning to the church I have experienced indescribable joy. If any of us who have reverted are dogged by darkness, I see this as part of the journey. If you returned to Christ and the Church via the prodigal path you have to expect some dark days. But those who have returned give us hope. I am not saying the prodigal way is the better way, it just seems to be the rule. I think the best “vicars of belief” are characters who keep the faith their entire life. A writer can write with just as much depth about a faithful Catholic who struggles and succeeds, as they can about one who struggles, fails and finally succeeds (or doesn't). Even reading Silence, one priest drowns a martyr, the other apostatizes in order to be like Christ and save others. That's a study in grace and self-donation! For me writing is an act of worship. It gives glory to God. I hope someday that my writing will bring joy to others. I look forward to reading The Holy Fool.

09.03.04   vinemarc says:
This article set all kinds of bells ringing for me, too. I walked away from the church believing that if God existed He obviously didn't want anything to do with me because I'd tried to do all the right things but still didn't have the faith others around me seemed to have. It took a long rocky detour to discover that He'd been speaking to me all along. I just didn't believe I was hearing Him. Maybe it was safer to believe I was deaf. The trauma of abuse at an early age made me believe I wasn't worthy of hearing him. I'm writing about that now, and yes, it is a discovery of His goodness all over again.Blessings, Marci

09.02.04   John Martin says:
This is Harold. Glad the story resonated, John. As I've gone along in my Catholic faith, my inner experience has become richer, more heartfelt, easier. I say this an an encouragement. I was reading a book the other day by an evangelical author on our supernatural life in Christ--which tracked closely with Catholic theology. The difference was, the author served up such a neat and fast summary of this mystery, that it induced spiritual vertigo. It made me want to leap into a super spirituality and seemed to suggest, from its manner, not what the book said directly, that the trip from A to Z was nothing but a direct plunge. What I would say, as an additional encouragement, is that I am always comforted by Catholic practice. It's difficult enough for me to be a good Catholic, much less an instant super-saint. Getting to Mass, going to confession, paying some attention to the days of obligation and the minimal fasts that are required these days--that's about what I can do. (I do like to pray in the mornings using the Liturgy of the Hours, but that's always a distinct pleasure, so it hardly counts.) These practices have a lovely way of deepening one's experience of God over time, without the pressures of what can become--at least for me--an unrealistic spiritual mania. So I'm glad to hear that you've reconnected with your Catholic faith, and I'd encourage you to trust to its practice. The darkness that still dogs you may well lighten a good deal.

09.01.04   johnxteresa says:
Harold's story is like my own story. I am actually surprised how closely they map. Right down to the experience of never hearing God's voice while He was speaking to everyone around me. I refused to pretend, and fell into abandonment, agnosticism, and philosophy.Only recently I have returned to my Roman Catholic faith. And now in the beginning of middle age I am compelled to write. My mission is the same, to write about faith and Catholicism in characters that are meaningful to modern readers. The darkness of my past is still with me, and for now I've been given the grace to retain faith. Even if on some days, faith is only the act of wearing my crucifix. But as long as I have the grace I will use it to help others, and fight the culture of death. How strange and confirming to find such a beautiful essay. Thank you Harold for sharing your story.

08.12.04   Godspy says:
In my writing I’ve tried to dream up contemporary characters who are capable of belief, and through having a personal relationship with them, so to speak, believe myself.

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