“Quintessential Catholic Novel”?

Our Scarpa conference at Villanova Friday ended with a delightful dinner, during which the conversation ranged over many topics.  My friend and colleague Lisa Schiltz’s Mirror of Justice post of last night reminds me of one of those topics.  As she described it in her post:

The most dramatic event was the dinner afterwards, when Patrick and John Breen almost came to fisticuffs over whether Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, is the quintessential Catholic novel.  (Susan Stabile tried to broker a compromise with Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov, but she didn’t make much headway.)

As Lisa went on to describe, we resolved that we would read (or re-read) one or more of those books this summer and then blog about them on Mirror of Justice.

The conversation, of course, raises the question (which we did not discuss over dinner) of what it means to call a novel a “Catholic novel.”  So I thought I’d post the topic here with the invitation for you to consider both (a) what it means to describe a work as a “quintessential Catholic novel” and (b) what your candidate for that novel might be.


Salvation as Transfiguration

As part of our Adult Faith Formation program at Our Lady of Lourdes, we are watching the Robert Barron Catholicism video series. This morning’s segment was the fourth in the series, Mary, the Mother of God.

I thought the video was quite good and the discussion we had afterward was very fruitful.

Among the things in the video that stuck with me was Fr. Barron’s description of salvation in the context of his discussion of the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption, which refers to the fact that Mary, through the power of God, is present in body and soul in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Fr. Barron described salvation as “the transfiguration of the body and soul into Heaven,” the perfection and elevation of the whole self. Not an escape from the world or the body, but the perfection and elevation of the entire person into the dimension of God.

With respect to Mary, he asked, what would it be like to face death sinless? Many of us approach death with fear because our sin alienates us from God. But for a sinless person, one utterly responsive to God’s will, death is like falling asleep. (We generally speak o Mary’s dormition, rather than death.)

The image of salvation as transfiguration is a powerful one to me. Perhaps it will be for you also.

Bread and Wine as the Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday morning I had a conversation with someone about the Eucharist. We had been talking about the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel and the person confessed to some difficulty with the idea of bread and wine becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

As we talked, I remembered a passage in Michael Himes’ The Mystery of Faith talking about what it means that the Catholic “eucharistic celebration centers on bread and wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ.

Speaking about the bread, Himes observes that “there is no intrinsic difference” between the bread and wine that become the Eucharist and the bread we eat for sandwiches and the wine we offer friends at dinner. Thus, he asks, “If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread? If this wine can become the blood of Christ, why not all wine?” And, he pushes further, if the bread and the wine, why not the grain, the vine, the soil and the rain that produce the bread and wine?

In fact, Himes says, “if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point.”

Reminding us that in the liturgy of the feast of Corpus Christi the Eucharist is termed “the down payment, the first installment of future glory, Himes says:

Precisely right: the eucharistic bread and wine are, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, the point at which we see what the whole universe is destined to become. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ.

It may be hard to grasp completely, but it sounds awfully exciting to me.

Is It Possible You Were Never Not a Catholic?

One of the reasons I enjoy doing book talks on Growing in Love and Wisdom is that I get such interesting questions during the event. The range of questions is broad – raging from my own conversion experience, to specific points of similarity or difference between Christianity and Buddhism to forms of prayer and the challenges of maintaining a regular prayer practice, and then some.

When I was speaking at Marquette University the other night, one of the audience members asked me whether it was possible to say that, notwithstanding all of the years I spent as a Buddhist, was it possible to say I was never not a Catholic.

I thought it was an interesting question in that the answer rests on what it means to say that one is Catholic. If being Catholic is simply about self-identification as a Catholic, then the answer to my questioner was a simple no. For twenty years I assuredly did not self-identify as Catholic.

If being Catholic means simply having been baptized, then once baptized Catholic, always a Catholic. (We learned in grade school that Baptism left an indelible mark on our souls.) In that sense of the term, since I was baptized as a child, I’ve always been Catholic.

What I’be been puzzling over is whether there is another way to understand that question that allows me to answer the question in a more thoughtful way. I’m not actually sure that I can, but I want to think about it some more.

What I can say is that, in retrospect, it is clear to me that whatever I called myself, God was with me. That I may not have been looking at or for God, but God was always looking at me. And that whatever direction I thought my life was going, I was moving with and toward God. And maybe that’s enough for me to know.

The Voice of Catholic Women

We (that is, my co-editors Marie Failinger and Lisa Schiltz) just sent to Ashgate Publishing the manuscript of our book on women, law and religion. Part of our motivation for writing/editing the book (which includes chapters written by each of us and as well as by a number of other women of different faith traditions) is to remedy the lack of the voice of women of faith from the legal feminist dialogue.

Responding to a similar concern that we hear too little from Catholic women on too many issues, Our Sunday Visitor has recently published Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvare. I was delighted to receive a copy of it from The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

In her Introduction, Alavare invites: “If you want to know who believing Catholic women are, and what we think about being Catholic and female today in connection with a host of hot-button issues, listen to engaged Catholic women, not commentators with little genuine curiosity. Listen to women who are honestly trying to grapple with how their faith might inform their thinking and their acting. Let Catholic women speak for themselves.”

And that is largely what the book does. Although I would not say that the women who contributed to the book represent the broadest range of views of Catholic women, there is a diversity of age, occupation and background of the contributors. Their faith journey differ, but they all have grappled seriously with difficult issues. And, while each of our faith journeys is unique, hearing each others’ stories helps us as we navigate our own path.

There are some themes that carry through the very different chapters. First, is that there are many ways women of faith may live out their vocation in the world. Religious order or lay, married or single, professional or stay at home. There is not single model of a “good” Catholic woman, and that diversity is worth celebrating. Second, is that we can find no answers to the difficult questions we face without opening ourselves to the power of God. Each of the authors recognize, in Alvare’s words, that “when we let God in, better answers suggest themselves, answers that satisf[y] both our souls and our minds.” Third, is that the voice of women matters. We have something important to bring to table – to all issues, not just those often spoken of as “women’s issues.”

To be sure, there are some statements in the chapters I would take issue with if I were engaged in conversation with the women who made them. But that doesn’t detract from the value of the book. Perhaps it actually adds to it.

Accepting Ours (and Others) Imperfections

As many people know, I try hard to avoid supporting the industrial agriculture system. I do most of my food shopping in our local co-op, opting for local and non-processed products. We have a CSA farm share (summer and winter). When we buy meat it is directly from local farmers.

Yesterday morning I found myself purchasing a jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise in a grocery store. (My co-op, not surprisingly, doesn’t carry that brand). I’ve tried several brands sold in my co-op of canola based or otherwise more virtuous brands than Hellmann’s. But I don’t like any of them. (A mild way of phrasing my reaction to them.) I have tried making my own, but wasn’t happy with the result. I grew up on Hellmann’s and, on those occasions when I want an egg salad or tuna salad, nothing but Hellmann’s satisfies.

One response is to criticize my hypocrisy, saying that if I were true to my beliefs about industrial agriculture I’d avoid Hellmann’s. But in this, and occasionally other ways, I find it too difficult to live perfectly in accordance with those beliefs. So what is the alternative? Giving up the effort to support local farmers, saying if I can’t do it 100% it is not worth doing at all?

It seems to me the far better approach is to do as much as I can to support local farms and accept that there will be some occasions when I act inconsistently with that.

What kind of mayonnaise I eat is obviously not a matter of great importance (especially given the infrequency with which I actually use it). But as I was driving home from the store the incident reminded me of a series of comments I just read on a Facebook post. One person had indicated a view on an issue that another person believed to be inconsistent with Catholic teaching. That second person then posted a comment suggesting if the first person could not act consistent with this position, he should be honest and leave the Catholic Church rather than continue to label himself Catholic.

I hear that sort of thing far too much – the suggestion that if someone disagrees with this or that teaching they should go find another religion and stop calling themselves Catholic.

The question my mayonnaise experience this morning raised for me is this: Should those who believe Catholicism contains the “entire deposit of faith” be so quick to encourage people to leave the Catholic tent? If one believes Catholicism is the way to salvation, isn’t it better for someone to stay in even if they have a disagreement on an issue, rather than encouraging them to leave? Even if someone doesn’t think Catholic is the only or the best, but thinks it is a good and virtuous path, shouldn’t they want others to benefit from all that Catholicism has to offer?

The truth is that, by virtue of our being human, NONE of us are living fully in accordance with Jesus’ teaching. So maybe we ought to focus on doing what we can to encourage each other to live out our faith as best we can, rather than suggesting that others go find another religion.

Witnessing Christ

I read an advance copy of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s eBook, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness in the Next Generation, scheduled to be released today. It is a short piece of 24 pages in length that addresses some of the challenges to genuine and effective witness to the Gospel in our society today.

Although I think some of the Archbishop’s statements are overgeneralized (e.g., he lumps all media together, giving the impression there exists a single journalistic orthodoxy intent on presenting religion in a a negative light), I think there is truth to his concern that “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past.” That poses a challenge to all Christians, not only Catholics (the locus of his concern).

I also share the Archbishop’s view of the value of strong religious communities in, among other things, preventing notions of freedom of the individual from turning into a “destructive individualism” that turns freedom into a “license for selfishness.” Community helps us develop a sense of morality, helps us discern right and wrong.

Finally, I think Archbishop Chaput is correct that there are many people who call themselves Christian who don’t really believe in the Gospel and don’t live lives reshaped and transformed by Christ. Whether because of embarrassment or because they only “keep their religions for comfort value” it has no effect on them, and therefore no social force.

This little book is intended as a wake-up call to Catholic to renew their efforts to convert the culture in which they live – to be “the kind of witness that sets fire to the human heart,” and he talks about the important role of Catholic higher education in sending out Catholics capable of doing that.

The Archbishop, however does not sufficiently address the difficulty created by the fact that the United States today is more religiously diverse than it had ever been. It may be that the system of government that developed in our country was shaped by a “predominantly Christian inspiration,” but it takes more than assertion to suggest that a Christian worldview should pervade government policy, law and society today. I’m not saying one can’t make that case, merely that it is not attempted in this book. And that is a surprising omission given that the Archbishop acknowledges that “People don’t conform their lives to a message because it is useful. They do so because they believe the message is true and therefore life-giving.” It is one thing to convey the message to other Christians who merely need to be educated about the truths of their faith; it is another to convey it to people who do not share that faith.

The Centrality of God

I just returned from several days in New York, where I presented both an evening program on Thursday, Growing in Love and Wisdom, on the subject of my forthcoming OUP book of that title, and a weekend women’s Lent retreat on the theme of A Lenten Pilgrimage. Both were wonderful experiences.

Since Thursday evening’s program was about adapting meditations drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer, not surprisingly, several questions both during the Q&A portion of the program and afterward were about my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism. (That is a subject that will be addressed in much detail in the book manuscript I’m finally about to get back to now that the meditation book is in production.)

One woman, someone who described herself as not having given up Catholicism but who primarily practices Zen Buddhist meditation, came up to me after the program to express surprise at my return to “traditional Catholicism.” She was surprised by my mention at one point about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the primary source of her “traditional” label, I think, since I don’t tend to be labeled a traditional Catholic all that often) and wanted to know what was missing in Buddhism that I had to come back to Catholicism.

I’ve addressed the subject of Reconciliation in posts before, and I shared with the woman some of what I’ve written here in the past. (See e.g., here.) I also shared with her (to her surprise) that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a confessional practice for monks and nuns that doesn’t look very different from the Catholic sacrament. I engaged in the practice many times while I was a Buddhist nun.

As to the “what was missing” question, my immediate answer was the centrality of personal relationship with God. My years as a Buddhist were incredibly worthwhile and important to my spiritual growth. But, although I never before framed the question to myself the way the woman did, what was missing in Buddhism for me was the centrality of God. For some people, that may not matter, and their spiritual lives can be complete in ways that don’t require God at the center. But not me. I came (albeit after a lot of years) to realize that without God something was missing. And not just a something that could be replaced by something else. But the something that is irreplaceable and without which nothing else could make sense. The something that defines everything about who I am – that is the ground of my being.

Maybe that does make me traditional. But, if so, that is a definition of traditional that I’m completely comfortable with.

By the way: You can listen to the talk I gave last Thursday evening on Growing in Love and Wisdom at the icon below. You can also download the podcast here. (The podcast runs for 42:33.) In the talk, I explored some of the common values and understandings underlying Christianity and Buddhism and talked about how meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition can enhance our prayer lives as Christians.

Stories of Conversion

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the books on which I’m currently working is a book of about conversion, inspired by my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. (“Currently” is generous – since my priority right now is getting the final manuscript of my book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation for Christians to Oxford University Press by August 1, I haven’t been doing much work lately on the conversion book.) As a result, I find it interesting to read stories chronicling the conversion experiences of others.

I just finished reading Atheist to Catholic: Stories of Conversion, edited by Rebecca Vitz Cherico, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. The book contains eleven stories written by converts to Catholicism.

Although the backgrounds of the authors vary and each of the stories is different, their accounts reveal some common themes. One is that God is relentless in trying to draw us closer and uses many methods to try to communicate his love and desire for us. Something we read in a book. A chance comment or encounter. The words of a student. An experience of peace where one is not expecting it.

Another is the gift of spiritual friends, people that both help us along the way to conversion and those who form part of the community we join. Community, as one of the author’s observed is an important part of recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives. Each of the stories speaks of people – lay and religious – who provided support for them on their journey. I smile as I think of some of the people who provided wonderful guidance for me as I struggled with my return to Catholicism from Buddhism.

I found some of the stories to be quite powerful, particularly one written by a professor who journeys from teaching about the Spanish mystics as an academic matter to appreciating that what the mystics were trying to convey cannot be apprehended solely through the intellect. Although it may lose something by being taken out of the context of his story, worth reflecting on is his observation that

living a life in which every act, gesture, and word affirm the faith that can only come from God is different from living in consonance with moral law and the rational truths of theology. It is never at odds with this second, sacramental kind of living, which is the foundation of all spiritual life, but it is nevertheless different from it in the sense that it subsumes it and moves beyond it. Another way of putting it would be that some experience of the sacramental life was a prerequisite for even a superficial understanding of the Spanish mystics or any other mystics.

Some of the stories resonated less strongly with me than others. That may be an inescapable problem when one tries to capture a person’s path to conversion in eight or ten pages. I know myself that when I’ve been asked to write a short article about my conversion or give a 10-15 minutes talk on the subject, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not seem lifeless – that doesn’t cut out so much crucial detail and color as to seem dry and conclusory. As I read a couple of the stories I found myself frustrated at a paragraph of a (dry) sentence or two that either that I knew I would find more satisfactory if I could sit down and hear the author’s story in more detail or that I felt deserved to be challenged in some respect.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read the book. At a time when one reads so much about people abandoning their faith, it is good to be reminded of some of the compelling stories of people who have found their way to God.