Am I Writing about Nothing Today?
For a year or more I’ve felt prodded (by either the Holy Spirit or my ego) to introduce another form of writing into the mix at CatholicCulture.org, something more laid back, something more charming. There is so much more to living the Faith than commenting on the news, defending Catholic principles, and laying down the law. Surely there must be a warm and even entertaining way of expressing the richness, the joy and even the humor of living a Catholic life.
My urge to periodically morph into such a writer becomes very strong during periods when we’re commenting heavily on highly controversial topics. Whenever we’re stepping on one group or another’s proverbial toes, we get no shortage of enthusiastic emails explaining that our exposition of this or that principle proves that we are the devil’s own. Some correspondents are thoroughly disgusted and consequently brief, but many are extremely generous in the quantity of prose they will use to make this point. Contrary to popular belief, however, I’m really an extremely nice guy. I only want people to catch the glory of what it means to be a Catholic. I don’t really enjoy driving nails into their personal intellectual crosses. (The sledgehammer is just for show.)
There are several possibilities here. For example, I could adopt the pattern of that wildly successful genre, the detective story:
The buzzer jolted my feet from the desk, and a moment later she stood in the doorway. Tall, slender, auburn hair. She was a tonic, much better than morning coffee. But she didn’t look happy; they never do in my office. As I guided her to the best chair, I wondered if I dared offer a drink. I also glanced again at her appointment letter. She was losing her husband. She was desperate to convince him not to divorce her. So forget that drink. Just another typical gorgeous client hoping for help from Catholic Troubleshooters. Yeah, that’s my name on the door all right: Max Content.
Or sometimes the travelogue attracts interest:
Chartres Cathedral. When Chesterton saw it on a hazy day with a row of vans slowly moving along the street across the facade, he said it looked as if the vans were stationary while the cathedral’s magnificent spires were marching off to war. A previous church on the site was almost complete when it was destroyed by fire in 1194, leaving only its great relic completely unscathed, the birthing gown Our Lady wore in the stable in Bethlehem. The miracle prompted immediate construction of the even greater church we have now, which became a model throughout Europe. What a wonderful vertical sweep above the nave, a dim and vaulted space with a burst of light around the altar! Stonework, statuary, stained glass: These rise inside and out as high as the eye can see, built through the contributions of every rank and class of society, and crafted by the great medieval guilds, all for the sheer glory of God.
Then there’s the ever-popular humorous anecdote:
So I’m trying to explain consubstantiation to the idiot across the table. He figures it has something to do with negative energy or a black hole, interpreting it as meaning “against substance”. But I’m patient; I explain it means “with substance”, and it refers to the Lutheran notion that the body and blood of Christ are present along with the bread and wine in the Eucharist. He holds up a hand. The term “Eucharist” rings no bell. I explain: “It means ‘thanksgiving’. It is the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.” I feel someone poking my left side, but the hopeless case across the table is actually responding! Sadly, he sees no connection between what the word means and what I’m talking about, and he has no clue what a sacrament is. “Well, it’s an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” He smiles politely; he’s heard of grace. He had a high school friend by that name. Somebody is poking me again, and I feel a sort of kick under the table. But now I’m in full flow. I emphasize that Catholics explain the Eucharist with the term “transubstantiation”, which means that the very substance of the bread and wine is replaced by the substance of Christ’s body and blood. “And this stuff is important?” he asks. “Yes, yes, can’t you see it?” I raise my voice: “It’s beautiful theology, because all we sense in the Eucharist are accidents!” I bang my glass down triumphantly. Next moment, I’m kicked again (“Ouch!”). There’s someone to my left I’ve forgotten about. I turn in the direction of the pokes and kicks. “Dear,” she whispers, “you are becoming something of an accident yourself. These are our GUESTS.”
An Important Voice
The question I ask myself is how can we inject a broader cultural note into CatholicCulture.org, a sense of the rich and happy life we lead as Catholics. That’s an important part of what it means to live in a Catholic culture, to have Catholic friends, and even just to possess the balance and humility to appreciate God’s many gifts without taking ourselves and our challenges so seriously that all the joy drains away. Among all the resources available on this web site, and all the commentaries we’ve written on contemporary developments and theological issues, there is quite a bit that is significantly educational, quite a lot that is helpful for particular purposes, and some that assists us in enriching our devotions, increasing our rootedness in the Faith, and growing spiritually together with our families. But there is very little, I think, that addresses our lighter or less controversial moods—not very much that is just plain fun, or that gives us a deep sense of the quiet strength of the Faith and of those who share it, communicating the unshakeable peace and joy Catholics ought to feel when we’re not preoccupied with making a point.
We tried a few years ago to launch something I called the Catholic leisure project. It did well in polls, but not in reality. Few people expressed much interest in the writings we produced for it; fewer still contributed to it, and the whole thing lasted only a few months. In one sense, most of us don’t need much help enjoying life. It is the serious side of things that requires effort, study, prayer, reflection, even ammunition. But in another sense, many of us are pretty isolated. We often don’t know what it means to live in a strong, secure and self-confident Catholic community. We may not even have much experience of Catholic relatives and friends. Perhaps we seldom know true peace of soul. Life can be a perpetual conflict. We may even be tempted to think of serious Catholics as drudges, and serious Catholicism as drudgery. Important drudgery, even necessary drudgery. But tough work all the same.
There is a part of me that wants to find an antidote to all this through a different sort of voice, a kind of writing that makes someone exclaim:
I loved reading that. It had some depth, but nobody was making a point of it. It was entertaining and relaxing. I laughed but I never mocked. I cried without being sad. The author presupposes the permanent things and plays over their surface, like a child leading the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion. For a few minutes, I felt perfectly at home. I enjoyed the gifts God has given; I was at peace in the world God has made.
But Not Quite Yet
Such moments should, of course, come in prayer, but they ought also to be part of our cultural experience. It is little wonder that the Church has always promoted literature, music and the arts (not to mention good clean human fellowship), or that a brilliant philosopher like John Paul II also reached out through drama and poetry. There is a wide field here, certainly more than any one writer can master, and it has not been central to our purpose to concentrate on this particular relationship between Christianity and culture.
Nor do I propose that it should be central now. A quarter of a century ago, when I was editing what had become Christendom College’s academic journal, Faith & Reason (which I had started independently back in 1975), I proposed to the readership that we devote a special issue each year to fiction and poetry. The suggestion was roundly condemned by many, who argued that Catholics in a hostile culture should not waste time on frivolities. But there has been a considerable cultural awakening among serious Catholics since that time.
Nonetheless, it is true that the very labor of any sort of comprehensive effort on the part of our particular apostolate would necessarily diminish those things that we all think of as “serious”. We may define “serious” far too narrowly at times, dismissing other ways of reaching, touching, and engracing ourselves and those we meet. But we’ve got it right much of the time, and we don’t want to damage that.
So it may be either a Divine invitation or a Divine rejection that I have felt the need but have not received any inspiration as to how this need might be realized. Still less have I seen how I might become the kind of writer who could occasionally achieve the end toward which this persistent prodding seems to be aiming. Until I have this figured out, one way or another, I will continue to think about it a great deal. I invite you to do the same, and to share your insights. What is required here? What would help? What, if anything, should take shape?
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