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A Catholic novel, about a lost Catholic world

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 23, 2019

Last week, at a friend’s suggestion, I reread The Edge of Sadness, by Edwin O’Connor. It’s not a great novel, but it’s a good novel, written from an unmistakably Catholic perspective. Of course, since the main character is a Catholic priest, it would be different to have written this book from any other perspective. Still O’Connor’s insights into the life of faith are striking. Take this passage, for example, on distractions during prayer:

For when we do anything, however important, over and over again, when by repetition we reach the point where we could do this thing without thinking, the danger is that we will do it without thinking. The net result is that sometimes we will pray to God, say, in the same automatic way that we will tie our shoelaces. I mentioned prayer because it’s so peculiarly liable to this sort of thing. We know our prayers so well and have said them so often that before we know it we’ve said them again—and again without a shred of thought or meaning. I suspect it’s very hard for most of us to pray—to pray well, that is. The mechanical act of falling upon one’s knees and saying the Lord’s Prayer every day is one thing and a simple thing, but to say even the first half-dozen words of that prayer with the attention they deserve is quite another and not at all so simple. I think every prayer well said is a shot through a barricade—and the barricade surrounds the altar as well as anywhere else.

You might say that this isn’t an original insight, and you’d be right. O’Connor was, through his fictional character, passing along what he had learned: what any reasonably bright Catholic of his generation learned in his home, his parish, his parochial school. Writing in 1961, he could take it for granted that many of his readers—his fellow Catholics—would find those insights familiar and sympathize with his character. Even non-Catholic readers could recognize the essential truth of the world O’Connor created—as evidenced by the fact that this novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s a book about a distinctively Catholic world, a distinctively American Catholic world. And that world no longer exists.

That world was certainly not ideal—O’Connor’s title is a giveaway—and the characters in this novel are certainly not models for emulation. But at least the characters knew, and the readers knew, what it meant to be Catholic. Could a novelist today write from the same sort of Catholic sensibility, and be confident that his readers would understand?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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