L-R: Flannery O’Connor, François Mauriac (Google Images)
BY JOHN HILL
My children, when they were in their twenties, would ask me what happened in the years when I was their age. I would tell them that we didn’t have wine and women but we did have song and something special that has sustained us over the years.
It was great reading. So those many years in a seminary allowed one to acknowledge and appreciate the impact of literature on our lives. The Order that I was part of for nearly a third of my life gave me a wonderful appreciation of literature.
Our generation grew up with some great Catholic literature. Writers like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, and John Updike to name but a few.
They gave us an insight into the creative nature of genuine Catholicism. It was a literature that helped sustain our faith – a faith that didn’t have to resort to apologetics and learning by rote what was presented as dogma and theological certainties.
We were able to live with a fiction that had not lost its faith.
When I observe so much of fiction writing in our culture, it would seem to be post-Christian. Half a century after writers like O’Connor, Green, Bernanos etc presented themselves as novelists with Christian convictions what comes through today seems thin on the ground. So much so are the works of fiction about the quandaries of Christian belief.
A Christian faith, and specifically a Catholic one, in a country like ours with millions of adherents, a faith seeped into every nook and cranny of our society seems at times to resemble nothing more than those old and somewhat disfigured Pellegrini statues in unused churches conveniently turned into buildings and wedding venues. Perhaps it may be good revenue for the institutional coffers but does nothing more than bewilder the new occupants.
We view the present upheaval in Australian Catholic life involving paedophilia, distrust, politics, and corruption with concern and even consternation.
What we placed our faith in seemed to have betrayed us.
At the same time, we observe and are saddened by the inability of many of our church leaders to listen to the yearnings in the hearts and souls of the faithful. All too often, in an attempt to quell, dissent authorities have allowed for dogma and discrimination to be synonymous.
Our age is a critical age and no longer a creative one. Has fiction lost its faith? Where have the novels which gave us a sense of belief gone?
In Australia today Catholicism is highly visible in public life but it seems to have little or no consequence in many individual lives.
People of faith see decline and fall while the detractors of faith see a people left behind resembling an embittered lost brigade. That helps explain the rear guard action of the ideological chosen elect who seem to be so readily promoted by some of the hierarchy. So we are told that if it is too hot in the kitchen then to get out.
This has left so many who are deeply rooted in a Catholic presence, based on gospel principles, out on a limb.
As I reflect on the institutional church and the happenings over the past 25 years it is as though a dystopian future has been evolving. What we wish to believe in is not what we seem to be getting.
We know in our hearts that marketing cannot trump substance and that cynicism is unable to compete with sincerity.
What we yearn for is authenticity and transparency. If these are lacking then the grounds on which we base our faith values become very shaky. We prefer truth over a crusted up version of triumphalism. We do not wish to be deceived by the institution which we saw as the proclaimer of ‘The Good News.’
Religious fiction was able to dramatise a central religious experience as though it was our encounter with a being recognised through faith.
Today such an encounter can take place outside organised religion. But those of us searching for a religious belief we have to ask just how belief figures in our own world. It is to decide if it is worth acting upon. Is belief believable?
Half a century ago, Flannery O’Connor framed the struggle to ‘make belief believed.’ She explained it in this way ‘to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.’
She brought through her fiction an image of Christianity that was not so much a matter of believing certain things but rather of seeing the world in the light of faith. O’Connor valued the insights of Teilhard de Chardin and she saw fiction as the concrete expression of mystery- a mystery that is lived out in life.
When your heart breaks, when loss strikes, when you learn of diminution and pain that is when you are called to the only unfailing source of life. She would readily concur with Teilhard ‘Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence f God.’
I feel that we do look for the literature of belief. We look for it where we can.
We hope to find the writer who can dramatise belief in the way we experience it. I look for a novelist who can put it all together.
That will be enough for me. That is why in my formative years with song and beautiful literature written by the likes of a Bernanos, Greene, O’Connor , and their ilk, I found what was precious to sustain my search as one of many pilgrims for the Absolute.
John Hill blogs from Kensington in Sydney.
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