More Religious Characters, Please

I concur with most everything said here, especially Katie’s note about 21st century literature. As I read, I strained my memory for “books [with religious/Christian characters] other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.”

The books or authors that most immediately come to mind when I think of good Christian fiction (whether they feature practicing Christians or not) are either Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien), Catholic literary revivalists (Waugh, Percy, Greene, O’Connor), or somewhat-adjacent folk (Sayers), all publishing ca. 1920-1980. And, you know, I’ll go on recommending the Lord Peter books, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, or the Cosmic Trilogy until my mind dissolves. I’ll commend anything by L’Engle even if it’s technically 20th century writing and I still have yet to read most of it.

But as Katie says, it’s harder to find representation in contemporary books. The field seems ripe for some solid idea-wrestling – what does it look like to be Orthodox in 2019?  What tension exists between you, the culture at large, and individuals around you when you’re a Calvinist?  How does your Catholicism manifest, and how do you reconcile confessing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” with the abuses wrought by some priests and hidden by others? – all of which is to say, maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps, as with stories about contentedly single women, I’d have to write it myself.

Some possibilities that occur:

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. 1996, set in 2019/2060. Features Jesuits, Judaism, and agnosticism, in the context of interstellar travel.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. 2004, set 1956. A Congregationalist minister’s theological and philosophical struggles as he looks back on his life and his family history.

Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley. 2009-2019, set in 1950. Not about faith so much as it’s about crime-solving via chemistry, but it at least depicts Catholics and Anglicans going about their lives.

The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. 2013, set…well, sometime after 1970. Depicts a woman entering a community in the style of the Benedict Option.

I’d also like to mention Luci Shaw again. She’s a poet, not a novelist, so insofar as her work discusses faith, it does so directly rather than mediated through a character. She’s been publishing since the 1970s.

Edited to add:  Krysta of Pages Unbound has talked about this on multiple occasions, and one of the Pages Unbound readers has assembled this list of titles which feature POF, ie, People of Faith.

What books do you know of that represent Christianity in any depth?

What books do you know that represent Judaism, Islam, or other religions with nuance?

Never Not Reading

Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.

There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.

However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.


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and there an answer

I had an idea that I should re-shape my mind to focus less on striving for romantic love, and more on the sweetness of God.

In pursuit thereof, it seemed beneficial to form new habits, which would give a different cast to my mind: reading Scripture every day (less sporadically), praying more regularly, avoiding certain haunts on Tumblr and Ao3, and reading some devotional work or poetry (beginning with The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis).

The poetry that first came to mind was the product of a Facebook friend.  She’s more of an acquaintance after we’ve spent so many years in different places, yet I would delight in any time spent with her.  While I don’t wish to follow her footsteps exactly, her life’s path struck me as a useful exemplar: a woman who reads widely, writes beautifully, has never seemed concerned with Eros in her life, and who has discerned a vocation as a nun.

I set out to capture her poetry (lest she remove it one day from Facebook) and, along the way, also captured her quotations: a sort of vade mecum, even if it was originally hers and not mine.

In so doing…

Well, obviously I fell prey to envy once again.  Not merely over her reading and writing, her photography, or her understanding of the world, but her graduate degree, the time she spent growing while teaching, and her friendships: lively and verdant and close, full of delight and encouragement.

I was also envious, during this process, of my past self’s relationships and pursuits, wishing I’d worked harder and studied more (somehow found energy to do more of everything).  I’m disappointed in the sites or blog posts from 3 or 5 or 7 years back that have since disappeared.  I miss the way the world was, I miss how we engaged with each other, I miss feeling part of it.

I don’t really feel like I’m part of anything, these days.

So of course I asked a different friend how to deal with regret over past failures, and of course he counselled that forgetting what is behind and striving toward what is ahead generally works best.

And so I turned back to today’s reading on Psalm 119 (laboring, as ever, over Oh how I love your law!) and chapters X and XI of Book 1 of Imitation of Christ.

Just look at this:

CHAPTER XI
Of seeking peace of mind and of spiritual progress

We may enjoy abundance of peace if we refrain from busying ourselves with the sayings and doings of others, and things which concern not ourselves. How can he abide long time in peace who occupieth himself with other men’s matters, and with things without himself, and meanwhile payeth little or rare heed to the self within? Blessed are the single-hearted, for they shall have abundance of peace.

How came it to pass that many of the Saints were so perfect, so contemplative of Divine things? Because they steadfastly sought to mortify themselves from all worldly desires, and so were enabled to cling with their whole heart to God, and be free and at leisure for the thought of Him. We are too much occupied with our own affections, and too anxious about transitory things. Seldom, too, do we entirely conquer even a single fault, nor are we zealous for daily growth in grace. And so we remain lukewarm and unspiritual.

Were we fully watchful of ourselves, and not bound in spirit to outward things, then might we be wise unto salvation, and make progress in Divine contemplation. Our great and grievous stumbling-block is that, not being freed from our affections and desires, we strive not to enter into the perfect way of the Saints. And when even a little trouble befalleth us, too quickly are we cast down, and fly to the world to give us comfort.

If we would quit ourselves like men, and strive to stand firm in the battle, then should we see the Lord helping us from Heaven. For He Himself is alway ready to help those who strive and who trust in Him; yea, He provideth for us occasions of striving, to the end that we may win the victory. If we look upon our progress in religion as a progress only in outward observances and forms, our devoutness will soon come to an end. But let us lay the axe to the very root of our life, that, being cleansed from affections, we may possess our souls in peace.

If each year should see one fault rooted out from us, we should go quickly on to perfection. But on the contrary, we often feel that we were better and holier in the beginning of our conversion than after many years of profession. Zeal and progress ought to increase day by day; yet now it seemeth a great thing if one is able to retain some portion of his first ardour. If we would put some slight stress on ourselves at the beginning, then afterwards we should be able to do all things with ease and joy.

It is a hard thing to break through a habit, and a yet harder thing to go contrary to our own will. Yet if thou overcome not slight and easy obstacles, how shalt thou overcome greater ones? Withstand thy will at the beginning, and unlearn an evil habit, lest it lead thee little by little into worse difficulties. Oh, if thou knewest what peace to thyself thy holy life should bring to thyself, and what joy to others, methinketh thou wouldst be more zealous for spiritual profit.

Well.  There’s my marching orders.  Lay the axe to the very root of our life!  Thank God for such pointed words.  May He grant it.

Obedience to Beauty

I’ve not read much by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, but came across this quotation and thought it worth rumination.  Mention of the inexorable Muse induced me to share it here.

If faith is the attunement and adaptation of the whole of existence to God, then we could just as well call faith obedience, for such indeed it is. But let us not forget the strict obedience exacted even by worldly beauty both from the creating artist and from the re-creating admirer who contemplates and enjoys it.

The artist has an idea which must be realized and which accepts no excuses until the creator has expended his last energies in the service of this coming-into-reality. Service of the beautiful can constitute the hardest kind of asceticism, and so it has been with all the greatest creators.

But all the vital acts of renunciation demanded by the inexorable Muse were directed by the enrapturing impulse to help her enter visibility… In faith, man is at one and the same time artist and artifact. Thus, obedience is not opposed to the beautiful.

– Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord I, “The Experience of Faith”

It’s been a long, grey, quiet while since I’ve encountered (been inspired by? been driven by) an idea, a picture, a Muse which stood unbending until I did the vision justice in my execution.

I Expect a Guardian!

Book Group Thing has started back up, and with
it, a stream of winding Harrius Potterdiscourse on more diverse topics than our ostensible subject, Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy.  A tangent on book-thievery and book-reclaiming prompted me to bring up Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, which is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin.

“How did the translator render the spells?” wondered my fellow bibliophiles.  “Some of them are already in Latin, yeah?  How do they get set apart as spells?”

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much to the characters, does it?” said I.  “Instead of thinking of the spell as Nox, they just say, Night!  Or [instead of Expecto Patronum,] I EXPECT A GUARDIAN!

Which prompted a bit more laughter than I expected, and more thought on the Patronus Charm than is typical.  Not everyone reading is a Potterite, so here’s a brief description: a Patronus is a sort of offensive shield, a silvery animal-shaped guardian which is the corporeal form of a happy memory or thought.  It launches itself at both Dementors and Lethifolds, holding them at bay if not driving them off.

There are several occasions where Harry or other characters conjure a Patronus; the spell’s use becomes ever more frequent in the later books, as war descends and Dementors appear more and more often.  I wanted to focus on three particular occasions of Patronus charm use:

– In the maze Harry goes through to reach the Goblet of Fire, he meets a Dementor-shaped Boggart.  Driving it away isn’t quite the same as driving away a real Dementor, but the mechanism is the same: he concentrates on getting out of the maze and celebrating with Ron and Hermione, something that hasn’t happened, but which he hopes for.

– During battle in Deathly Hallows, Harry attempts to conjure a Patronus but cannot summon up any happy thought whatsoever.  Luna prompts him with “We’re all still here; we’re still fighting.”  It costs him more effort to conjure than it ever has before, as the situation is so grim, but Harry’s Patronus still bursts forth to stand guard.

– Harry uses one to drive away a lot of Dementors near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.  In his words, “I knew I could do it this time, because I’d already done it – does that make sense?”  In this event, he focuses not on a happy memory, nor a positive thought, but on his certainty that the Patronus will save him because it already has in his other-time’s experience.

Dementors as Rowling wrote them aren’t a foe we ever meet with; that said, it is Monday again, and we have our own battles to fight, be they e’er so humble.  Where a happy memory may not get us through, our hopes may; perseverance may; or faith may, the assurance about what we do not see.

There are occasions, even in the Muggle world, when our happiness is drained away, when we feel as though we will never be happy again.  What happy memory or hope is your guardian against Dementor-like feelings?

Anticipating Valentine’s Day: East Coker

This is Part III of “East Coker,” which is the second portion of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.