The Current State of the Catholic Imagination: A Sabbath Feast
With the permission of Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, author of three Paraclete Press books (The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor, Still Pilgrim: Poems, and forthcoming Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor), we share this address with you that she gave at The Catholic Imagination Conference in Chicago just last week.
THE CURRENT STATE OF THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION: A SABBATH FEAST
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Fordham University
Plenary Lecture, The Catholic Imagination Conference
Loyola University Chicago, Friday September 20, 2019
I am delighted to be here at the 3rd incarnation of the Conference on the Catholic Literary Imagination and to see so many of us gathered for what has become a ritual we enact every two years. It is a privilege and a pleasure for us to be here. In preparing this reflection for today, I was reminded of the beautiful Jewish hymn traditionally sung at the Sabbath Feast, Hine Ma Tov. Its lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133, which is translated in the Kings James version of the Bible as "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
The Sabbath Feast is, actually, a fitting metaphor for what we are doing here at Loyola Chicago this Friday and Saturday for the next 24 hours (and more): Taking time out of our ordinary lives to set aside work, put on our party clothes, sit down at the laden table, light the candles, say a prayer of celebration—many prayers, in fact—and break bread together. All of us have brought gifts with us to the Sabbath Feast—our poems and plays, stories and novels, films and memoirs, biographies and journals, essays and lectures—artistic creations of every kind. We lay these on the table for all to partake of and enjoy. Here, take, eat, we say. It is Eucharist by another name.
I am struck by the generosity of this whole enterprise.
Four years ago, Dana Gioia opened up the doors of the Caruso Center at USC for our first Sabbath Feast. It was a historic moment. For the first time ever, over 200 Catholic writers and readers gathered in the warm sun of Southern California to celebrate the abiding presence of the Catholic Imagination in literature and art and to ponder its future. Many of us met there for the first time, learned about and listened to one another’s work, and so enjoyed the experience we knew we had to do it again.
Two years later in 2017, I was fortunate to serve as host for our second Sabbath Feast at Fordham University in the heart of New York City. The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies threw open the doors of our Lincoln Center Campus, just a few blocks from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, holy ground for American Catholics, and celebrated the work of Catholic artists with a special emphasis on New York City writers and the influence of the Jesuit charism on the world of art and the imagination. The conference grew in numbers—over 400 readers and writers passionate about Catholic literature gathered there. Once more we knew we had to do this again, and I was thrilled to be able to announce at the closing session of that conference that the good people of the Hank Center at Loyola Chicago had volunteered to host the third gathering.
And so we find ourselves here, two years later, grateful recipients of the hospitality of Michael Murphy and his colleagues participating in yet another historic conference. Our community has grown again in numbers—for that’s what we have become, not just a conference but a community. Nearly 500 of us have come to the center of the country to participate in our biennial reunion and celebrate the Catholic Imagination with a special emphasis on the contributions of artists from the Midwest.
The symmetry of this progression is a thing of beauty and even suggests a providential design: from the West Coast to the East Coast, from the margins to the Middle. We don’t yet know where the next conference might take place, but if I were a betting woman, I’d wager it will be somewhere in the South: Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Washington DC, we’ve got our eye on you!
I suspect I am speaking for everyone when I say how deeply grateful I am for the opportunity to be here and for the experience of helping to build this community. I am also grateful for the chance to offer some remarks on the nature of our enterprise, to celebrate how far we have come and to speculate on where we might go from here.
I’ll start with some assessment of our progress.
I am happy to observe that the State of the Catholic Imagination in America is vigorous and flourishing. There are many outward signs of that flourishing. I’ll list a few of them.
First, as the saying goes, let’s do the numbers.
There are more and more writers—especially younger writers—who are willing to self-identify as members of a community of Catholic writers. As I mentioned in the remarks I made at the first Catholic Imagination conference, there was a time when some Catholic writers felt pressured to disguise our Catholicity. To identify as a Catholic at a secular literary conference meant immediate loss of IQ points in the estimation of one’s literary colleagues. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen anymore, but I do believe that as more and more Catholic artists have become prominent and openly discuss the relationship between their vocation and their spiritual and cultural formation as Catholics, it is becoming more acceptable to be Catholic. We have proven that we can be faithful and also be smart, that we can be Catholic and good at our art. Granted, this is a ridiculous thing to have to prove, since many of the world’s greatest artists have been Catholics, from Dante and Michelangelo on down, but it is the cost of living in an era of unbelief. No one felt this more keenly than Flannery O’Connor, who describes the dilemma of the Catholic writer in “The Fiction Writer and His Country”:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (MM 34).
O’Connor found a way to convey the counter-cultural nature of her vision, as every Catholic artist must. She also serves as a model for many of us as an artist confident in the power of her work and confident in the truth of her vision. Flannery, who died at 39 of lupus, is also forever young: perhaps this is, in part, why many younger Catholic writers find that she gives them permission to be forthcoming about the role Catholicism plays in their art.
Second, there are more outlets for the work of Catholic writers. The 2015 and 2017 conferences showcased the journals and presses interested in publishing the work of Catholic writers, and more such journals and presses have been founded as a result of those gatherings. Journals such as Image, Presence, Literary Matters, and Dappled Things and presses such as Wise Blood Books, Wipf & Stock, Paraclete Press, Angelico Press, Ave Maria Press and Liturgical Press are mission-driven to give Catholic and Christian authors a place to publish their work.
Third, the national Catholic magazines are paying more and closer attention to the work of Catholic writers. The journals America, Commonweal, and First Things participated in our conferences and engaged in the conversation about the need for Catholic magazines to publish work by Catholic writers and in promoting their work by commissioning reviews of their books. As a result there have been more articles about Catholic literature in recent years, including lengthy portraits of both emerging and major writers and assessments of their careers. In addition, more poems by Catholics are being featured in the pages of these journals, providing their large Catholic readership with the opportunity to read the work of writers they might not otherwise encounter. This is exactly the kind of exposure Dana Gioia called for in his influential essay, “The Catholic Writer Today” a few years ago, reminding us that Catholic magazines in America have traditionally played a large role in forming the taste of their readers. If Catholic magazines are not supporting the work of Catholic writers, who will?
Fourth, several prestigious national literary contests that honor the work of Catholic writers have been established in recent years. Five years ago, America magazine, in partnership with the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center at Yale, inaugurated The George W. Hunt, SJ prize. The prize is named for former literary editor at America, George Hunt, and is given to a younger writer whose work attains a high standard of literary excellence and is philosophically, theologically, or spiritually reflective. Though the writer does not necessarily have to be Catholic, in practice most of the writers who submit to the contest are. I’ve had the pleasure of being a member of the selection committee for the past five years, and it has been a revelation to me how many young Catholic writers are out there producing terrific work whom I have not heard of. Though the committee can choose only one writer per year, this contest provides the opportunity for the judges (many of whom are professors and journalists) and editors of the magazine to discover, reward, and promote the work of emerging writers. It also gives us all a chance to celebrate the work of one of those writers and to invite him or her into the community of Catholic artists, a community he or she may not yet consider themselves a member of. As an aside, I’d like to observe the fact that both of the Hunt Prize winners were at the 2017 conference in New York and 4 of the 5 prize winners are here at the Chicago conference this year: Philip Metres, Liam Callinan, Phil Klay, and Mary Szybist.
In addition to the Hunt Prize, there are a number of other prizes that are sympathetic to the work of Catholic writers, including America’s annual Foley Prize, the New York Encounter Prize sponsored by the Crossroads organization, and the newly announced Paraclete Poetry Prize sponsored by Paraclete Press, to name just a few. This is all Good News, of course, as these prizes serve to honor, promote and legitimate the work of Catholic artists.
Within the academy, programs in Catholic Studies are thriving. As the Associate Director of one such program, The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham, I can attest to the work these programs and centers do in promoting the work of Catholic writers. Faculty include the work of Catholic artists on their syllabi, spreading the good news about the flourishing of Catholic literature among their students and demonstrating its powerful and shaping presence in American Culture. We invite Catholic writers to campus, go to films and plays written by Catholic writers, plan conferences and symposia that feature the work of Catholic writers, and include Catholic writers in Faculty Seminars. We also conduct and promote scholarship focused on the work of Catholic writers, making studies of the work of Catholic writers available to the academic community and to lay readers. For instance, the Curran Center, in partnership with Fordham University Press, has recently inaugurated a new book series: “Studies in the Catholic Imagination.” The series seeks to publish critical books that focus on the work of classic Catholic writers (Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc) but also on the work of contemporary Catholic authors whose literary reputations are just being made. This series, and others like it, is the result of a movement within academia that has taken place in the past 20 years which has legitimized the study of Catholic writers as such. This movement has also issued in scholarship which explores the influence of Catholic writers who were thought to be primarily—if not entirely—secular in their world view—writers such as Don DeLillo, Ernest Hemingway, and others. Again, the number of Catholic writers continues to grow, including artists who are no longer with us but whose work is being re-evaluated, as well as those who are still writing.
All of this brings us back to my first observation: the fact that there are more authors joining the ranks of Catholic writers every year. It’s not mystery as to why this is happening. The fact that there are more outlets for Catholic writers, more attention being paid to their work, and more prizes celebrating it are surely responsible, in part, for this growth. So, too, I would argue is this conference and others like it. A few years back, when I was planning the 2017 conference, I made it a point to invite younger authors who were of Catholic background but who didn’t necessarily identify as Catholic writers. Their work was definitely shaped by their Catholic formation, whether they were aware of this or not. Some of them were surprised to receive an invitation to such a conference. Most accepted, as the commute was easy (they were New Yorkers) and the opportunity to offer one’s work to readers hard to resist—but I don’t think they expected to find a place where they felt so welcomed and where they felt as if they belonged.
In Dana’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” he mentions that there are at least 3 different degrees of Catholic writers: those who are practicing Catholics, those who don’t practice but who remain culturally Catholic and whose vision is shaped by Catholicism, and those who have become anti-Catholic, writers who have broken with the Church but remain obsessed with its failings and injustices, both genuine and imagined. The spirit of our conferences has been radically small-“c” catholic in the sense that all 3 of these degrees of Catholic writers are welcome. This is a big-tent, as opposed to a narrow gate, and we offer a seat at the Sabbath table to whoever comes. (That’s 3—count them 3—metaphors in one sentence. I’m a poet—I can’t help myself—but you get the picture!) To quote a particularly notorious example of the anti-Catholic writer—one who remains ever near and dear to our hearts—James Joyce, “H.C.E” might be the unofficial motto of our biennial conference: “Here Comes Everybody.” The invitation to this community extends to all Catholics—and to non-Catholics, as well. Anyone who is passionate about the Catholic Imagination is welcome here, an attitude which has helped foster ecumenical conversation, literary friend- and partnerships that cross religious boundaries, and a sense of accompaniment and shared purpose as we make our individual literary and artistic pilgrimage(s).
I promised at the outset of my remarks to say something about the possibilities for the Future of the Catholic Imagination, and I will make just a couple of observations.
First, as far as we have come, we have farther to go. There is still anti-Catholic prejudice in the literary world, and until Catholic writers have an equal chance of having their work published in the most selective and prestigious journals and by premiere presses, we can’t stop aspiring. Catholic writers don’t write only for Catholics—we write for everybody, and all readers deserve the chance to hear what we have to say. We need to occupy editorial positions and advocate for Catholic writers; we need to endorse and review one another’s books, and we need to use whatever means might be available to us to share the good news about this flourishing of the Catholic Imagination—whether that be writing articles and critical books about it, inviting writers to speak at our institutions, including Catholic writers on our syllabi and in our classrooms.
We need to stop apologizing for being Catholic. I offer this as advice to myself as much as it is advice to other writers. Writing out of a great and powerful imaginative tradition is nothing to apologize for. Yes, granted, the Church is deeply flawed and problematic. It embarrasses itself—and us—every day on account of the imperfect human beings who run it. This is nothing new. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote, quoting Romano Guardini, “The Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified.” It takes nerves of steel to belong to this church, a strong belief in sin, and an equally strong belief in mercy. This pattern of Fall and Redemption is at the heart of every story we tell. The Church and Judeo-Christian tradition gives us plenty to write about.
We need to stop arguing among ourselves. Just as there are fault-lines in the contemporary church—divisions between those labeled “conservative” and “liberal”—there are divisions among Catholic writers. Some are said to be more faithful than others, truer to their vocations. Others are accused of being “sneaky Catholics,” of attempting to disguise the Catholic imagination that informs our work. (This term was actually applied to me in a book review a few years back. I was quite amazed—as well as amused—to learn that I was so stealthy!) Instead of creating divisions among ourselves, we need to recognize that are as many ways to be a Catholic artist as there are Catholic artists, that there is beauty in this diversity, and that we need to intentionally cultivate the sense of community fostered by this conference and the ones that have come before.
And so I return to my first thought with which I began these remarks: the call to community.
Walker Percy once said of his life as a Writer, “there is no occupation in the universe that is lonelier, and at the same time depends more radically on a community, a commonwealth of other writers.... As lonely as is the craft of writing, it is the most social of vocations."
For Percy, the gift of community redeems the lonely work we as writers do. I like to think he would have found himself glad and grateful to be here among us today. And though he can’t be present in body, he is surely here in spirit. Catholics believe in the communion of saints, and all of our writers—both the living and the dead—belong to this communion.
Hine Ma Tov, as the Sabbath hymn goes. "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" Good Sabbath to you all.