A manifesto for Catholic novelists and poets, minus the grimace

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“Contemplative realism is a marvelous achievement that fully engages with mainstream secular literary culture without cringing Catholic teeth.” Image: Viktor Vasnetsov/WikiArt

Joshua Hren is one of the key figures in a small, informal movement of practicing Catholic writers, based primarily in North America.

Hren founded Wise Blood Books in 2013 and co-founded the MFA program at the University of St Thomas in Houston with poet James Matthew Wilson. He is the author of three fiction books. His Contemplative realism: a theological-aesthetic manifestowritten specifically for novelists and short stories, was published by the Benedict XVI Institute in January this year, responding to the Holy Father’s call to “ask a little more carefully what ‘the real’ really is “.

Manifestos tend to be short-lived and there are many dangers in being explicit about art. Not the least of these is Thomas Merton’s observation: “As soon as you’ve finished saying something, it’s no longer true.

Those we consider today to be the great Catholic artists of the past would not have felt the need to describe themselves as such. It is only in the context of the overwhelming secularism of our times that such things should be stated explicitly. We can no longer be aware of our beliefs. Hren quotes François Mauriac: “If there is a reason for the novelist on earth, it is this: to show the element that resists God in the highest and noblest characters – evils and dissimulations the most intimate; and also to illuminate the secret source of holiness in creatures that seem to us to have failed.

Yet, as Hren writes, “It would seem that those who tell providence transgress the bounds of imitation: how can grace, the precise workings of which none of us can identify, be shown?”

But it has been done and can be done. What happened to Sophie Wilder (2012) by Christopher Beha is the best recent example. Hren himself achieves this in several stories in his 2017 book. It’s our exile.

Thus, Hren calls for a kind of sanctification of the writer that refutes modern notions of separation between man and work. It seems to imply that the more virtuous the man, the more meritorious the work.

“The practitioner of contemplative realism must, in the exclusive sense, become a contemplative Christian,” he writes, becoming attentive to the source of God’s truth in the world, including Scripture, but especially the liturgy, where all real things come together.

The problem is that “fiction”, as opposed to Dante’s chronicles, tales or narrative verses, is a modern invention, with the first novels, as we know them, appearing in the late 16th century in newly modern societies. , mostly non-Catholics. .

The notion of novelty itself is linked to the European individualism of the 16th century. As Les Murray says, “The prose is Protestant-agnostic”. In traditional societies, there is probably no romance or even individual “creativity” as such, but simply (if not simply) attempts to be faithful to a representational goal.

Icon painters were (and still are) evaluated on their fidelity to a canonical original. An analogue of icon painting in words is the hymns, where the authors adapt the themes to the words, as required by the liturgical calendar.

Narrative fiction has never been part of any monastic tradition. Newman is the only saint we know of who wrote novels, and those aren’t his most beloved works. The existence of a talented cohort of Catholic novelists, Waugh, Greene, O’Connor et. al., in the twentieth century, seen in this light, appears more and more as an anomaly, and one wonders if there is a paradoxical link between their popularity and the decline of the Church during this century. But that’s a subject for a different essay.

Poets and artists will also remain believers because of their knowledge of the ineffable source of their creations.

In a sense, which Hren doesn’t quite address, trying to be a traditional Catholic fiction writer is something of an oxymoron. More fruitfully, Hren examines the idea of ​​co-creation with God, the uprooting of ideas from its ether

Honest artists know that their ideas are never entirely their own, and even the most ardent layman would never deny the mystery of inspiration. Simon Leys said that the last Christians will be poets who will believe because of the overwhelming beauty and unity of style of the Bible, all others having lost their perception of beauty because of sin.

Leys is right, and I would add that poets and artists will also remain believers because of their knowledge of the ineffable source of their creations.

contemplative realism is a marvelous achievement that fully engages with mainstream secular literary culture without cringe Catholicism. It contains abundant inspiration for writers who wish to depict the unimaginable and capture all that is real.

The best chance for Catholic renewal, as has been said in these preceding pages, is to present to the thirsty public the power of art, architecture and writing which glorifies God by consciously participating in his creation.

Lucas Smith is a poet and writer from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Australian Poetry Journal, Meanjin, Southerly, Dappled Things and many other journals. He is an editor at Bonfire Books.