Trying to Say ‘God’ Recap

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It started with a miracle.

I mentioned recently that I was preparing to attend the Trying to Say ‘God’ conference about Catholic literature at Notre Dame. However, a few days before I was supposed to leave, Tropical Storm Cindy took aim at my airport in New Orleans. It was scheduled to make landfall right about the time I was scheduled to fly out. I sent an urgent prayer request to my fellow conference panelists and Dappled Things cohorts to ask Our Lady of Prompt Succor to let me come. She’s the patroness of Louisiana and protectress of our coasts. Then this happened:

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That’s a screenshot of the radar on the morning of my flight. See that giant hole in the storm right over New Orleans? My plane took off on time and in sunshine.

I was predisposed to find grace at the conference, what with the Blessed Mother having opened the heavens to allow me to attend, and the people I met there lavished me with it. I think I laughed more in the course of those three days than I have in the past three years. Finally, I got to put not only faces but living, breathing humans to so many of the names I’ve interacted with in the writing world: the entire staff of Wiseblood Books, who published my debut novel; friends from the Catholic Writers Guild with whom I chat online weekly and even daily; and our own dear DT fiction editor, Natalie Morrill, to

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Angela Cybulski of Wiseblood Books, me, and Natalie Morrill

name just a few. Of course, there were also many new names and faces added to the list of my dear friends, some of whom are so accomplished, it takes my breath away to think of myself as their “friend” (rather than their “gawking fangirl.”) And, because all things grace-filled are also loaded with weird coincidence, I ran into two former parishioners from my church, two beautiful and Christ-filled women whom it did my heart good to see again. If I hadn’t attended a single actual conference event, the trip would have been worth it just for the fellowship.

But of course, I did attend many of the panel discussions and keynote talks, including the one where I somehow got to count myself among the likes of Suzanne Wolfe, Angela Doll Carlson, Caroline Langston, and Kaye Park Hinckley, with Angela Cybulski moderating, as we discussed The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life. Grace piled upon grace as those brilliant women allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through them. “Mother and artist are not career choices. They are states of being that are given to us.” -Suzanne Wolfe. “You become a part of the a story you want to tell people.” -Kaye Hinckley. I could have sat there all day. You can come help us keep the conversation going over at our new Facebook page set up by Angela Carlson.

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Amazing women saying fabulous things

My favorite conference event actually had nothing to do with literature, but everything to do with “trying to say God.” The Notre Dame Vocale, a group of twelve singers with their conductor, presented a concert of Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and modern compositions based on both. It was forty-five minutes of pure bliss.

However, the big question for people who didn’t attend the conference is, of course, what did you observe? What is the state of Catholic literary culture? Who’s doing what, and is any of it working? For what it’s worth, from my limited one-person perspective, I observed first and foremost that the talent pool is deep and broad. Catholic writers are many, well-educated in both the craft of writing and the Faith, and unafraid to wear their Catholic identity on their sleeves. I also observed that Orthodox Christians—of whom I met several—are not only our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also very much our brothers and sisters in literary tradition and sacramental imagination. There were also a handful of people from other faiths, and a smaller handful who professed no faith but nevertheless found themselves curious enough to come. All were welcome, and good will reigned. How rare a gift that is.

However, it was also obvious to me that a good deal of ignorance and intransigence exist within the Catholic literary community. It’s ridiculous for a panelist to say, “No one publishes Catholic literary fiction,” when Joshua Hren, the founder of Wiseblood Books, is sitting in the room. It’s frustrating to hear Catholic publishers emphasize the cold reality of the bottom line without acknowledging room in their business models for the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s disheartening to hear that writers feel disconnected from, and not supported by, other Catholics when the Catholic Writers Guild, whose mission is to do just that, has a table set up in the next room. So much of the work we need to do moving forward is to divest ourselves of the fears and frustrations we have carried for too long, to come out of our introverted, writerly bubbles and simply help each other—and of course, one of the huge benefits of this kind of conference is to allow people to discover each other and do just that.

Finally, I’d like to say that this conference made it clear to me that the old cliché, “Beauty will save the world,” isn’t true. Beauty isn’t good enough; you must have love. Beauty can be cold, austere, and unforgiving, like an Antarctic landscape; love is always warm and transformative. Beauty can easily become an idol, a good sought for its own worth rather than as a pathway to God; love—when it is real, selfless, Christian love–cannot become an idol because God Himself is love. The speakers who sent their audiences out feeling that they had been nourished at a literary Eucharistic table were the ones whose messages overflowed with love: love for the subjects they spoke about; love for their craft as writers, editors, publishers, etc.; love for the work they produced; and most of all, love for the people they were addressing. As I’ve already said, the most valuable thing I took away from this conference was the fellowship of so many dear friends, old and new. The one thing I took away that actually matters is love. Heather King said in her keynote, “Love is our vocation,” and every ounce of her radiated the truth of her words. If all of us engaged in any aspect of a literary vocation can get love right, then we have already succeeded. For art to be truly Christian, its beauty must lead us to love.

Oh, and there was this bit of awesomeness, too:

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Bro. Guy Consolmagno, director the Vatican Observatory; Johnathan Ryan of Sick Pilgrim; and renowned sci-fi author Tim Powers, sending everyone to Catholic Geek Heaven

You can find recordings of some of the conference sessions here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Stammering

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Statue_of_Jesus_Christ_in_Prayer

I’m preparing to attend a conference at Notre Dame in just a few weeks called Trying to Say God: Re-enchanting Catholic Literature. I’m terribly excited to finally meet face to face many of the movers and shakers of the Catholic literary world. It’s an honor and an opportunity for which I’m deeply grateful. However, the conference organizers recently sent a list of essays as preparatory reading—many of which I had read before, and which I’m sure many of you will recognize—and I noticed something that disturbed me. All of these essays deal directly or tangentially with the perceived dearth of a Catholic literary culture in our current age. They are:

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014
Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013

 

Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015

David Griffith, “The Problem with Waiting” Image – Good Letters

There’s an awful lot of good stuff here, many very salient points and much healthy debate written by people far more learned in these matters than I. I am grateful to all of them for their contributions to this very necessary conversation, and I agree with at least portions of every essay. However, in (re)reading this list in close succession, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the distinct lack of emphasis on what ought to be a Christian’s first and only goal: to do the will of God. Just to make sure I was paying attention, I went back and ran a search through each of these essays for the following words: vocation, discern, pray, love, humility. Some of them never appear; a few appear in passing, as in the titles of quoted works, or in a very general sense. For example, Gioia says of the past literary “golden age”: “Catholicism was not only seen as a worldview consistent with a literary or artistic vocation… the Roman Church was often regarded as the faith most compatible with the artistic temperament.” It’s the only time he mentions vocation. The author who comes closest to proposing prayer and humility as solutions to the problem of the Catholic literary culture is Spufford:

Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

That’s it. Six essays about how to create a Catholic literary renewal, and only one mention of “love unmixed and uncompromised.”

Maybe this is our real problem. The focus of anything we build in the name of Christ and His Church ought never to be on the product or the people who build it, but on the One who works through us and through our works.

I am the least and the lowest among Catholic writers. My résumé looks like a post-it note next to those of the authors above. But I dare to say: the solution to whatever lack of Catholic literature there may be lies not in changing the attitudes of publishing houses and periodicals, nor the outlook of universities and academics, nor in establishing our own periodicals and publishing houses, nor in the coming of some great literary genius to inspire and renew the languid modern imagination—though it is not wrong to seek any of these things. But to speak about such practicalities without speaking about the proper spiritual context in which to pursue these goals is to put the cart before the horse. The real answer to our literary woes lies in the same place where the answer to a spiritual problem always lies: in prayer, trust, humility, and the action of God’s Holy Spirit. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists:

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.

I do not doubt for an instant that the authors of all six essays are prayerful people who have devoted themselves to this “spirituality of artistic service.” But are we—even as Catholics speaking mostly to an audience of other Catholics—afraid to say that Christ is the Way to our literary, as well as our actual, salvation? Are we afraid to forego the language of the academic essay in order to address our own spiritual sickness? If we cannot “say God” even in our appraisals of our own Catholic culture, how do we propose to do it in our poetry, our fiction, our memoirs? God, who has the words of everlasting life, has no need of a Catholic literary culture; if one exists, it is only by His gracious will. If you and I desire such a thing, then let’s get down on our knees and beg for it with humility and hearts that are open to God’s will. Perhaps if we seek first the kingdom, then all these things shall be added to us besides.

All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? (John Paul II, Letter to Artists)

Christian artists are called to gaze in awe at the splendour of our Creator, who spoke us into being. Only then, and only if He grants us the vocation to do so, do we humbly go forth and stammer.

Literature, It Is a-Changing

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bob-dylan

In case you missed it, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan.

Yes, that Bob Dylan.

What does it mean for the world of literature when the best it has to offer is not a poet (in the traditional sense) or a novelist or a playwright, but a rock star?  In the words of the Nobel committee, Dylan received the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Dylan’s poetry is certainly poetry, capable of standing on its own in a volume of black and white print.  But the real power of his poetry lies in the fact that it is sung.  Is it even possible to read, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” without hearing the melody (whether in Dylan’s voice or Joan Baez’s) echo through your mind?  Unlike the lyrical works of many great poets that were later set to music by other people, Dylan’s poetry was born on the strings of his guitar.  It was delivered to the world by the vibrations of his vocal cords.  If only the black and white print existed, does anyone believe he would have been half as influential as he is now?

So, the obvious question arises: Is music literature?

As both a musician and a writer, I have so long been intimate with both forms that my neural pathways are hard-wired to see (or rather, hear) good music and good writing as a single string being plucked in different ways.  For me, writing is music and music is story.  When an idea runs so deep that it cannot quite be grasped in words, it is the job of music to convey it; likewise, when the abstraction of musical sound is not concrete enough for human understanding, words step in to frame our thoughts and tell our tales.  Each serves its own purpose, and each can exist quite well without the other, yet the marriage of the two is as old as humankind.

But is music itself literature, or only literature’s symbiotic partner?  That depends how you define the word “literature,” of course.  Most dictionary definitions confine it to the realm of the written word and thereby condemn the Nobel committee’s choice.  There is, after all, something to be said for labels, organization, and not confusing everybody by trying to redefine well-established concepts.  But there is also something within a strictly writing-based definition of “literature” that fails to capture its spirit.  Writing is only a visual representation of sound.  Writing exists only as an extension of the oral – and aural – traditions of language.  How many of our most cherished folk tales were passed on by mouth before they were ever written down?  What of the troubadours, who recorded history with song?  The psalms would never have reached us if they had not first been sung.  Music is the foundation and the beating heart of literature.  The traditional structures and rhythms of literature can all be traced to the mathematics of music, just as the traditional dynamics of music correspond to the dynamics of storytelling.  Literature and music might be two separate branches of human endeavor, but they carry the same waters from the source.

Or maybe – if the Nobel committee is right – there’s no distinction between them at all.

As Dylan might put it:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make my self a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.