FAITH AND FICTION-MAKING:
THE CATHOLIC CONTEXT
by Ann Copeland

  • In a moment of baffled or broken expectations, the writer of fiction unveils the implications of imagined stories -- and enables us better to discern the meanings of our own and those of others.

    ANN COPELAND, a resident of New Brunswick, Canada, for twenty-five years, has recently returned to the United States as the Hallie Brown Ford Chair in the English department and writer-in-residence at the Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She is the author of, among other works, The Golden Thread (Viking, 1989), a book of short stories. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Canadian journal, Grail (March 1996); it is reprinted here with permission.

Whatever the ground we share as we live out our allotted days, each of us is living out a once-only story toward an ending yet to be discovered. I begin by offering, briefly, my own basic story. Its implications for both faith and fiction-making will, I hope, become clear.

I have been married for twenty-seven years and am the mother of two sons, one a "normal" twenty-five year old, the other a neurologically impaired son whose years with us have taught me, once again, that life offers puzzles which resist penetrating and moral ambiguities whose resolution eludes the rational mind.

The ground from which I have approached these life commitments was prepared by a heavy dose of Catholicism: Catholic parents, parochial schooling, Catholic women's college, thirteen years as an Ursuline nun. I believe this heritage to be good ground on which to build a life.

In 1971, when we moved from Chicago to New Brunswick, I faced an unexpected situation -- no opportunity to pursue the profession for which I had prepared. After considerable thought and anxiety, I made a decision: I would try to learn how to write fiction. My decision rested on several factors: (1) I believe in the value of fiction; (2) I needed to reach out from what then felt like exile -- geographical and spiritual -- to build a bridge to others, somewhere, who might read and respond to my words; (3) I wanted to plumb the implications of a subject I believed could hold meaning for others: the experience, specifically, of religious life, and the larger subject of how faith and everyday experience connect. Ultimately I was trying, as we all are, to make sense of my life. The tools I chose were words and the telling of stories -- tools which by background, academic training, and personal inclination I value deeply.

I now see that I sought at least one other thing: from the context of a life fractured by major discontinuities, I was seeking a way to hold a thread, to build a continuity between my past and the present I found myself in. And so, in 1974, I took a table, chair, and desk lamp to a spot kindly lent me by a friendly United Church minister at Mt. Allison University, set up shop beneath the chapel, holed up in the storage closet for two mornings a week. I began to write. Such is the basic outline of my story.

I want to explore four areas of reflection which have grown from living out that story to this point: (1) what we do when we create fiction; (2) what spiritual resources that calls upon; (3) how five contemporary fiction-writers dramatize dilemmas of the spirit today, particularly those connected with contemporary Catholicism; (4) what the process of fiction-making suggests about living a faith here and now, at the end of the twentieth century.

First then: fiction-writing.

What do we do when we compose a story?

We cast a spell on time. We stop it. We create a new kind of time: story time. Recall the abrupt jar of childhood days when a parent's call, "It's time for supper," pulled us out of an absorbing story -- back to the "real world" of clocks, dinner, and dishes. How maddening to be yanked out of that enclosure, thrust back into ordinary time.

We create a world. We plant its gardens, build its factories, furnish its kitchens, pave its streets, span its rivers, stock its lakes. We give it a history, name it. We a draw a magic circle, so to speak (the metaphor is Henry James's) around some bit of life -- remembered, imagined, transformed. Gradually, we put together, "brick upon brick" (James again), a new world -- patterned, meaningful, and in some important way complete. All this with mere words, flimsy slippery tools -- squiggles on a page, sounds in the ear. A daunting task.

We people that world. On that stage of time and place, we put characters of our own devising whose situations and destinies we dramatize through a complex design of incident, conflict, change, shifting perspective, and ultimate resolution -- found to be more or less convincing.

Things happen in that world: characters move forward, succeed or fail, make connections or don't. Like a symphony, the dynamic world of story generates expectation, tension, release as it moves toward its end.

And what is the point of creating such a world? What can a "merely" imagined world offer when we already have Nintendo and the evening news?

At its best, great fiction offers a complex experience of meaning. By this I do not mean it offers answers to questions. I agree with Chekhov that fiction aims not to answer questions but to dramatize them. It opens up and illumines questions which touch human life at its deepest. Unlike events on the evening news, fictional event is always married to character, its implications shown incarnate in human lives.

Fiction offers, as well, release from the trap of self -- from a single way of seeing and feeling. It enables us to "cross over to the other side." Stories throw a fragile bridge across the abyss of separateness we all feel, at times acutely, offer relief from loneliness, and forge a sense of connection. Such connection springs, at its root, I believe, from an act of recognition.

A moment arises when we recognize, through the actions of characters, something we know, something that rings true: "Oh yes, I've felt that way. Yes, I've seen that. Yes, that's plausible, I've harbored such a vile desire, such a lingering regret." This recognition occurs beyond a level of abstraction; it is not merely cerebral, though understanding and insight are part of it.

A memorable story may ask readers to stretch the limits of their imagining. It may require patience to unravel. Always, it asks the reader to decipher implication. Here's a peculiar truth: serious fiction requires a reader to catch what isn't said, to see what isn't revealed, to decipher what lurks beneath the page, so to speak.

Ultimately, as the great Irish short story writer Frank O'Connor put it, serious fiction seeks not to stir moral judgment but to awaken moral imagination. We have a noble precedent for awakening the moral imagination: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Such, then, are a few of fiction's gifts to the reader: it enlarges the imagination, stretches understanding, offers the pleasure of perceived order and design, yields insight into the heart of life -- that is, into the hearts of men and women we call "characters" as they work out their destinies in what we call "life."

What spiritual resources does such a process call on in the writer?

First of all: belief in the power of words.

"In the beginning was the Word." Christianity rests, in part, on that belief: words can make things happen. I am not a scriptural scholar. I do not know which words Christ actually did or did not say. My point is simply that learned or not, most of us have been schooled to believe in the power of words, and specifically the words of the New Testament.

Words that baffle: "Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the earth."

Words that disturb: "I have come not to bring peace but the sword."

Words that imply another dimension of reality. "Our Father who art in heaven."

Words that challenge: "Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven you or take up your bed and walk?"

Words that span and unite worlds, even while defining them as separate, different: "I go to prepare a place for you."

Words, finally, that can alter consciousness: "He who would save his life will lose it."

Sacramental words -- of anointing, of blessing, of forgiveness.

We are familiar, as well, with story. "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell in with robbers " For those of us raised on the gospel, the word "story" may generate deep expectations: that it will point to paradox, an alternative version of reality, a validation of deep, unresolved human experience.

For those of us educated as Catholics, words have long been connected, as well, with action, gesture, ritual, vestment: in a word theater. Many years ago, I heard this anecdote from my music teacher in Chicago, Gavin Copeland Williamson. One of his students had a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. She alternated weekends: one Saturday to the synagogue, the next Sunday to the Catholic Church. Gavin asked her one day which she liked better. She thought for a few moments. "At the synagogue the talk is better," she finally said. "But the Catholics put on a better show."

Color, symbol, costume, music, gesture, movement: you might suppose this a rich resource for the contemporary writer. Not necessarily.

The problem is that religious words, symbols, gestures, and vestments carry implication. It is precisely what the writer wants to draw on. Reading implications, however, carries special problems for today's audience.

When I began putting together stories about religious life, I was acutely aware of the problem. I never thought of myself as writing only, or even primarily for Catholics. How, then, in a book about religious life in North America in the fifties and sixties, could I cut through the forest of detail in such an intricately organized life to get to the human core, all the while trying to show how one is entwined with the other?

It may be that in earlier times -- I won't call them simpler -- a writer on such a subject could draw on a pool of shared allusion: the elements of theater I've mentioned above, plus certain common understandings within our religious tradition. The idea of a vocation, for example, or asceticism, a "higher way," the notion of meaningful sacrifice, of witness, the presence of God in every creature, and so on.

Today, however, a writer can count on little of that being understood or honored. Vocation becomes career, sacrifice delusion, witness questionable, the notion of a "higher way" rings of hierarchizing mentalities gone amok, a personal call is just one more symptom of mental instability. In a world where remote, impersonal powers seem to shape our lives, the belief that individual choices carry significant implications can be difficult to sustain. Yet on this premise rests the whole exercise of fiction-making.

Nor can we count on traditional religious symbols to carry meaning. Recently, The National Catholic Reporter summarized a survey of 7,000 people in six countries which found significantly more people familiar with the Olympic games' symbols of five linked rings, the golden arches of McDonald's, and the Shell Oil company's fanned seashell logo than with the Christian cross.

This is not necessarily bad; it is simply our world of reference today.

Belief in the power of words to awaken the moral imagination, belief that fiction can render individual human acts as full of import, belief that a story can dramatize a spiritual quest convincingly for a modern reader: all these tax not only technical resources, though those surely, but spiritual resources, as well, of writers today.

The authors I'll look at are not overtly "religious writers." Their desired audience is clearly the larger one of general readers. In every case, however, the writer has come from a background deeply connected with Catholicism -- by birth, education, or conversion. I know nothing of their beliefs, of course. I know only what I read in their books. What I abstract here can only suggest the power of their works -- which deserve to be read in full.

Andre Dubus, originally from Louisiana and now living in Massachusetts, celebrates the complex pains and ecstatic pleasures of intimate human relationships: parent to child, lover to beloved, husband to wife, human to God. With exquisite care, Dubus explores the nuanced rituals of the heart, that troubled home of our deepest longings. He doesn't hesitate to examine the kinds of violence, physical and spiritual, such intimacies can nurture and hide.

In a particularly moving story called "Adultery," for example, he places the deceits of an open marriage against the truth of an adulterous relationship and filters their consequences primarily through the consciousness of a woman.

Edith, a rather uncomplicated woman of twenty-seven, mother of seven-year-old Sharon, has been married for eight years. She discovers that Hank, a provident husband and father, does not believe in monogamy. He never has. His affairs -- intense and short-lived -- are, he contends, no harm to her. She, too, is free. The implications of their situation, however, and the darkness of her life ahead with him fill her with confusion and dread. They continue to maintain a home together, sustain physical intimacy, practice the small rituals of family life with care. She loves him. Quite simply, she cannot imagine leaving him.

Through her anger, numbness, and depression, Edith endures several slow dyings: of her marriage-dream ("All she had ever wanted to be was a nice girl someone would want to marry," Dubus, 167), of belief in love itself, of hope. The radical truth of their life together lost, she tries to pray.

  • . . . She wanted God's fingers to touch her days and restore meaning to those simple tasks which now drained her spirit. . . her actions would appear secular but they would be her communion with God. Cleaning the house would be an act of forgiveness and patience under His warm eyes. But she knew it was no use; she had belief, but not faith: she could not bring God under her roof and into her life. He awaited her death. (184)

She initiates a passionate affair with Hank's closest friend -- partly from vengeance, partly from her need to define herself through choice. The weight of that choice stabilizes her. "It was the first time in her life she had committed herself to sin" (185). It also carries a cost. Sin raises her awareness as it creates new pain, a cleansing pain, and leads her to face her deepest fear: mortality.

Enter Joe: the instrument of her redemption from this life of lying. Forty, dying of cancer, Joe has left the priesthood driven by his acknowledged need for a woman's intimacy. With Hank's knowledge, Edith becomes Joe's nurse, his friend, a gentle, sad lover, facing with him his approaching death. When she cooks for him, "she feels again what she once felt as a wife: that her certain hands are preparing a gift" (160).

Joe explains to her the priesthood, his vocation, his love of the Eucharist -- a love which led him to become a priest but which, he discovered, could carry him only so far.

  • . . . the morning consecration completed him but it didn't last; there was no other act during the day that gave him that completion, made him feel an action of his performed in time and mortality had transcended both and been received by a god who knew his name. (196)

With Edith he finds that completion. Committed sexual love and the Eucharist become for him parallel and analogous sacraments, love incarnate.

As she lies beside him before he goes to the hospital, she longs to pray. Wordless, she prays with images.

  • . . . finally her prayer is an image of her sitting beside this bed holding his hand while, gazing at her peacefully and without pain, he dies. But this doesn't touch the great well of her need and she wishes she could know the words for all of her need and that her statement would rise through and beyond the ceiling, up beyond the snow and stars, until it reached an ear. (167)

As Joe nears death, she is by his bedside in the hospital, calls the priest for him, stays outside the room during his last confession, returns to be with him and to receive his final gift in their last embrace: spiritual liberation. Her long exercise of devoted love in the face of death has freed her from the need to continue the charade of married life with Hank.

Yet this resolution is held in the embrace of a larger affirmation implied by the story as a whole: belief in the transforming power of true human communion. At its deepest, human intimacy, in Dubus, carries implications which transcend the merely mortal.

Three points in particular strike me about this story: it makes familiar Catholic rituals meaningful in context, not as panaceas but as important sources of light and comfort; it confronts moral insolubles (which is the greater sin?); it presents prayer as an almost natural impulse of the soul.

Dubus's rendering of prayer in "A Father's Story" is even more striking. This is the tale of Luke Ripley, a divorced father of forty-four who has won his way through the painful loss of wife and family and twelve long years of solitude to possess his soul in peace.

He begins his story by distinguishing between "what he calls his life" and "his real life." In "what he calls his life" he keeps horses, teaches riding, hunts, fishes, listens to opera, cherishes visits from his closest friend, Father Paul, the parish priest, welcomes home his daughter and her friends every summer, watches their emerging womanhood with fascination and concern.

In his "real life" he rises every morning to watch daybreak in an hour of silence, talking to God, offering his day. Then he saddles his horse, rides to morning Mass.

  • Do not think of me as a spiritual man [he says] whose every thought during those twenty-five minutes is at one with the words of the Mass. Each morning I try, each morning I fail, and know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive.. . . I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love. (Norton, 116-17)

In his "real life," Luke Ripley shares with God a secret. His twenty-year-old daughter Jennifer, driving home alone after an evening out with three girlfriends, crests a dark hill in the middle of the night and hits someone. Panicky, she continues home, awakens her father and sobs out her story. He leaves her there, goes back to the spot, hunts in the windy dark for the body, praying all the while.

He finds the body, prays over it, makes his choice -- part parental instinct, part reason, all conscious: he conceals the act. He protects his daughter, erases evidence, confesses neither to priest nor police. He rescues for her a life. Thereafter, a deeper solitude fills him as he continues to pray mornings, and a loss of peace.

Luke ends his narrative with a striking dialogue between himself as a father and the God who sees in secret, who knows him, who is also Father.

  • . . . Now in the mornings while I watch purple finches driving larger titmice from the feeder, I say to Him: I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.

    And He says: I am a Father too.

    Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive, unless you kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son you made Your plea.

    Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

    True, and I don't want You to lift it from me either. And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.

    Why? Do you love them less?

    I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons' pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter and if You had, You could not have borne her passion.

    So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.

    I love her more than I love truth.

    Then you love in weakness, He says.

    As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn. (Norton, 129)

The large structure of beliefs Dubus dramatizes "behind the page" of these two stories, so to speak, implies that our deepest choices carry profound implications only God could fully read -- and does, mindful of our weakness. Dubus's grasp of our need for intimacy and of the redemptive-power of personal acts is profound. And always he gives the moral imagination of his readers a vigorous workout.

In her fictions, Mary Gordon focuses as well on complex feelings, especially sexual passion, usually within a domestic situation.

Her recent novella, "Immaculate Man," analyzes fundamental differences between a woman's and a priest's life. Laura, forty-eight, a divorced social worker, is the devoted mother of a daughter seventeen and son fourteen. Clerical life is represented here by two members of the Paracletist Order -- Boniface, now seventy-four and in a convalescent home, and Clement, forty-five, who at sixteen was rescued from poverty and drawn by the example of Boniface to enter the Order. Over the next two decades members gradually die or leave until by 1990 -- the present of the story -- the only able-bodied priest left to tend the old and sick and manage the Motherhouse property is Clement.

Laura meets Clement when the Paracletist Motherhouse becomes a shelter for abused women. They work together, become lovers. Passionate love from a man who has never known a woman, a man who has nothing to compare her with, recreates Laura's sense of herself as a uniquely desirable woman. Clement is intelligent, a committed priest, a rare listener, unworldly, innocent and trusting in ways that intrigue and amaze her. Above all, he is safe -- in a world that feels to her unsafe; a believer in order and purpose in a world that feels to her chaotic. He believes in certitude, including an idea of himself she sees will never change. The flesh has not disappointed him -- yet. His life is based on stories. He can believe in happy endings. Her own life story has disabused her of such belief.

From his frail, aged, and wise friend Boniface -- once a gifted, faithless, gay priest who helped many by preaching brilliantly while believing none of it, she gradually senses what the Catholic Church and priesthood once were, what has now been lost. Laura compares the prosaic respectability of her Congregational Church background with what she learns from Clement and Boniface of the Catholic Church, largely a pre-Vatican II specimen -- the mystique of the priest, the beauty of ritual, the color, the symbols, the rich theater. (Gordon's work, I might add here, often carries a certain nostalgia for past aesthetic glories of a Catholicism that once was.)

At the heart of this novella lies Laura's perplexity over the nature of belief itself. Of Clement she says: "There is in him some habit of belief in belief that I don't understand." The narrative circles round and round that puzzle, searching for cracks toward understanding. Finally, as they visit Paris and she observes, once again, his certitude about the ultimate ending of the human story, she compares it with her own stark vision of death as

  • . . . spinning and spinning through millions of light years of emptiness, the others I have loved spinning millions of light years away in their own emptinesses, none of us with anything to recognize, anything to attach to, nothing to stop any of us, no reason to go one way or the other, one place or the other, since there is no place or placement and no stopping, only emptiness and motion, senseless motion hurtling toward nothing, to and with no end. I know Clement and Boniface believe those arms will be there to receive them. They believe they will remain forever in the paradise of lodgment and eternal rest. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. This is their prayer for the dead. But it was never mine. (70)

By dramatizing a sensitive nonbeliever's perplexity about religious faith, Gordon opens a window onto the fact of irreducible difference. Baffled and fascinated by its elusive terms, Laura tries to read the implications of religious faith in Clement's life, of its absence in hers. This drama of frustrated understanding becomes the story of "Immaculate Man." It yields an effective metaphor for a situation many adults experience: intimacy with another whose ways of seeing, feeling, and choosing are irreducibly different from one's own. In this case, the irreducible difference is religious faith.

In his early novel Three Cheers for the Paraclete, Thomas Keneally, the Australian author perhaps best known for Schindler's List, explores from the inside the painful ironies of a priest's life in the late sixties.

Maitland -- an educated, bright, self-knowing twenty-nine-year-old priest -- reluctantly returns from Europe and England to the House of Studies in Australia where he was trained. Under surveillance by his superiors (he is dangerously bright), he takes up his teaching and preaching duties while revising his dissertation for publication.

Maitland's story opens and closes as he celebrates a Mass for students. At the first, he preaches on the question: How are we Christians to connect with this earth we find ourselves on? Faithfully celibate himself, he laments the church's negative attitude toward Eros which, he eloquently claims, generates in a person "those decent human enthusiasms without which life and even religions are lost" (2).

Between this and his final Mass, Maitland moves through layers of discovery about himself and about clerical life. Each of his efforts to help his fellow men or set right an evident injustice brings him into conflict with his superiors, or some orthodox teaching. He is a priest in transition from, as he puts it, belief in "the. . . safe-as-Lloyds-God he could no longer believe in" (13), a priest who knows "that the old-style religions won't wash but doesn't know what will" (90).

As an example of Keneally's ability to convey Maitland's rueful awareness of what has been lost in the post-Vatican II church and to simultaneously suggest it well lost, I offer one paragraph. Searching for a blanket on his first night back at the House of Studies, Maitland has opened a cupboard.

  • The cold fust of old books assailed him in the dark; devotional books, Dublin 1913, a good year for unalloyed faith. Why couldn't he have been alive and priested then? Saving up indulgences, averting tumors of the throat with a St. Blaise candle, uttering arcane litanies; going off to the holocaust the following year to be outraged at the intemperate use of the Holy Name by the men in the trenches; dying in 1924 of dropsy, rosaries, and the certainty of Paradise. (13)

Keneally manages to blend wit, moral clarity, a sense of irony, and satire bordering in moments on farce, yet inject heart into his cast of clerical characters: Hurst, the scrupulous, neurotic seminarian burdened by a castration complex, who goes about burying knives; Dr. Nolan, House of Studies president, anti-woman champion of orthodoxy; Dr. Egan, defender of the bond in marriage court, himself timidly unable to forge the bond with Nora, the woman he loves; the worldly, compromising archbishop; and Dr. Costello, pompous bishop-in-the-making.

Here is Dr. Costello preparing for his trip to Rome.

  • Costello was as full of business as any bride with an outside chance of happiness. He kept tailors busy on his episcopal robes, goldsmiths busy on his pectoral cross and ring designed by himself. Often bishops inherited the insignia of deceased prelates; but that was a risk, to depend on the taste of a dead man. He booked his air passage to Rome for his ad liminal visit, could be seen in Asiatic pyjamas limping the passageway after inoculations, made after-dinner speeches, and lovingly prepared his autobiography for the secular and religious press. (197)

Against such clerical pomposities, Keneally shows us Maitland's growth in self-knowledge and compassion, his ultimate self-definition as man and priest.

What originally drew him to the priesthood was not love of the Eucharist or an influential mentor, but the promise of escape from ordinariness -- life in a dreary suburb "out of which the clean eternity of the priesthood had called him" (77). As he now explores the dark corners of that clean eternity he tries, fruitlessly, to pray.

  • His rule was an hour's meditation each night, his aim the scalding sight of God which disrupts the network of senses and rearranges them on a higher level. His chances were small, this proved by his having to time himself. One could no more travel the distances involved by making oneself available for an hour, timed by travelling clock on the mantelpiece, than one could write a sonnet taking sixty-divided-by-fourteen minutes for each line.. . . Words were the trap, for the same words that fakers used of psychic indigestion, fakirs used of God. (42)

And yet. Despite what he clearly sees and painfully experiences -- hypocrisy, manipulativeness, withered emotions, sterile relationships, the blind arrogance of "the priesthood" -- in spite of all this, Maitland chooses to remain.

"I'm an institutional being," he concludes. "I have to wait for the revelation within this framework" (205). Outside of it he would be, as he puts it, a "nomad." Pressed further on the question by an astute seminarian, Maitland finally answers: "It's a matter of what you've been bred to" (237).

This strikes me as an honest and convincing statement in context, and one not often made by a literary character of depth and intelligence in contemporary fiction.

His discovery goes deeper. In celebrating the Eucharist he has often felt "like a custodian, a performer of someone else's fantasy" (51). Yet, when deprived of celebrating Mass for three months as a penance for his several offenses, he discovers he misses it "with a trenchancy he had thought himself beyond" (237).

There is no want of angst in Maitland, no dearth of anger and pain. It is leavened, however, in Keneally's supple prose, by a sharp and humorous self-knowledge -- which leaves him a persuasively appealing figure finding his honest way through an interim time.

My last two authors are John Hassler and Robert Stone, antithetical writers in many respects: in their themes, the worlds they create, the characters who people their stages, and finally, the dimensions of hope each dramatizes.

From his desk at St. John's College in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he teaches English, Jon Hassler has been turning out, since his first book, Staggerford, in 1974, novels which vividly dramatize small town life with its interconnected absurdities and revelations. Bit by bit he has built up a memorable cast of characters we might ourselves be, or have met. Hassler's work deserves to be read as a whole. It creates a generous picture of pre-Vatican II church ways and post-Vatican II dilemmas as they touch the old, the young, the clergy, native people, ordinary beings living out lives as teachers, lawyers, bankers, troubled adolescents, poor farmers, ambitious politicians. His themes -- friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, and the resilience of the human spirit -- convey rare insight into the mystery of reconciliation on every level: parent with child, believer with church, individual with God. Hassler creates a world of social interconnectedness, shows it colliding with a newer world of fragmentariness, incompleteness, uncertainty.

I will focus on North of Hope which some consider his best book so far.

The novel centers on the fate of Frank Healey, now forty-four, who after twenty years as teacher and basketball coach at Aquinas Prep, a preseminary in northern Minnesota, has "sprung a leak" in his priestly vocation. Aquinas closes down. Determined to find out if he's really fit for the priestly life, Frank asks to return to his original home parish in Linden Falls to serve there and on the nearby Indian reservation. Years earlier, heroic tales of missionaries to the Indians in the northwoods had inflamed his boyish imagination toward the priesthood. He hopes now to find renewed justification for his priestly life.

He is back in the house with Father Adrian Lawrence, his boyhood mentor, a priest whose bottomless compassion has won the patronizing nickname of "Lovingkindness" from his brother priests.

Back into Frank's life also comes Libby Girard, whom he fell in love with at sixteen when she considered him her best friend and trusted confidante, but not her boyfriend. Libby has since been married three times, raised a manic-depressive daughter by her first husband, and now lives on the reservation with Tom, her cynical doctor husband whom events will reveal to be a drug dealer on the take, and an abuser of his stepdaughter, Verna.

The intricate, fast-moving plot takes the reader into the world of drugs, alcoholism, native abuse, priestly doubt, murder, lust, sexual abuse, soul corruption and above all, the passionate conflicting desires of the human heart. It takes Frank Healey into direct confrontation with exploitive evil in the person of the judge whose drug-dealing implicates Tom, and who will arrange Tom's seemingly accidental death.

Perhaps more significantly, Frank faces physical and spiritual sufferings which challenge his assumptions about healing. Verna's bouts with manic depression, her repressed pain over her abuse, and the complex estrangement between mother and daughter bring him face to face with human problems far removed from those he faced in the all male enclave of Aquinas Academy.

Above all, as he suffers with Libby through her pain and saves her from suicide, he must face how deep and enduring is his love for her.

After her husband's death, Libby Gerard is free, at least externally. She has come to depend on Frank -- unnaturally, her therapist tells her. She deeply desires him, sexually. He needs her also: the nightly telephone call, the daily word from her. He cherishes her companionship, her love. He has heard all the arguments against denying himself sexually: that he is repressed, emotionally retarded, incapable of intimacy, employs his priesthood as his defense.

Yet Frank Healey's ultimate decision, ratified by his deepest sense of self, is to remain Libby's friend but not become her lover. In the course of his story he has truly become a "pastor." He finds his justification as man and priest, at considerable cost. And even Libby comes, reluctantly, to see some truth in his position.

  • "You're strong," he was telling her, but he was the strong one. He had a dimension she lacked, a mysterious dimension from which he drew strength, a spiritual dimension she'd never believed existed until she saw it in him. And because she lacked that dimension but needed it nearby, she couldn't imagine being out of touch with him. At least not until she found herself a new partner. (431)

In Hassler, as in Dubus, we meet characters for whom prayer is simply addressing a Being they believe will hear. They argue with God, cry out to him. Their prayer is not programmed and self-conscious like Maitland's, but wrung from them in moments which lance the heart.

In North of Hope, Hassler leads us, as Keneally did, through the critical year in a man's life. He sets before us, fully realized, a deep love of man for woman, a passionate love. He explores the seductions of desire and regret. He dramatizes, as well, the human need for comfort, love, and a sense of purpose, and sets these within a specifically religious framework. Finally, he shows how larger institutional changes can directly affect the movements of the heart.

The following paragraph sets forth evidence of such changes. Aquinas Academy has become the Berrington Vocational Institute -- Careers in the Making. Here Verna, now reasonably well, will study to become a travel consultant.

Frank and Libby take her there.

  • He pulled open the heavy, gothic door that in years past had led him to prayer, and they stepped into the noise of country music and the chatter of four or five dozen students sitting at square little tables. The Church of St. Thomas Aquinas was now the Student Center. They lingered only long enough for Frank to point out that the sanctuary had become a snack bar, the stained glass windows had been replaced by clear panes, and the choir loft had been remodeled to accommodate pinball machines and video games. "I said a thousand Masses where the fry cook is working," he said. "I preached a hundred sermons on the spot where the Coke machine stands." (428)

Hassler moves us beyond nostalgia, out into the sunshine, to explore other avenues of the priesthood, other avenues for loving and for living faith in this world today.

My final examples come from Robert Stone's novel, A Flag for Sunrise. Stone, a journalist in Vietnam, infuses his novels with disillusionment over politics, war, government, and human relationships. His narratives circle around the question of how a thinking, intelligent man (often isolated by addiction, unsatisfied sexual need, and spiritual longing) can find a meaning in history. How can we form anything like a coherent or purposeful narrative out of the fragmented, crazy-making world we occupy today? Who could claim to grasp "the whole picture"? We see only fragments, seemingly disconnected pieces. Yet we also experience society as a vast and complicated web with hidden, often sinister interconnections. The hip bone's connected to the thigh bone in ways we sense but cannot easily isolate or identify.

In Hassler's world, complex and layered as it is, a man can still know his neighbors by name and character, often all too well. In Stone's world, mutual trust rarely exists. The great challenge is to find something, or someone, worth believing in.

From a complex political novel like A Flag for Sunrise I can here isolate only one narrative strand. The time is now, the place is Tecan, a small Central American country (much like Guatemala) on the verge of a revolution. Spies, terrorists, guerrillas, counterrevolutionaries, CIA agents, arms dealers -- and others -- play out their lethal games for power and profit. At the edge of this -- or is it really the center? (a question Stone will open for the reader) -- a small Catholic mission is about to close. It has been kept going for six years by a young, idealistic nurse-nun, Sister Justin Feeney, and an older, frail, Father Egan, member of the Devotionist Order for thirty years, who is slowly becoming an alcoholic loony.

Both the CIA and the Guardia Nacional suspect Father Egan and Sister Justin are helping the revolutionaries. They are being watched. Justin has lost hope for significant service in this violently dying world. She feels redundant, marginal, profoundly sad -- and angry at her own naive delusions. As soon as they return, she will leave the order. In her mind she already has, though she has not shed her longing to serve, nor lost her passionate desire for a life story with transcendent meaning.

The novel opens with Lieutenant Campos, brutal agent of the Guardia Nacional, leading Father Egan at gunpoint from the mission to Campos's residence and showing him the dead body of a young woman from Canada in his freezer. He demands Father Egan's absolution, forces the priest to take and dispose of the body.

The novel closes with the brutal torture and murder of Sister Justin on the night the revolution erupts and is put down. Bear in mind that she has been presented as a woman struggling between faith and despair, worn down by insight into her own pitiful uselessness in this mindless and brutal world.

Campos, leering at her, leads her past piles of the dead, corpses of the revolutionaries she nursed in her dispensary earlier that very night.

"The dead," he told her. "On account of you."

The accusation devastates her. She is filled with fear at what she knows is coming. Campos beats her and tortures her with electric prods, all but separating mind from body. The narrator describes Justin's final moments:

  • Then something began to come and she did not recognize it. She asked herself what it was when she had the time, in between. Whether it was inside or out there. Whatever it was, there was hardly anything else. It was greater than electricity and electricity was strong. It was stronger than the strong, stronger than love. It seemed as though it might be love. She was too weak to bear it. Too tired for it.

    You after all? Inside, outside, round and about. Disappearing stranger, trickster. Christ, she thought, so far. Far from where?

    But why always so far?

    "Por qué?" she asked. There was a guy yelling.

    Always so far away. You. Always so hard on the kid here, making me be me right down the line. You old destiny. You of Jacob, you of Isaac, of Esau.

    Let it be you after all. Whose after all I am. For whom I was nailed.

    So she said to Campos: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord." (416)

How, in context, are we to take these words? As the final cry of a deluded woman? As an outburst of faith? As the echo of centuries? As a gesture of fidelity to the end? Or as the movement of a mind, almost broken, which grasps instinctively from the ancient well of sacred texts words she was "bred" to revere and to pray?

Later, Campos reports Justin's death to Father Egan and demands absolution, again under the gun. What drives Campos -- unrepentant, superstitious, disturbed -- to ask this? Justin's last words have terrified him.

The reader is left to decide, among many other questions this book raises: Was this martyrdom pointless? If not, what was its point? What did it imply? Heroic faith brutally tested? A bright, sensitive life wasted?

How, in such a world, does one measure waste?

Onto this stage Stone sends the narrative's main observer, Holliwell, anthropologist and academic, a Vietnam veteran, himself injected early with a heavy dose of Catholicism via the Jesuits. He is, we are told, "really without beliefs, without hope -- either for himself or for the world. Almost without friends, certainly without allies. Alone" (26). Holliwell's argument is with the force of history against the power of belief. He has seen too much.

He has earlier refused the request of an old CIA contact to go check out the mission in Tecan and report back. While lecturing in a neighboring country, however, he seizes a seemingly coincidental opportunity to go to Tecan. Why?

  • . . . Beyond the snow bird's impulse was his mounting curiosity about the Catholics there. It would be strange to see such Catholics, he thought. It would be strange to see people who believed in things, and acted in the world according to what they believed. It would be different. Like old times. (101)

By reason of his background and his own disenchantments, Holliwell is the only character capable of recognizing what makes Sister Justin tick. He loves her.

Try as he does for the detached, anthropological view of the world, he is intensely drawn to Justin's frustrated idealism, her craving for the absolute. She is faith to his despair, commitment to his detachment.

  • . . . The diluvian chaos he inhabited was alien to her. He thought that she must live in some secret arrangement with the world of things; her beauty was the beauty of inward certainties. Such a woman could live, die, make choices, all those things -- with a quiet heart. She could minister, heal the sick, march with apocalyptic legions. (377)

He sees with clarity what her innocence, grace, and passionate integrity would "evoke in the hearts of smaller weaker people, clinging to places of power. She was the Enemy, Nemesis, Cassandra. She was in real trouble" (343).

Though Holliwell will escape and Justin will be murdered, her effect on him is profound. In her he has encountered, once more, one who "acted in the world according to what she believed." She lets more than a sliver of hope into his dark world and leaves him capable of greeting a new sunrise freed of fear.

Here and elsewhere, Stone is at great narrative pains to show there can be no single innocent act. The possibility of belief in innocence, the old-fashioned belief of a simpler time, is gone. Yet there persists the longing, through all the political brutality and rottenness dramatized in A Flag for Sunrise, the longing for a way to read history, for a way to find transcendent meaning in one's story.

* * *

A fiction writer creates worlds to dramatize human questions. By that process, she hopes, among other things, to awaken a reader's moral imagination.

Like Luke Ripley in Dubus's "A Father's Story," each of us knows intimately the space between our "life as it appears" and our "real life." It is that "real life" of a character that a fiction writer wants to reveal. And it is in the solitude of that "real life" that each of us perhaps asks, from time to time, questions such as these five authors put before us.

Does God hear our cries and read the needs of our hearts, as Dubus and Hassler suggest?

Is the result of celibacy a certain attractive naiveté, as Gordon suggests? Or can it open reserves of heart and mind rarely available in this world, as Dubus, Hassler, and even Keneally suggest?

Is physical intimacy between lovers a sacrament of God's presence in this world?

How can we win through the loaded moments of our days to genuine liberty of spirit?

How, as Maitland puts it, are we to connect with this earth we find ourselves on, this flesh we bear?

What, finally, is religious faith? What does its presence do to a life?

I could go on.

Each of us is living out a once-only story which, unlike those mentioned here, has yet to reveal its ending. We live that story largely in the dark. From time to time we may try to plumb its implications, to decipher its latent design, or at least get a glimmer of how parts go together. Occasionally, a backward glance may suddenly reveal implications, an evolving pattern we had not discerned, couldn't have when we were "in" it. Ah, now I see what I was about, what I was after.

The reader's backward glance at the end of a narrative -- the glance that enables her to "see" how events worked out to this end -- Rust Hills, fiction editor at Esquire, calls "the inevitability of retrospect."

As reader of our own lives, we don't have that advantage. Not yet. Nor do we have the decoding skills to read present implications fully. Faith makes its demands, moment by moment.

I want, finally, to look at the connection between the process of fiction-making and living a life of religious faith.

I can perhaps best illustrate what these have in common by describing my own making of a story called "Rupture." It touches "real life" in several places. It is not "real life." I leave it to you to see where the analogy between fiction-making and sustaining faith holds up, where the analogy fails.

"Rupture" began with a memory of another person's suffering that haunted me. I knew its implication only in part, although that part intimately. She was a nun. No. . . it was two nuns. No. . . well, here we immediately hit upon the difficulty: I cannot recover in a single clear way who came together, what bits and pieces merged into that single fictional character. I now see there were at least two, maybe three. All shared a range of traits: a conscience beset by scruples which centered about the body, the flesh; a highly conditioned, literal way of reading their lives; an unshakable belief in the rightness of that reading; a need for certitude.

Two images: at midnight, from the top floor of a college dormitory, I look out a window and across the street see a body carried out the door of a convent. . . strapped to a board. . . carried off to --?

The next morning, a sign on the refectory bulletin board: Pray for Sister So-and-So.

There was more to it: a sense of violation, of waste, of a life broken. This occurred around 1964.

I was not writing then, nor had I any notion that I one day would.

My life changed. I left religious life. I married. Moved to another country. Had children. Set up my table, chair, and lamp. Put pen to paper. 1974.

Years later, in 1990, I was invited to be on the Dini Petty Show, which I'd never heard of. The subject would be, I was told, women religious. I reluctantly agreed. My motives were mixed.

The experience reached me: Women talking to women, under the glare of television lights, orchestrated by a bundle of energy who seemed to have only one goal. We were viewed as curios. We had believed in a way of life, given ourselves to it. We had made a choice, a commitment. I felt acutely uncomfortable as the TV hostess tried to manipulate each fifteen-minute segment toward some angle on her overriding question: How was it natural to live without sex? I longed to reach out to those listening women, to make contact across that barrier of calculated inanity. I knew we had more in common than not.

I went home disturbed by the experience.

A year, at least, passed. I was busy with other projects.

Who knows where bits and pieces lodge in memory, how they come together? Connections emerge. Discovering them, how to shape them, is mysterious. It takes time.

It came to me quite suddenly one day that those two experiences "went" together -- the Dini Petty Show and the broken nun. But how?

I sensed that the crucial decision was who would tell it, how, and why.

Gradually I saw that this story would center about three questions: (1) how we regard the flesh; (2) how we find ways, or don't, to heal physical and spiritual brokenness; (3) how we hesitate to reveal ourselves in words, to tell our own stories, partly from our sense that words can never "say" us, partly from fear that even if they did, we could so easily be misread.

I knew the narrator would be a woman, a mother. I came to see that she would have a story to tell and qualms about telling it. The story about the broken nun. But she knew it only in part. Okay, I thought. Let that partial knowing be part of the story. So the story would also be about how partially we all know each other, parents and children, tellers and listeners of tales. Within the story, I would let the resolution, the completeness, come not from my narrator's knowing every detail, but from her reaching the conclusion that yes, she will tell her story, incomplete as it is, to her daughter -- who may or may not hear it.

This is the daughter who has defied her mother, broken her own flesh by getting a tattoo. This is a daughter angry with her mother.

The telling would constitute a risk.

Perhaps it would also be an act to heal the brokenness between mother and daughter.

As I say these words it all sounds like a very rational process. No. There was a pool of remembered event, forgotten event, strong feelings, pain even, a lingering sense that something lay deep down that could be made into a design that would speak. To some, at least.

I took the risk. At the time it felt like a large one.

Would anyone recognize what it was about?

Could I make implications clear?

Would those implications emerge as significant to today's reader?

All fiction writing is risk. I wrote the story.

The life of faith is a life of risk.

As writers, we form our fictions above a sea of unchosen alternatives. Often we set the narrative in motion before we've found its ending. We choose the next scene, shape our characters' choices, gradually rule out alternatives.

The life of faith is, I believe, a life sustained above a sea -- at times quiet, at times turbulent -- of doubts and ironies transcended. For an adult, religious faith represents a grace, a choice, an orientation. Its implications emerge over time.

How any writer finds the words, shapes his or her stories, is an ongoing mystery akin to resurrection. What seemed dead holds, all the while, a possibility of returning to life in a new form. "They knew him in the breaking of the bread." What a wonderful moment. Recognition. Contact. Words remembered. The implications of a gesture understood.

We writers face the paper or screen, tap out the words. Even as we write them, they betray us. So we live in the land of disappointed hopes -- the gap between what we envisioned and what we have actually produced. Yet some stubborn hope propels us onward -- the sense that as we move through time we touch the edges of mystery, a mystery that calls for our exploration in words and story.

Many Catholic Christians live today in an analogous gap: a period of baffled or broken expectations. The vision of Vatican II has faded for some, remains a pained heart-longing for others. In that gap between vision and reality "we live and move and have our being." Irony thrives in that gap, comedy, sadness, and perhaps even a loss of hope. As a resource for fiction-making, that gap holds themes and questions enough for millennia of exploration, if it draws a writer's imagination.

Most of us live our days on a stage shared with a cast not of our choosing. Outside forces and circumstance alter our imagined plot lines. Narrative momentum seems stalled. The outline grows blurry, lacks focus. We see now as in a glass darkly. Our reading skills are inadequate. If only, if only we could fully decipher the implications of our own stories and those of others.

Searching out ways to reveal those implications in the lives of our imagined characters, on their imagined stages, is a writer's task.

Yet all the while, a far more gripping drama is being enacted, could we only see it. The once-only story each of us is tracing, moment by ordinary moment in this baffling and beautiful world, carries implications richer and deeper than any imagined sum of its visible, earthly parts. Its mystery far transcends any words a writer might find to name it.

In the end, words fail us.

Books Cited

Cassill, R.V., ed. The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1958. ("A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus)

Dubus, Andre. We Don't Live Here Anymore: The Novellas of Andre Dubus. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1984.

Gordon, Mary. The Rest of Life. Penguin Books, 1994.

Hassler, Jon. North of Hope. Ballantine Books, 1990.

Keneally, Thomas. Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Penguin Books, 1969.

Stone, Robert. A Flag for Sunrise. First Vintage International Edition, March, 1992.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1997, Vol. 47 Issue 2.