An old friend of mine used to say he gave up the same thing every year for Lent: antelope meat! “Somebody has to do it,” he said. I now do the same but I’ve added heresy to that formula.
Yes, Lent is here and, of course, I am thinking of realistic things I need to give up – things that truly would be penance, like Breyer’s ice cream, Hershey bars, vacuous television, mindlessness on my smartphone and social media. And I will certainly let go of something, most likely decided upon late Fat Tuesday night.
But as the years go on, I have begun to think more about what I need to add to my life rather than what I need to subtract from it. I need more time at prayer, for instance, more time at exercise, more time actively doing for others.
And each year now I give some thought to what is referred to as Lectio Divina. Now, when I think of Lectio Divina I think of cloistered monks at their meals who, instead of chatting with confreres, are listening to someone read from a work appropriate to their spiritual development. My own self-designed programs (in starts and fits, of course) over the years have consisted of excerpts from St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis, various volumes of biblical exegesis from my dear friend Father Al McBride, G.K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton’s autobiographical “The Seven Storey Mountain,” the Psalms, etc. I’ve been pretty undisciplined about it, but I do keep trying.
This year I’ve also been thinking more about fiction because I’ve been writing more of it myself and have just finished a novel. Besides that, I have the old standbys which should always be at my bedside: William Shakespeare (yes, Catholic!), Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Miguel de Cervantes, etc.
There also seems to be a modern (that is, over the past hundred years or so) brood of poets, novelists and short story writers who write with a Catholic sensibility but whose writing may not look at all Catholic or necessarily be about Catholics. There are modern storytellers who bring to their tales a worldview that recognizes the importance of the transcendent in our lives; that understands that nuance can still have meaning; that relishes the fact that a moment, any moment, can be sacramental. This kind of accomplished storytelling is not homiletics; it does not sermonize or, at least superifically, evangelize. It lets the art itself do the heavy lifting.
In his outstanding volume, “A Stay Against Confusion – Essays on Faith and Fiction,” the novelist Ron Hansen says, “In the finest of our fictions, whether it be Willa Cather’s ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ or Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer,’ we have a sense of humanity functioning as it generally does, but at a higher and inspired level where harmonies are revealed, order is discovered, the questions that lie hidden in our hearts are given their just due. We think, if we are Christians, that this is what it is to live fully in the presence of grace. We glimpse, if only through a glass darkly, the present and still-to-come kingdom of God.”
So my program, having been devised at least a few days before Fat Tuesday, includes short stories by Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus, poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dana Gioia and Allen Tate, novels by Hansen himself as well as Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, and of course, the fellow whose relationship to the Church was ever ambiguous but whose writing was utterly, deeply Catholic, the author whose novel “The Power and the Glory” I re-read every year, Graham Greene. These writers teach me in the most creative ways that Catholicism is absolutely unafraid to encounter the world, in all its grit and grime and darkness and mystery. They teach me that faith (at least my faith) does not fall from heaven but is discovered, unearthed, dredged up, mined from the rugged soil of suffering, found among humans reaching out to each other, and in so doing, to God. So when great writers turn out well-wrought poems, powerful and revealing short stories, gripping and satisfying novels, they can in their better moments speak to the questions that lie hidden in my heart. Hansen, in quoting Jesuit theologian Father Karl Rahner, calls it “that blessed peril that consists in encountering God.”
So here goes 40 days with little or no ice cream, less Facebook and television, more prayer and exercise, and more and more reaching out. And here’s to 40 days in books and words: each verse, scene or chapter showing me something only Catholics truly understand: the stunning, heart-wrenching beauty of the crucifix, which I will venerate the best I can.
Fred Gallagher is an author and editor-in-chief with Gastonia-based Good Will Publishers Inc.