In his 2013 article “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dana Gioia argued that the term “Catholic writer” no longer applies only to card-carrying members of the Church. Among the “three degrees of literary Catholicism,” he wrote, are “cultural Catholics, writers who were raised in the faith and often educated in Catholic schools [and] gradually drifted away.” Though their worldview is markedly Catholic, “their religious beliefs, if they still have any, are often unorthodox.”
One such “cultural Catholic” is George Saunders, author of four collections of short stories and the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Saunders, who left the Church in 1972 and became a proponent of Tibetan Buddhism, once said in an interview that he does not “see Christianity and Buddhism as separate; in fact, for me, one picked up where the other left off.” He is one of many former Catholics whose spiritual trajectory gives credence to Pope Benedict’s diagnosis that “the undoing of the Catholic church in the 20th century wouldn’t come from Marxism but from Buddhism.”
Insofar as he espouses syncretic “harmony” between Christianity and Buddhism, Saunders smudges the fundamental principles that define each. He once said he “feel[s] that our purpose here on earth is to move from a position of strong belief in self (strong ego, anxiety, fear, a sense of permanence) to a Christ-or Buddha-like position of unconditional love and erasure of self and acceptance of the conditionality of all things.” At first, this sounds similar to St. John of the Cross’s depiction of “two ways of going after God: one consists of a departure from all things, effected through a contempt for them; the other, in going out from oneself through self-forgetfulness, which is achieved by the love of God.” But while we might detect hints of Christian mysticism in Saunders’s words, the combination of Buddhism and Christianity ultimately short-circuits: Buddhist self-forgetting is not synonymous with Christian self-forgetfulness. In Buddhism, self-authored self-annihilation ends in blissfully detached acceptance of impermanence. In Christianity, the disciple finds the love of a God whose revealed commandments he must fulfill in faith.
Still, though Saunders may have formally left the Church, its forms didn’t leave him. Raised in parochial Catholic schools in the 1960s, to this day he traces his need for “mystery, and metaphor, and beauty” to “the power of the Catholic Mass” he encountered in childhood:
The Mass was still done in Latin . . . Artistic things were going on there. Every day the altar would be decorated differently, in different colors, for different holy days and so on, and I remember being really interested in that—in the care that was taken in the visual display. And there were things about the Mass itself that were powerful training for a would-be artist. The Mass is a beautiful, big metaphor, and one thing a kid could learn by going to Mass over and over was that meaning can be conveyed . . . through metaphor and repetition and what is not said.
Unfortunately, Saunders falsely equivocates Mass and metaphor. As Flannery O’Connor once said of the Eucharist, “If it’s a symbol, to Hell with it!” Nonetheless Saunders has captured the sense in which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—the liturgy—can become the “source and summit” of artistic life, a truth that deepens and does not contradict the Mass as source and summit of eternal life.
Saunders's cultural Catholicism often appears in his love for his characters, and his capacity to engender the same love in his readers. George Eliot once said that “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist . . . is the extension of our sympathies.” Saunders sees fiction as capable of a still higher end: “Modeling, in the prose, a form of Christian love...sort of training us in what it might feel like to really (really) believe that we are all brothers and sisters.” In his writing, such as in his short story “Isabelle,” Saunders sharpens his characters’ sympathy via suffering and satire until it assumes the shape of sacrificial love.
“Isabelle” is written in a manner that makes the reader love the characters, through a nuanced blend of ethical sincerity and grotesque irony that resists sentimentality. This quality is evident from the story’s opening lines: “The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter. We were young, ignorant of mercy, and called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless.” When Split Lip dies, Boneless (whose real name is Isabelle), is left to what Dorothy Day called “Holy Mother State” and is devoured by “the maw of the state home,” where “invalids were frostbitten in their beds and lunatic women became pregnant without known lovers.” Throughout the story, the narrator goes from merely sympathizing with Boneless to showing her sacrificial love. At the end of the tale, he can’t quiet his conscience. “Jesus Christ, enough is enough,” he says in a kind of swear-prayer, and moves Boneless in with him: “It’s not perfect,” he concludes. “Sometimes it’s damn hard. But I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been.”
“Isabelle” also contains hints of Saunders’s Catholic upbringing. In the story, one source of the narrator’s movement from mere sympathy to caritas is a side character whose rough fate and firm faith leave a lasting impression: “[Norris] was an altar boy whose skin tore like paper. The nuns said that because of his affliction he didn’t have to kneel through Stations but he did anyway and offered it up to the Lord whenever he bled through his pants.” As a child, Saunders himself had a skin condition “where I’d get cuts really easily,” so that his “knees and ankles were always open wounds.” During Stations of the Cross, when “you’d have to kneel for a long time . . . these sores would open up and start to ooze and sting.” Finally he confided in a nun. “Offer it up to the Lord,” she advised. Saunders admits he initially
Thought it was a bunch of bull, but I did it, and afterward I found I had discovered a way to sort of play through pain, so to speak. I remember thinking, “This hurts, yes…but what is hurt?” . . . That ungentle style of Catholicism led me to certain meditative insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Unwittingly, Saunders offers up a crucial question that Catholic art—in implicit imitation of the practice of penance—would do well to evoke: “This hurts, yes . . . but what is hurt?” In the gospel story, the cross darkens the disciples with these same grotesque questions; through the bloody wounds of Christ, the queries continue to pierce, pulsing past even the divine comedy of the resurrection.
Despite his pluralistic syncretism, then, Saunders’s life and works remain Christ-haunted. Which other living writer of such stature speaks reverently of the Latin Mass and the traditional Catholic practice of “offering it up”? As Saunders demonstrates, it is worth watching out for writers of repute who, even if they might not be able to recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience, are marked by their inherited, cultural Catholicity.
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College.
Photo by Fort Greene Focus via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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