WHEN Saint Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, he chose the Latin sacramentum, sacrament, for the Greek mysterion, mystery. We understand these words to be highly different, but their difference is an efficient way of getting at my argument that good writing can be a religious act.
In the synoptic Gospels mysterion generally referred to the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and, in Saint Paul's Epistles, to Christ himself as the perfect revelation of God's will. Tertullian introduced the term sacramentum as we know it when he talked about the rite of Christian initiation, understanding the word to mean a sacred action, object or means. And Saint Augustine further clarified the term by defining sacraments as "signs pertaining to things divine, or visible forms of an invisible grace." Eventually more and more things were seen as sacraments until the sixteenth century, when the Reformation confined the term to baptism and eucharist, the two Gospel sacraments, and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent decreed that signs become sacraments only if they become channels for grace. Twentieth century theology has used the term in a far more inclusive way, however, describing sacraments "as occasions of encounter between God and the believer, where the reality of God's gracious actions needs to be accepted in faith" (according to The Oxford Companion to the Bible).
Writing, then, is a sacrament insofar as it provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God. As Flannery O'Connor noted in Mystery and Manners, "the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that."
Even secular interpretations point to the fiction writer's duty to express the Mystery at the heart of metaphysics. In the famous preface to his novel The Nigger of the `Narcissus,' Joseph Conrad defined a fictional work of art as
a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter, and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence.
The highest kind of justice to the visible universe often leads to the highest kind of humility about ourselves. Writing about craft in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner held that "the value of great fiction . . . is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations."
Writers seeking to express a religious vision often help their readers by simply providing, as Gardner puts it,
trustworthy but inexpressible models. We ingest metaphors of good, wordlessly learning to behave more like Levin than like Anna (in Anna Karenina), more like the transformed Emma (in Jane Austen's novel) than like the Emma we first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless knowledge is the "truth" great fiction seeks out.
But I have identified in my own experience and that of many other Christian writers that there comes a time when we find the need and the confidence to face the great issues of God and faith and right conduct more directly.
My first published book was Desperadoes, a historical novel about the Dalton gang from their hard-scrabble beginnings, through their horse rustling and outlawry in Oklahoma, to the fatal day in 1892 when all but one of the gang were killed in bank robberies in their hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. "Crime does not pay" is a Christian theme, as is the book's focus on honor, loyalty, integrity, selfishness, and reckless ambition—the highest calling Bob Dalton seems to have felt was to be as important as Jesse James. But my own religious experience does not figure greatly in Desperadoes; most people read the book as a high falutin' Western, a boys-will-be-boys adventure full of hijinks and humor and bloodshed.
I fell into my second book because of the first. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is another historical novel, but is far darker than Desperadoes because I was far more insistent on a Christian perspective on sin and redemption and forgiveness. These were bad guys I was writing about, guys who were sons of preachers but did the wrong thing so blithely and persistently it was like they'd got their instructions all bollixed up. If Jesse James was a false messiah for those Southerners still in civil war with the finance companies and the railroads, then Bob Ford was both his Judas and his Barabbas, a self-important quisling who hoped to be famous and who got off scot-free for the killing of his famous friend, but who was hounded out of more than one town afterwards until he ended up as a saloonkeeper in Creede, Colorado. There he himself was killed at the hands of a man who claimed he was evening the score.
It's a form of bad sportsmanship for fiction writers to complain that too few reviewers pick up their hidden agendas, but in fact I was disappointed that the general reading of the book on Jesse James was pretty much as it was for Desperadoes. Hidden beneath the praise were the questions: Why is this guy writing Westerns? When oh when is he going to give his talent to a subject that matters?
In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot asserted that great writing requires a perpetual surrender of the writer as he or she is in the present in order to pay homage and service to a tradition of literature in the past. "The progress of an artist," he wrote, "is continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." I was following Eliot's precepts in the wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences in my retelling of history in my first two novels, and yet I was frustrated that my fiction did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life.
The English novelist and critic G. K. Chesterton wrote in his conclusion to Heretics: "A [writer] cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to be a philosopher. A [writer] cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything." Everything for me, and for Chesterton, was the mystery of the Holy Being as it was, and is, incarnated in human life. Everything for me, to go even further, was the feeling that Christianity is difficult, but that Christianity is worth it. I finally got around to a fuller expression of that in my third novel.
Mariette in Ecstasy concerns a seventeen-year old woman, Mariette Baptiste, who joins the Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows in upstate New York as a postulant in 1906. Her older sister, Annie, or Mother Celine, is the prioress there and on Christmas Eve, 1906, Mother Celine dies of cancer and is buried. On the next day, Christmas, Mariette is given the stigmata—those wounds in the hands, feet, and side resembling those that Christ suffered on the cross. Whether Mariette is a sexual hysteric full of religious wishful thinking or whether her physical wounds are indeed supernaturally caused is the subject of the novel.
I first thought about writing Mariette in Ecstasy after finishing Saint Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul. She was the third of her sisters to enter the Carmelite convent of Lisieux where her oldest sister was prioress and, like Mariette, she soon became a favorite there. You may know that Therese was just fifteen at the time she entered religious life and she did so little that was outwardly wonderful during her nine years as a nun that when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four one of the sisters in the convent feared there would be nothing to say about Therese at the funeral. She did perform the ordinary duties of religious life extraordinarily well, emphasizing simplicity, obedience, and self-forgetfulness over the harsh physical mortifications that were common then, and she impressed some with her childlike faith in God the father and with her passionate love of Jesus. She can seem sentimental at times; there are those who would call Therese a religious fanatic and there are certainly psychologists who would diagnose her as neurotic. And then there are people like me who have a profound respect for her in spite of her perceived excessiveness. When you have a tension like that you're half way to having a plot.
About then, too, I happened upon Lettres Portugaises, a collection of letters falsely presumed to have been written by Sister Mariana Alcoforado about her frantic love affair with a French courtier in the eighteenth century. At one point she supposedly wrote the Chevalier de C—, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the desperation you cause me, and I detest the tranquillity in which I lived before I knew you."
I was stunned and excited by that line. Emotions like that, I knew, would be at the heart of the novel. I hatched a tale influenced by both those books in which I pretended that the nun I'd modeled on Saint Therese of Lisieux would have a kind of love affair with Jesus, with all of a romance's grand exaltations and disappointments, and its physical manifestation would be Christ's wounds from the crucifixion. Further reading about religious women and the phenomenon of the stigmata acquainted me with Anne Catharine Emmerich, Louise Lateau, Theresa Neumann, and, in particular, Gemma Galgani—all of them stigmatics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Some parts of the letters that Mariette writes in the novel are paraphrased from confessions written by Saint Gemma Galgani in 1900 and included in a hard-to-find book called Letters and Ecstasies. Quotidian life in my fictional religious order, the Sisters of the Crucifixion, is based on Thomas Merton's account of the Cistercian life in The Waters of Siloe. The mass hysteria hinted at in my book was a product of my looking into Aldous Huxley's fascinating history, The Devils of Loudun. Simple scenes of the sisters at work and recreation were inspired by a book of photographs taken at the Carmelite convent in Lisieux by Therese's sister Celine. The first investigation of Mariette's stigmata is taken from the medical diagnosis of Padre Pio's stigmata in the 1920s. Cribbing and stealing from hundreds of sources, I finally allowed my factual sources to be distorted and transmuted by figurative language, forgetfulness, or the personalities of the fictional characters.
I hoped to present in Mariette's life a faith that gives an intellectual assent to Catholic orthodoxy, but doesn't forget that the origin of religious feeling is the graced revelation of the Holy Being to us in nature, in the flesh, and in all our faculties. If I may be permitted the immodesty of quoting a review, I was trying to stake claim, as Pico Iyer put it, to "a world as close and equivocal as Emily Dickinson's, alive with the age-old American concerns of community and wildness, of sexual and spiritual immensities, of transcendence and its discontents."
Saying the unsayable it possibly was—I felt free to try it because I knew the book would get published somewhere, even if it were a small press, and I knew the books I liked best were not those that seemed tailored to contemporary tastes but those that are unfashionable, refractory, insubordinate, that seem the products not of a market analysis but of a writer's private obsession.
But in my rebellion against what Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter has termed "the culture of disbelief," I did not feel obligated, as Catholic fiction writers in the forties and fifties often did, to be conformist, high-minded, and pure, as if I were seeking a nihil obstat from the chancery. As Robert Stone pointed out in "The Reason for Stories," his essay on moral fiction:
It must be emphasized that the moral imperative of fiction provides no excuse for smug moralizing, religiosity, or propaganda. On the contrary, it forbids them. Nor does it require that every writer equip his work with some edifying message advertising progress, brotherhood, and light. It does not require a writer to be a good man, only a good wizard.
In fact there may be no obligation for a Christian writer or artist to overtly treat Christian themes. Writing about "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers," Flannery O'Connor affirmed fiction writers whose only objective was being "hotly in pursuit of the real."
Saint Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and of itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.
Evangelization for Jesus was generally by means of parables that were often so bewilderingly allusive that his disciples would ask for further explanations of his meaning. Mark has it that "he did not speak to [the crowds] without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (Mk 4:33-34). Christ's parables are metaphors that do not contract into simple denotation but broaden continually to take on fresh nuances and connotations. Parables invite the hearer's interest with familiar settings and situations but finally veer off into the unfamiliar, shattering their homey realism and insisting on further reflection and inquiry. We have the uneasy feeling that we are being interpreted even as we interpret them. Early pre-Gospel versions seem to have resembled Zen koans in which hearers are left hanging until they find illumination through profound meditation. A kind of koan is Jesus' aphorism in the Gospel of Luke: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 14: 1 1).
We are challenged, in Jesus' parables, to figure out how we are like wheat sown in a field, or lost sheep, or mustard seed, or the evil tenants of a householder's vineyard, and in the hard exercise of interpretation we imitate and make present again the graced interaction between the human and the divine.
To fully understand a symbol is to kill it. So the Holy Being continually finds new ways to proclaim itself to us, first and best of all in the symbols of Christ's life, then in Scripture, and finally in created things, whether they be the glories of nature or art or other human beings. And those symbols will not be objects but actions. As theologian Nathan Mitchell puts it, "Symbols are not things people invent and interpret, but realities that `make' and interpret a people. . . . Symbols are places to live, breathing spaces that help us discover what possibilities life offers."
The job of fiction writers is to fashion those symbols and give their readers the feeling that life has great significance, that something is going on here that matters. Writing will be a sacrament when it offers in its own way the formula for happiness of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. Which is: First be. Second, love. Finally, worship. We may find that if we do just one of those things completely we may have done all three.