Posted tagged ‘literature’

New in Catholic fiction: Passport

June 5, 2008

We’re all very familiar with the lack of programming for Catholics on television or in the movie theatre. You turn on the TV, and while there is a show called Monk – it’s not about what you might think. Now the real Monk is fairly family friendly, but turn to almost any network in prime time, and it won’t take you long to find something that’s morally questionable if not downright objectionable. Some times, it’s pretty obvious. Other times if it’s an enjoyable show, you don’t really think about. It’s entertainment, and as an adult Catholic, you simply don’t live in the typical way dramatised in the sitcom world. You just don’t see the stars of the silver screen (or plasma screen) carrying their cross and attempting to answer the call to holiness. You almost never see the argument for Catholicism presented in any positive manner.

Because of this, it was a pleasure for me to read Passport, by first-time novelist Christopher Blunt. The well-paced book describes the life of Stan Eigenbauer, a young Catholic in the city of Chicago, who discovers the true meaning of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and most of all, love. 

When we first meet Stan, he leads a comfortable life unaccustomed to challenge, change, or controversy. He’s a by-the-book Catholic who hasn’t really had the opportunity in life to understand why following the book is important. But early on in the novel, he falters, and this begins the extraordinary story of his trials to care for the woman he loves at great sacrifice to himself.

Stan’s daily commitment to carrying his cross challenges the reader to consider their own commitments. The novel is in many ways an instruction on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body told through the lives of Stan and the woman he loves. The narrative flows well, the story keeps the reader turning the page, and while there were some instances when I could predict what turn the plot would take, the end caught me very much by surprise.

In short, we need more novels like this. Stan’s life presents the Catholic view of marriage in a divorce-ridden world, where love is often reduced to lust, whether on the page or on the television screen. It’s not the type of novel I would typically pick up off the shelf, but I’m very glad I did. While not perfect, there are, as mentioned, occasional predictable moments and the dialogue at times could be a little smoother, not to mention that Stan is a Cubs fan (Go White Sox!!). All in all though, this is an excellent first novel that answers a real need in the Church – a realistic, eminently readable representation of Catholics living out the call to holiness. 

For more information on the novel Passport by Christopher Blunt, see the book’s website.


Paganini and the Faust legend

May 20, 2008

I recently attended a brilliant performance of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 6 by Hilary Hahn with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. I had never heard (seen!) left-hand pizzicato before. In short, it was a brilliant performance.

What does Paganini have to do with Catholic art, you might ask? Wasn’t he an alleged atheist and an altogether unsavoury sort? Well yes, you are right, dear reader, and he was even refused burial in consecrated ground by the Catholic Church. But one of the myths that surrounded Paganini during his lifetime was that he had committed the Faustian pact, and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity on the violin. Christopher Marlowe’s treatment of the Dr. Faustus legend has briefly been mentioned on this blog, but I thought the Faust legend deserved some more discussion.

Now Marlowe’s play, as well as its source text, are pretty anti-Catholic pieces. The performance I saw (in a strange twist of reality and the blogosphere (via Fr. Z and others) showcased the mockery of the Papal Court scene with giant puppets. In this scene, Faustus ridicules, amongst other things, a Catholic liturgy for its ineffectiveness at casting him out.

Like these anti-Catholic insults endemic to the Elizabethan era, the play and the source text are ill-conceived children of the reformation, albeit with hints of the Catholic imagination still tangible. At the end of the play, Faustus cannot repent, cannot be saved, and cannot believe that forgiveness is still available to him.

The old Faust legend as presented in the chap-books and the plays is essentially a tragedy of sin and damnation, a characteristic product of the age of the Reformation. In older legends of great sinners like Robert theDevil, the efficacy of penitence was proclaimed, the saving power of theChurch was emphasized. With the Reformation this was changed. The rigidLutheran orthodox theology denied the redeeming powers of the ancientChurch and this harsh spirit is reflected in the legend. The sinner who leagues with the Devil was irrevocably damned. Goethe, the enlightened humanitarian, disagreed with this conception. For him Faust was not a presumptuous sensualist, but a titanic striver after truth, a representative of humanity’s noblest aspirations, and, whatever his sins and errors might be, in the end he was to be saved. In Goethe’s “Faust” (see GERMANY, loc. cit. supra) the legend has received its classic form. (From The Catholic Encyclopedia)

Which brings us back to Paganini – the Church eventually allowed his body to be re-buried in consecrated ground. I can’t seem to find any more information about the change in decision, but let’s hope his soul too can find forgiveness and redemption.

The Pope’s poet

May 13, 2008

One of John Paul the Great’s favourite poets was Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Here’s a selection, translated from the original Polish by Adam Czerniawski (via


…God sees all 
“How can
God’s eye endure ugliness all round ?”
If you wish to know, with an artist’s eye 
Look closely at a ruin, at cobwebs
In sunlight, at matted straw 
In fields, at potter’s clay – 
– He gave us all, even His traces,
As He perceives things, have no envy, have no shame! 
Yet there is sun-gilded Pride
Convinced the sun will not shine through her; 
She is the end of sight and contemplation,
She is the screen against God’s rays,
So that man, the most ungrateful creature in the world, 
Should feel extinguished brightness and night in his eyes 
– In every art let all arts gleam, save the one
Through which the work is to be done. 

When I discovered the Gerard Manley Hopkins site researching a previous post, I was shocked to find another pertinent lecture, discussing similarities between Gerard Manley Hopkins and Cyprian Kamil Norwid.

Also, for some of Pope John Paul II’s thoughts on this Polish poet, see here.

There’s more to come about Norwid, but sometimes it’s just better to let the text speak for itself. 

Catholic literary faire

April 30, 2008

Check it out here. It’s Ploughshares for Papists!

The influence of Catholics on literature

April 28, 2008

I just ran across this site through the magical meanderings of Google. I’m not sure what to think of the veracity of the statistics cited here, but it purports to keep statistics on religious demographics. Within the site I found this – check out how many Catholics are on the greatest novel list

Hawthorne and the Pope

April 27, 2008

As pointed out by the commenter Dan over at Amy Welborn’s blog, the pope extensively paraphrased some imagery from Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American anti-transcendentalist writer (the imagery is well worth a read). Now Hawthorne is much better known for stories that are haunted with the past of American puritanism, and his novels and stories are not really Catholic, but did you know his daughter who converted to Catholicism is a candidate for sainthood?  And the process was started by Cardinal Egan. Here’s an interesting piece on sainthood by the New York Cardinal.

Read more about Rose Hawthorne (Sister Alphonsa) here. If you really want to do some digging, Rose Hawthorne has some poetry available in the Project Gutenberg.  I leave you with this childhood glimpse of Catholicism from her “Memories of Hawthorne”: 

Through the streets of Rome trotted in brown garb and great unloveliness a frequent monk, brave and true; and each of these, I was led by the feminine members of the family, to regard as a probable demon, eager for my intellectual blood. A fairer sight were the Penitents, in neat buff clothes of mon-astic outline, their faces covered with their hoods, whose points rose overhead like church steeples, two holes permit-ting the eyes to peep with beetle glistenings upon you. They went hurryingly along, called from their worldly affairs; and my mother imparted to me her belief that they were some-what free of superstition because undoubtedly clean. Some-times processions of them chanting, came slowly through the city, bearing the dead to burial. I did not know then, that the chanting was the voicing of good, honest, Bible-derived prayers; I thought it was child’s play, useless and fascinating. In the churches the chanting monks and boys impressed me differently. Who does not feel, without a word to reveal the fact, the wondrous virtue of Catholic religious observance in the churches? The holiness of these regions sent through me waves of peace (376—77).


Liturgy, Theatre, and the role of the director

April 26, 2008

I recently attended a performance of the Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Though Marlowe, unlike his contemporary, Will Shakespeare, has never been blessed with the accusation of being a recusant (unless of course you are one of the proponents of the theory that Marlowe was Shakespeare), Kit Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ of blank verse stands on its own in terms of great poetry.

Upon opening the program, the theatre-goer was presented with two full pages, or four columns, of text explaining the director’s vision of the play. As if to make the play meaningful to the modern world, the director set the familiar tale of the proud scholar selling his soul to the devil in the world of Second Life. Now this piece is not to criticise the performance nor the direction – the sets were quite amazing and the play was fully immersed in the director’s vision, including a wonderful scene where the rest of the seven deadly sins are birthed from under the skirts of Pride. But the director felt the overwhelming necessity to reinvent the play and its presentation, suffocating the beauty and timelessness of the text. It wasn’t about making the play a pleasant, beautiful experience to watch, it was about hitting the viewer over the head with the director’s view of the drama.

Now the director is a fairly recent invention of the theatre, and while watching this play,  I couldn’t help but think about the connection of the role of the director in theatre, to modern ‘directors’ of liturgy. The director could be the liturgy committee, a liturgy consultant, or a master of ceremonies. Many of those (not all!) who insist on the notion of inculturation do so at a complete lack of respect for the ‘text’ and for the ‘audience.’

Let’s consider the communion antiphon “Taste and See.” I’ve heard a pseudo-jazzy version of this which is simply jarring whilst one is approaching the Lord in the Eucharist. Jazz is not bad in and of itself, the text for Taste and See is from Psalm 34, but the text is overwhelmed by music, which is wholly unsuited for that moment in the mass. A similar concept can explain the great distaste of many for re-sponsorial psalms. Gregorian chant, while certainly not the only suitable music for mass, elevates the text, and does not suffocate it.

In a ‘directed liturgy,’ innstead of the word of God, it’s about the music; instead of the timelessness of the celebration of the Eucharist, it’s about how liturgy has been presented. In short, it’s how the ‘director’ wants you to see his or her vision, instead of being about God.