Just a little less than a year shy of the 50th anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s death, author and Georgetown scholar Paul Elie stands before a group of Institute supporters, USC students, and scholars to discuss “the beginning of vision” for a Catholic writer.
He recalls her last talk, given at Georgetown University on October 18, 1963. Elie recounts to his audience how O’Connor’s lecture, entitled “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” took her listeners on a tour of the writer’s beloved homeland, whose culture – both good and bad – indelibly marked her work, as well as how the conflicts that arose between her faith and the Southern culture in which it was steeped influenced her writing.
“The poet is traditionally a blind man,” Elie quotes. “But the Christian poet, and the story-teller as well, is like the blind man Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees – but walking. Christ touched him again, and he saw clearly. We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to accept if we want to realize a Catholic literature.”
O’Connor, and the way in which faith influences art – has been an enduring fascination for Elie, whose work includes Reinventing Bach, an examination of how the passage of time and the advent of new technology has led to a reimagining of the works of one of the best-known and most loved composers, and the award-winning The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which looks at how Catholicism shaped the works of O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and novelist, Walker Percy.
Like O’Connor, Elie — who is currently serving as Senior Fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Director of the American Pilgrimage Project – is a Catholic writer and also one for whom the notion of a “Catholic culture” is as difficult to identify as it is to capture in art.
“O’Connor makes the point that the Church is not a ‘culture,’” he explains. “And I don’t see anything close to something that could be defined as a monolithic Catholic culture either. It’s always a mix,” he says, one he finds compelling, both as an artist and a Catholic. “We need to recover the sense in which ‘catholic’ means ‘mongrel.’”
In a column he wrote last year for The New York Times, Elie describes the representation of Christian faith in modern fiction as nearly non-existent, “something between a dead language and a hangover.” He’s hopeful, however, that the appointment of Pope Francis may herald a welcome change.
“I think Pope Francis makes us feel as though we’re entering a new age,” he said, “in which we as Catholics don’t have to identify as ‘liberal’ Catholics or ‘conservative’ Catholics anymore.”
It’s been 35 years — “half a lifetime,” he notes, — since Pope John Paul II’s appointment, and 50 years since Vatican II, and “With the election of a new pope from a different continent with a different style, it makes sense that one age would give way to another,” he says.
He’s also encouraged by Pope Francis’ apparent love of the arts. “He’s made reference to a number of works of art and artists – Caravagio, Lestrada, Bach,” Elie says – references he interprets as a “reminder that…art is part of our Catholic inheritance – as if we need to be reminded.” But whether this “new age” will mean a renewal of the influence of Christianity in the arts is an open question in Elie’s view – and not one that will address itself. “We have to make sure that there’s someone out there trying to make art as good as that today.”
As an artist in midlife, I feel a great sense of responsibility to make something lasting, something that doesn’t yet exist
That said, Elie doesn’t believe that today’s Catholic artists should “wait on Pope Francis” to define how this new age will shape their works; rather, he says, it “falls to us to make something of it. Art is made by individuals. You can’t wait for conditions to be ‘right.’ You just have to do it.”
“As an artist in midlife, I feel a great sense of responsibility to make something lasting, something that doesn’t yet exist,” he explains.
For himself, Elie describes the creative force as the urge to fill a void. “Essentially, you write to create something you’re feeling the absence of, that you’re yearning for,” he says. That urge is what is driving him in his latest project, a novel that’s “set in the present, and deals with the central questions of faith in the present time.”
While both art and religion should address the fundamental questions about humanity and our place in the grand scheme, “In the Church, we all have the feeling that we must go to the communal rail,” he says, while literature – even literature infused with faith – serves a different purpose. “I think that the book is a space where the reader can go and see ultimate questions dramatized in a way that’s as intense as you get, but without the feeling that you ought to respond in a certain way, and that’s what literature does and that’s why literature still has the ability to give us access to a real religious experience.”
To watch Elie’s recent lecture in it’s entirety, click here.