Seeing what is hidden

by Dr. Margaret Turek

All “serious” fiction writers imbue their works with a vision of life: a vision often indebted to a philosophy or a religious creed. This is the case whether the writer is a rationalist, an atheist, a Buddhist or a Christian. Against the horizon of his vision of life or belief structure, the fiction writer will grapple with such questions as: What makes a life fully human, truly humane? What debases or even ruins a human life? Is there an ultimate and absolute meaning and goal of human existence?

Indeed every “serious” writer of fiction is in the business of revelation – of revealing something significant about the human condition. Of course I don’t mean that every fiction writer proclaims a revelation that is “divine” in origin and nature, as did Moses, the ancient prophets and the apostles. I mean only that every great fiction writer invests his imaginative and literary skills in the task of bringing others to see.

The American-born novelist, Flannery O’Connor, sums up the aim of the fiction writer in these words: “My task … is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.” To see something more than a graphic portrayal of war or a poignant drama of dying young. A great story, she insists, is concerned with nothing less than the whole point of living, and therefore a great writer aims to bring others “to see the meaning of life as he sees it.” But now if a believer should take up the task of a fiction writer, his first responsibility is to see as God sees. (Faith, after all, is a God-given capacity to share in God’s “vision of life,” so to speak.) Such a task involves a good deal more than taking into account the results of an online survey. The Catholic fiction writer does more than depict the popular mindset of his times. His task is something like the prophet’s, that is, he is to speak of what is true, whether or not there are eyes that will to see it, or ears that will to hear it.

Indeed a Catholic fiction writer in our day is faced with a peculiar challenge – a challenge that a prophet of ancient Israel was spared. Whereas a prophet of ancient Israel could express his message by using words and notions that he shared in common with his audience (e.g., covenant, sin and holiness), a Catholic fiction writer today is deprived of these advantages. How is one to speak of such things as holiness and redemption from sin, when the religious vocabulary of the Judeo-Christian tradition strikes so many of one’s contemporaries as alien, meaningless or embarrassingly primitive? How do you speak of the Incarnation of the Word of God, of his atoning death and resurrection, of sin and grace, of heaven and hell to an audience that has acclimated itself to scientific rationalism, materialism and atheism? How do you portray the nearness of God for an audience who is no longer conscious of God? How do you talk of light to a bat?

We cannot stop to answer these questions in this brief article. That discussion must wait for our online course in the School of Pastoral Leadership (Jan. 2–30, 2024), when we will consider how Catholic fiction writers tackle this problem.

For now, it’s worth noting how excited O’Connor was when she discovered clues to the vocation of the Catholic novelist in reading St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica.” “According to St. Thomas, prophetic vision is not a matter of seeing clearly, but of seeing what is … hidden.”  And in our day, there may be nothing less clearly seen – there may be nothing more hidden — than God. The Catholic fiction writer, therefore, requires a kind of prophetic vision if she is to use her literary gifts to bring others to see that God is present though hidden in our world.

O’Connor also learned from St. Thomas that “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions; he works through the limitations of matter.”

The Johannine writings make this point repeatedly. If God is love, we know this not on the basis of an innate, abstract idea of “love,” but because eyewitnesses testify that God sent His Son as atonement for our sins (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-3; 4:8-10). We know God to be love through beholding the Pierced One: divine love enfleshed and crucified for us.

Similarly, for O’Connor, the good fiction writer imitates God by not being content “with unfleshed ideas and emotions.”  “As a novelist,” she explains, “the major part of my task is to make everything – even an ultimate concern (like everlasting salvation or spiritual ruin) – as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible.”  She undertakes this task, not by forging a chain of syllogisms, but by crafting dramatic action and dialogue. “Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery – mystery that is lived.” Like the Word made flesh, truth presses toward embodiment: not only in the flesh-and-blood lives of human beings, but also in › the imaginative portrayal of human lives by novelists, poets and screenwriters.

The power and importance of fiction as a prophetic vision and a shaping force was recognized at the Second Vatican Council. The pastoral constitution “On the Church in the Modern World” begins by identifying the raw material with which great fiction is crafted. This raw material is the real world, and above all the human condition. The attitudes and aims with which the Catholic faithful (especially as evangelizers) ought to approach the modern world are the very attitudes and aims that the Catholic writer brings to his fictional representation of the world.

“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time … are the joy and hope of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. … (The world that the council has in mind) is that world which is the theater of human history, bearing the marks of man’s travail, his triumphs and failures. …. Men are today troubled and perplexed by questions about current trends in the world, about their place and their role in the universe, and finally about the nature and destiny of men. … At all times, the Church bears the responsibility of scrutinizing the signs of the time and of interpreting them within the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task. … We must recognize and understand the aspirations, the yearnings and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live. (#1-4)

“In their own way literature and art are very important in the life of the Church. They seek to give expression to man’s nature, his problems and experiences …; they try to reveal man’s place in history and in the universe, to illustrate his suffering and joy, his needs and his potentialities and to foreshadow a happier destiny in store for him. Hence they can elevate human life, which they express under many forms in various times and places. … The faithful ought to work in close conjunction with their contemporaries and try to get to know their ways of thinking and feeling, as they find them expressed in culture. … In this way they will succeed in evaluating everything with an authentically Christian sense of values. (The Catholic fiction writer or artist ought to understand and contribute to the uniquely human search for meaning, so that) the knowledge of God will be better known; the preaching of the Gospel will be rendered more intelligible to man’s mind and will appear more relevant to his situation.”(#62)

This suggests that our task as evangelizers is similar to the task of Catholic fiction writers in this respect: we have in common the task of bringing others to see. And as we noted before, what makes this task especially difficult today is that we have to help people to see “in the dark.” We have to help them develop “night vision.” O’Connor confirms this when she says, “Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul.”  The (seeming) absence of God is a hallmark of our time, a distinctive mark of our secular age. God has been relegated to the margins of our minds and all but forgotten. This claim is borne out by the simple observation that the majority of our novels, short stories and screenplays portray the human drama without any reference to God.

And this is a matter of ultimate concern. For if we build our societies and live our lives as if God does not exist, we lose sight of the whole point of living. As Pope Francis › warns us: “If we don’t think of God, everything ends up flat. … When we no longer remember God, we ourselves become unreal, we ourselves become empty.”  Pope Benedict XVI says much the same: “When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything is emptied of meaning.” The journey of life becomes increasingly like a journey in a desert, a wasteland, or (as in the movie “Gravity”) a journey in outer space. It is a journey in which the human heart feels increasingly thirsty, hollow and disoriented.

Yet this desert-like experience can actually serve to prepare the way for evangelization. For those who have eyes to see, there are numerous signs that can prime the human heart to believe in the Gospel. Often these signs are expressed negatively – in the form of unhappy lives or dissatisfied hearts, which suggest a deep-seated yearning for God.  Prophetic vision is needed to rightly interpret these negative signs that can serve as catalysts for a spiritual awakening to what is essential for living.

One might wonder: how honest, how fair, are the portrayals of this desert-like experience in works of Catholic fiction? No writer should resort to refashioning reality to suit his creed. “Your beliefs,” says O’Connor of the novelist, “will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” Our fundamental expectation of a novel, short story or screenplay is that it be an honest fictional representation of life. If the Catholic writer’s work is to succeed, he must be able to establish a recognizably realistic world – without “stacking the deck” against atheism or nihilism.

This criterion brings to mind Dostoevsky, who was criticized by some for his depiction of atheists in his final novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” He responded to this criticism in his personal journal: “These dolts have ridiculed the ‘reactionary’ character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive of so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression. … You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.”

Many a portrayal of unbelief in Catholic fiction is built with the raw materials of the writer’s own inner struggles because, as O’Connor recognizes, for anyone who lives in today’s world, unbelief “is the gas you breathe in.”  Not surprisingly then, if “all good stories are about conversion,” it is often the case that these stories depict aspects of the writer’s own transformation of vision and way of life. What’s more, these stories are not only about conversion; they also mean to spur conversion in the reader. Their aim is both to explore and to facilitate the mystery of grace-induced transformations of human existence. It has been said of Dostoevsky that “the real plot of his stories is none other than the spiritual adventure to which he summons us.”

Yet if Catholic fiction is to do justice to the mystery of grace, then its own portrayal of the workings of grace must be as non-coercive as is grace itself. Just as God, in offering grace, leaves the person free to accept or reject the gift, so the Catholic writer, in telling her story, should leave the reader free … to see or remain blind to the grace-informed depth of the story. This means that the writer deliberately takes the risk of not being understood, no matter how many clues or signs she provides along the way. The reader is left free to decide whether or not the behavior of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is, at the end, influenced by grace or senility; whether or not Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” and Sarah in “The End of the Affair” undergo genuine conversions; whether or not the country priest who keeps a diary in Bernanos’ novel really is a model of holiness. Great writers of Catholic fiction confront us with the question: “What do you say really happened?,” and thereby bring to mind the central question that Jesus Christ asks of us all: “Who do you say that I am?” 

Academic dean and professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, Dr. Turek earned a doctorate in sacred theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Prior to her theological studies, she received spiritual formation as a Carmelite for six years. Her new book, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian and Spiritual Theology,” is published by Ignatius Press.