Yesterday a good friend sent me some lines from American author Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) on the relationship between art and democracy, which he thought I would appreciate. Truthfully, I did appreciate his thinking of me, but despite her acclaim in Catholic circles, I do not care for O’Connor’s writing. Before anyone accuses me of being some sort of Philistine however, or a CINO (Catholic-In-Name-Only), let me expound a little bit on why this is not such a scandal.
If you set before me a plate of perfectly steamed brussels sprouts, touched with just the right amount of butter, I will not eat them – for the simple reason that I do not like them. I acknowledge their nutritional value, and I recognize that many people do like them, finding them both healthy and delicious. However, I am not going to pretend that I like them, merely because they are good for you, or because other people like to eat them. I find brussels sprouts disgusting.
When it comes to literary fiction, my tastes are very catholic, with a small “c”, though I will say that as a general rule that my preference tends to run to the work of Europeans who have been dead for at least 50 years or more. Naturally, if there is a Catholic with a capital “C” element to their writing, I will often be appreciative of that fact. However, just because a novelist works Catholic themes into their work, does not mean either than I will like it or, more importantly, that I *must* like it, like a child being forced to eat brussels sprouts.
Take the French novelist Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) for example. Perhaps his most famous book, “The Diary of a Country Priest”, describes the life of a young curate in the French countryside, and was made into an important film by Robert Bresson in 1951. It was one of those books which, through conversation with others, I was told that I simply had to read, as a conservative, practicing Catholic. And so, taking the good will of my friends to heart, I did so.
I found the book rather tedious, and it left me unimpressed; the film, when I subsequently saw it, I found insufferably annoying. While I recognized the Catholic themes that Bernanos was exploring, and I appreciated his rejection of defeatism and nihilism as well as his avocation for all to carry their cross, in the end the story of his long-suffering cleric as he proceeded to serve out his ministry while dying of cancer did not engage me. Watching the film version, I was reminded of a line spoken by the character of Loretta Castorini in Norman Jewison’s superb rom-com “Moonstruck”, when she goes to the opera for the first time to see Puccini’s “La bohème”. Describing the character of the tragic and doomed Mimi, who is dying of tuberculosis, Loretta remarks, “I mean, she was coughing her brains out, right? And she still had to keep singing!”
There are many other examples I could give of works of art, architecture, film, literature, and music that I do not care for, but which many Catholics of my experience seem to find moving or enjoyable. I could rattle off quite a long list of such things – including Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the film version of di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” [N.B. the novel, however, is brilliant], Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, etc. And, I must admit, the work of Flannery O’Connor also falls into my list.
For a long time I suspected that, at heart, I must be some sort of crypto-Protestant, for I could not bring myself to care for these things which meant so much to fellow Catholics whom I know and respect. It is true, as those who know me well can attest, that I am rather stubborn. However this was not a case of my acting out of stubbornness: had I simply refused to read O’Connor, Bernanos, etc., that would be stubborn, as well as intellectually lazy. Yet I am not speaking of things which have ever been examined, but rather about things which I did examine, but could not bring myself to like.
When a work of art calls to the soul, it calls to different people in different ways. It may not resonate with me in the way that it resonates with you, even though intellectually I may be able to perceive when that work of art is speaking to the truth. The same applies in spiritual writing, of course, and why some of us may prefer the work of St. Francis de Sales to St. John of the Cross, for example. Yet because something speaks to you and not to me, does not mean that I must force myself to like something which I do not. That I do not want to spend an evening in a group study of the “Theology of the Body” does not make me a bad Catholic, any more than your doing so necessarily makes you a good one.
This is not relativism, but a recognition that each of us is an unique creation, while simultaneously a part of the community of the faithful. St. Paul reminds us that we have different gifts, and that the Spirit speaks to each of us as individual members of a single body. We cannot survive on our own, cut off from the Body of Christ, but neither can nor should we expect that we are going to work in precisely the same way as everyone else who is a member of that Body.
A vibrant Catholic culture is one in which I do not have to like something merely because it is popular with other Catholics, and vice versa. Otherwise it creates a kind of cultural ghetto, where only the initiated are theoretically capable of appreciating the art created there, and where, but for the fact that those creating it had good intentions, to eschew appreciation of that art is tantamount to adopting heresy. Such an attitude is not only not helpful, it is not truly Catholic. There must be room for those who do not like Flannery O’Connor, because they find her writing inscrutable, to co-exist with those who find her profound.
Very often in these pages I encourage the reader to re-discover the roots of Christianity in Western culture, and to fight back against the forces of secularism. I enjoy pointing out the connections between Christ and His Church with men and women who are great artists in various fields of endeavor, a fact which the secular world very much wants you to forget. However in so doing, I am not suggesting that you should like or dislike something – a piece of music, a work of art, a novel – based on its relationship to Christianity. If you find beauty and truth in a work of art which I myself cannot find, then I congratulate you on having received the grace to allow that work to touch your heart and your intellect through that work of art. The Spirit will simply move me via different means, and He moves where and when He wills.