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  • Samantha Hoch

The religion of the story: Catholic theology in Storytelling

In Terrence Tilley's book, Inventing Catholic Tradition, Tilley attempts to define the elements of Catholic grammar, as an aspect of the tradition. Defining these elements helps the student of literature define the parameters within which writing can be called "Catholic" or a writer's work can be considered "Catholic writing." Tilley postulates that the Catholic writing style, or Catholic Intellectual Tradition, cannot be defined by a specific style, vision, or attitude, but is instead defined by the elements within the works and the writer's individual visions that are connected to the Catholic experience. These include the concepts of the analogical perspective, a universal hope, an inclusive community, and the public church. Tilley's contention is not that this list is exhaustive, but that it is the most inclusive of the Catholic writing tradition and the traditions of Catholicism in general, and that other "living" contemporary elements exist in and out of periods of literary history.

In exploring these principles and the expressions of the Catholic tradition, so-called "Catholic writers" become easily identifiable. Their visions and writing elements include many elements of the Catholic experience, like grace and transcendence, the notion that all people (or characters) are sinners, and all souls are redeemable by the grace of a sovereign God. Their stories are also saturated with the analogical perspective, as manifested through the idea that God can only present himself and his message to us through an imperfect vessel, that is humanity. Catholic writing also expresses the intellectual notion of the "public church" through the celebration of the sacrament and community within seemingly mundane daily tasks. Andre Dubus' short stories exemplify the ideas of sacrament and the Eucharist in his appreciation for the day to day blessings he bestows upon his characters.

... each leaf is receiving sacraments of light and air and water and earth. So am I, in the breeze on my skin, the air I breathe, the sky and earth and trees I look at. (Dubus 10)

Flannery O'Connor teaches the reader about grace and sin, as well as the sovereignty of God and the redemptive nature of even her most despicable characters, in the same way that Graham Greene does through the alcoholic priest who remarks in The Power and the Glory that, "suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty" (Greene 187).

Through the depictions of imperfect characters, the descriptions of the graciousness of God, and the idea of the public church, Catholic writers weave stories that teach the elements of the Catholic tradition. What makes these pieces of writing especially effective in delivering the Catholic experience to their readers is rooted in the characteristics of storytelling. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have all been referred to as "religions of the book," but what distinguishes Christianity and Judaism is that they are also religions of the story. As Jesus himself used his own storytelling to convey the lessons of God, Catholic writers have often been almost as effective in using fiction storytelling to convey the traditions of Catholicism. Stories have the power to unify people and provoke curiosity, in a way that theological analyzation alone cannot. It is for this reason, and in further studying the elements of both the Catholic writing tradition and the characteristics of story, that storytelling is the most effective and profound means by which to teach and celebrate the Catholic experience.

In justifying this assertion, a closer examination of Terrence Tilley's description of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (CIT) is required. To reiterate, Tilley's claim is that the four withstanding and inclusive elements of Catholic grammar are the following:

The Analogical Imagination

A Universal Hope

An Inclusive Community: "Here Comes Everybody" and

A Gracious God

Tilley's assertion first addresses the most abstract of these concepts, the analogical imagination, which is also sometimes referred to as the both/and perspective. This ambiguous perspective is unique to Catholicism, and also central to it, because it justifies and explains the notion that God's most impactful messages are given through man, in all of his glorious imperfection. The analogical perspective is the perspective that the ambiguity of human nature is not only acceptable, but intentional, and that a single characteristic of humanity cannot be discounted as a means of understanding the intent of a wholly gracious and omnipotent God. It is the belief that the justification for the notion that every person is a sinner, and that every sinner is worthy of redemption. It is the idea that one might serve God faithfully, and have their own weaknesses and transgressions to account for. It is the idea that one can be both a good Catholic and a flawed human being.

The universal hope, the idea of an inclusive community, the public church, and the idea that God is a gracious and sovereign God are more tangible concepts encompassed by Tilley's definition of the CIT. The universal hope concept reinforces the belief of the possibility of redemption for everyone and everything in God's creation, as can be seen in the works of Flannery O'Connor, like "The Misfit" and "The Lame Shall Enter First." Tilley discusses how in order for this to be true, "the conditions for despair must exist," which is true for both the short stories of Flannery O'Connor and the realities of human existence, supplementing the effectiveness of the analogical perspective as applied to the ambiguity of human nature. The inclusive community, commonly referred to by Catholics as the exclamatory, "Here comes everybody," explains the Catholic value of being open and inclusive to everyone, regardless of the type of sinner they are or will become. This applies directly to the CIT in that [Catholicism] "is not elitist or exclusivist," (Tilley, 139) and neither is the character development in any of the fiction pieces of Flannery, Dubus, or Greene. In referring to the "public church" of the CIT writing style, Tilley refutes the notion that Catholicism must only be practiced in a private or holy space, and asserts that worshipping God can be done in any setting, including in the day-to-day lives of the Catholic fiction character's lives. Dubus illustrates this concept through the expression of the sacraments as his characters recognize and appreciate the Eucharist through seemingly mundane ordinary tasks, like cooking, cleansing the body, and having sex:

A sacrament is physical, and within it is God's love; as a sandwich is physical, and nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love, if someone makes it for you and gives it to you with love - even harried or tired or impatient love, but with love's direction and concern, loves again and again wavering and distorted focus on goodness; then God's love too is in the sandwich (Dubus 37)

Similarly, Tilley's claim is that the worship of God can happen outside of the church, in a multitude of situations, and in an infinite number of personal ways. Finally, the concept of a gracious God that is both sovereign and inclusive, permeates the CIT and the fiction of Greene, O'Connor, and Dubus.

Although adherence to Tilley’s CIT principles is a good indicator that a writer qualifies as a "Catholic" writer, or that their pieces can be considered "Catholic writing," there are several other indicators considered within the writing community. One such indicator is that the writer themselves are Catholic, or were previously Catholic, and usually therefore write about Catholic-central themes. Georges Bernanos, for example, is a famous Catholic writer who, in fact, was not Catholic at all. Many of his writings were from an agnostic perspective, as he claimed to be after he left the Catholic church. However, much of his writing was critical of the Catholic church, or focused on Catholic ideas and norms, such that his criticisms often added to the learning experiences and personal growth of his readers, within the Catholic tradition and faith. Catholic writing often also employs a theological slant, and a series of interrelated theological themes, many of which were mentioned above. Some other examples of these themes are grace in nature, grounding the sacred in the tangible elements of earth, and the paradox of the soul incarcerated within the confines of the human body. These elements are especially prevalent in the short stories of Dubus:

and she was delighted, knowing that people had once lived in accord with the sun and weather, and that punctuality and times for work and food and not-work and sleep were later imposed upon them, as she felt now they were imposed upon her (Dubus, 46)

Catholic fiction also encompasses the Catholic experience, especially in the experience of grace. Catholic writers are also known to often use Catholic symbols within their writing, and use a narrative writing style that mimics the parables of Jesus, in that it is often meant to teach a lesson. Although none of these characteristics are the definitive factor in categorizing the work of Catholic writers, they provide an insight into what writers, and which works, have been categorized as such.

Grace versus sin is one common theme in many of the fiction pieces of Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, and Graham Greene, as well as one of the themes of Catholicism in general. The analogical perspective attempts to teach the lesson that grace can only be discovered through humility, and in the acceptance of one’s own sinfulness. Karl Rohner, the acclaimed theologian, wrote that the only way to experience the grace of God is to first “forego the ego,” and in turn accept the both/and logic of Catholicism, and that only then will “we begin to live in the world of God himself, the world of the God of grace and eternal life” (89). Grace cannot be claimed, is not possessive, and can only be found by forgetting oneself and accepting the sovereignty of God. The other lesson taught in the subject of grace is that God’s grace is not dependent upon the Catholic (or non-believer’s) belief in it, and can only be felt or experienced by those that do, and understand that it exists, with or without man’s faith in it. In “The Pretty Girl,” Andre Dubus reinvents the villainy of the protagonist Ray, a man who rapes and assaults the woman that he loves. In painting Ray’s character as a criminal through the firsthand accounts of his sin, Dubus creates a hostility toward him that, as a result, causes the reader to empathize with the other characters in the story. The reality, however, is that the other characters are equally as sinful, and equally as worthy of God’s grace and redemption. In portraying Ray at the end of the story through the loving eyes of his one surviving brother, Dubus creates a dichotomy between who the reader thinks Ray is, and what Ray has done. This exemplifies the notion that all humans are sinners, and that all sinners can receive the sovereign grace of God. God’s grace is not bound by Ray’s belief in it, nor the beliefs of any other character, nor by the reader’s belief. A similar depiction of grace is evident in the alcoholic priest protagonist in The Power and the Glory. Graham Greene’s depiction of such an imperfect, and often unlikeable, character is a wonderful example of grace. The priest, often persuaded by his dependence on alcohol and motivated by the same, is called to God and his work in even the direst situations. It is his humility as a sinner that affords him grace and redemption, in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the reader. Karl Rahner explains the actions of this character through one example of grace in asking, “Have we ever obeyed, not because we had to and because otherwise things would become unpleasant for us, but simply on account of that mysterious, silent, incomprehensible being we call God and his will” (276)? The priest’s unwavering dedication to his vows, and the work of God, even in a desolate environment in which priests were criminalized and murdered for their work, and despite being a sinner himself, exemplifies grace as Catholics are able to experience it.

A second theme in Catholic literature that is closely tied to the concepts of grace and sin, is the Catholic idea that all souls are redeemable. No matter the sins committed by characters in the CIT, the Catholic writer aims to teach the lesson that these sinners are worthy of God’s redemption. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor’s protagonist, the family-oriented grandmother is almost as despicable and unlikeable as her antagonist, the serial murderer and fugitive, nicknamed, “The Misfit.” But each of these characters, despite their reprehensible nature, are worthy of redemption. Through the slow execution of her family members, the grandmother is able to understand the human-ness of the Misfit, thus making her more human herself. It is because of this experience that the Misfit is the medium through which the grandmother is redeemed. This moment of redemption lies in the grandmother’s realization that the misfit is, or could be, one of her own “children.” O’Connor’s writing style is to precede redemption by a moment of violence or conflict, followed by the realization of humanity. A similar formula was applied in her short story, “The Displaced Person,” as Mrs. McIntyre, the land owner, is most in need of redemption, and she finds it after her displacement of the displaced person, Mr. Guizac. After employing Mr. Guizac as a favor to the Catholic church, and growing to despise him, her disdain for this person and his wholesome work ethic cause a series of reactions that ultimately end in the death of a woman close to her, and the loss of her property and livelihood. Through this process, Mrs. McIntyre becomes redeemed, and displaces the displaced man she’d previously employed. As she displaces the displaced person, it can be assumed that he (Mr. Guizac) had in fact been redeemed for the length of the story, and was simply biding his time on the farm, a place of hatred and greed. It is interesting also to note Flannery O’Connor’s use of irony in both of these works, as well as symbolism. The blue and emerald peacocks that she often references are symbolic of grace and its mystery, so it makes sense that Mrs. McIntyre would despise the peacocks as much as does the employees of her farm. The plot of this story also epitomizes the application of the “universal hope” theme from Terrence Tilley’s Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

The relationship between redemption and grace create a clear example of a third theme in the Catholic writing tradition, the analogical perspective. As described, the analogical perspective most closely applies to human nature, in that people can be both a sinner and worthy of redemption and God’s sovereign grace. The analogical perspective is seemingly contradictory, especially to those outside the Catholic community, however it is a great strength of Catholicism and also paves the way for the inclusive community concept that Catholicism also teaches. The most prominent examples of the analogical perspective come to the reader through character development, and are intended to teach man, the way Jesus Christ did, the lessons of God through the clearest and paradoxically most complex medium in existence: man. The same way that God chose the human embodiment and human experience to teach his word, Catholic writers develop the theological themes in their writing through the same vessels. The ambiguous and complicated nature of humankind is one of the most effective means by which to convey the duality of self, and ambiguous characters create a more authentic experience for the reader. Just as God created the totality of the human spirit, his lessons are best communicated through authentic characters.

The sacraments in everyday living are a final recurring theme within Catholic fiction. The word “sacrament” is used to describe the consecrated elements of the Eucharist: the bread that symbolizes the body of Christ and the wine that symbolizes the blood of Christ, taken by believers in Communion. Just as the bread and wine are symbols for the body and blood, and the Communion is symbolic of the infinite sacrifice of God for the redemption of man, symbolic sacraments exists in the day to day lives of Catholics. In “Sacraments” Andre Dubus identifies examples of the sacraments in his day to day life, and recognizes the breeze on his skin, the air he breathes received through his senses, and the spiritual essence of what he is doing as reminders that the sacraments are present and not past. The concept of the sacraments in daily life permeate Catholic fiction and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and are exemplified in Dubus’ later works, including “Voices from the Moon,” and “The Pretty Girl.” The sacraments are symbolic of the communion, which in itself is symbolic of the human connection within Catholicism, one of its driving forces.

The thematic concepts of Catholic writing are amplified through the power of storytelling. Because of its ability to connect and deeply affect people, storytelling is one of the oldest methods of teaching, dating back to the beginning of man. Stories are passed down from generation to generation, and often build the foundation for cultures all over the world. Jesus used the power of storytelling and religious myth to teach the lessons of the bible, by first orienting the listener in familiarity and belonging through the use of context and real or natural setting. His parables grounded the listener in this way, the way they ground the modern reader in reality. The parables then disorient the reader/listener with an element of surprise, and reorient the listener with the delivery of the message or lesson. Jesus’s parables allowed the listener to see him or herself within the story this way, thus making story telling a more effective means teaching God’s word than theological analyzation alone. There are thirteen characteristics of storytelling detailed in William Bausch’s, “Storytelling Imagination and Faith,” most of which closely apply to the CIT. In the same way that Jesus’s parables did, stories “unite us in a holistic way to nature,” and act as a “bridge to one’s culture” (Bausch, 33). They help us remember “our past, our history, our glories, and our shame” (36). They unite us with the rest of humankind, provoke curiosity, and provide a basis for hope and morality, especially within the Catholic faith. Most importantly, every story is our story, and human beings are a collection of stories. We are God’s story.

Stories provoke curiosity in a way that pure theological study alone does not. Stories provoke a natural human interest in their characters and outcomes, in that the reader or listener becomes invested in the story’s outcome, for better or for worse. To “learn, recite, know, and share the story; that’s its nature” (Bausch, 31). This goes to show that the power of curiosity is what drives the power of teaching through story. Stories are made to be shared, delivered, and enjoyed in community, passed on, and to generate more stories. Bausch (1989) states, “A good story is like a secret: too good to be kept,” (31) and because the nature of storytelling is sharing it with others, it unites us with humankind.

The ability of story to unite us to humankind is what makes it integral to the Catholic tradition. The universal human family is bound by commonalities in themes and lessons taught through stories across cultures. Catholic fiction uses the analogical perspective and the ambiguity of authentic characters, imperfect and completely human, to teach the lessons of the Catholic bible and to allow the reader to see him or herself within the realism of these deeply flawed characters. Throughout history, stories are able to unite us in that they always come back to the same themes in writing, because they are the themes of human existence. Bausch relates this to the gospels in writing, “It should not pass our notice that such universal human themes find their echo in the gospels where, for example, short tax gatherers and wanton women (Luke 19:1-10 and 7:37-30) discover rebirth and spiritual renewal in the love offered by Jesus” (36). This implies that the common themes in storytelling are also the common themes in the CIT, like grace versus sin, and the idea of redemption.

Similarly, stories unite us in a holistic way with nature as they do with the universal human experience. As Jesus used nature and real places to ground the recipients of the parables, Catholic fiction continues to use nature to teach the “supernatural,” or the transcendent lessons of God. William Bausch calls nature, “our common stuff of existence,” unifying us with the earth and the message that God seeks to give us through the beauty of the natural world (32). Graham Greene grounds his story of a priest, seeking respite and redemption in a dystopia where Catholicism is outlawed, in the desolate imagery of the deserts and forests of Mexico. The Power and the Glory grounds the theoretical premise of the priest’s isolated existence in the rich descriptions of earth, flora, and fauna, that allow the reader to put themselves into the story. The priest’s harsh reality and the shocking plot twists are rooted safely in a rich and thorough description of the world around him. Andre Dubus creates a similar emphasis on the imagery of nature, and allows his readers to experience and find commonality within the characters' existence, including the antagonists. "The Pretty Girl" indirectly characterizes its main character, an unlikeable man who commits assault and rapes a woman, through his love of nature. In doing so, the reader is able to understand the human-ness of the character, despite his transgressions, and therefore see that his soul is also redeemable, through the sovereign grace of God. Nature acts as both a unifying and grounding force in this story, and without it's detailed description, the reader would otherwise lose the importance of the lesson.

It should not be without notice that the reader of Catholic fiction understands the roles of natural imagery and the unification of humankind in humankind in a fourth strength of storytelling: the ability to promote healing. Through the reader's unification with both nature and the whole of humanity, he or she is able to forgive, experience, learn, and heal. Especially in seeing his or herself in the figures of the story, the reader is able to forgive, and forgiveness in others promotes the forgiveness of self. Despite their unlikeable qualities, the characters of Catholic fiction are human, encompassing every flaw and shortcoming that God intended for them. Seeing oneself in the flaws of another character, then being able to understand, empathize with, and forgive that character for his or her shortcomings teaches the reader of Catholic fiction to allow himself the same liberties. Bausch tells us that, “The healing power of story and imagination is indeed powerful” (58) in that they allow the reader to see himself or herself as he or she once was, and could be again. In showing the reader themselves through the power of the ambiguous sinner, Catholic writers are enabling both. For, “When a man comes to you and tells you your own story, you know that your sins are forgiven. And when you are forgiven, you are healed” (Bausch, 58).

The themes and experiences that unite the people of Earth in humanity, are also those which remind us of God’s will and ambition. It is easy to imagine that a man could “come to you and tell(s) you your own story,” because Bausch tells us that this is another characteristic of story: that “every story is our story” (58). What Bausch meant was that, “all stories are in one way or another, or can be, our story,” and that the difference between faith and reality is the willingness to invest oneself into the story. In questioning whether the stories of the Bible are real, the reader is in actuality questioning whether or not he or she can see himself or herself in that world (58). As all good storytellers do, Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene and Jesus Christ rooted each of their stories in the realities of what they knew, and what they understood their readers would know. The gospels tell the story of the son of God, and the realities of human existence in the final days of Jesus, where Bausch poses the food for thought, that Jesus’ last word,

is his story and our last word is his life. Peter protests loyalty but coughs up denial. Faithful follower Thomas doubts, close friend Judas betrays, hard-hearted Magdalen cries, extortionist Zaccheus, a small man (morally?) grows tall, dead Lazarus revives. Aren’t these our stories too (59)?

The ability of readers to place themselves into the realities of otherwise far-fetched stories is in fact not far-fetched at all, as it is human nature to be unpredictable and complex beings. Any reader of the Bible could understand and see himself as the betrayer, the denier, and the one who breaks down to cry in Jesus’s final days. These stories, and every story, are our stories, because they are written in truth, and because faith is the choice that makes them real. Entire cultures and religions are shaped from the imaginations of human writers, because of the story’s ability to transcend what it means to be human; what it means to be us.

This ability of readers to live within the context in which a story is built, allows them not only to see themselves in the characters and lessons, but to fully invest in the idea that stories are the basis for hope and morality. Bausch says, “When people are in a hopeless situation, the only way out, so to speak, is to imagine other possibilities and alternatives. It is the imagination, therefore, that gives birth to hope” (61). This means of escape for the reader or listener then develops into a means of healing, which in turn becomes the basis of hope. Stories allow us to interpret the universal human experience and investigate other potential outcomes for our own problems. The stories of the Bible are meant to inspire, to create optimism, and to show its readers that all things are possible through Christ, and our faith in him. Jesus’s parables were designed to invoke hope in a better future, a different future (Bausch, 89) and so they did and continue to do today. The story of hope teaches us that we are capable of change, and of changing our own outcomes while we are alive. Thus, stories become not only the basis of hope, but of morality. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Flannery O’Connor allows the reader to witness the slow metamorphosis of a man from common, to the human manifestation of the characteristics of man that he most despises. As the story finishes and the rain pours down on Mr. Shiftlet and his stolen car while he begins to cry, the reader begins to understand that the despicable man has become aware of his own demise. He is beginning to feel the first pangs of regret for his transgressions, as he says, "Oh Lord! Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!" while ironically, the rain finally breaks, and the "guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car" (121). Because of her ability to put her readers into the shoes of even the vilest characters, it is easy for the reader to experience regret in the same way the protagonist does. Stories like these remind us that there is an opportunity for change. The lessons of O’Connor’s word, therefore, mimic the parables of Jesus Christ in this way, as is the Catholic tradition.

Bausch’s in-depth analysis of the characteristics and efficacy of storytelling applies several more principles to the powerful benefits of using the story to teach. The Catholic faith has employed these strengths in pairing theological study with the lessons of God to teach God’s message since the parables of Jesus Christ. Beyond the delivery of God’s message, stories unite all of humanity within nature and mankind, and provide a means of escape. It’s as if God gave mankind the gift of storytelling in his perfect omnipotent understanding of the human psyche, including its flaws, its curiosity, and its ability to invest in hope, and to change. Although the structure and design of theology serve a direct and disciplined understanding of God, stories, “are also a fruitful guide to discerning when in ministry love must come before law” (Bausch, 62). It is because of the rich and sublime nature of learning through story that storytelling is the most effective means of teaching God’s lessons in Catholicism, and it is because God loves stories, that he created the wonderful, ambiguous, and complex creature known as man.

Through rich imagery, symbolism, and the complicated characters ubiquitous in Catholic fiction, Catholic storytellers have carried and delivered the message of God to eager audiences since Jesus’s parables were recited in Israel. The analogical perspective, a unique strength of Catholicism, is best taught through the experience of the “both/and” ambiguity of the characters that exist in Catholic storytelling. Like grace and transcendence, this perspective cannot be described, cannot be explained, except through the experience of it. It is for this reason that storytelling is a more valuable means of delivering these divine aspects of God’s message than theology and close-reading of the Bible alone. No other method of teaching is more effective at helping its pupils remember individuality and endurance of self, while grounding them in culture, nature, and the universal human experience.

Works Cited:

Bausch, William J. (1989). Storytelling Imagination and Faith. Twenty-Third Publications. Mystic, CN.

Bernanos, Georges. (n.d.) Sermon of an Agnostic. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Breslin, John B. (n.d.) The Open Ended Mystery of Matter

Dubus, Andre. (1996). Selected Stories. Vintage Books. New York, NY.

Eifler, Karen E. & Landy, Thomas M. (1996). Becoming Beholders Cultivating Sacramental Imagination and Actions in College Classrooms. Liturgical Press. Collegeville, MN.

Greene, Graham. (1940). The Power and the Glory. The Viking Press. New York, NY.

O'Connor, Flannery. (1955). A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. New York, NY.

Rahner, Karl. (1967). Theological Investigations, volume 3. Reflections on the Experience of Grace.

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