Santa Clara University

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Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: The Catholic Writer

By: Ron Hansen

Ron Hansen

 

Ron Hansen, professor of English at SCU, was appointed to the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professorship in the Arts and Humanities in September 1996. He was the first faculty member to hold the endowed chair, which was established by an anonymous donor in 1995. Hansen is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including "Mariette in Ecstasy", "Atticus", and "Hitler’s Niece". He is also the author of "A Stay Against Confusion", a volume of essays on fiction and faith. This essay is reprinted from "Explore", a publication of the Bannan Institute, part of SCU’s Ignatian Center. For more information, see www.scu.edu/ignatiancenter.

The goals of the Campaign for Santa Clara include establishing more endowed professorships to enable the University to continue to recruit the best and brightest faculty members to our community of scholars.

In “Confessions of a Reluctant Catholic,” novelist Alice McDermott recalls learning to be a writer, which “seemed to me from the outset to be an impossible pursuit, one for which I had no preparation or training, or even motive, except for a secret and undeniable urge to do so.” She’d discovered that “fiction made the chaos bearable, fiction transformed the absurdity of our brief lives by giving context and purpose and significance to every gesture, every desire, every detail. Fiction transformed the meaningless, fleeting stuff of daily life into the necessary components of an enduring work of art.”1 

The intuition of the fiction writer is similar to that of the scientist, that the world is governed by rules and patterns that are, by analysis and experiment, detectable, that the hidden mysteries of nature can be interrogated and solved. I have run into people who don’t read fiction because they feel it’s founded on fabrications and swindles and worthless extenuations of reality—golfer John Daly once complained about English classes at the University of Arkansas where he was forced to read “these big, fat books that weren’t even true”—but for many of us fiction holds up to the light, fathoms, simplifies, and refines those existential truths that, without such interpretation, seem all too secret, partial, and elusive. And that, of course, is the goal of religion as well.

Writing not only gives form and meaning to our sometimes disorderly existence, but gives the author the chance for self disclosure and communion with others, while giving readers a privileged share in another’s inner life that, perhaps imperceptibly, questions and illuminates their own. Reading attentively, connecting our lives with those of fictional characters, choosing ethically and emotionally just as they do or in contradistinction to them, we enter the realm of the spirit where we simultaneously discover our likeness to others and our difference, our uniqueness. Questioning

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ourselves and our world, finding in it, for all its coincidence, accidents, and contingencies a mysterious coherence, we may become aware of a horizon beyond which abides the One who is the creator and context of our existence.

Commenting on the short stories and personal essays of Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff noted that in his friend’s work “the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other. His is an unapologetically sacramental vision of life in which ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things. He believes in God, and talks to him, and doesn’t mince words. . . He is open to mystery, and of all mysteries the one that interests him most is the human potential for transcendence.”2 

Edifying Christian fiction can have a tendency to attenuate the scandal of the incarnation by circumscribing the sensual or sordid facts of the flesh in order to concentrate on heavenly actions and aspirations. And in doing so such fiction fails both the mysteries we are informed of by faith and those mysteries of sin and redemption we perceive in our daily lives. We need Christian fiction writers who are, in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “hotly in pursuit of the real.” She noted that “the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray nature is less; it means it is greater.”3 

In an essay entitled “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” Walker Percy identified the inherent congeniality of Christianity to the vocation of the novelist, noting that the Christian ethos “underwrites those very properties of the novel without which there is no novel: I am speaking of the mystery of human life, its sense of predicament, of something having gone wrong, of life as a wayfaring and a pilgrimage, of the density and linearity of time and the sacramental reality of things.”4 

Writing on vocation in Magister Ludi, the great German novelist Herman Hesse noted, “There are many types and kinds of call, but the core of the experience is always the same: your soul is awakened, transformed, or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within, a summons comes from without, a portion of reality presents itself and makes a claim.”

I have discovered in late night conversations that many of my friends have had profound experiences of God’s hand, God’s voice, God’s solace, God’s gentle invitation. But how often are those experiences written about? And yet they are as important, indelible, and real as anything else that happens to us. Catholic writers may principally differ from others in their heightened awareness of the unseen but ineluctable foundation of our existence, and in their unsqueamish and unembarrassed insistence that one is hotly in pursuit of the real especially when writing about the substance of things hoped for. 

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1 Alice McDermott, "Confessions of a Reluctant Catholic," Commonweal (February 11, 2000).
2 Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels, with an introduction by Tobias Wolff (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1991), xv.
3 Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 175.
4 Walker, Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, ed. Patrick Samway, S.J. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), 178.

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