Catholic authors of the 20th century in search of grace

The social media landscape is not very conducive to the practice of humility. At the height of its influence in the 20th century, the legacy press also traded in ego inflation. Yet Catholic authors sometimes said or did things that punctured that ego bubble—and often in disturbing ways. At the height of their literary success, authors such as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor thought of themselves as sinners in need of grace.

Evelyn Waugh

Waugh’s first marriage collapsed in 1929. This crisis left its mark on his 1930 satirical novel. vile bodies, which he wrote while his own life was unraveling. A year after the divorce, he was accepted into the Catholic Church. His conversion was an unsentimental affair. In Waugh’s estimation, the Catholic Church held the fullness of the truth, so it was reasonable to worship her – and that was that.

When Waugh (1903-1966) appeared in a television interview with the BBC in 1960, he told journalist John Freeman that in the late 1920s he was “as close to an atheist as you could get”. Freeman asked Waugh to talk about the greatest gift he received from Catholicism. Was it peace or perhaps peace of mind? “It’s not luck to get something,” Waugh replied. “It’s a simple matter of acknowledging the existence of God or dependence on God or contact with God—the fact that everything good in the world depends on him. It’s not some kind of welfare state fringe benefit to say, ‘Well, all this, after I’ve earned a good living, I’ll now have a little icing on top of religion.’ That’s the point of the whole thing.”

Waugh’s temperament was sometimes as remarkable as his writing. He was often a cruel jerk, a prickly snob; he engaged in fascist politics and was lively. If there is any truth to the story of upper-class British fathers who love their dogs more than their children, Waugh has done his best to embody that truth. He wasn’t much better with adults. When novelist and friend Nancy Mitford introduced Waugh to her publisher in 1950, Waugh shocked them with his rude behavior. “How can you behave so badly—and you’re a Catholic,” exclaimed Mitford. “You have no idea how meaner I’d be if I wasn’t a Catholic,” Waugh replied. “Without supernatural help I would hardly be a human being.”

Waugh is witty in both his literature and letters. In his fiction, humor serves to make the harsh truths of a failing world more bearable. There is also humor in how he recognizes his own fallen nature. That humor, however, does not dull the knife that cuts through everything that hides sin. In his 1934 novel A handful of dust, that veil is made of fame, privilege, power, class and social culture. Waugh tears the veil in an unforgettable scene. A mother having a romantic affair with a horrible man named John – who shares the same name as her son – receives word that “John” has been in a terrible accident. As it slowly dawns on her that the victim is her little boy and not her lover, her first reaction is to thank God with relief – before bursting into tears. The horrific scene is convincing because it is so authentically human.

Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark (1918-2006), a generation younger than Waugh, enjoyed his support. Spark’s conversion to Catholicism in 1954 made her likable, as did the fact that her own writing was also funny, cruel, and engaged with faith. Her novel from 1959 Memento Mori explores a community of elderly Londoners susceptible to cryptic phone calls. A man rings a bell to remind them that they must die. The anonymous caller politely states a fact of life. Most victims react with indignation or paranoia. The retired criminal reform activist is calling for the culprit to be found and punished.

Only one character per turn takes the call. Charmian Piper is Catholic and senile. She enjoys a moment of visionary clarity when she receives the call. She tells the caller that thinking about her death is an exercise she’s been doing for decades. This is an unforgettable fictional character who, in a world dominated by self-importance and personal survival, ascribes less importance to his earthly existence.

Sparka’s father was Jewish, her mother Anglican, and she attended a Presbyterian school. Like Waugh, her conversion to Catholicism was not emotional. She began reading the works of Cardinal John Henry Newman and, as she said in a television interview, “just wandered” into Catholicism.

“Mostly I’m still Catholic, because I can’t believe in anything else,” she said. “I often want to, but I can’t.” The interviewer asked her if she was satisfied with her religion. “No,” she said, smiling. “Perhaps the truth is not satisfactory.” Spark certainly wasn’t happy with the church’s views on birth control – which she firmly supported. Spark is about subjecting her will to scrutiny in light of a truth greater than herself—even when doing so is unsatisfying and even if it doesn’t change her views.

Graham Greene

Among the vanguard of British authors who converted to Catholicism was Greene (1904-1991), the author of The Power and the Glory. In 1953, Greene received punishment in a pastoral letter from the Holy Office, the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was admonished for writing “strange and paradoxical” and for “disturbing the spirit of calmness that should prevail in a Christian.”

In this sense, he was no different from Waugh, Spark or – across the Atlantic – Flannery O’Connor. Greene’s protagonist was a nameless, poor priest trying to escape persecution and death during the anti-Catholic purges in Mexico. It takes a special skill to create such a memorable character without even giving him a name. The priest was a drunkard, broke his vow of celibacy and struggled to forgive his enemies. Yet moral decline was the vehicle by which he traveled toward humility and grace.

The protagonist reflects on his life as a young priest: “What an insufferable creature he must have been in those days – and yet in those days he was relatively innocent… Then, in his innocence, he felt no love for anyone: now in his corruption he learned .”

Every author, to varying degrees, writes fiction based on personal experience. During the creation of the “whiskey priest” of Power and glory, Greene was no exception. Greene was a brooding and tortured Catholic, a serial and selfish adulterer embroiled in colorful sexual escapades, eventually a Catholic agnostic who avoided communion for three decades, and a man dealing with mental illness. Few authors struggled to outline and understand grace as persistently as he did.

Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor (1925-1964) was among the few. Burdened by a debilitating illness, tending peacocks on her family farm and writing for diocesan publications, O’Connor embraced what is sometimes called “evil grace.” Nevertheless, she published the short story “A good man is hard to find” in which a grandmother and her entire family are brutally massacred by escaped prisoners. Grandma, the hypocrite, talks the Christian talk, but accepts only Christ’s love for the man who will kill her in the moment before she is about to be killed. “She would be a good woman… if there was someone who would shoot her every minute of her life” — are some of the most haunting words in the literary canon.

But it’s another character, Ruby Turpin from “Revelation,” a story written a few months before O’Connor’s death, where the author’s search for grace is most compelling. Mrs. Turpin, a self-satisfied middle-class fanatic of the highest order, is confronted with a vision of a God who makes the poor and despised come first and the middle-class “decent” last. Mrs. Turpin embodied the racist and classist impulses of the American South during decades of racial segregation—impulses that ran deep and far.

O’Connor must have encountered many Mrs. Turpins in her time. And to what extent did she see herself reflected in the character she created – fallen and faced with grace that was hard to bear? On May 20, 1964, in her last weeks of life, she wrote to her friend and playwright Maryat Lee about checking into Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta for a transfusion and treatment. On her deathbed, she signed one of her last letters as “Mrs. Turpin.”

These Catholic authors of the 20th century often wrote with extreme cruelty, but also with courage. They took a scalpel to the satin fabrics of society, not forgetting that they too are part of that society.

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