Southern Writers, Catholic Writers..

Posted: January 19, 2018 in World On The Edge

Southern writers have often been insecure with their history which has been balled into one word: racism. And many have overcompensated and run away from their heritage. But you can’t run away from history, or the evil in it, anymore than you can run away from your sins.

A few decades ago, when a native southerner looked at the whole of America, it was often from a fixed point of distance, as an outsider. Because Southerners are the only part of the nation who ever knew defeat. Even though today’s south is more like the rest of the country, native southerners are still oriented toward their history; a history that encompasses their family lines, losses, and loves.

As a writer of southern fiction and a Catholic with deep roots in the Bible Belt South, I come from a line of courageous women who passed down their faith–women who married Protestant husbands they loved. In fact, these three generations of women literally loved their men into the Catholic Church.

Like the Catholic Church, a southern writer recognizes evil. And we may experience a sense of hypocrisy in other regions of our nation who point fingers. We may feel that some from those other regions are so concerned with the morals of southerners that they ignore the evil occurring where they live. Other countries have oppressed a people, and even now, are oppressing entire populations. Oppression is a human problem–on a large basis and on a small basis, one individual to another. And you will find it everywhere, especially in the stories of southern authors.

Some say southern writers have lost their identity, that they are no different from other writers. But we are different. Today, we don’t have to defend ourselves, we only have to forgive ourselves. And because we can forgive ourselves, southern writers and southern people have a distinctiveness, perhaps enough distinctiveness to enlighten and even humanize today’s American culture. A huge plus in that humanization might be that southerners are talkers, and listeners, which is always better than political polarization or hiding from the problem.

So what happens when a southern writer is also a Catholic writer? Great things, according to a great southern Catholic writer and subjective thinker, Walker Percy who said, “Science cannot make a single statement about the individual man, but a novel can. What it is to be a man struggling in a particular time, with a particular problem, in a particular place.”

The subjective thinker is not a scientist-scholar; he is an artist. To exist is an art. The subjective thinker is esthetic enough for his life to have esthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, dialectical enough in thinking to master it. The subjective thinker’s task is to understand himself in existence.– Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

A subjective thinker understands that we exist only because God exists.

Catholic fiction shines out the existence of God when our human deficiency keeps us from recognizing it. A Catholic writer seeks a truth that is higher than anything material. And he must have passion enough to do it because everything worldly will speak against him. So he goes about trying to understand himself as a person. He/she must think and write subjectively as a human being related to God. He must see himself as a child with a Father who loves him. A child who is often disobedient, and yet, at times completely in line. And he must see that his Father’s love does not disappear in either situation. When a Catholic writer sees himself as both ugly and beautiful, but nevertheless loved, he or she will write about that. But the subjective thinking comes first.

And this takes me back to the subjective Southern writer in general, mastering his past in the section of the country that shouldered the evil of slavery like the Jews shouldered the Crucifixion of Jesus. Forced to stand on a scaffold with a scarlet letter, exposed to public humiliation like Hester Prynne. The historical Southerner was a wayward child, like the prodigal son–except that the Southern child was not forgiven as was the Prodigal Son in the Bible. He was punished—and became defensive. A guilty child standing in the middle of his condemning brothers and sisters with stones in their hands.

The South is used to vindictiveness and human violence. The South is used to crucifixions, but at the same time we’re used to familiarity with others, and a set of manners that we still hold to, based in the Christian faith about the way things ought to be. On the worst of days, we become defensive if attacked. But on the best of days, we accept our history, and we accept our people—all of them.

And then, we do what we do best–we talk and we listen. We talk about the lives of people in our towns from generations back. We know what happened to them and why it happened. We listen to the ways good and evil singularly affected them, and to how it affects us today. Native southerners think as subjectively as Catholics do.

Some stories may be embellished—southerners are great at that. Some stories may be so entirely malevolent, or heartbreaking, that they’re hard to hear, but like the Catholic Church, a writer of southern fiction expects her characters to sin. And also like the Church, the writer creates an open door to forgiveness and offers a welcoming home.

The writer, like any artist, is called to bring people closer to God through beauty expressed, truth told, and virtue taught. Simple as that. — Father George Rutler

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