When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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The 1 Biggest Reason Nature Matters in our Spiritual Lives–from a Modern Point of View

 

iStock_000057827554_MediumBeing outside is one of the great pleasures in life, particularly in good weather. I love pulling weeds, planting seeds, pushing the kids around for a walk or run and even the occasional hike; (see my picture of Skellig Michael in Ireland above).

But I don’t consider the “why,” very often, as I do with a lot of other things.

This short article really hit-home for me about some of the reasons being outside feels so good and is so good for us.

“God created humans in the wild and placed us in a garden. We’re meant to live a substantial portion of our lives outdoors—and it’s a unique place to experience our Creator and restore our spirits.” – Michael Hyatt

In a sense, this is so obvious, and yet we don’t hear it enough. Our love for natural boils down to a simply, basic spiritual reality.

Great saints have said similar things, “The Heavens are singing the glory of God” -St. Francis.

Hyatt ‘s blog connects it with business and personal development, which is nice in this case because sometimes it helps to hear things in a contemporary context. And he has research and studies about how being in or even just seeing nature aids your mind, concentration, sleep habits, physical fitness and also spiritual life.  Continue reading

Recalling my first Ash Wednesday, an uncomfortable day

[This essay first ran on Ethika Politika. Full article available there]

My first Lent, I wandered around campus wondering if anyone would notice the smudge on my forehead. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and had recently stumbled across the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her seemingly outrageous claims to truth. Encountering both the man who would become my husband and then the Church Fathers had led me to the troubling realization that maybe everything was not relative: that perhaps man’s darkness was real and that there was a real salvation, that perhaps God did exist and that truth, goodness, and beauty were more than romantic ideals.

A disinterested rationalism ruled the day on campus, the idea that all traditions and practices are something the educated person stands apart from, that she observes from a distance and perhaps with curiosity. This was well-known to any “critical thinker” and to the newly, ardently atheistic coeds in my residence hall. Actually to take part in a tradition, to claim it for oneself, is the only modern-day heresy there is.

Though intellectual commitments are often frowned upon by universities, they are inescapably human. All of us are born into complex networks of family, national, ethnic, religious, political, and other relationships that modern man tends to dismiss, viewing humans only as atomized, disconnected units. It turns out that claiming a tradition is not so radical after all.

Full Article Here:

https://ethikapolitika.org/2016/02/09/lents-bodily-exposure/

What was your most memorable Ash Wednesday experience? Or even just a time that you saw someone wearing ashes. I’d love to hear from you!

The Metaphysical Good of Children

girl-199x300From the Truth and Charity Forum: The Metaphysical Good of Children

“Too often we think children have value based on how the parents feel about them. Melissa Harris-Perry, host on MSNBC said in 2013, “When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents. A powerful feeling – but not science.” That answer is trouble because it ignores actual reality in favor of feelings, granting to some humans’ feelings the status of ontological truth while simultaneously and incoherently denying value to other humans and their feelings. Feelings do matter, but they do not determine reality.

“Harris-Perry added that “An unwanted pregnancy can be biologically the same as a wanted one. But the experience can be entirely different.” This statement is true in itself. However, the reality of the child’s life and goodness is determined by the biology, not the experience of the parents. Granted, we ought to be very sensitive to the feelings of such women and seek to provide as much non-judgmental support as possible. However, the requirement of support stems precisely from the reality and goodness of the child who is already in existence and growing to maturity.

“I take this view from the classical metaphysics. Metaphysically speaking, everything that exists is good in the sense that it is willed and loved by God and expresses a perfection of being. Martin Vaske, S.J. explains in his Introduction to Metaphysics, “Unity, truth, and goodness are called transcendental properties because they are true of every being as being” (179). That means that everything that exists is good in so far as it exists, and this goodness, this desirability or lovableness is intrinsic to the being itself and not dependent on the perceptions of humans. He continues, “Beings have metaphysical, or ontological, truth independently of human knowledge; so also beings have metaphysical goodness independently of our willing them” (192).”

***

“It is, of course, true that there are real difficulties of raising children, such as sleep deprivation and potential financial strain. But these are simply part of the reality of life. If we can accept that, instead of viewing this as a massive injustice, we can start to enjoy the goodness that is before our eyes instead of looking around it to view only our inconvenience. Our happiness is served when we embrace reality and work with it, instead of trying to fight against it.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/children-are-good-regardless-of-our-feelings/

Stop Trying to Harvest Life’s Peak Moments – Centesimus Annus

From JP II’s Centesimus Annus: His 1991 Encyclical on the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, widely considered the first Church encyclical on social teachings:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.75 It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments. (36) ….

one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. (37)

I love this. I find in Catholic theology and thought a truly unique invitation to contemplate that which is truly good in life versus what things are the distractions.

I think in my own life I have often succumbed to the temptation to confuse having with being–ie if I have a cool outfit, I am cool. There’s no easy way to explain this because we don’t have a vocabulary for it.

But happiness and a good life are not different. Happiness is not a moment, not even a collection of peak moments. True happiness is a life well-lived, a life of dedicated work to people and ideas that matter. That sort of effort is itself the reward.

I hate the analogy of apple-picking, but it demonstrates so clearly. It’s fun to go pick apples in the late summer and early fall; I visit an orchard and spend an hour or less plucking the prettiest products of the branch. I bask in the sun and feel very pleased with myself for connecting with nature. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it remains a grab in the dark for a “peak moment,” those oh-so-perfect looking scenes in my head which will make me happy if I simply gather enough of them.

The real satisfaction is not in the serene, beautiful moment–because a moment is just a moment and it passes away immediately. Real satisfaction is in the dedication to the entire process of planting, nurturing, watching grow, weeding, pruning, watering and finally, yes, picking, cooking and preserving. Real satisfaction is in the authenticity of hard, honest work (of a variety of natures).

Consider mothering. The peak moments are my little girl’s first steps, her precious laugh, my toddler boy’s love of his birthday cake. But if I could swoop in and capture all the peak moments without the whole process of life, those moments would be empty. Those moments are meaningful because I have nursed them when they cried, laid beside a restless, sick infant, cleaned up the peanut butter, made a thousand bland lunches and calmed the tantrums. I could even miss the “peakest” of moments (though it’s nice to have them), such as the birthday parties and the first steps, and still find satisfaction and joy in my life as their mother because I would still be a part of that life-long process of dedication.

Consumption, materialistic consumerism, tries to trick us by offering the peak moments as though they can be seized or grasped without the whole-life process of dedication, work and sacrifice. “Want a perfect body? Buy this Vitamix Blender. A healthier you awaits.” As though the moment of enjoying one’s physical appearance in the mirror can be obtained by the $40.00 purchase alone. In reality, the blender likely delivers neither the happiness nor the perfect body. Only effort sustained over months towards the end goal of a healthy diet and body will bring us closer to our ideal–whether or not we have a Vitamix (no offense Vitamix).

And materialistic consumerism is also much nastier than that mere level of lying to us, the buyers. In a disordered emphasis on profit, corners are sometimes cut, people hurt in the process of production for excess. Now, there are certainly legitimate purpose of marketing–to put audiences in touch with something they might actually need. And those creating and selling products certainly do need to earn a living. And capitalistic enterprise can be engaged in well and virtuously.

Oh but how easily it morphs into false promises and misleading visions of happiness. This is why I love the quote above, John Paul II tells us that it is “necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth.”

Yes. Yes. This and only this is the hallmark of a good life and consequentially of true satisfaction and peace. Constantly grasping for happiness in new experiences, products and achievements is a race to nowhere. The only thing that matters is to seek the truth, to strive to live in accord with it, to contemplate beauty and goodness, and to love God and others…just like Christ taught.

Beautiful Things

The Six Most Beautiful Sights

1. Light

2. A Child’s Smile

3. Water

4. the Human Form

5. Arches, particularly in cathedrals

6. Flowers

The Four Most Beautiful Sounds

1. Flowing water

2. A child’s laugh

3. wind chimes

4. the human voice, singing

God gives all created things Truth, Goodness & Beauty as co-extensive with their being, and he is the ultimate source of these things.

Reflecting on the goodness and beauty of creation (despite the evils that mar it because of Original Sin) helps me to start to imagine the beginnings of the grandeur of God.

What else is beautiful?