I am a Catholic by birth, third child and only daughter of two first-generation New York Irish Catholics who never paused to think twice (as they would have put it) about where or when or whether I should be baptized into the Catholic church (Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Albans, Queens, two weeks after my birth) or sent to Catholic schools (Saint Boniface School, Elmont, Long Island; Sacred Heart Academy, Hempstead), or whether Catholicism would ever become something less than essential in my life.
My family attended ten o’clock Mass every Sunday without fail, confession once a month on Saturday if the nuns hadn’t taken care of it at school (or if our behavior required additional penance), and my brothers and I collected our sacraments—First Communion, first confession, confirmation—without hesitation or dissent, or, for that matter, discussion. We were instructed to say our prayers every night, although we only got down on our knees together when one of us carted home the big plastic statue of Mary with the glow-in-the-dark rosary beads in its base, and a family rosary was part of the homework. We each had our own set of beads, usually kept under our pillow, and there were a crucifix on the wall of my parents’ bedroom, a small statue of Saint Joseph on the server in the dining room, another of the Blessed Virgin on my mother’s dresser, and one on my own. My father carried a worn scapular. My mother put a holy card of Saint Jude in the back window whenever she was praying for good weather. One of my brothers was an altar boy, the other spoke about becoming a priest. We ate spaghetti with tomato sauce on Friday nights. We were Catholics as inevitably as we were ourselves: the McDermott family on Emily Avenue, and with about as much self-consciousness and, it seemed, volition.
When the changes in the church began and Latin was dropped and the altar turned around and fasting discarded and the nuns started showing up in street clothes, my parents accepted it all with good humor. These were not essential things, they seemed to understand, and seemed to convey to us without ever quite saying it. These were not things worth getting riled up about, as so many of our friends and neighbors seemed to be doing.
When my brothers and I began to rebel, in high school, driving to Dunkin’ Donuts for an hour when my parents thought we were all going to Mass, throwing around words like hypocrisy and irrelevant and outdated, phrases like "opiate of the masses," throwing around arguments that began, If God really existed...,or, If you look at Jesus as just a historical figure..., or, Who really cares..., my parents formed two lines of defense.
My father, in the great tradition of Catholic fathers everywhere, proclaimed, "As long as you’re living in my house you’ll go to Mass on Sunday, " and then added, always, in a softer, wearier, but so much more effective tone, "Trust me. You’ll need the church as you get older. You don’t think you need it now, but as you live, you’ll see. Trust me." An argument that was effective not so much because it made us return to the rituals of the church—it didn’t, or at least it didn’t for more than a Sunday or two—but because it was the only indication we had of what was at the heart of his determination to keep the laws of the church. My father had been orphaned at a young age, had fought in the war. This was the only indication we ever had of what, other than rules for living, the church may have provided him.
My mother, on the advice of a young priest from our parish and in deference to her own peace-at-any-price nature, simply told us that she would pray we’d go back to the church eventually, but she would not let the issue cause anger and unrest in our family.
Through our college years and in the years after, whenever we returned home, we were allowed to sleep in on Sunday mornings, if we chose, while my parents, still, went to ten o’clock Mass, their disappointment in us mostly disguised. My brothers never did return to the church. And I, after years of semi-indifference, occasional rejection, political objection, and unshakable associations (no other cure for a sleepless night than a rosary counted off on your fingers, no better solace for unnamed sorrows than a candle lit in an empty church), find myself at middle age a practicing Catholic. A reluctant, resigned, occasionally exasperated but nevertheless practicing Catholic with no thought, or hope, of ever being otherwise.
I must confess (it’s a genetic thing, no doubt) that it occurs to me that it doesn’t bode well for our church at this millennium to have the likes of me as any kind of standard-bearer, and I offer this account of my own religious history only because it strikes me that it is similar to the religious history of many of us now middle-agers born into the Catholic faith. I offer you my own religious evolution not because it illustrates a triumph of faith but because it provides, perhaps, a place from which to talk about what brings us back, what leads us middle-aged born Catholics finally to choose the faith we were given from the very first moment of our lives. To a church we have, at various times in our lives, seen as flawed, irrelevant, outdated, impossible, and impossible to leave behind.
And I must admit-the confession thing again—that I come to the discussion itself somewhat reluctantly. Except when I am reading fiction—where the I is a creation all its own—the sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down a page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine. I can hardly stand it. And when those first-person pronouns are put to the task of describing clichéd Catholic experiences (and at this point they’re almost all clichés: mad nuns and dithering priests, glow-in-the-dark rosary beads, ridiculous moral and physical acrobatics performed in order to maintain and defy the letter of church law), I am most likely to close the book. I am most likely to throw the book across the room when these relentless "I’s" are employed to describe a religious experience whose authenticity would be better confirmed if the author had faith enough to leave the experience out of the public venue, to leave it as a personal, unspoken thing between the believer and the believed in.
But I recognize that my writer’s life, my Catholic writer’s life, carries certain obligations, and while I would much prefer wielding this unwieldy pronoun in a work of fiction, I proceed with the hope that something of my personal experience as a reluctant Catholic will be of value.
Flannery O’Connor wrote (in a letter, by the way, to a young writer who had reviewed A Good Man Is Hard to Find for Commonweal in 1955): "I feel myself that being a Catholic has saved me a couple of thousand years in learning to write."
I love the sentiment, but I find my own experience is both parallel and opposite. I find that learning to be a writer has saved me a couple of thousand years (in purgatory, no doubt) of being a Catholic.
As I hope I’ve made clear, learning to be a Catholic was not something that ever seemed to require much energy on my part. Learning to be a writer, however, had 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. In the initial days of my quest, when I was casting about for any kind of guidance, I came across a recording of William Faulkner reading from his novel, As I Lay Dying. I loved Faulkner’s work and knew I would benefit in my reading of it by hearing the author’s own tone and inflections ("My mother is a fish"). I listened avidly, and then continued listening as he went on to recite his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The speech is so familiar to me now, and so often quoted, that it is hard to convey what a revelation it seemed to me then, the very first time I heard it. Here was the master novelist saying concisely and precisely what I must do in order to learn to be a writer.
The young writer, Faulkner said, "must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart—the authorities and truths without which any story is ephemeral and doomed."
Faulkner’s injunction became the incentive and the goal for everything else I learned about fiction in those years—the incentive and goal for all matters of craft: how to create characters, how to use detail, how to set scenes, advance plot, write dialogue, all the writing workshop hints, bits of advice, tricks of the trade. All of it ephemeral and doomed if not put to the purpose of seeking out the verities and truths of the human heart.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, I was not a practicing Catholic in those days, and when a novelist in one of my graduate classes proclaimed that fiction was the only altar at which he was willing to worship, I wholeheartedly identified. Because it seemed to me then that my reading life, and my nascent writing life, had indeed provided for me an altar as glorious, as complex, and as worthy as any I had known. It had seemed to me that through literature all the questions my Catholic upbringing had taught me to ask were raised and explored and illustrated in a far more compelling and intelligent way than ever I had heard in the old familiar gospel or from a Sunday morning pulpit: Who are we and why are we here and how should we behave toward one another, how should we think about ourselves, what are we to make of love and loss, our happiness and our sorrow?
Literature, it seemed to me, spoke of the undeniable fears and longings of being human: the fear that we are, ultimately, lost, ineffectual, trumped in all our pursuits and passions by death, though longing to discover otherwise. 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. Fiction, if only briefly, if only in the space of the novel or the story itself, gave form to our existence, the form that it seemed our hearts so persistently desired.
But fiction revealed something else as well, something that I found I was stumbling on again and again in my own pursuit, and that was the very simple notion that fiction revealed our human heart’s need for it. Fiction itself, even the most pessimistic fiction, the most absurdist fiction, revealed our need to see the stuff of life made into something that stands against time. Fiction itself—the making of stories and novels—revealed our determination not to be trumped by death. It revealed our determination to be redeemed.
It would be easy enough to dismiss as inevitable the eventuality that anyone with my background and upbringing would sooner or later start writing about Catholics, but as I remember it, it was Faulkner who got me there, not Saint Boniface School or Sacred Heart Academy. Because as far as I could see, there was enough being said in fiction about Catholics, and most of it was being said by writers who had actually read Augustine and Aquinas and who had, at some point in their lives, had priests over to dine. I had not. I had no particular interest in railing against the church or defending it. I had no reason to claim it had enhanced my life or done me irreparable harm. I had a good supply of mad nun stories in my experience, and all kinds of Catholic anecdotal ironies—my high school years were full of them—but so did most of my friends. None of it much interested me as material for fiction.
What did interest me was this need for fiction, this need for the transforming power of art that seemed to me to be one of Faulkner’s verities and truths of the human heart, and slowly, I began to discover that the church, Catholicism, gave certain of my characters a language they could use in order to talk about, and to think about, this longing. So for me, at first, it was simply a matter of craft: The language of Catholicism, a language I knew, had readily at hand, was a language I could use in order to pursue something I saw as enduring about the human spirit. I had to be very careful about it. I had to pare down the language of Catholicism, as I knew it, to what I saw as its essentials, in order to avoid getting caught up in the nonessentials, much as our Latin/fasting/priest-with-his-back-to-the-people and nuns-who-look-like-nuns neighbors had done those many years ago. But I knew that the questions I most wanted to ask as a novelist were the questions the church had already given language to. What I was not prepared to discover, or to rediscover, was that they were questions for which the church also provided answers.
There comes a time in the composition of a work of fiction when the writer must put aside all plans and intentions and preconceived notions of the work at hand and simply proceed, blindly, if you will, with the writing itself. It is the most difficult aspect of craft for a young writer to learn—this letting go—and it is linked in my mind to Faulkner’s advice that the "basest" of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself this, the young writer must "forget it forever." Seamus Heaney puts it another way: "We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment." Both writers, of course, are talking about faith. They’re talking about the faith it takes to write, to lay down words upon the page even before we know the precise extent of their meaning, to forge ahead blindly into what we do not yet know or fully understand, to forge ahead in the hope that the pattern will reveal itself, that what we intuit will prove as valuable as what we have already confirmed.
The experience of my writing life and my reading life had taught me to pay attention to what appears at first to be only intuitive, to pay attention to repeated allusions, metaphors, recurring themes, even before I understood their meaning. There is some risk here. Not everything that appears on the page in the course of composition is useful, fully meaningful, and every writer has had the experience of eventually tossing out some theme, some narrative line, some gesture or detail that had once been avidly pursued but had finally proven irrelevant to the work as a whole. And yet, at the moment of composition, we must forget that possibility, we must walk on air, we must trust that somehow we will discover what we need, what our story needs, we must trust that through the persistent working at words we will discover something we would not have known otherwise.
Gradually, as the pattern of my own work began to come clear, I began to understand that this repetition of what might be called Catholic themes, Catholic language, had meaning that I did not at first recognize, meaning that went far beyond matters of craft and convenience and material at hand. Gradually—no lightning bolts here—I began to realize that the language of the church, my church, was not only a means to an end in my fiction but an essential part of my own understanding of the world. In my own understanding of the world, the authority and truth of the human heart revealed again and again our insatiable longing to prove that we will not be trumped by death, that our spirits endure, that our love for one another endures, and it is because of our love for one another that our hearts most rail against meaninglessness.
Time and again I discovered for myself, if not always for my characters, that the promises of my faith, of Christ, gave perfect answers to the questions my own work had raised. Proceeding blindly, walking on air, I had come to see a pattern emerge. I had come to see that the life of Christ, the Son of God whose death redeemed our lives, redeemed from absurdity our love for one another, made of our existence a perfect, artistic whole that satisfied, in a way that great art could only briefly satisfy, our hearts’ persistent, insatiable need for meaning, for redemption.
Of course I’m referring here to faith in Christianity in general, not Catholicism in particular. But my writing life, life itself, had also begun to reveal to me a healthy sense of inevitability. There is also a time in the composition of a work of fiction when the writer realizes that he or she is committed to the work, to the completion of the work, come what may. It is a sense of both resignation and delight: This is my material, this is the story I have chosen to tell, this is the language I must use because the language itself, my own particular choice of words, has been shaped by the particular and cumulative experiences of my life and I would have to live another lifetime in order to discover an alternative. And while another lifetime, another writer, for that matter, with another life, another set of words, another story, may well produce another work that is far more entertaining or compelling or intelligent, this is mine, inevitably, and I am obliged only to make the best of it.
Catholicism, I began to see, was also mine, inextricably mine, the fabric of my life and my thoughts. It was the native language of my spirit, the way in which I had from the beginning thought about faith. And while I could acknowledge that there were indeed other languages for faith and that it may well be that those languages were more effective, less burdened by nonessentials, perhaps even superior to the language the Catholic church had provided me, I would have to live another life entirely in order to know them and to feel them as deeply or as inevitably as I knew and felt my Catholic faith. Resignation and delight: I am a Catholic after all. My only obligation, my profound obligation, is to make the best of it.
I do not want to give the impression that none of this would have happened if I had not had that initial, secret urge to write fiction. Learning to be a writer did not lead me back to the church, it merely helped me to understand what place the church has always had in my heart. Nor do I want to give the sense that life itself, life lived outside my writing life, had nothing to do with it.
As is the case with so many of my peers, my return to the church also coincided with the birth of my own children and the inevitable questions the birth of children raises: as in, how will they be educated, how will they learn to be good people, how is it I took so long to realize my parents did a pretty decent job after all? Twenty years ago no one could have convinced me that I would send my children to Catholic schools, but of course, now, that’s where they are. Because I want them to have the ballast of faith, because I want them to understand the importance of the life of the spirit, because I want their moral education to have a context that exceeds human logic and understanding and gives to the whole of life that shapeliness that I had thought once could only be achieved, momentarily, by art. Because I know there will be times in their lives when they will need the church. The last thing my father did in his life was to attend Mass on Easter Sunday. He collapsed leaving the church and died five days later. The novelist in me cherishes the significance of the details, the consistency and completion of the theme. The daughter finds comfort. The Catholic a strengthening of faith.
But neither do I want to convey that my recognition of the inevitability of my Catholicism frees me from any of the old doubts and dissents. Still I often feel when in the midst of things Catholic like a teen-ager trapped in a endless gathering of extended family. My church reiterates its insistence that women must never be priests and I metaphorically roll my eyes like some sixteen-year-old listening to the petrified logic of a doddering, but beloved, old uncle. A dynamic and inspiring parish priest is made secretary to the archbishop and I want to howl a childish objection at the sight of a talented young minister kept apart from the people so that he might hold an old man’s cap. I find myself involved in a heated discussion with my fellow Catholic mothers about whether a priest was right or wrong to tell a woman she could receive Communion twice in one day and I hear my inner adolescent ask, "Excuse me, like, what century are we in?"
Prolife comes up, prolife, prochoice, profamily, prochild, and those among us who shrilly politicize, sloganize, bumper-stickerize this complex, personal, and heartbreaking moral issue make me want to bolt for the door. Stop shouting, marching, lobbying, I want to say. Try teaching. The incredible notion of the Redemption, the incredible notion of God made flesh, of one solitary human being, one ordinary death out of the billions of ordinary deaths the earth has witnessed, changing forever the fate of mankind, cannot be sustained, cannot logically be sustained, if any single life forever after becomes expendable. Any life, under any circumstances. The feminist in me wishes it were not so—a simple, uncomplicated vote for prochoice is my political preference—but the novelist bows to the need for logical consistency, for connectedness. If any one life can be dismissed as meaningless, so too can the life of Christ.
Like a teen-ager at some extended family gathering—like any of us, let’s face it, at some extended family gathering—I have come to realize that it is not always easy to be a part of this family of the Catholic church. It is not always easy to have a sense of humor and a sense of irony and still be a part of this church. It is not always easy to escape the constrictions and the narrow-mindedness that the church has been responsible for. It is not always easy to feel hip and intelligent and modern while a part of this church. (I have silenced intrepid reporters with the news that I am a practicing Catholic. I have ended hip and intelligent and modern conversations simply by admitting that I still believe in my church.) It is not always easy to love the church, but then again, in my experience, it is not always easy to love anyone.
I suppose it’s another lesson from my writing life. Or perhaps it’s another inheritance from my Catholic parents who knew what was essential about their Catholicism and what was not, but I find I can dismiss my occasional impatience and annoyance with the church more easily these days. While my writing life has revealed to me something about the longing for rightness, for wholeness, for perfection of form, it has also shown me that this is a yearning for the unattainable. Our means, after all, are limited, our language flawed. Our art strains to define the indefinable. We approach, we may, momentarily, catch a glimpse, but we cannot sustain the vision. We fail, we try again. Faulkner himself said an author writes a second novel only because he didn’t get it right the first time, and then another for the same reason, and another.
The church, as a human institution, isn’t always going to get it right either. Its means are limited, its language imperfect. What the heart knows by intuition cannot always be fully expressed or defined by sermon or law. The heart knows the rightness of its yearning for eternal life; the heart, in its persistent desire for redemption, understands the power of God’s love. Reluctantly, we submit to what it seems we have always known. We teach ourselves that the "basest" of all things is to be afraid, and teaching ourselves this, we forget it forever. Against our better judgment, we walk on air. We return to the faith that has always been our own.
This essay is a slightly edited version of a talk delivered in November 1999 at the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University in celebration of Commonweal’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Funding for Ms. McDermott’s talk was provided in part by a grant from the Lilly Endowment.
Related: I Am Awake, a short story by Alice McDermott