Reading Myself Into the Church

Deal W. Hudson

Reading, said Saint Josemaría Escrivá, has made many a saint. In my own case it has merely made a convert, but has led me more deeply into the mystery that is the Church. Thomas Merton, we recall from his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, was started on his road to the Church by the accidental discovery of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in the Columbia University Library. We are foolish to forget the power of the written word.

It’s said that people don’t read much anymore, that we live in a multimedia age, and that the act of reading is on the wane. These prognostications have already been proven false. Nothing can replace reading a book as the most intimate medium of enjoyment and self-examination — certainly not the Kindle or the Internet. When we want to change a person’s life, we still give him a book, and wait, hoping.

Years ago a friend, now a Trappist priest, sent me a box of about twenty-five books with “Catholic bomb” written across the side. As I read them one by one, explosions went off in my mind, leaving me both disoriented and filled with an unfamiliar joy. I was experiencing the confusion of my life drastically changing and the joy of discovering an unknown and welcoming country called the Catholic faith. (I didn’t know enough then to call it a strange country, which when you enter the Church as an adult it’s an apt description.)

I had been raised in a Protestant home, and had become an ardent Southern Baptist in college before attending Princeton Theological Seminary. There I read the greats of the Reformed tradition – Luther, Calvin, Barth, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs. I began to realize that the first principle of Protestantism – ridding the faith of idolatry — had been pushed so far it had subverted the exercise of Christian intelligence. My Catholic bomb was packed with spiritual dynamite, such as books by the great Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, along with works by Louis Bouyer, Matthias Scheeben, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speer, G. K. Chesterton, and the simple verse of St. Francis of Assisi.

With every book, I recalled being overwhelmed by my reading St. Augustine’s On the Trinity at seminary years earlier. Catholic Christianity, I began to see, embodied the fullness of God’s revelation, without the narrowing refractions of other Christian communions. The first principle of Catholicism was indeed the Incarnation, and that centrality shone through all my reading.

Reading myself into the Church doesn’t mean that I possessed crystalline clarity at every step — bomb fragments scatter unpredictably. At this stage in my conversion, I was blessed by the good advice of my mentors; they saved me from the fate of a convert friend of mine who was led to read Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us, A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith for Adults — underscore modern — and lived to tell the tale.

As I moved toward the Church, my reading prodded me onward with a series of vaguely related insights. Although I understood only a little of the content of the Catholic faith, I knew that it explained my growing dissatisfaction with the other Christian traditions, both liberal Protestant and Southern Baptist, in which I was raised. It would take me years to pass through my own period of protest and grasp the inner coherence of the Church herself.

Then, as a young college professor, still reeling from the effect of the bomb, I began reading the Catholic novels recommended by my now Trappist friend. By the time I finished this assignment, I would not have dreamed of turning back.

There are, in fact, novels that can be called “Catholic,” though certain learned people dispute the fact. I have no comprehensive definition of the Catholic novel, neither would I ever attempt one. However, I happily name a novel as Catholic when it presents to the reader a narrative that embodies some substantial aspect of the Catholic faith. A Catholic novel is one that ably suggests to its reader our faith’s great mysteries. It is those moments of insight, where we catch a glimpse of God’s ineluctable providence — as in, for example, Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos – that readers can become pilgrims.

Thus, if there is a litmus test for the Catholic novel, it must be whether the novel is capable of conspiring in spiritual conversion. Even if one bears in mind that conversion is ongoing, not at all confined to an experience on the Damascus Road, this test is the most reliable. It goes without saying that authors who consciously intend to convert their readers probably will end up writing a bad book. That’s the danger of a reader like myself, readers, hungry for fiction to tackle ideas: we risk encouraging writers to preach, lecture, and moralize, a very bad habit.

The six novels listed below helped to convert me and continue to do so, since I go back to them regularly. I have never received any protest from a friend and acquaintance who have sought one of them out on my advice.

The Other One by Julian Green

The still-active French-American writer, Julian Green, born of a Protestant mother from Savannah, Georgia and a French Catholic father, has riveted my attention for years. Although his novels like Moira and Each in His Own Darkness are better known, it was the obscure The Other One that left its deepest mark on me.

This novel, more than any other I know, depicts the hunger for God as the source of all human appetites. I would later recognize this unquenchable desire, with its rich moral implications, in Aquinas’s anthropology – I first met it in Green. Set in Copenhagen, the story follows a recently converted man who returns to a woman he had mistreated some years earlier only to find the results of his immorality much worse than expected. His penitential witness brings about a disturbing but absolutely convincing redemption. Few books have captured the painful death of spiritual rebirth, in both characters, as powerfully as The Other One.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

I’m not sure if there is a greater Catholic novel than Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. If there is, it’s probably her other medieval epic, The Master of Hestviken, but I still prefer the more accessible and personally involving Kristin.

I was blessed with a very bad case of the flu the first time I read Undset’s trilogy, which kept me in bed for the entire read. My bouts with fever only intensified my connection with the unforgettable characters of this story. Just as movie buffs will argue the comparative merits of Scarlet, Rhett, Melanie, and Ashley in Gone With the Wind, so Undset fans delight in assigning degrees of responsibility to the impetuous Kristin, her loyal father Lavrans, her warrior husband Erlend, and her jilted fiancé, the foursquare Simon. No other novel that I know explores the biblical themes of “the wages of sin” and “the sins of the father” as accurately and charitably as Kristin Lavransdatter. Its impact on the reader, as witnessed in the novel’s pivotal role in the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, can demonstrate a moral reorientation reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatorio.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

Don’t let it be thought that my reading into the Church was without laughter. This novel by Walker Percy provided the perfect bridge from the existentialism of my graduate school days to the treasure of Catholic humanism. I thought it uncanny that Percy had placed his main character, Dr. Thomas More, in a Dantean landscape faced with a Kierkegaardian choice that could only be mediated by the comic, sacramental resolution of a Catholic vision. It was as if Percy – and his other novels confirm this — had already experienced my philosophical and spiritual trials — he understood that demons inhabit the suburbs of my childhood, and not just the cities and the country.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

If you are familiar with the South, there is also plenty to laugh about in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. John Huston’s underrated film of the novel catches many of those moments perfectly, such as when Hazel Motes tells his landlady he is a preacher of the “Church without Christ.” She asks suspiciously if that was “Protestant… or something foreign?” Indeed, O’Connor’s novel is nothing less than a meditation on the loss of belief in Christ’s active presence in the world through the Church and its sacraments. Wise Blood made it clear to me why I was no longer content with the typical Protestant quarterly communion of grape juice done “in memory of me.” It’s been providential, I think, that I have been invited to collaborate on an effort to translate O’Connor’s work for film and television.

Under the Star of Satan by George Bernanos

If O’Connor is one of those authors who puts you in the uncomfortable presence of the supernatural, George Bernanos is another. It’s too bad that Diary of a Country Priest is his only novel remaining in print, because the others are just as powerful. His Under the Star of Satan is primarily about the special vocation of the priesthood, and its sacramental blessing on all of us. We follow the protagonist Abbé Donissan, modeled on Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, as he struggles for the souls of his parishioners, spending hour after hour in the confessional.

We see his gift of unlocking the heaviest heart and the price he must pay for it. In the midst of Donissan’s battle, we are also reminded not to take the metaphysical notion of evil as privation so literally as to discount its active presence in the world. A film has also been made of this novel, but not as successfully as Wise Blood.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

If there is another novel that wears its moral seriousness as lightly as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, I don’t know it. Perhaps that is why it works so well. Like Charles Ryder himself, the reader is slowly and slyly seduced into the Catholic undercurrents of the aristocratic Marchmain family. The long, final coda of Lord Marchmain’s death, his sign of the cross, and the repentant confession of Julia on the staircase distill the choice we all must finally make for or against God.

As Julia puts it, in refusing to leave her husband for Charles, “But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable… the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.”

Here are six of the novels that made me Catholic. There are many others from our rich cultural past I could recommend. And, in fact, good Catholic fiction is still being written — Ron Hansen, Torgny Lindgren, Piers Paul Read, Michael O’Brien, and the late Alice Thomas Ellis — are among the best.

In case the reader is interested is some of the non-fiction books that led me into the Church, here is a list of the other books that made me Catholic.

The Catholic Vision

Augustine, On the Trinity, 
William F. Lynch, S.J., Christ and Apollo, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 1–13
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ
, John Henry Newman, Plain and Parochial Sermons
, Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas: Angel of the Schools

Beauty & Culture

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 
Eric Gill, Beauty Speaks for Herself
, Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 
Julian Green, Journals
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Sin & Redemption

Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evi, l
Correspondence of Andre Gide and Paul Claude, l
Jorgen Jorgensen, Autobiography, 
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Dante, Purgatorio, 
Morley Callahan, Our Lady of the Snows, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Sin, 1a2ae, q. 71–9

Agape & Eros

Martin D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone
Joseph Pieper, About Love
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 
Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Love, 2a2ae, q. 23-46

Reason & Revelation

Aristotle, Ethics, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Law, 1a2ae, q. 90–7, 
G. K. Chesterton, The Dumb Ox
Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us
Joseph Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture
, C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 
Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile

Church & Sacrament
Documents of Vatican II, 
Henri de Lubac, Catholicism
, Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne
Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine, 
Matthias Scheeben, Mysteries of Christianity

Saints & Sanctity

Léon Bloy, Pilgrim of the Absolute
Julian Green, God’s Fool, 
Raissa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together
Jacques Maritain, Notebooks, 
Jean Leclerq, Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life the Church.

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