A Last Gift to Writers

On February 24, I unexpectedly received a “last gift” from Pope Benedict (now Pope Emeritus) that will serve as a source of my reflection and prayer for some time to come as writer and storyteller. In his address at the conclusion of his Lenten retreat, Pope Benedict explains that medieval theologians translated the word “logos”  not just as “word,” but also as “art,” and that “logos” can only be fully understood when both terms are referred to together. While Blessed John Paul II (in his Letter to Artists and elsewhere) talked about the connection between truth and beauty, in his address, Benedict says that truth and beauty (word and art) are so intimately connected to each other that they are inseparable. He also said that sin seeks to make both truth and beauty unrecognizable. The address goes on to give us a striking image of beauty’s portrayal in a world marred by sin: Jesus crowned with thorns.

I will be unpacking the implications of this short message for Christian storytelling for a long time. Though only two or three paragraphs long, this message provides great insight for writers, artists, and anyone who seeks to communicate Christ. His message is more than a justification for using art to communicate Christ; it is a dense explanation of why and how narrative and beauty serve the Truth. (And thus it also speaks to the question: “What is true art?”)

It is well worth spending the couple minutes it will take you to read the translated message on Zenit’s site. (If you speak Italian, read it in the original here.) For me, this message is something to inspire and carry me through these days of “desert waiting,” as I reflect on the gifts of Pope Benedict’s pontificate and pray to the Holy Spirit for His continued guidance in leading the Church (and the world) further into this millennium.

About Sr. Marie Paul Curley

Sr. Marie Paul Curley, fsp, is a member of the Daughters of Saint Paul, who seek to communicate Christ in their lives and through the media. Originally from the Boston area, she entered the Daughters of St. Paul while a teenager, convinced that she had discovered God’s plan for her life. Twenty-five years later, she still rejoices daily in God’s loving plan for her. Sr. Marie Paul is currently missioned in Boston, MA, where she writes for Pauline Digital and Pauline Studios. Her most recent books, Saints Alive! The Faith Proclaimed and Saints Alive! The Gospel Witnessed, are novelized short stories of saints from every walk of life.
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7 Responses to A Last Gift to Writers

  1. Nancy Ward says:

    Thank you for this great insight and Pope Emeritus’ words to chew on as we write for God!

  2. Number 9 says:

    Thank you for this! Wonderful resource I will bookmark to read tonight when I’m back at my desk.

  3. AJ Cattapan says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Sister Marie! I never would have seen these words from the Pope Emeritus if you hadn’t sent the link.

  4. Sister:

    Thank you! You have done all of us who wish to bring glory to God through our writing much to ponder and guide our future efforts.

  5. Don Mulcare says:

    Dear Sister Marie Paul,

    Thank you for pointing out the recent reflection by Pope Emeritus Benedict. I had read your contribution shortly after looking at the syllabus for a conference scheduled in June at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. A presentation by Roger Kimball comes with the title: “Is there such a thing as Catholic art?”

    Certainly, the remarks of His Holiness would fit within that topic. May I ask you for your understanding of the mission statement of the Catholic Writers Guild which seeks to bring about a renewal of Catholic writing. What would you say makes a a work of fiction or non-fiction, Catholic?

    Thank you for sharing your many gifts.

    God Bless,

    Don

    • Don,

      It was a joy to find this reflection, and an even greater joy to share it with others who appreciate its beauty, depth, and motivation/inspiration for writers. I was praying with it further today and was struck again by what the reflection has to say about the portrayal of evil…more on that another time.

      The definition of Catholic fiction, Catholic nonfiction, or even Catholic art is a big question that I am still wrestling with. Others have wrestled with the question of what makes art Christian, and I can share some resources that reflect on that question–perhaps in a future post. My comments below are simply a way to open up the discussion about Catholic art in this forum are certainly not definitive, but I hope will provoke thought and comments. I am eager and interested to hear from others.

      From my perspective at the moment I see two ways of defining Catholic art.

      The first would be art that arises from within a specific Catholic culture. Catholicism, perhaps more so than any other religions, takes the Incarnation very seriously. The Son of God took on humanity to communicate with us and redeem us. Divine Revelation has been “incarnated” or “taken tangible form” in the Bible and in the Tradition of the Church. So I think we are on very solid ground as Catholics to view as Catholic art that which is rooted in a culture with strong Catholic identity and profoundly expresses the beauty and truth of that Catholic identity. Whether we think of Catholic fiction writers from the 20th century such as G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh, who wrote specifically from their Catholic culture, or we go back in time to medieval authors such as St. Thomas Aquinas, whose question and answer format of the Summa is best understood from within the Catholic theological university setting from which he was writing–all of this kind of art/fiction/nonfiction can be seen as Catholic. I think this category would also include writing specifically directed towards Catholics or to communicate the Catholic Faith.

      The second would be art that embodies and communicates the Catholic Christian worldview with beauty, truth, and incisiveness–intentionally or not. This kind of art doesn’t have to be made or written by a Catholic, nor so deeply rooted in a specific Catholic culture, although it must be profoundly human to be good or great art. Perhaps the author/artist is not Catholic themselves, but has been deeply influenced by someone who is, or else as a great artist is able to articulate the truth about the human condition, and, with the help of the Spirit, brings his or her art to the point of transcendence. (As an example, some of the most profound films that we would likely call Catholic have been written and directed by non-Catholics. I think of the recent film, “Of Gods and Men,” which is a profound portrayal of the Trappist life, a portrait of the monks’ journey towards martyrdom, etc.–and the director would not call himself a man of faith.)

      Both definitions of Catholic art have a Catholic worldview in common; since this is specifically mentioned in the by-laws of the CWG, I feel that the CWG is in a good place of supporting a renewal of Catholic writing.

      Thoughts? Input?
      God bless,
      Sr. Marie Paul

  6. Don Mulcare says:

    Dear Sr. Marie Paul,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    May I bring up two questions?

    The first asks how do we reconcile the belief that the arts and letters can be Christian with the the concept that art is meant for its own sake? Art and literature are not to promote a cause or serve as propaganda. Could a work of fiction promote Christianity and remain art.

    The second question asks, if God is the epitome of truth, beauty and goodness, wouldn’t anything that presents truth, beauty and goodness, of necessity be religious? For instance, a fictional work based on truth, beauty and goodness could inspire its readers to seek God.

    You mentioned “Of Gods and Men,” in which the writer and director reveal the truth, goodness and beauty in the lives of Trappist monks. That film might inspire the viewer to imitate the Trappists and come closer to God. On the other hand, a writer and director might see goodness, truth and beauty elsewhere, for example a film on hummingbirds. Would the viewers of this second piece also find inspiration to search for God, or stop with the admiration of the beauty, truth and goodness?

    You mentioned four Catholic authors. I’ve read some of their work. Those few pieces did not inspire me to search for God, nor did they even suggest that the author might be Catholic.

    Would a story qualify as art or literature if it exemplifies Catholic values and the difficulties in living up to those values?

    Thank you again for your kindness in sharing your time with me.

    God Bless,

    Don