Monday, August 16, 2010

True Conversions No.10: Faith At The Edge

Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflects on Life, Love, Sex, and other Mysteries
Angelo Matera, editor
Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana
c. 2008, 224 pp. US$15.95
ISBN: 978-1-59471-140-4

“Just about every Catholic I know collects conversion stories, “ observes contributor Eve Tushnet, herself a convert. “… These stories usually have recurring patterns and themes… They’re often love stories; they’re often stories in which a sense of disturbance and inadequacy provokes a search for answers and the ‘answer’ to the questions is found in another person—or Person. They’re often stories in which an encounter with beauty forces an often unwanted recognition of a truth about oneself, one’s identity, and how one needs to relate to others.” Tushnet’s observation also serves as an apt commentary on this group of essays edited by Angelo Matera. It is a collection which on the whole describes, at times quite poignantly, aspects of both search and encounter central to the process of spiritual transformation and growth.

While not a compilation of “conversion stories” per se—themes run widely and sometimes wildly from young married life and parenthood to natural family planning, corporal mortification (!) and even a tongue in cheek consideration of exorcism—this volume nevertheless expresses in a significant way the spiritually transforming experiences of people who have in one way or another been challenged, confronted, and even surprised by faith at various moments in their spiritual journey. The conversion process here is less frequently a ‘once and for all’ struck-by-lightning kind of event, than an ongoing struggle and unfolding of actual, lived experience and engagement.

Religious experience and conversion are not the property of any one class, community or interest group. The Spirit blows where it will, whether right, left or center. According to editor Matera the seventeen writers whose work is represented in the 20-odd essays in this survey comprise “a new generation of Catholic writers.” While they may well represent part of a generation of Catholic writers, I wonder whether they actually comprise the full cohort. Many of the authors represented in this book are also in some way with the website, inspired by the Communio/ Faith and Liberation movement with its roots in postwar Italy. Their perspective is that of a self-conscious orthodoxy and identification with the magisterium (official teaching authority) of the Catholic Church. There are very few strays. “What unites the writers of these essays, “ notes Matera, “ is a singular vision: a paradoxical desire to live according to the firm doctrines of their church while at the same time freely expressing the truth of their experiences, and the judgment of their consciences.”

That said, I found this collection of essays to be at times a fascinating melding of traditional theology with a remarkably fresh and free-- sometimes even a bit too free—expressive style. The insights may be traditional, but the voices are clearly those of contemporary Americans, often well-read, articulate and world wise. In the main, they tend to be artists rather than theologians.

The (perhaps unintended) leitmotif of personal conversion in this collection is present throughout the book. In the introduction, editor Matera notes: “I remember the specific moment that sparked my interest in the Catholic Church. It came from an unlikely source—a review of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor by gay writer Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic…. Sullivan was repelled by what the pope wrote. But as a sincere Catholic he also found it difficult to resist the pope’s ‘bracing’ argument…. I was fascinated by the idea that anyone as traditional and doctrinaire as a pope could be intellectually challenging.”

“New Orleans made me a Catholic, or at least the kind of Catholic I am, “ writes Jessica Griffith in her poignant reflection on life in the Big Easy post-Katrina. “It always seemed to have body and soul—the sacred and the profane locked in constant embrace.” For Brian Pessaro, the experience of a Marriage Encounter weekend provided a spiritual epiphany: “I don’t remember much from that weekend, but I do remember one specific statement that the husband of one of the presenting teams said. ‘Love is not a feeling. Love is a decision. You have to decide to love your wife each day.” Pessaro continues later in his essay: “There was no theophany, no burning bush or pillar of fire. But over the course of the next year things began to change.” Paula Huston, describing her decision to complete the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process for full membership in the Catholic community despite some initial obstacles, concludes “I could have gone to another church… but an easier church might not do the job, might not be able to tame this thing in me that needed taming.”

The accounts and reflections in this survey are most convincing and powerful when they come directly and candidly from the people’s lived experiences. They are less persuasive when they appear to be polemical, rigidly self-justifying, or just a teensy bit “out there.” This is a mixed bag, but the mixture is interesting and worth exploring.//

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