Whether I’m reading, watching a movie, listening to music, or looking at visual art, I’ve found I can usually spot artists who bear the stamp of the religious imagination, even if they aren’t directly engaging with religion in their work. It goes like this: An old Patty Griffin song comes up in my music rotation, sparking a moment of recognition in me, and on a hunch I Google her and find out her dad was discerning to be a Benedictine monk before he married her mom.
It could be that I, who have been so deeply formed by my Roman Catholic upbringing, am naturally drawn to work by those with a similar sensibility. The sensibility is there, even when the belief is not.
What exactly is that sensibility? It’s hard to define with precision. It’s nothing so obvious as announcing, “I was raised Catholic.” Sometimes it’s a subtle stylistic choice. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing the world, like in the recent novel The Incendiaries, by R. O. Kwon. When the main characters, Phoebe (an agnostic raised without religion) and Will (brought up in Pentecostal Christian churches), see a picture of their mutual friend, Julian, “with his arms flung out,” Will sees a crucifixion pose, while Phoebe sees a kite.
After reading that sentence, I guessed that Kwon had a Catholic background. (It turns out her parents are Catholic. She joined a nondenominational church in high school and hoped to become a pastor one day. However, she lost her faith and became a novelist.) An artist raised Catholic would know what it’s like to see the crucifixion like an afterimage, even in places where it has no business.
But it’s not just the image of the crucifixion that speaks to me of Catholicism—that’s a detail any writer might insert for a religious flourish. It’s Will’s struggle sparked by seeing that image that rings my Catholic bells. It’s that the very shape of his imagination, at that point in the novel, infuriates him. He envies his girlfriend’s nonreligious background: “I’d loved Phoebe’s pagan mind,” he says, “unpolluted with His blood.” Graham Greene, one of the greatest Catholic novelists of all time, couldn’t have said it better. His Catholic characters are often reluctant believers or believers behaving badly—they’d like to shake off the faith if they could, but it hounds them.
In the wake of the latest revelations of abuse in the Catholic Church, I’ve struggled with the theological writing that once inspired me and mended the tears in my fabric of faith. But I find it’s not the theologians who persuade me now. It’s the artists. They remind me why I can’t just walk away—even those who have lost their faith. Isn’t that a strange way of putting it? “I lost my faith.” As if one might carelessly set it down somewhere like a set of keys. Yet that’s often how it happens. There’s no cataclysmic event, no reverse epiphany. Just a sense that belief slipped out of one’s grasp when it was right there a moment ago.
“And then,” as Sister Rose Pacatte writes in her biography of pop artist Corita Kent, “sometimes people just get tired.” Corita’s frustrations with the institutional church during her time as a Sister Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, catalogued in the unflinching Corita Kent: Gentle Revolutionary of the Heart (Liturgical Press), certainly played a role in her decision to leave it.
In his forthcoming book, Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction (Fortress Press), Nick Ripatrazone examines the work of more illustrious “lapsed” Catholics, including Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. The title captures what I sense from so many of my contemporaries who no longer believe: They really wish they could. When Kwon speaks of her loss of faith, there’s no trace of smugness, no sense that she is unequivocally better for the loss. Her writing is the space where she can long for her absent God.
Sometimes when I connect with artists and writers I’m the first person to ask about their religious backgrounds and how faith—or the loss of it—has shaped them. What goes unremarked upon by their secular friends, and many fans and critics, is often revelatory of new layers of meaning in their work. Often these artists and writers are relieved to talk to someone who understands. Kwon says that new friends would almost congratulate her when she told them she no longer believes in God, which for her was almost like being congratulated for the death of a parent. Christians fare little better in their responses, often reacting to the lapsed with pity, scorn, or even anger when maybe the appropriate response is empathy and humility.
“Some believers dismiss or look down on those who doubt or who quit what looks like the straight and narrow road to walk a crooked one—or one that looks crooked to them,” writes Pacatte. She anticipates, in the introduction of her Corita Kent biography, questions about why a Catholic sister would want to write a biography—for a Catholic publisher—about a Catholic artist and nun who walked away from her Catholic faith. “Each person is on a journey toward God, even if the journey is unacknowledged or unwanted,” Pacatte explains. She is intrigued by Corita’s “ways of seeing and making us look and pay attention,” ways that were irreversibly shaped by Catholicism and made lasting contributions to fine art and culture.
“Corita was, only and always, an artist who told the truth as she saw it in the world around her,” she writes. She “engaged in the mystery that surrounded her.”
Lapsed artists are still pilgrims, walking in the mystery of God, and they can be among our best teachers. The first lesson is that even when we walk away, we’ll often find the hound at our heels.
This article also appears in the July 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 7, pages 38–39).
Image: Unsplash cc via Cagatay Orhan