Liturgy, Literature, and Lisicky's Famous Builder

By Nick Ripatrazone - Lafayette, New Jersey, USA - 19 February 2012



On the first Sunday of Advent 2011, my wife and I scanned laminated cards for the responses at Mass. We were not alone. At parishes in many English-speaking countries, rows of Catholics used liturgical crib sheets. We were learning a new language of Mass. The celebration remained in English, but was now delivered in a higher register that neared the cadence and tenor of Latin. Polysyllabic diction such as “consubstantial” replaced more colloquial phrasing. References to “your Spirit” added a divine air to the usual usage of second-person.


The previous English translation of the Roman Missal, although updated in 1975 and 2000, was retranslated in a multi-draft, collaborative process led by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. The cards we held contained a condensed version of the Mass, with the changes in bold red. The congregation’s first attempts at choral responses were garbles of the new and old translations. Some people chose silence. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” was spoken with guarded pronunciation. Reception had been replaced with entrance, an architectural metaphor shaping a phrase that had always felt so personal.


Born in 1981, I grew up knowing only the previous English translation. That Sunday morning language felt distinguished and separate from the language of my everyday as a public-school student, and later, a public-school teacher. The approachable style of Mass enabled personal reflection. My wife, for her part, had attended Catholic schools until college, and had recited the language of Mass daily. We had both built a relationship with those words. Such familiarity created a sense of comfort: we knew that Sunday morning was a time for language to become more than mere communication.


The comfort we experienced was shared by many Catholics, who reacted with skepticism to the new translation. Why change a good thing? Would another translation be released, leaving us again struggling to keep up? Yet this shift, jarring as it might be, should be welcomed. The new Mass translation is a refiguring of a habitual action. The words we speak on a daily basis, everything from greetings to “I love you,” could use similar rejuvenation. Catholicism is a faith of wonder and mystery, and the Church does her best to focus what seems abstract into words and ground it in the language of experience. The Roman Missal, the Catholic tradition of pastoral instruction, and the homilies offered on Sunday mornings dramatize and help make more present to us our faith in the action of the Word made Flesh.


William Gass, the language philosopher, once devoted an entire book to unpacking and reinventing the word blue. On Being Blue showed that even the most mundane word contains a multitude of connotations and denotations: “blue for baby boy, the blue of blue sky laws, blue for jeans, blue for hogs.” Gass was smart to select a word used often but not regularly questioned. Blue is a general color, and though we might be aware of some qualifying shades -- navy, cobalt, royal -- we rarely think in variations of hue, instead considering the overall color. Gass notes that “we cover our concepts, like fish, with clouds of net”: language evolves, sometimes without our notice. The same goes for the sometimes habitual action of faith: the “Our Father,” a beautiful and humble proclamation of belief, might pass as mere words if recited in a rote manner. Tertullian was correct to note that these words are a “summary of the whole Gospel.” A summary introduces the reader to a larger text or concept, and is meant to begin, not end, the conversation. These words are also consciously poetic, as they point the speaker toward concepts worthy of reflection. “Hallowed be Thy Name” carries much fodder for consideration: how can we, as a people of faith, truly “hallow” God? What actions and beliefs best show such respect? Even the word “Name” carries complexity: as Christians, we are acting in Christ’s name, as representatives of Him. Do we always earn the title? Do we use Christ’s name with care, or do we spout it as an exclamation, a casual utterance? What Catholic would not benefit from seeing the poetic arrangement of these words on the page, pondering over the pauses and stresses of particular phrases? The “Our Father,” so often repeated in a Catholic’s life, deserves considered reflection.


This persistent trouble with words as signs and representations extends to art. Gass also noted that creative writers face a difficult task, since they must turn mundane words used to “buy bread” into words capable of storytelling. He compares the plight of writers to “the composer’s medium [which] is pure...the tones he uses exist for music, and are made by instruments especially designed.” He wonders what would result if composers “were forced to employ the meaningful noises of every day: bird calls, sirens, screams, alarm bells, whistles, ticks, and human chatter” in their creations. The result might be novel, but would likely be cacophonic. Writers, though, must live with the minutia of everyday language, and in a similar sense, the language of faith must interact and intersect with common speak. The words of the Catholic faith -- cross, soul, resurrection -- are words that deserve attention and reconsideration. They are sometimes abstract, sometimes concrete, but always require contemplation. The Church has long recognized that words pale in comparison to direct, mystical communication with the divine, but words -- along with music, iconography, and ritual -- are a means toward appreciating the divine, allowing God to enter our daily midst. The action and ritual of Mass help raise these words beyond mere letters. Whether the tone be of solemnity or joy, the concurrent actions of internal reflection and collective participation enable Mass to transform letters, phrases, and sentences into conduits of faith.


Such elevation of language should not occur only during Mass. Creative works by Catholic writers -- stories and poems ranging from the devotional to metaphorical -- have served an essential pastoral purpose: the dramatization of belief, the representation of complexities and moral goodness without descending into the pedantic. Certainly, a rich Catholic literary tradition reaches toward the contemporary moment. Graham Greene’s 1939 novel, The Power and the Glory, dramatized one priest’s struggle to practice Mass in a Mexican state that outlawed Catholicism. Greene’s “whisky” priest is imperfect, yet his selfless actions and eventual martyrdom elevate him to the level of sainthood. Flannery O’Connor noted that “the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it.” O’Connor used that fact to explain why the Catholic writer “frequently…may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated to the Catholic mind.” O’Connor’s usages of “violent” denotes both the often raw imagery and encounters in her short fiction, but also an echo of the need to “report the progress” of the “many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem.” In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy framed one man’s reconsideration of existence as building toward a Lenten journey, concluding with Ash Wednesday’s call for deep reflection. That call, though, was framed in ambiguity, and delivered in the novel’s iconic words, “it is impossible to say.” In poetry, the 19th century Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote idiosyncratic verses crafted with an intense passion and devotion to Christ. Years later, convert Denise Levertov offered The Stream & the Sapphire, a late-career collection devoted to her movement from agnosticism to belief. Levertov, like Greene and Hopkins, wrote with the emotional and insightful verve of the convert’s sense of discovery, and her “Poetics of Faith” portrays the “lightning power” of parable with wit.


Such an introductory list is nowhere near exhaustive. The classic works of Catholic literature are worth revisiting, of mining for application toward the ever-complicating present. They powerfully express some of the mystery of the Catholic faith. However, and unfortunately, Catholic literature is often described in the past tense, and usually that past ends with the Second Vatican Council.


In an article last year at The Millions, commentator Robert Fay lamented the present dearth of a uniquely “Catholic artistic vision.” Fay establishes Percy and O’Connor as two of the last profoundly Catholic writers. Fay conjectures whether the move from Latin to colloquial Mass affected the language and aesthetic of Catholic writers in recent generations. His essay ends on a more upbeat note, wondering if the new translation will “spark a Catholic literary renaissance.”


Such criticism of a contemporary Catholic literary canon should be qualified. If critics hope for the likes of Percy and O’Connor, they should trade nostalgia for the reality of postconciliar Catholic literature. Catholic writers have not disappeared.  They have evolved, and the present Catholic canon is a rich representation of fragmentary and diverse experiences within the faith. Since Fay’s critical eye is ultimately focused forward -- toward the potential for fresh Catholic literature spurred the new translation -- we should not fault him for such an approach. Rather, Fay should be commended for continuing the conversation: any Catholic literary criticism that purely resides in the past is doomed to ignore the realties of the present.


It is healthy for postconciliar Catholic literary critics to broaden the definition of Catholic literature. I certainly do not mean dogmatic rejection, nor do I support a thinning or blurring of Catholicism: it is precisely the pure elements of the faith, the acceptance of mystery and the healing power of Christ, that enabled Percy and O’Connor to create such powerful Catholic literature. Rather, it would be wise for Catholic literary critics to be catholic regarding what they evaluate and appreciate as Catholic literature. Works by practicing Catholics should be read alongside works by lapsed Catholics: the scope of real artist’s experiences with the faith should be reflected in a Catholic literary canon.


Postconciliar Catholic writers almost form their own genre. They write about a world where Catholicism is no longer a mysterious Other, and yet they are aware that Catholicism remains a unique faith practice. Works regarded as “progressive,” such as Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) are oftenprofoundly influenced by central tenets of the faith. Hansen’s novel dramatizes the life of Mariette, a young, turn-of-the-century religious novice, whose alleged stigmata is as violent as it is miraculous. The story is deeply compelling, offered to the reader in sentences wrought with the most extreme care. Hansen’s narrative is built phrase by phrase, echoing the solemnity of spoken Mass. The white spaces of his pages suggest the silence of prayerful devotion. Hansen, a deacon in the San Jose Diocese, is an artist operating at a high aesthetic level, while also presenting essentially Catholic ideas and sensibilities. Hansen identifies “churchgoing and religion” as the “origin of my vocation as a writer.” He lauds “Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things,” and the “connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered.”


Although Hansen is writing in a postconciliar world, readers will recognize traditional elements and influences. The “violence” of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is echoed by the visceral nature of Mariette’s stigmata; the ambiguity of Walker Percy is reflected in the novel’s theologically inconclusive ending.  While contemporary Catholic writers refract a tradition of literature, it should be expected that contemporary concerns result in both new subject matter and different perspectives. If there is a new Catholic literature, it is one particularly attentive to language, as well as the mining of experiences often underrepresented in traditional work borne of the faith. This new Catholic literature, sometimes in ironic ways, adds further dimensions to the concept of a Word made flesh.


The new translation forms an interesting bookend in Catholic literature: the years between the Second Vatican Council and late 2011 become their own Catholic literary period, one framed by a particular liturgical language. While we should, as Fay suggested, hope for an even stronger resurgence of Catholic literature, it is worthwhile to consider representations of the recent past. Postconciliar Catholic literature represents a language and liturgy in flux, and the results are often fascinating.


Paul Lisicky’s 2002 memoir, Famous Builder, is a good example of the unique components of postconciliar literature. The collected essays are threaded by theme, location, and experience. The creative nonfiction genre affords such narrative experimentation, which therefore complicates the presentation of a single identity. The Catholic memoirist, in particular, must operate on several analogical and literary levels: because the Catholic experience is so grounded in community and ritual, attempts to show an individual identity are tempered by the experiences of a whole. This theme of identity begs the question: is memoir the true identity of the writer, or a representation of that identity? If the latter is true, is that action done to a fault? Or would any reasonable reader accept the fictionalization of narrative necessary to present a profluent story to an audience? Such concerns are particularly appropriate to postconciliar Catholic literature, which is created in a moment rife with reconsiderations of language and faith identity.


“Wisdom Has Built Herself a House,” a central essay in the collection, documents the suburban American, postconciliar “New Catholic” experience. While Lisicky (who was no longer a practicing Catholic when writing the book) makes no pretenses toward theology within the text, the essay has value as a postconciliar literary document. The essay dramatizes the period’s liturgical movement toward ecumenism, the formation of Catholic identity beyond confirmation, and Catholic sexuality. The year is 1975, and the location is Lisicky’s southern New Jersey church, “(Correction: Parish Center),” during the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The mood is clearly relaxed: “casual behavior seems oddly in keeping with [the] surroundings” of the church, which is a “starkly modern, circular affair” with “abstract banners in every conceivable size and color -- fishes, wafers, lopsided chalices -- hang[ing] from the industrial black ceiling.”  Lisicky, a gifted teenage liturgical musician, feels at home with these “fellow parishioners, [who] love to flout tradition and convention,” celebrating without “a kneeling bench or a crucifix in sight.”  The attitude is distinctly postconciliar, a time “before the deeply conservative Pope John II puts a damper on the party.”  The play of “party” with “celebration” is important: Lisicky and his peers are, in this text, “the new Catholics: rebellious, ironic, sophisticated, sexy.”


This “new” Catholicism is marked in the essay by “receiv[ing] Communion in the hand years before we’ve been given the Bishop’s green light.”  Lisicky and the other musicians “struggle through bootlegged hymns from the radical Dutch church,” most notably a revision of Psalm 13, “which is entirely absent of direct references to God, the Lord, or any higher power.”  The lyrics are more reminiscent of seventies-era popular music than devotional works: “Even then I’ll cling to you, cling to you, cling tight to you, whether you want me or not.”


Lisicky reflects from the perspective of a progressivist youth, one thankful for the more upbeat celebration of Mass. Music becomes an identifying element, with local Jewish residents referring to the parish as a “nightclub.”  Lisicky remembers when “Mass [was celebrated] in the chapel of the Diocesan nursing home,” where “we often burst into spontaneous, hearty applause” in response to the spiritual power of music. The evolution in musical performance is complemented by -- and perhaps representative of -- a postconciliar cultural shift, at least in this particular diocese. Even the traditional musical director is “friendly with the wildest priests in the diocese...she calls them Vince or Joe, something which,” Lisicki adds, “no matter how open-minded I am, seems delightfully transgressive.”


Music becomes metonymic for the new look at liturgical language prompted by that earlier translation, as well as a distinguishing mark of Lisicki’s faith. Lisicky reinforces his Catholic identity through a negation of other denominations. One music teacher “is anything but a Roman.”  Lisicky finds her musical catalog “a little stodgy” and “is grateful to be Catholic” while “she’s so…Presbyterian.”  Catholicism is yoked with notions of progress: “We use guitars and electric basses. We’re smart enough to know that the old forms are falling away.”  Lisicky frames his identity in music: “I spend Saturday afternoons alone in the dank music library of the Blackwood Catholic Center, sitting cross-legged on the orange-gold carpet, where I listen to scratchy, already outdated recordings...while my classmates hang out at the Echelon mall, looking for dates.”


Lisicky’s presentation of music is never far from his portrayals of sexuality, and the crux of his memoir is the recognition of his own homosexuality. One of the music directors tells Lisicky about “another composer, a former Scientologist and current lay Franciscan, who has a boyfriend on the side,” and later, another former music minister who moves in with a man. Music becomes a paradox: a nod toward tradition, and yet a vehicle for new kinds of expression. Lisicky publishes his original compositions, and his choir travels to Cape May to perform during Holy Thursday Mass. He is nervous -- “I must be perfect for the Bishop” -- but the performance is a success: “we have become something else, something elevated and other, transcending our limitations. We’re celebrating all that’s good and right about the world, all that’s possible.”  Filled with the optimism that celebration brings, Lisicky admits a certain naïveté in his hope: since “the church was changing,” and even considering the possibility that “priests someday could marry...then couldn’t I be understood and loved by the world around me?”


Lisicky attends a different church during the summer, where he is “stupefied by the flat-footedness of the ritual. Ancient pole fans oscillate throughout the sanctuary, working to cool us with their feeble whirr. The grim monsignor trudges through the Mass.” Again, music is integral: “the other can only be embodied through the agency of art.”  Later, Lisicky attends a workshop at a Catholic college in Wisconsin. There is a Mass, but no mention of a priest or other religious; rather, folk composers “trade guitar riffs, sing reedy, gender-bending harmonies” while “light cascades through the stained-glass windows of the saints, pooling blue, red, and yellow on the floor.”  Lisicky concludes that this was “the most engaging, innovative Mass I’ve ever been to in my life.”


The publication of Lisicki’s compositions “in hymnals and songbooks all across the country” ensures that Lisicky will never forget his Catholic youth: “more than once, wandering into church while visiting my parents, I’ve heard a choir struggling through one of my responsorial psalms.”  Lisicky admits that he has “kept this side of my personality hidden from my friends, some of my very closest friends, for reasons that are not quite clear to me.” Lisicky laments that his youth occurred during a period when “there was so much hope and possibility about the church,” though he hesitates to “[work] on new music” for fear of hearing “charges about colluding with the enemy” -- that is, a church with positions he does not accept regarding homosexuality.


Lisicky concludes the essay wondering whether his “decision to turn away from music has come at a cost.”  The lost opportunities include the possibility of “nam[ing] what we’d want God to be, even if He or She remains elusive and intractable, resisting our definitions.” Lisicky’s memoir offers valuable representations of the postconciliar optimism of lay people he knew, the feeling that they were becoming more active participants in the celebration of faith. Famous Builder distills one young man’s growth through music, but the book opens up a larger theme for consideration: that the previous translation created a palpable shift in the culture of Catholicism -- including new kinds of Catholic literature borne of personal faith experiences, including experiences of ambivalence and disappointment over the limits of change in the Church. Although the recent translation has marked the end of an implicit literary era, there is much literature of artistic merit from that era to be mined, and many diverse, human experiences of faith to be considered. Catholic literature is very much alive, and critics would be wise to be open to the recent past while they remain hopeful for the future.