Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Painted Veil

Last Friday, I finally rejoined my neighborhood book club to discuss the novel by Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil.* It was a fine evening -- full of interesting discussion, good food and drink, and warm with laughter.

*Here is link:

I have two university degrees in literature and used to consume fiction like water, but, upon my conversion, I switched over to nonfiction. I was hungry to catch up on all the missed catechises. I delved into Church history, the lives of the saints and spiritual classics. I re-read some of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, but loved her letters and the transcripts of some of her speeches collected in a volume called The Habit of Being. I read Walker Percy's essays and made a stab at one of his novels, but fiction was hard for me. I read some of John Cheever's stories and a few stories by Evelyn Waugh. If it were not for this book club, I think I would have given up on novels altogether.

I loved Maugham's novel. While he was not a practicing Catholic, it is a Catholic book because it expresses the absolutes; it moralizes. Many writers of fiction these days are the literary equivalent of radio's "shock jocks". Trashy people doing trashy things sells. Sin is glamorized. A fine work of fiction, like compelling music, takes us through the hills and valleys of some one's life, and leaves us changed. Real hope is expressed in art that describes the enormous capacity for change that every life holds. That, to me, is the problem with alot of modern and "postmodern" art and literature -- it is hopeless.

A story does not have to have a positive outcome or "happy ending" to express theological hope. In fact, O'Connor's work often stumps people -- what was that about??? She said something to the effect that, for the spiritually blind, one had to paint in bold strokes. I think she saw her stories as being like a jolting shot of espresso, a wake up call to an America that was flushing itself down the toilet. She practiced her faith faithfully and with her entire being. Her every waking moment was prayerful and recollected. Her stories, which I first read in college, made me want to know more about the writer behind the words. Her artistry planted a seed in me, planted a series of questions that emerged...something like this: "What is wrong with man that he is capable of such evil? what is wrong with me that I can have everything in the world and still not feel satisfied? is God real? did God really live and breathe and suffer as a man? and, if so, why would he do such an incredible thing?"

Slowly, over the course of a year, from 1999-2000, these questions were answered and other questions emerged. Other answers mercifully emerged too, and I was a goner. I was in love. I was in love with the Catholic faith, and with God's answer to the problem of being human --Mother Church and her seven sacraments. I confessed my sins and climbed the mountaintop of the Holy Eucharist, ate God and wondered how I'd gone a second without such Love burning in my heart. Over the years since my conversion, I have shed many tears of joy and sorrow, but I am alive in faith where, before, I was dead in the world. Like the opium-stoned painted Chinese lady in The Painted Veil, I lived for years as a "kept woman," kept captive by worldly pleasures and enticements. Mother Church offers the only truly alternative culture. Her teachings are sound and her guidance is loving. To retreat from our sin is liberating. It is risky and daring and never a "done deal". It is full of hope.

Here is a quote and bio that I took from

Withdraw your heart from the world before God takes your body from it.
– St. John of Avila

St. John of Avila (1499-1569)Born to a wealthy family, John gave his
fortune to the poor. A Jesuit priest, he preached throughout Spain. He was the
spiritual director of St. Teresa of Avila and three other saints.

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