Nick Ripatrazone on Unruly Catholic Women Writers: Creative Responses to Catholicism
The editors of Unruly Catholic Women Writers identify Flannery O’Connor as their unruly patron saint. Although “unruliness abounds” in modern “women’s writings on Catholicism,” O’Connor’s pedigree is difficult to ignore. In their introduction to this anthology of contemporary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry written in response to Catholic faith and tradition, the editors focus on O’Connor’s sense of mystery. For O’Connor, “Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.” Dogma, though, is a dirty word in this anthology. Although mystery is the glue of Catholic ritual and thought, the editors argue that dogma often restricts rather than reveals, and women are usually the ones restricted.
In 2007, DelRosso, Eicke, and Kothe edited an earlier anthology of related critical writing, The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays. This new volume is purely creative in nature. Other than the introduction, the editors get out of the way, allowing these pieces to speak for themselves. The selections are loosely “organized … around the mysteries of church doctrine: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries” to reflect the female tradition of rosary prayer and Marian devotion. The editors consider Mary an unruly woman, noting “her inner thoughts on the path her life took remain, of course, a mystery to us.”
The brevity of the editors’ introduction is admirable: sometimes anthologies are prefaced by manifestos that neuter the work that follows. But their concision flattens O’Connor. In “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” O’Connor preceded the sentence quoted by the editors — “Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery” — with the note that “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” Many women in this anthology feel bound by dogma and suffocated by Catholic institutions. Yet O’Connor is not the best choice to represent such sentiment. As Robert H. Brinkmeyer writes in The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor, a “settled belief in dogma … actually freed rather than confined the artist’s powers of observation.” Catholic belief gives the fiction writer the power to observe reality in all its ugly truths and unpleasant shades. In that same essay, O’Connor proclaims that “open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.”
Few writers are misread as often as O’Connor. The Misfit’s Jesus-talk that prefaces his murder of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” surely leads some readers to wonder if O’Connor was using literalist rhetoric to criticize her own Church. To be certain, O’Connor hated the “pious trash” of Church-pamphlet fiction. Yet Brinkmeyer shares another quote from O’Connor: “the tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her.” The majority of women in Unruly Catholic Women Writers have shed the tightening skin of Catholicism. O’Connor was honest enough to see the cracks within the institution, but she likely would have suggested to fix the religion rather than flee the faith.
Many of these women are fleeing not only from a religion but also from one particular institution: Catholic school. Parochial jabs are a Catholic literary rite of passage. A few pieces in this anthology fall into the trap of tired scholastic tropes: stale-breathed, small-minded nuns, and priests who speak the Roman Missal. Those pieces telegraph their conclusions. But they are, thankfully, the minority in this collection, which is largely populated with pieces that mine Catholic schooling for nuanced reactions to the faith. Mary-Antoinette Smith identifies a middle-school nun who defends her from children who call her a liar. The nun says that Smith is a storyteller and encourages creativity, and those gestures are remembered with thanks. Renée Bondy’s essay, “My Soul Sisters,” dramatizes her postconciliar, Canadian parochial schooling. Bondy was heavily influenced by these women who probably would not “have used the ‘f-word’ to describe themselves,” but offered many strands of feminism: missionary work with a social justice focus; studying “theology, education, and women’s history”; recognizing that she could find self-worth without marriage or having children; offering an example of woman’s community; and modeling sound teaching practice. Although Bondy and other women of her generation might “mistrust and [ultimately reject] the Church,” they remain made in its image.
I have never attended a parochial school, so my understanding of morning prayers and plaid polyester uniforms that felt like burlap are mostly influenced by my wife. I read the pieces in this anthology as a cradle, as a practicing yet public school Catholic — a Vatican II Catholic, lifting a construction from novelist Ron Hansen. I am also a Catholic man and am very aware of how my comfortable existence in this Church colors these readings. As a married man, I cannot become a priest, but I could enter the diaconate. A woman, single or married, can never become ordained. Many lapsed women have told me the Church’s treatment of women is the reason they have drifted from Mass and never returned. The anger the women in this anthology feel ranges from those who have sprinted from the Church and never looked back to those who long for a return home, even if that house feels broken. My gender precludes a complete understanding of this anger, this distance.
In that vein, when I posit that the best pieces in Unruly Catholic Women do not consider the Catholic hierarchy as a formless omnibus, I do not mean those words as an apologetic retort. One can hold such an opinion, of course, but it makes for thin creative work. Sustained critique is not possible with straw men. Consider Kaya Oakes’s excellent recent memoir, Radical Reinvention. Oakes finds spiritual direction from both women and men in the Church; she notes its imperfections while finding its ultimate perfection in Christ. There are pieces in this anthology that perfectly capture the paradox of distaste and desire. Place a complaint of the Church delivered through caricature next to the earned wit of “Exile” by Colleen Shaddox: “To be raised Catholic and switch denominations is a lot like giving up Haagen-Dazs for broccoli. You miss the richness, even if you know it’s bad for you.”
Shaddox does give up the Häagen-Dazs. Her essays ends:
The wonderful thing about Catholicism is that its liturgical richness sets the stage for transcendence. As a child in that darkened church, I stared directly into the loving majesty of God. How glorious that a religion offers such profound connection to the divine. How tragic that it doesn’t know enough to stop there.
Those are the words of a lament, not a lambast. The former better fits the creative mode. Readers who wish to find critiques of the Church will find their red meat in Unruly Catholic Women, but so will readers who desire more sustained considerations of an imperfect Church that houses a faith that has consoled and cared for so many, women and men alike. Take “Resurrection” by Mary Rice, a sharp, condensed poem that begins with Michelangelo’s drawings “of the risen Christ / as a beautiful, nude man / wholly flesh yet floating.” Rice moves from that male artist to the women who “came to tend, as women do / to the dead as well as the living […] .” They do not find Christ, only an empty tomb. She finishes the poem with an apt metaphor for this anthology: “maybe the point is / the empty tomb / the space inside / where miracles can happen / when the stone is rolled away.”
The works in this anthology that offer superficial critiques pass from memory, but the pieces that exhibit longing and sadness retain real power. This is not to devalue the narratives of those who have passed on faith and accepted other beliefs, or no belief. But the anthology’s subtitle — Creative Responses to Catholicism — loses its efficacy when pieces descend into diatribe. They are likely better placed in another collection. Rather, a theme arises as this anthology moves forward: youthful critiques of Catholicism that are grounded in sexuality and rejection of male power need not end in rejection of faith, or Christ, or culture. Rather, as Oakes reveals in her memoir, longing need not equal loss. In “Sunday Morning in a Foreign Country,” Lauren K. Alleyne “[ponders] / this calling to church, that building / of brick and bond and breaking.” Another poem by Alleyne, “Holy Thursday: The Passion,” invokes lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “I have lost my passion.” A woman “knows the story,” she “knows / shame.” But her “faith [is] an old shoe / a false note.”
It is no surprise that the best prose in any religious anthology appears in pieces that are the furthest from orthodoxy or rejection. In “That Easter” by Leonore Wilson, the narrator’s family is seated at Easter dinner. A police dispatcher asks if the family saw a naked woman who had run from traffic into the open field behind their house. The police are on their way, but the men of the family go outside, as if on the hunt: “I was left with my mother at the table. We were the women.” The woman is found handcuffed and clothed in Wilson’s garb: “I put my body in her body.” The runaway’s husband had beaten her. Wilson has met other bruised women like her. She sees Christ in all of them and feels guilty, “I who have stayed silent.” The woman “is the foundling of the woods, the one slip of tongue, the liquid mist that burns off the highway as the new day forms.” Her essay concludes in an anaphoric rise that exclaims her longing to be near this scarred woman, to recognize that “inside our smile is the knife-grind, the winged lion.”
The recursivity and empathy in “That Easter” feels naturally Catholic. Sarah Colona’s “Moth Song” is a notable poetic example of writing that feels organically born of Catholic hands. Quatrains of no more than four words per line create a columned refrain. Colona’s control feels like O’Connor’s approach toward dogma: structure can open, rather than close, art. Absent of punctuation, save for one parenthesis and a concluding question mark, “Moth Song” begins with a girl’s Catholic lesson from her mother. Good girls die first, in their sleep, and “Wake beside God.” Her priest says bad girls live longer, but die alone. The narrator ends the poem with a question spoken to no person, but God: “Is the singed moth / Denied entrance / Or does a scar / Strengthen her prayer?” A true mark of a great Catholic poem is that it can end in a question.
“Our Father Who?”, an essay by Carol Cooley, shares Colona’s open-minded inquiry and reflects the best of Unruly Catholic Women. Her essay begins with a description of St. Michaels, a place whose “straight lines of hard pews with straight hard backs” provided “God’s strong masculine hand to support me and fix my broken life.” Cooley returns to the church as a divorcee, and without an annulment she is unable to receive the Eucharist. In the same way that, as a woman, she can never wear the black and white of the priests who “walked at ease here,” she is denied that saving grace of Christ. It is a form of public humiliation: “when it was my turn to rise, leave my straight back pew, and walk the straight line to Jesus with hands humbly folded, I stayed in my place for all to see — the woman on the pew with a toddler who cannot take in the body of Christ because she sinned.”
Finally, she decides to begin breaking the rules and accepts the Eucharist, but her guilt remains. She attempts to speed up the annulment. Cooley is greeted by a church secretary who tells her to fill out an application and that the process might take a year. Cooley knows that this woman “could not relate to [her] struggles … [who] was in a role, doing her job, and playing by the rules of her father’s house.” Stung by the disinterest of the woman and the Church, Cooley leaves and does not return to a place of worship until years later, when she is only a “visitor” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. She ends that essay with elegiac sentences that reveal her wounds and capture the central longing in Unruly Catholic Women Writers:
I absorbed all that was warm and familiar to me — the sounds of grand toiling bells, fragrant scents from lit candles, clicking heels on tile floors, and the flickering light from a collection of dancing flames praying for souls everywhere. I thought about the elderly nuns I had known when I was younger, their smiles subtle and tender. I yearned for the ritual of mass and to hear the deep bass tones in a priest’s prayerful song. I wanted to dip in, just briefly this time, to taste a masculine and feminine spirit present in every church where humanity draws together to connect with the higher self.
The central audience of this anthology might be women, but it is likely men who need to read and learn from these lives the most.