Monday, September 16, 2013

Guest Post: Essential Literature for Catholics

Twentieth-century Catholic author Flannery O’Connor wrote, “. . . the chief difference between a novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.  He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural.  And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.”

If this is so, then Catholic fiction isn't necessarily a story about Catholic people, or one that takes place in a monastery, or that ends with a tidy moral. On the contrary, it should engage and challenge faith, but all with an utmost respect for reality--that is, God’s reality--and in a way that is tasteful, not sanitized. More importantly, it should be beautiful, since all beauty points to its Creator. God is love. God is truth. God is beauty. That which is written to be truly beautiful, and not by materialist standards or according to fads, must be true.

However, beauty is not synonymous with quaint or pretty, and there is all sorts of beauty in the world.  Wildflowers on the mountainside contains beauty, but so does the snowstorm that bends the trees in two and threatens the life of the shepherd.  Sublime beauty reminds us of the vastness of God; so the hawk swooping in for the kill is awful, awe-full--inspiring awe--and is likewise beautiful, though perhaps not recommended for the fainthearted.

In short, Catholic fiction can be known by looking for works where Truth meets Beauty, like the two intersecting lines of the Cross.

That said, almost any artistic literary endeavor before the time of Christ, as well as a good deal after, contain natural and supernatural encounters with Beauty; though some are removed from the full revolution of Christ and His Church. Of those many, I recommend the following for Catholic reading--from cradle to college, and beyond.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

The original story of a boy's favorite stuffed bear, his toy and forest companions, and their adventures is poised to prep the Catholic imagination--not to mention all-together humorous and thoroughly entertaining, for readers of all ages. It had me rolling with laughter at parts like this:
"Christopher Robin [. . .] just said it had an 'x.'" 
"It isn't their necks I mind,' said Piglet earnestly.  'It's their teeth."

It's also full of the nonsensical common sense of children. Delicious bits of wisdom, like the following:
"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best," and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called."
When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.
Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.
"There's the South Pole," said Christopher Robin, "and I expect there's an East Pole and a West Pole, though people don't like talking about them."

And plenty of lines to cuddle up to with your little one:
"Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh?" he whispered. 
"Yes, Piglet?" 
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to be sure of you."

Fairy Tales

Classic fairy tales are essential reading for every Catholic household (Disney versions are not acceptable substitutes!).  G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist.  Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed."  They ought to be right up on the bookshelf with your children's Bible stories.

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

George MacDonald first showed the famous Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, that the imagination could be "baptized," and that unnamed truths of existence could be expressed to almost-understanding in the beatific visions of fantasy and fairy tale.  All of his books are highly recommended, but for younger readers, start out with the Curdie books.  I read these aloud at tea time to three homescholed sisters I tutored, and the books brought up opportunities for discussion in which even the youngest one, at age seven, could partake--the richness of characterization, plot, and diction challenge little ones in the truths of faith and morals in a way that would not be nearly as successful if put to them in stale moralizing.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

You've encountered these in some way, even if you haven't read them--if not, do so at once!  The Narnia series is essential reading for any Catholic, no matter what age.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

These two stories, along with the various other supplemental works relating to Middle Earth, are so saturated with Catholicism that it goes unnoticed by most uninformed readers.  In them, the imagination encounters great truths about suffering and sacrifice--the heart of Christianity--and many other things besides.  These stories are bursting with Beauty, with a capital B, such as my favorite passage of the entire series:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.  For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton

This long poem by G.K. Chesterton gives a fictionalized account of King Alfred the Great at the Battle of the White Horse, when the war-savvy Vikings were defeated and driven back from Christian Britain.  Bright adolescents who need a challenge and young teens will enjoy the traditional poetry forms of rhyme and meter in a context that is far from prim.  

You might have heard this popular quote from it:

The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

The Ballad of the White Horse is about faith in times of despair, obedience to the will of God, and the singular trait unique to Christianity--its ability to survive against against all odds and be resurrected, like its Master.

The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

For older teens and and young adults, Frankenstein is a study on the sublime and questions the nature of being.  In an age when all sorts of ethical standards are being pushed by science in the name of progress, Shelley's horror story holds man accountable when he crosses paths with the mystery of God and creation.

A short read, and you'll be happy to get all those mobs-of-villagers-bearing-torches references.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Like Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray deals with scary themes; it shows how sin corrupts the nature of man and what it does to a soul its fed too long on.

The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor

Now the veritable patron saint of aspiring Catholic writers, Flannery O'Connor's stories, like Wilde's, bring the fallen world into sharp contrast so that we can no longer view it in willing ignorance.  Her human characters are not spared harsh scrutiny--but before the story ends, each protagonist is given a jarring, overpowering gift of grace.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Dante is probably one of the three greatest writers of all time, along with Homer and Shakespeare, and his works are steeped in Catholic truth.  His books are readily available in translation.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

A must for every library, Brideshead Revisited is the crowning glory of Catholic literature in the twentieth century.  Don't let a movie substitute for the real deal (the Catholic parts are often downplayed or cut entirely and the sinful actions of the characters magnified for Hollywood spectacle).

C.S. Lewis’s Space-Science Trilogy

Read all three books to get the full effect: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.  Not only are these engaging as science-fiction, they transcend genre to become commentary on modern heresies and very clearly present a celestial working of The Theology of the Body.  Especially the last two.  From THS

“The male you could have escaped, for it exists only on the biological level. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it. You had better agree with your adversary quickly.” 
“You mean I shall have to become a Christian?” said Jane. 
“It looks like it,” said the Director.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

This re-telling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid is probably Lewis's greatest theological work.  His synchronization of myth with Christian truth is so seamless you'd swear that God had planned it.  Like most all of Lewis's works (but especially this one), it will have you crying during the last pages, and so grateful for the experience.

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words.  I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer.  Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean?  How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Shakespeare's Hamlet

I put this one last--the most advanced reading, as it takes a practiced ear to understand the Elizabethan and patience to look up allusions.  Shakespeare's characters are so fundamentally mortal that their relevance will never expire.  As long as there are men and women in a fallen world, Shakespeare's plays will tell truths about humanity and touch them deeply.  Joseph Pearce makes a thoroughly convincing case for Shakespeare being a secret Catholic (during a time in Reformation England when being so would have been punishable by death).  Hamlet is the generally considered by scholars to be the best of the best.  And while it is a tragedy, as so many of these books are, one cannot help but to walk away from it a better person.

After all, we were not meant for this world.  Our happiness is with Another, in another place.  And it is those tales and stories that point heavenward, to our true home, that bring us the most happiness and satisfaction for reading them.

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”--C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

For Further Reading

I highly recommend visiting Tuscany Press for quality Catholic fiction in the tradition of the great Catholic literary lights.  Tuscany is devoted to publishing art without sacrificing either truth or beauty.  You can read my own short story contribution, "The Debt," in the 2012 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction: Collected Short Stories.  Or click on any of the links below for resources on art, literature, and the Catholic imagination.

On Fairy Stories by JRR Tolkien

Christie blogs at Everything to Someone.  Head over there to see her beautiful photography, read more literary recommendations, and follow her day-to-day musings as a mother and bibliophile.


  1. Saving ~ thank you for putting this together!

  2. What a wonderful list! I have read the majority of these, but now I know what else to add to my "To Read" list in the future. I'm also already thinking of ways to incorporate these into the literature section of our homeschooling even though I think my oldest is only ready for Winnie the Pooh.


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