The first day of Advent this year was November 27th and it ends tomorrow, December 24th. This is not something you would know from looking at my son’s LEGO Star Wars Advent calendar, which has twenty-five cardboard windows, behind which reside various cellophane bags containing either Christmas-themed LEGO people (mini-figs, for the uninitiated) or a handful of pieces that once assembled resemble a snowman, or toy-sized replicas of spaceships, like Boba Fett’s ship, Slave 1 and Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter. Really it’s just an awesome Countdown to Christmas calendar.
My son is a LEGO freak. Put a handful in a bowl, pour milk over them, and he would eat them. Likewise, he L-O-V-E-S Star Wars, so every morning he wakes up completely geeked to open up another window, which I, bleary-eyed, supervise from the couch at 7:30 am, coffee in hand.
This is mostly a good thing. My wife and I are cradle Catholics, and we are raising our children in the faith, albeit in the Dorothy Day-Thomas Merton-Berrigan Brothers tradition, and so this morning ritual of assembling small LEGO contraptions (LEGO in Danish means “I play well,” btw) is at the very least inspiring in him a sense of building anticipation, a sense that we are readying to celebrate something really big, something game-changing.
Advent calendars, like Advent wreaths, rosary beads, and eating fish on Fridays during Lent are practices that fall under the broad heading of popular piety, devotions that are not required of faithful Catholics in any kind of dogmatic way. They are, according to very insightful post on Godzdogz, a blog run by students at Oxford studying to become Dominican monks (and that I cite here just because the title of their blog is ridiculous) “. . . a bridge between the things of God and the things of the world . . .”
The online Catholic Encyclopedia, a much more buttoned-down, yet very handy and thorough reference if you ever need to settle a bet on the origins of the doctrine of transubstantiation or what happened at the Council of Trent, notes that the “feelings of devotion” found in popular pieties are “derived from four principal sources”:
1. by the strong appeal which they make to emotional instincts, or
2. by the form which puts them within the reach of all, or
3. by the stimulus of the association with many others in the same good work, or
In other words, they make us feel good, anyone can do them, they help create community, and they tend to be rituals practiced by monks, priests, and other religious, people for whom doing this kind of thing is easier because they aren’t as encumbered by the quote/unquote vicissitudes of everyday life, and therefore they inspire us to get up off our asses and make some kind of gesture or sign that we actually believe in something.
I’ve never thought of the essays I write as popular or particularly pious in any way. I tend to regard them as too Christian for some and not Christian enough for others.
And yet this idea of popular piety appeals to me as a writer of what some scholars have called “religious essays.” Religious essays don’t get much mention at the AWP—I should know because I keep pitching panel ideas and the powers that be keep rejecting them—nor even in explicitly religious publications, which tend to favor certainty over the kind of doubt that essaying inspires, but I assure you, the religious essay is a thing. It is given a surprisingly lengthy entry in Tracy Chevalier’s 1000 page tome Encyclopedia of the Essay, which begins:
In some ways, the term “religious essay” is an oxymoron, since “religious” is commonly used to suggest faithful devotion or orthodox certainty while as Graham Good suggests in The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay (1988), the essay tends to explore “inconsistencies” rather than reinforce existing systems.
The entry cites writers like John Henry Newman, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and Theilhard de Chardin, Elie Wiesel, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry, all of whom coincidentally grace the bookshelves in our house, with a special place given to Maritain and de Chardin. Both Frenchmen inspired Flannery O’Connor, especially de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist whose mystical theory of human evolution inspired the title of her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
The fact that the religious essay gets some love in this enormous reference book is not any kind of validation of faith any more than an entry on food essays is a validation of the importance of food, but this list of writers is objectively impressive. They all, each in their own ways, bear witness to the hidden, messy aspects of humanity.
But religious folks don’t have a corner on this market. Maritain, one of my personal heroes, was adamant that there is no such thing as a Christian Writer. There are writers who happen to be Christian, for sure, but seeing your writing as part of, or proof of, your devotion to Jesus, will, he believed, lead to bad art.
Which is why when I reflect on what makes the best so-called religious essays good I must admit that it’s not because the writer has made an iron-clad case for belief, or spectacularly shamed abortionists, but because they have helped remind me that my problems, and the world’s—those things that keep us from being our best selves—are not new, but ancient. They have always been with us and will always be, no matter how morally or ethically enlightened we feel we have become.
If I do have a bias, though, it is that great art creates a bridge between the things of God and the things of the world. If you’re not comfortable with the phrase “things of God,” then insert some word or phrase that for you describes those things that are transcendent, mysterious, or metaphysical.
I’m usually leery of saying such things in spaces that are not marked as explicitly friendly to earnest discussions of religion, but I’m offering these words here because I believe that we essayists are, by our nature, religious beings. The root religio is generally interpreted to mean “to bind together,” or “reconnect.” (This is the meaning that St. Augustine, who most credit with the creation of the memoir, used in his writings.) To my mind essayists are in the business of creating communities around faith and doubt, connection and disconnection, by helping us to define and refine our thinking and our selves.
Baldwin, Bell Hooks, Tim Wise, Roxane Gay, and Ta-Nehisi Coates take on race; Sontag, Didion, Solnit, and Leslie Jamison chronicle the ethical and moral conundrums of the places and times they inhabit; McLuhan, Postman, Foster Wallace, and Ander Monson,take on media, technology, and how our self-hood is challenged by all that we passively consume; and Woolf, Audre Lorde, Hooks (again), Richard Rodriguez, and Gay (again) confront issues of gender and sexuality.
These are by no means exhaustive lists—I know I’ve left some important names out—but they are my own personal flash-anthologies, groupings that have coalesced in my mind over the years that I have been essaying. They are all guiding lights, whom I learn from, steal from, and emulate. But, frankly, none of them, even McLuhan and Rodriguez (both Church-going Catholics), speak directly to my own particular religious experience as a forty-year old, midwestern, white, straight, cis-gender, Catholic pacifist.
This is why the so-called religious essayists noted above are, to my mind, such an important part of the essayistic and literary tradition. From age to age, they seek to define and refine what it means to be human in a world that often appears dominated by a spirit of resignation and indifference in the face of the evils of war, poverty, and bigotry, all in the name of unfettered mercantilism.
Essayists who take seriously religious traditions, take as their starting point a notion that humans are vessels of the divine and are therefore called to lives of discipleship and witness to truths and principles that will lead us out of such moral morass towards lives defined by love and selflessness not hate and opportunism.
As our new Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan would have it, “You gotta serve somebody.”
And essaying, whether you think of yourself as religious or not, is a form of service, of discipleship, to an ancient and innately human compulsion to seek the truth wherever it may be found. For many of us—and here by “us” I need to expand beyond essayists to all manner of artists, to include our readers who labor in so many different ways to earn a living and provide for themselves and their families, and do so while shouldering the weight of grief, anxiety, self-doubt, and addiction—when we come to the page, whether as writers or readers, we are searching for good news, for truth, for beauty that will restore to us some courage and dignity that will help us in turn to bring good news, truth, and beauty to others in whatever way we are able.
I’m afraid I’ve crossed the sub-generic boundary from religious essay into sermon, another fascinating and rich literary tradition, but whose roots are not explicitly religious. According to the OED, the word originates in the 13th century from the Old French root sermon, meaning simply to talk, or discourse, pre-dating the word “essay” or the practice of assaying by nearly three-hundred years. This is a bad habit of mine, but one that as I’ve gotten older have learned that I just have to own.
Maggie Nelson, another essential essayist who I should have mentioned earlier, devotes a few paragraphs in her 2011 The Art of Cruelty to an essay I wrote on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, reflecting on my concern that we can’t be like Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan), both “pervert and detective.” Nelson disagrees, saying, in essence, that we “more often than not” we are both, though, she writes “. . . well-intentioned moralists like Griffith may wish that it weren’t so.”
I cringe a little now at how piously absolute my statement is. But in my defense I wasn’t just writing about Blue Velvet, I was writing within the context of the second Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with folks like military prison guard Charles Graner in mind, someone who believed his job was to keep our country safe from terrorists by “roughing up” suspected Al Qaeda operatives, a euphemistic phrase found in the Senate Intelligence Report on CIA Torture translated into photos of Iraqi men (most of whom were pretty criminals rounded up in police state sweeps), naked, stacked in pyramids, being menaced by guard dogs, and mock executed. It was, as many of you will remember, a moment when America’s moral fiber was being called into question. The word ‘soul’ was bandied about a lot. People were asking, What have we become?
I counted myself as a part of that “we.” In the Blue Velvet essay and the several other that comprise my first book, I was writing to try to understand my own fascination with violence, and how I might be able to reason my way free of its allure. Nelson calls me on my failure to find a way out by saying that there is no way out, you’re human, to which I would say I assayed: I attempted, I tried.
In the end, I’m grateful to Nelson. She exposed, without even knowing it, a dualistic note in my thinking, one of the most fundamental Christian heresies: the idea that the universe is governed by two opposing forces good and evil, and the evil must be rooted out at all costs, a doctrine that can be easily perverted into an “us vs. them” proposition—either you’re with us or against us—which makes for a jingoistic theology and foreign policy, as well as, unwittingly, to the creation of propaganda instead of art.
But one thing that I think Nelson completely missed, or, really, just couldn’t have known, is that my desire to separate the pervert from the detective is not connected to Catholic shame and self-hatred, or a demand that art have a neat moral calculus, as much as it is that I know my nature and I must try to resist it. Make of it what you will, this is a reflective and religious impulse, an examination of conscience. When I teach essay writing, I sometimes call this a “move,” making it sound that we’re doing when we essay is all just rhetorical chess. Actually, for me, it’s more of a spiritual practice that has been engrained in me no doubt from reciting the Confiteor at Mass (“I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…”), from preparing for confession, and from reading the great religious nonfiction writers, many of whom I have already listed above.
This is all to say that my absolute statement—you can’t be both—was not made in a dogmatic spirit, but as a public declaration that I saw the danger of thinking that I could be both; a fear that in being both I was somehow better, more enlightened.
I wished that I had put it in those terms, but then again, no, because then Nelson would not have been goaded into conversation with me, or the me who wrote those words ten years ago.
This is all to say that I believe the essay, and especially the religious essay, is a means of putting ourselves and others to the test. It is as the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac said of the essays he and his compatriots wrote during the rise of Nazism, a means of “spiritual resistance,” a means of holding oneself personally accountable, of giving testimony to what we believe to be true, even at the risk of ostracization or worse.
I feel a long way from my sons LEGO-building morning ritual, and yet now revisiting the list of why popular pieties stoke feelings of devotion in us, I’m more convinced than ever that the essay is a form whose popularity and importance. Will never wane. Essays invite us to dialogue; they engage us in deep contemplation over what is true and what is illusion, and in so doing put us in conversation with a long, long line of thinkers and writers who though we may ultimately disagree with, often earn our respect because of their willingness to ask difficult questions, to bear witness, to resist easy answers.
There’s one more way that LEGOs factor in here that, in the spirit of Advent, in the spirit of preparing for the arrival of something, I need to share. While it is generally agreed that the root of “religion,” religio, means to connect, or bind together, there is another earlier, competing interpretation, that scholars trace to Cicero, whose own essays span the first century before Christ. Cicero favored re- (again) + lego, which comes from the Latin legere, variously meaning to “read,” “consider,” or "choose", to “select,” "go over again," or "consider carefully,” and, it is sometimes even translated “I put together.”
It is this sense of the word “religion” that I want to privilege on this day and in this season of hope, the sense that we are all carefully considering and putting together an understanding of what we are here for, what we are called to do. As my favorite religious essayist Thomas Merton wrote: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”