Why Catholics Should Read Literature by Dr. Allen White

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Some time ago, I taught David Copperfield: Dickens’ favourite of his own novels.

I think it was a success. The students connected with the characters and despite the length of the book, they all got through it, in the end.

I happened to support my teaching of this unit by leaning on a series of lectures given by Dr Allen White on David Copperfield.

His analysis and Christian insights really made a difference to my preparation and planning of that unit.

So it’s with confidence that I share this lecture given by Dr White, (thanks Edocere for permissions).

It helps not only teachers, but all Catholics in every walk of life understand why reading literature is important…

Let me begin with a few words about the nature of art. By the word “art,” I am not referring just to paintings or sculpture, but to “art” in the larger context of those things which are created —literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture. They all get classified under the larger category which we also refer to as “art.”

Art has always existed as a manifestation of the human spirit. The cave paintings found on underground walls in southern France take us back to prehistoric times and show us that even man at his most primitive sought to represent the world around him. The urge to create art is a defining element of man’s nature.

Art is what artists make and craft with a high level of inspiration. If they make and create with real inspiration and to the height of their powers, then they are creating that which can transcend time and space and speak to all people in every age.

Now literature is unique, for each form of art possesses its own characteristics and has its own special function. Literature is language that tells a story or presents ideas, reflections or emotions in memorable language.

A great story or a great poem is a made object; it must be crafted; at its greatest it can become art. Poetry is as old as mankind and the desire to tell stories and to hear them seems to be another innate defining element of human nature.

  Our very faith is a magnificent story. There is a reason why it is often referred to as The Greatest Story Ever Told. It has a definite beginning, a long series of related actions and incidents and a definitive end that resolves the action and offers a final comprehensive completeness.

Our Faith is not a series of maxims or rules or sayings or aphorisms; it is at the core a story that progresses from “In the beginning…”through “And the Word was made flesh…” to “And I saw a New Heaven and a New Earth…” Our Faith is a narrative of actual events, either lived through in the past or happening in the present or promised for the future.

  Our Lord Himself, when He was with us on the earth, showed to us the importance of stories and storytelling. He did not come and give us a set of syllogisms or a list of logical assertions to teach us our faith; He came and taught us through parables.

In the 13th chapter of Matthew, the disciples themselves become puzzled as to Our Lord’s method of teaching. Having just heard the parable of the sower and the seed, the disciples ask Christ why He speaks in parables:

  And his disciples came and said to him: Why speakest thou to them in parables? Who answered and said to them: Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; but to them it is not given.

For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

And the prophecy of Isaias is fulfilled in them, who saith: By hearing you shall hear and not understand: and seeing you shall see and shall not perceive. For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should understand with their heart and be converted; and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear (Mt. 13:10-16).




 Our Lord makes clear that the parable is a special gift to those who possess understanding. The mass of men are lazy and fallen and detached —they cannot even use the channels for understanding given them by God.

The parable is a way of lifting up understanding, of forcing us to see and hear and perceive. The parable is given us for our greater understanding, but it demands a fullness of participation on our part.

Without our active involvement and our active participation, the parable, like some of the seed, will fall on rock and never grow to its full purpose.

  This leads us to the question then of what the story or literature should do for us. What is its purpose? Our Lord, of course, has already provided the most important purpose, one might be so bold as to say the intended Divine Purpose —to open our eyes and to open our ears and to open our hearts. But how is this accomplished?

  From the time of the classical authors through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and up to and including one of my favourite modern authors, Evelyn Waugh, writers have given two basic reasons for the creation of literature. Literature has two basic functions: literature should educate us and literature should delight us.

  Literature exists on one level to teach us things, to tell us things which we do not know. Great literature educates us according to the original meaning of “education” —to lead.

It shows us sights which are new to us and introduces us to people we have never met before. Great literature explains the world to us in ways we have never know before.

  What kinds of knowledge can literature give us? Literature can take us places where we could not ourselves venture or show us worlds which have vanished, but that are worth remembering.

There is invaluable knowledge to be gained by reading Homer and experiencing the Trojan War in The Iliad; by reading Melville and voyaging on a whaling vessel in Moby Dick; by reading Cervantes and journeying down the dusty roads of Spain with Don Quixote. Our horizons are expanded and we learn.

  There are other kinds of knowledge we gain; however, other than simply experiential knowledge. It is possible to gain moral knowledge through the reading of literature. Our understanding of the nature of good and evil, our awareness of how these forces appear and work in the actual world can be expanded for us by great literature.

We can gain necessary knowledge without having to go through the often painful experiences or turmoil of difficult life situations. To experience the temptations and sufferings of Anna Karenina or Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter; to witness the malignant machinations of Iago in Othello; to fight to moral awareness with Huckleberry Finn cannot help but generate and refine the moral sensibility that is a part of our nature.

  At the highest level, literature can lead us to profound spiritual awareness. In such superb works the truth of experience and the lived reality of goodness and the incomparable beauty of divine vision and highest expression are unparalleled.

For this reason we return over and over again to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dickens’ Great Expectations. In our own time, such works can still be discovered —Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories or Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

In these works we enter worlds we do not know and gain lessons we could not otherwise gain and all expressed with a beauty of form that reflects the eternal.

  This knowledge is not just acquired, however. We could be given the details of whaling life in a pamphlet or be taught that adultery is a sin or be told that there is a hell, a purgatory and a heaven. We would still have the knowledge.

What literature does is to vitalise that knowledge. By actively participating in the knowledge as in a living fact by way of action and human beings, the knowledge becomes real and alive.

We thus retain it and comprehend it in a higher and deeper sense than we could if we received that same knowledge from a pamphlet, a list or a set of rules. We are creatures of flesh and blood living in a real world and we learn and know most effectively in the same manner as we live.

  This vitalised knowledge is the source of true wisdom. A human being who is a walking encyclopedia may possess endless strings of facts but that person may be totally lacking in wisdom.

Wisdom is knowledge made vital and realised; literature allows us to turn knowledge into the vitalised reality of wisdom.

To read literature is thus to live more keenly and richly. It is to acquire a rich interior life. It is to live more lives than our own narrow and confined life. Literature allows us to grow and to deepen and to widen.

The man who has filled himself with the best of books is a larger man, larger in knowledge, fuller of compassion, deeper in spirit.

The second reason for reading literature is to experience delight. This is a purpose as important as the first of gaining knowledge.

We are delighted by good stories and this desire for that delight is in us from our earliest years. Anyone who has spent any time at all around young children will acknowledge this fact.

From the moment children can put words together, they repeatedly demand the delight of the story. “Tell me a story, Daddy” and “Read me a story, Mommy” are not just diversions to delay the bedtime hour.

Children need to hear stories and, curiously, they also teach us that the old stories are the best stories. Children particularly love to hear stories that are familiar to them, those stories which they have heard before.

It is an innate desire for things traditional, for that which has been repeated over and over again, for that which has been handed down. The story that is repeated or visited again and again sinks ever more deeply into our awareness and can be comprehended ever more fully.

  This joy in the good story well told offers respite from the hardships and labours of life. Even St. Thomas Aquinas says that the soul needs rest just as the body does.

The entertaining delights of literature provide one of the best and most appropriate ways for the soul to rest. Great literature can provide nourishment for the soul as food provides nourishment for the body.
If we choose only that which is sweet and instantly pleasing, however, the soul will rot just as the teeth will rot if they only chew on a constant diet of cotton candy.

To gnaw on a good, protein-rich piece of beefsteak is to receive real nourishment and good exercise for the jaws; in just such a way, to wrestle with a strong, solid work of literature is to receive substance for the soul and a healthy work-out for the mind.

A good work-out can also be a source of genuine delight. One can be refreshed even as one wrestles; reading good literature is an active work requiring strength which provides delight.

  Finally, great literature teaches the very valuable art of self-expression. By reading those works that express the best that has been thought presented by masters of language, we ourselves gain mastery over both thought and language.

We do not live in a time where language is honoured; language is in fact under assault all around us. We live in an age that reveres visual images and spends its time in front of screens.

The age encourages us to be passive and to be inarticulate. Literature introduces us to the huge range of possibilities of expression and style that language offers to us. This ability to use language is another fact of human nature that defines us and separates us from the animals.

It is in us as a given, but it must be learned and nurtured. We need help in mastering our language skills, our skills of self-expression. Those great masters of the past are our best guides.

  This leads to one final point, perhaps a warning. The great writers, those geniuses of the past who have created the greatest stories or set down the most beautiful reflections are a disparate lot.

God has not distributed His gifts just to a handful of individuals who have believed exactly what we believe with its fullness of truth. The question is often raised by traditional Catholics in reference to a given writer, “Is he a Catholic?” If the answer is “No,” there then seems to be a reluctance to enter the works of that author.

To adopt this attitude is to deny ourselves the riches of God’s creation. The duty of a great writer is to tell the truth about the world in which the writer finds himself and to do it with beauty.

There can be little doubt that the greatest of all writers were those writers who possessed the fullness of truth and the greatest appreciation for beauty, in other words, those great Catholic writers.

We cannot find a higher roll of great geniuses than that roll of Catholic writers: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes and Shakespeare. Even in our own time that roll can include such giant figures as Chesterton, Tolkien, O’Connor, Waugh and Walker Percy.

But we would be missing a great deal of additional truth and insight and beauty if we confined our reading only to those writers. God has given the gift of expression and the ability to see the truth to many others who were not Catholic and those writers have done great work.

It would be absurd and finally self-defeating to ignore Homer or Sophocles or Plato or Virgil or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn because they were “not Catholic.”

God in His Wisdom gave these writers talent and inspired them to tell great truths. They have done so and we can gain much from reading their works to discover which pieces of the truth they were privileged to know and how they came to express that knowledge.

Aquinas openly acknowledged his debt to Aristotle; Dante chose Virgil as his first guide; dare we presume to be “higher” or “purer” than such great Catholic souls? A pagan writer who serves up tough truth is more important than a Catholic writer who gives us cotton candy.

  Great literature is made and crafted by great artists who seek to instruct us and to delight us. In absorbing what they offer, we grow in wisdom, live more fully and deeply and gain greater power of self-expression.

God has provided for us a great banquet of stories and poems served up by dozens and dozens of unique chefs. Sit; feed; enjoy.

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