To Hell with stifled hearts: The Eucharist and the Catholic Literary Imagination

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On Oct. 1, the Church commemorated the day when Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face finally saw the face of her beloved. The following day, a niche group of literary geeks celebrated the birthday of Graham Greene, a Catholic author whose life was marked by deep restlessness and sin.

At first glance, there is no similarity between the cloistered nun associated with rose petals and the serial adulterer who remained in his pew year after year during communion. Yet the shelf holding the Catholic literary canon would be tragically bare without either “The Story of a Soul” or “The End of the Affair.”

Therese and Greene’s writings both embody that which is perhaps the single word to summarize the Catholic literary imagination: “desire.” 

Therese’s prose and poetry reveal her radical, seemingly unattainable desires to suffer every death and bear every joy and trial imaginable in her unbridled love for Jesus Christ. Throughout Greene’s works, the reader is invited into the fractured minds of characters who will go to any length in their despairing ardor to love and be loved.

From Dante’s “Commedia,” to Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back,” and even to children’s literature like Tomie DePaola’s “The Clown of God,” literature authentically shaped in and by the Catholic imagination is fearless in its unveiling of the transcendent and embodied desires experienced by all men and women. 

The Catholic literary imagination does not shy from the messiness of the human heart. Rather, it shows the brokenness of the human condition and the way that grace breaks into that darkness.

How does grace transform our darkest desires and fulfill our truest dreams? The Father accomplishes this through the human body of Jesus Christ, which was molded in the womb of Mary and is hidden today in every tabernacle.

In the Eucharist, the Father affirms the desires of saint and sinner alike to be touched and embraced. It awakens our desire for heroism. 

Could there be a more beautiful story to transform our minds than the true story in which God holds Himself for ransom in the tabernacle? To buy our hearts, He is locked away in the hopes that we will pity His lowliness and draw near.

On Oct. 1, as the Catholic Imagination Conference was underway, God Himself, our hidden lover, was carried across campus in a Eucharistic procession. That white host is not merely a portion of the Catholic literary imagination. It — or, rather, He — is not merely a concept parodized in Inferno 34 or a plot point in a Greene short story. Rather, the Eucharist is the Catholic literary imagination. 

Flannery O’Connor is famous for her statement about the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to Hell with it.” 

If the Eucharist were only a symbol, then perhaps we could rightly believe that we can only attain holiness through a stoicism that abandons the senses and ignores the messiness of human emotion. But the Eucharist is not a symbol. It is the Body of Jesus Christ, who became man so that we would no longer fear our humanity.  

It is true that the Catholic literary imagination emphasizes our concupiscence. But “Brideshead Revisited” is not intended to romanticize drunkenness and promiscuity. Rather, “Brideshead”, and all the stories influenced by the Catholic imagination, show us that our desires, however broken, can be healed and transfigured by Christ’s embodied love in the Sacraments. 

Lest we say, “To Hell with our desires” and stifle our hearts, the Eucharist exists as the fulfillment of all human desire. It teaches us that if rightly ordered and surrendered to Christ, our desires will lead us, not to Hell, but into the arms of our Father.

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