Paul L. Caron

Sunday, December 10, 2023

NY Times Op-Ed: The Power Of Faith At 1:00 A.M.

New York Times Op-Ed:  The Mystical Catholic Tradition of Jon Fosse, by Christopher Beha:

SeptologyI came to the work of the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse — who receives the Nobel Prize in Literature this week — by way of “,” a novel cycle that began appearing in English just a few years ago.

I’d been told by more than one person I trust that “Septology was Fosse’s masterpiece, but I will admit to a personal reason for finally picking up a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years. In quick succession about a decade ago, Fosse married (for the third time), quit drinking, and converted to Catholicism. “Septology” was the first thing he wrote after these life-altering events, and they are all reflected in its pages. So “Septology” was recommended to me not just as a great literary novel but as a great Catholic literary novel, and I have a special interest in the genre.

As it happens, I also married (for the first time), quit drinking, and converted to Catholicism in quick succession about a decade ago. (In my case, this “conversion” was a return to the faith in which I’d been raised.) I’m a novelist myself, though not nearly so prolific or distinguished as Fosse, and my writing life is linked to my religious life in ways that remain fairly mysterious to me. Given all this, it may seem overdetermined that “Septology” would feel from its very first pages as if it were written especially for me, but many readers who do not share these autobiographical affinities have reported the same reaction. ...

“Septology” is a novel of consciousness in the high Modernist tradition, and you feel right away as though you are in the main character’s head, or as though he is in yours, until the book comes to seem like your own voice speaking to you.

That main character is Asle, a painter living in a small fishing village in western Norway. ...

After a serious bout with cancer in my early 20s, I suffered for many years from terrible insomnia. Each time I tried to sleep, I became convinced that I would never wake up again. On many nights, I treated this problem by drinking myself into oblivion. When things started to change for me, one of the things that changed was this: I prayed myself to sleep instead. This habit eventually became central to my spiritual life, the moment when I asked myself whether I had spent the day that was ending as I ought to have spent it and committed myself to living the day to come as well as I could. I have come in certain ways to organize my life around this ritual, but I had never spoken about it to anyone besides my wife.

There are many better reasons to love a novel than self-identification. But I was gratified to see this practice on the page — and repeated at the end of each subsequent book in the series — because it is so private, and so difficult to discuss, and because it is not the kind of thing most people think about when they think about religious devotion. ...

Asle describes his “deepest truest prayers” as those moments when he’s “sitting and staring into empty nothingness, and becoming empty.” Above all, he searches in his prayers for “silence and humility.” The books take place during Advent — which is to say, right at this time of year — and they are saturated by the feeling of waiting that this season brings. Not waiting for a family holiday or the turning of the calendar but waiting for that time when a God who is at once inside of us and impossibly far away will finally be seen face-to-face.

I wish I could say that Asle’s spiritual life mirrors my own. What I can say with more honesty is that it mirrors my aspirations for my own. I sometimes think that the modern world’s true cultural divide is not between believers and unbelievers but between those who think life is a puzzle that is capable of being solved and those who believe it’s a mystery that ought to be approached by way of silence and humility. I am a problem solver by disposition, but in my heart I am strongly on the side of the mysterians. ...

The most sincere believers I’ve known have also been the most humble, the most perplexed. It may be that those who feel most powerfully the presence of God in their lives likewise feel most powerfully the impossibility of adequately capturing that presence in words. And it may be that those for whom God is not a symbol or a cudgel but a lived reality find this reality most mysterious.

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