Novel Thoughts blog

Theology and Literature

March 5, 2014 9:48 am | Leave a Comment


I once hoped to study Catholic novels in a doctoral program, and so went to theology school to bump up my grades and, as I rationalized it to myself, get the theological background for the works I wished to study.

In hindsight that was naive, for the novels I wished to study were written before the Second Vatican Council, and I was taught theology in the light of the Second Vatican Council. However, I took many courses in the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and echoes of Aquinas can be found in Catholic authors as disparate as James Joyce and Muriel Spark. Happily, I also took a course on Job, a book of the Bible which particularly interested Spark. At least two of her books, The Comforters and The Only Problem, were inspired by the Book of Job.

Theology is very much a part of the work of Alice Thomas Ellis, only in her case, it is a theology of loss, particularly for the loss of the culture she knew before the Second Vatican Council. In her 1991 introduction to The Summerhouse Trilogy, Ellis wrote that when she wrote it she “had been in a bad humour since the 1960s, particularly since the Second Vatican Council, and the action of the book is set in the 1950s when Christianity, specifically Catholicism, still had relevance, for there would have been no point in describing religious intimations, aspirations and subsequently much derided scruples at a time when, for most people, they had lost all meaning.”

The sense of sin that pervades The Clothes in the Wardrobe is preconciliar; it is hard to imagine the following passage in a contemporary homily: “[Life] for me was being a vessel of evil afloat in sea of evil. If I broke, it would take the power of God to separate my elements from the elements of the sea–why, I asked myself, should he bother, since if I took my own life it would be in the full knowledge of what the act entailed?”

I can see how this would be bewildering to anyone of my generation or my schoolfellows’ children’s generation of Catholics brought up to reminders that we are an Easter people and Halleluja is our [only?] song. On the other hand, I can remember once feeling much as Ellis’s youthful narrator did: dragged down by sin, disgusted by myself, far from God, one self-murder away from hell.

One of the comforts for me in the texts and prayers of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the frank and frequent staring of sin and death in the face. I remember once being horribly shocked by a jolly priest who announced in his homily that he wanted to take every statue of the Sorrowful Virgin and paint a smile on her face. This was an industrial town; not far from the church a figurative statue of a crushed steelworker expressed a mother’s agony at the death of her strong son almost as well as a statue of the Sorrowful Virgin.

Novels written from a Catholic perspective are novels that reflect that reality of human experience, the love of God and the existence of sin, joy and pain. One can write, if one chooses, of the destruction of the environment–although that is a big subject for one little novel. Novels lend themselves more easily to stories of the loss or redemption of a human soul.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.


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