Catholicism and Writing Novels by Brigid Pasulka

by Brigid Pasulka

A few years ago at an event, the organizer, a woman who had told me that her only religion was literature, asked me the question that is so often implied in intellectual circles and the arts: how can you be both religious and a writer?

If you unpack this question, it comes from an and/or of the following three ideas: 1) practicing a religion is not cool, and being a writer is; 2) religion is restrictive, and anyone creative needs to be completely unfettered; and 3) religion is something for the unwashed masses to help them through their miserable lives and certainly unnecessary for someone with the intellectual wherewithal to write a book.

I’m being intentionally harsh here for summary purposes. The person asked the question out of genuine curiosity, and I absolutely admire her for asking it, since the dissonance of religion and creativity is usually treated as an unspoken premise rather than something that is up for discussion. I managed to stumble out an answer that several years of thought have allowed me to refine. My answer is still incomplete, and there are other Catholic writers (namely Flannery O’Connor) who have answered the question better, but here are my thoughts:

I once had a drawing teacher who emphasized and re-emphasized that all art comes down to seeing, a lesson that has recently been reinforced via my two-year-old son. Six months ago, he started pointing out everything on the street with two wheels–bicycles, mopeds, Vespas, and of course, motorcycles. He called them all bah-gi-gos, a word which he used incessantly, and which we wouldn’t figure out for months, which is another story. The point to this one is that even when I was walking around alone, I found myself acutely aware of every single bah-gi-go on the road. My son had given me bah-gi-go eyes.

It’s the same for Catholicism. After so many years of receiving the sacraments, of listening to homilies and reading Catholic-themed books, of contemplation and prayer, my eyes, though imperfect, are basically Catholic-shaped, and that is how I see the world.

Some would argue that this is like going about life like a pack horse with blinders on; I recognize instead how it expands my vision. Because not only do I get to see the things going on in the natural world, I get to see the spiritual world behind it. I get to see the invisible links, the coincidences that are not coincidences, the root system stretching in every direction under what–to non-religious people–seems like ordinary dirt.

This invisible root system is one of the most beautiful things about Catholicism, in my opinion–that everything is linked and part of the whole, even seemingly opposing forces–good and evil, death and life, suffering and joy, frustration and catharsis. And our lives are not a-series-of-random-events-and-then-you-die. The daily details, yes, are sometimes petty and mundane, but they do in the end add up to something, and even if that something does not take the logical path to explication, it makes great sense in the quiet of our souls.

Good novels, I find, have the same characteristics as a life lived with Catholic eyes–the meaning surfacing gradually but undeniably throughout the novel, coming together in the end, not in the simplicity of be-good-and-go-to-heaven or the X=Y symbolism of Cliff’s Notes, but in the less quantitative language that our soul speaks.

My Catholic eyes also help me to see my characters more clearly, and the variety of characters that are available to me. They constantly remind me that we all have equal worth–not just the “interesting” people, as an ad for our local NPR station bragged of their listeners while exhorting them to reproduce. And while LGBT groups took exception to the call to reproduce, no one questioned the premise–that in order to count, we need to be interesting. We need to be up on current events or have a great talent or a quick mind or be well traveled or well educated, or at least have a child who can be interesting by proxy while we pay all the bills. It’s the abiding theme in our Facebook feeds and is reflected in many of our novels, where all child characters are precocious, all young adult heroes save their dystopian worlds, and all adult narrators describe everything they see in perfect metaphor.

Catholicism tells us differently. In Catholicism, we all count for something. The least of us are worthy of God’s and other people’s love. Weak, meek, feeble-minded, mean or even dull, we are all important enough to have novels written about us, and choosing a character from the left-hand side of the Beatitudes need not even be a political statement. It is simply the ordinary way of the Catholic world.

Finally, Catholicism gives me the correct posture to write from–the posture of humility–the deep and abiding knowledge that I don’t know it all. Or very much of anything, actually. This is a posture that is difficult to practice in the world around us because the world around us is full of self-assurance. We are masters of information, sucking it in every waking moment, plugging the holes of doubt with a quick Google search. These days, you very rarely hear the words “I don’t know,” or even “I don’t know much about that.”

One glaring exception to this is the astronomers and astrophysicists. I always like listening to them because they tell you how much they don’t know right alongside what they do know, and what they don’t know constitutes about 95% of their field of study. They have embraced their not-knowing, because they know it is an essential step in learning. And learning, at least for me, is an essential step in writing.

The way I look at it, if I know everything about the story I’m writing from the beginning, then I haven’t moved much from the typing pools I worked for to in order to get through college. If I were to go at writing a novel like an all-knowing creator, making an outline of the plot and then filling it in, I would miss out on the surprises. I would miss out on the mystery and wonder that brings so much joy both to life and novel-writing.

The posture of humility, instead, forces me to let my characters teach me who they are, forces me to follow them through the story instead of the other way around. It’s a frightening process, but I’ve become comfortable with it–the not-knowing–partly because my religion allows for it. Demands it. Demands that room be left for mystery and vulnerability. Because those are the quiet places where you can hear the whispers of God and your characters.

If I subtract the false starts, I’m now in the middle of writing my fourth book, and in that time, I have slowly discovered that to some extent, it doesn’t matter who or what I write about. Whether I’m writing about soccer stars or reclusive widows, mail-order brides or resistance fighters, the same spiritual root system will appear. I already know before I write my first chapter that there will be joy and suffering and redemption, and that in the end, it will somehow all make sense.

I can’t change any of this, which, again, to some people might seem limiting. For me, it is the ultimate freedom. Because, to paraphrase several homilies of Father/Bishop Robert Barron, instead of having to constantly concentrate on the rules and fundamentals of the game, I can concentrate on the game itself–in this case, on seeing my characters’ faces and actions, and taking down their conversations and thoughts. In other words, the story. And for a novelist, that’s incredibly liberating.

WBEZ’s Curious City Asks: Can Chicago brag about the size of its Polish population?

On a recent episode of WBEZ’s series Curious City, Chicagoan Todd Leiter-Weintraub asked the question: Is it really true that the Chicago is the largest Polish City outside of Warsaw?

The Curious City team investigated this question – consulting, among others, Chicago historian and CCIC: The Poles presenter Dominic Pacyga – and came up with some interesting information on the Polish community in Chicago.

Curious about the results? Click here!

Keynote Conference Speakers: Bishop Wypych & Stuart Dybek

As we prepare for the upcoming Chicago Catholic Immigrants Conference: The Poles, we wanted to provide you with some information on our two keynote speakers – Auxilliary Bishop of Chicago Andrew Wypych and Stuart Dybek, author and writer in residence at Northwestern University:

The Most Rev. Andrew P. Wypych, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Chicago

BishopWypych[cropped]Bishop Andrew Wypych is Episcopal Vicar of Vicariate V in the Archdiocese of Chicago and serves as the National Executive Director of the Catholic League for Religious Assistance to Poland and Polonia. He was ordained in Krakow, Poland in 1979 with a Degree in Liturgy from the Papal Theological Academy in Krakow and a Masters in Theology. Prior to his Episcopal Ordination, he served as Pastor at St. Pancratius, Five Holy Martyrs, and St. Francis Borgia Parishes.


Stuart Dybek, Northwestern University Professor and Chicago Writer

StuartDybek[cropped]Stuart Dybek is the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences distinguished writer in residence at Northwestern University. He is the author of three books of fiction: I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. He recently published two collections of short stories: Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories.

“Memoirs of a Catholic School Upbringing by a Displaced Child” by Danielle Omelczuk

Memoirs of a Catholic School Upbringing by a Displaced Child
Danielle Omelczuk

I was enrolled in a Catholic parochial school in Chicago by my mother upon emigrating from France in 1956. My family were Polish refugees without a country. My parents could not return to their homeland, Poland, after the end of the WWII and my younger sister and I were born in France. I had nearly finished the first grade in France when we immigrated to the US in May, 1956. My father had carefully brought along my French primer and all my first grade notebooks (which I still have) as evidence of my academic skills. These did not seem to carry any great weight with the school authorities as they decided that my lack of English language skills necessitated my redoing the first grade. This was long before any bilingual education or ESL classes were instituted. I began first grade using two English words I knew the meaning of, “yes” and “no”. And with the logic of a first or second grader decided to use these words alternately with anyone who spoke to me in English. So to the question of the little girl at my left, I answered “yes” and to that of the little girl to my right, I answered “no”, and so it went until I began to gradually make sense of English. The children caught on quickly that I only knew two words of English. Nonetheless they befriended me and I remember having a best friend who shared her cutout dolls with me. My greatest asset was that I had been raised to speak Polish at home and therefore some of the nun-teachers and children who also spoke Polish could communicate with me in Polish.

I remember my father asking me what I thought of school and I replied that the children were not very bright as they were still printing while I already knew how to write in cursive. They were learning to add single digits and I had already learned to add columns of four digit numbers. My academic skills were those of a European second grader but I was retained in first grade to learn English and consequently I was relearning skills that I had already mastered, and that did not make me happy. I remember getting in trouble in second grade for letting my friends copy my answers. I remember the nun explaining to me that it was wrong of me to share my answers with my friends who had to learn on their own. I felt bereft because I could not help them anymore. My father had a hard time understanding why I wasn’t keeping a notebook in school and how the teacher could keep track of all those assignments done on loose leaf paper because he certainly couldn’t make heads or tails of them.

Looking back now I realize what a culture shock the American educational system was to both of us. We came from a culture where children were taught from primers, learned how to write cursive instead of print, and kept notebooks where they practiced their skills. We immigrated to one in which English was taught through phonics and skills were practiced on workbook sheets or loose leaf paper. I was put back a grade not because I did not have academic skills but because it was the only way the school thought that I would learn English from the basics up. The notebook which had served as an important tool to both teacher and parent in Europe to document the progress the student was making and the lessons that were being taught gave way to separate graded assignments and more frequent parent-teacher conferences in the United States. Eventually in this mysterious American system of education, I learned English and was deemed ready to be given a double promotion from third to fourth grade. And once again I had to play catch up, this time not in language but in content matter and emotional growth, to move along with my peers.

I graduated Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school in Chicago without great distinction but with a firm grasp of English, a solid basic education and a good Catholic upbringing. When I began my university life at the University of Illinois at Circle Campus, I was so thoroughly entrenched in the daily rituals of a Catholic school upbringing that I remember standing up in my first university classes waiting for the prayers to commence before instruction and realizing that the instructor was beginning class and that I had better sit down like everyone else or end up feeling very foolish. I had entered a whole new world, one without daily periodic prayers, daily mass and daily religious instruction interwoven into every subject matter.

Catholic Community of Faith Radio Program on the Upcoming CCIC: The Poles

Remembering God & The Chicago Catholic Immigrants Conference at Loyola University Chicago
Catholic Community of Faith, Relevant Radio 950-AM
Archdiocese of Chicago

Hosts: Fr. Greg Sakowicz and Wayne Magdziarz.

Segment I: Mary Deeley talks about her new book, “Remembering God”.

Segment II: Guests: Bozena Nowicka McLees; Vicki Granacki; Leonard Kniffel speak about the upcoming Chicago Catholic Immigrants Conference: The Poles, taking place on 13-14 November 2015 on the Lake Shore Campus of Loyola University Chicago.

CLICK HERE to be re-directed to the Archdiocese of Chicago webpage with the audio file.