It started with a miracle.
I mentioned recently that I was preparing to attend the Trying to Say ‘God’ conference about Catholic literature at Notre Dame. However, a few days before I was supposed to leave, Tropical Storm Cindy took aim at my airport in New Orleans. It was scheduled to make landfall right about the time I was scheduled to fly out. I sent an urgent prayer request to my fellow conference panelists and Dappled Things cohorts to ask Our Lady of Prompt Succor to let me come. She’s the patroness of Louisiana and protectress of our coasts. Then this happened:
That’s a screenshot of the radar on the morning of my flight. See that giant hole in the storm right over New Orleans? My plane took off on time and in sunshine.
I was predisposed to find grace at the conference, what with the Blessed Mother having opened the heavens to allow me to attend, and the people I met there lavished me with it. I think I laughed more in the course of those three days than I have in the past three years. Finally, I got to put not only faces but living, breathing humans to so many of the names I’ve interacted with in the writing world: the entire staff of Wiseblood Books, who published my debut novel; friends from the Catholic Writers Guild with whom I chat online weekly and even daily; and our own dear DT fiction editor, Natalie Morrill, to
name just a few. Of course, there were also many new names and faces added to the list of my dear friends, some of whom are so accomplished, it takes my breath away to think of myself as their “friend” (rather than their “gawking fangirl.”) And, because all things grace-filled are also loaded with weird coincidence, I ran into two former parishioners from my church, two beautiful and Christ-filled women whom it did my heart good to see again. If I hadn’t attended a single actual conference event, the trip would have been worth it just for the fellowship.
But of course, I did attend many of the panel discussions and keynote talks, including the one where I somehow got to count myself among the likes of Suzanne Wolfe, Angela Doll Carlson, Caroline Langston, and Kaye Park Hinckley, with Angela Cybulski moderating, as we discussed The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life. Grace piled upon grace as those brilliant women allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through them. “Mother and artist are not career choices. They are states of being that are given to us.” -Suzanne Wolfe. “You become a part of the a story you want to tell people.” -Kaye Hinckley. I could have sat there all day. You can come help us keep the conversation going over at our new Facebook page set up by Angela Carlson.
My favorite conference event actually had nothing to do with literature, but everything to do with “trying to say God.” The Notre Dame Vocale, a group of twelve singers with their conductor, presented a concert of Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and modern compositions based on both. It was forty-five minutes of pure bliss.
However, the big question for people who didn’t attend the conference is, of course, what did you observe? What is the state of Catholic literary culture? Who’s doing what, and is any of it working? For what it’s worth, from my limited one-person perspective, I observed first and foremost that the talent pool is deep and broad. Catholic writers are many, well-educated in both the craft of writing and the Faith, and unafraid to wear their Catholic identity on their sleeves. I also observed that Orthodox Christians—of whom I met several—are not only our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also very much our brothers and sisters in literary tradition and sacramental imagination. There were also a handful of people from other faiths, and a smaller handful who professed no faith but nevertheless found themselves curious enough to come. All were welcome, and good will reigned. How rare a gift that is.
However, it was also obvious to me that a good deal of ignorance and intransigence exist within the Catholic literary community. It’s ridiculous for a panelist to say, “No one publishes Catholic literary fiction,” when Joshua Hren, the founder of Wiseblood Books, is sitting in the room. It’s frustrating to hear Catholic publishers emphasize the cold reality of the bottom line without acknowledging room in their business models for the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s disheartening to hear that writers feel disconnected from, and not supported by, other Catholics when the Catholic Writers Guild, whose mission is to do just that, has a table set up in the next room. So much of the work we need to do moving forward is to divest ourselves of the fears and frustrations we have carried for too long, to come out of our introverted, writerly bubbles and simply help each other—and of course, one of the huge benefits of this kind of conference is to allow people to discover each other and do just that.
Finally, I’d like to say that this conference made it clear to me that the old cliché, “Beauty will save the world,” isn’t true. Beauty isn’t good enough; you must have love. Beauty can be cold, austere, and unforgiving, like an Antarctic landscape; love is always warm and transformative. Beauty can easily become an idol, a good sought for its own worth rather than as a pathway to God; love—when it is real, selfless, Christian love–cannot become an idol because God Himself is love. The speakers who sent their audiences out feeling that they had been nourished at a literary Eucharistic table were the ones whose messages overflowed with love: love for the subjects they spoke about; love for their craft as writers, editors, publishers, etc.; love for the work they produced; and most of all, love for the people they were addressing. As I’ve already said, the most valuable thing I took away from this conference was the fellowship of so many dear friends, old and new. The one thing I took away that actually matters is love. Heather King said in her keynote, “Love is our vocation,” and every ounce of her radiated the truth of her words. If all of us engaged in any aspect of a literary vocation can get love right, then we have already succeeded. For art to be truly Christian, its beauty must lead us to love.
Oh, and there was this bit of awesomeness, too:
You can find recordings of some of the conference sessions here.
Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.