By MitchellTitus, nervous under his stare, and to account for staying at the window so long, felt for the draft again, frowned, and kept his eye hunting among the trees.
The thought of being the cause of such elaborate dissimulation in so simple a soul made Didymus want to smile—or cry, he did not know which … and could do neither. Titus persisted. How long would it be, Didymus wondered faintly, before Titus ungrievingly gave the canary up for lost in the snowy arms of God? The snowflakes whirled at the window, for a moment for all their bright blue beauty as though struck still by lightning, and Didymus closed his eyes, only to find them there also, but darkly falling.
J.F. Powers, Lions, Harts, Leaping Does
J.F. Powers published only two novels during his lifetime, Morte d’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, and three volumes of short stories. Powers is largely unknown today, but in his heyday (Morte d’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963, the tail end of the glory days of Catholic literature) he was mentioned in the same company as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. If he is less well-known today than he should be, blame it on a publisher who didn’t keep the book in print, and an author who took deliberation to new heights (Wheat That Springeth Green took over twenty years to complete).
His stories for the most part dealt with Midwestern Catholic priests in the era prior to and just after the Second Vatican Council: change is in the air, and nobody is quite ready to understand what comes next. His writing is suffused with a ironic wit that is both gentle and probing, familiar and satirical, concocted to produce smiles of satisfaction and recognition (for me, partly from recognizing the landmarks that this fellow Minnesotan targets) – while at the same time underscoring fundamental truths that are every bit as familiar as the foibles of his priests, and on occasion delving into deeper, more serious issues of man’s relationship to God as reflected in his relationships with his fellow man. Don’t be intimidated by that last part, though; his books are rich in eccentric characters and absurd situations (witness the parody of the Northwestern Bank Weather Ball jingle I mentioned last week). Powers is an acquired taste, but a taste worth the sampling.
Part of the pleasure, and the pain, of reading Powers comes from realizing how things have changed for the Catholic Church over the past forty years. When awash in nostalgia, we think of the past as having been a golden era, lacking in the failings and problems that mark our own time. That, of course, is not true – there were plenty of problems back then, as Powers’ contemporaneous writing illustrates.
But if there were problems (or “challenges,” as we would put it today), there were also simple joys that are, today, greatly diminished if not gone altogether. You had a liturgy that might have been routine and somewhat incomprehensible, but it also provided comfort and the possibility of spirituality. There was a glimpse of a society that understood concepts such as respect, restraint, and obligation; a culture that still held certain common reference points and understandings. There were issues that were problems back then (how to make celibacy an exciting concept) that still exist today.
And there is the pain, as well, of seeing the Church wrenched this way and that by change, change both from within and without the Church, change that priests and laity alike are powerless to understand. There is with it a temptation to thank God that, as bad as things may seem now, they were in ways even worse in the late 60s, a time of hideous innovations and almost total abandonment of tradition. Traditionalists may today feel themselves part of a movement fighting against destruction of what the Church stands for, but in those dark days there wasn’t even a movement to join. Thanks to JPII, B16 and many others, we have at least a reason to hope that things are getting better, that we are coming closer to a truly authentic understanding of Vatican II, that we on the way back but at the same time are moving forward.
For that reason, reading Powers is not always easy. It’s worthwhile, though, to make the effort to find him. I was fortunate to pick up his two novels and a book of stories at a remainder bookstore that was going out of business. His stories may be rooted in a particular time and place, but and it’s true that they aren’t “relevant” in the way many might think of it, but the characters that populate them and the issues they face are, and always will be, timeless.
After I’ve finished reading a book, I often like to go online and find out more about the author and how others have interpreted what I’ve read. Here are a couple that give particular insight to Powers and his writing: this column by John Derbyshire and this one by Ronald Weber of Notre Dame.