Toward the end it was difficult for him to work, and as the illness became protracted and the days were long, as it were, with complications, his spirits were often low. Perhaps the strong and daring, he said, don’t need him, but for me, as for David, who in the Gospel is always singing, there must be other ways to live.
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world. Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas.
Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent. Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans.
The great and present danger to American literature is the growing
homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation. Often raised
in several places in no specific cultural or religious community, educated
with no deep connection to a particular region, history, or tradition, and
now employed mostly in academia, the American writer is becoming as
standardized as the American car—functional, streamlined, and increasingly
interchangeable. The globalization so obvious in most areas of the economy,
including popular culture, has had a devastating impact on literature. Its
influence is especially powerful since globalized commercial
entertainment—movies, television, popular music, and video games—now shapes
the imagination of young writers more pervasively and continuously than do
literary texts. An adolescence in Los Angeles is not much different from
one in Boston or Chicago when so many thousands of hours are spent
identically in the same virtual worlds. Is it any wonder that so much new
writing lacks any tangible sense of place, identifiable accent, or living
connection to the past? Nourished more by global electronic entertainment
than active individual reading, even the language lacks resonance and
personality. However stylish and efficient, writing with no past probably
has no future.
The Catholic Writer Today
Encouraging Catholic writers to renovate and reoccupy their own tradition.
There is no doubt that Byrd is in part expressing the anguish of his co-religionists, caught up in the destruction of their worship and hopes. As an Advent text, though, it implicitly expects salvation, as shown by the repeated versicle Rorate caeli, “Drop down ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the just one.” Like Isaiah looking forward to the Messiah, Byrd died hoping for a Christmas deliverance.