A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
—T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi
Outside the church after Mass, beyond perfunctory handshakes, breaths can be seen in the chill Advent air. Wintry Minnesota weather becomes sequel to empty pews and creaky heating systems. To love and serve the Lord distorts into straight-lipped disputes in café and tavern, wherever people gather and where people mumble to themselves.
This is a far cry from my boyhood hometown where Protestant and Catholic kids would throw snowballs at each other from church lawns across the street. Their parents gathered by parked cars teasing each other about who had slept through the longer sermon. A kind of ecumenism flourished long before Vatican II; it was in small town America before Pope John arrived there.
For today’s writer of novels with Catholic content, refuge may be found in a distant past and a faraway time and place, but almost nowhere close to home. Anti-Catholicism lurking in byways and ever present, matters less than Catholic against Catholic fire fights in an internal ‘holy war’ complicated by Church politics, Church scandals, and laity side-taking. At home there is nowhere to hide, and little in the way of middle ground.
Woe to any author standing between, attempting to douse the flames on his book’s cover.
This holds enormous implications for writers of Catholic novels in a clogged book market seeming to have many more books than readers. Only Shakespeare is said to have succeeded in pleasing almost everyone, from rabble on the Globe Theater floor to the privileged aristocrats in the galleries in all seasons of climate and spirited soul-searching.
Shakespeare was enormously successful in complex, deeply divided times, much of it having to do with religion. Fellow dramatic genius, Kit Marlowe is a better example of what can happen—possibly assassinated amid webs of intrigue, stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl, so the story goes.
Standing outside after Mass, I glance at my wife for reassurance somewhere between presumption and despair. Was I an idiot to write this novel in times like these? Is my Everywhere in Chains Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot signifying nothing? Have we come here to explain the inexplicable?