My Thoughts

A long time ago, much longer than I care to cipher, during study hall one day Sister Ann Maureen stood towering above my desk glaring with grim disapproval at the book held firmly in my fourteen years-old hands. “Does your mother know you are reading that book?” she demanded. To which, as I clearly recall, I smiled and said, “Oh yes, we are reading it together. See, this is her bookmark.” The book my mother and I were reading together was John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel, published in 1961, the year in which I was “caught” reading it by the good Dominican Sister.

Two brief side notes to this memory: This book awoke in me the nascent desire to write. I remember after finishing it I sat down and wrote a short story along a similar vein (typed on a manual typewriter of course; as to where the story is now, I have no recollection.) I also find myself ever grateful to my mother for encouraging me to read and to always appreciate great literature. She taught me to never fear the truth but to avidly seek it, for she believed and lived as Jesus taught “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Steinbeck’s novel was at the time controversial, for it touched on issues which were seldom discussed in polite company. Sadly, times have changed; the issues for the most part have grown ever more malignant and metastasized.

At the heart of the novel is the human struggle between good and evil. In a very real sense, it is a morality play where social and economic status wage battle with the values of honesty and integrity. The protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, was born into Long Island aristocracy, but through family misfortune, finds himself working as a grocery store clerk. Surrounded by temptation and corruption, Hawley struggles to hold onto his inherent integrity even while trying to reclaim his former status and wealth.

Although The Winter of Our Discontent was published fifty-six years ago, the story still reads as current today as it did when it first found its way to print. It speaks to many of the most important social and moral issues encountered today: illegal immigration, bribery, corruption, moral decay, ruthlessness, social status, power, wealth, alcoholism, drugs, depression, and suicide. Yet Steinbeck never glorifies, nor does he pasteurize, the evil; neither does he paint Hawley as a saint. It is a story of one man’s struggle to hold onto what is good amid the temptations presented to him by his family, friends, and society.

All this came knocking at the door of my mind when I came across an article written by Randy Boyagoda in which he warns against the institutionalization of creativity.[1] Boyagoda rightfully bemoans the current trend toward academic efforts to mechanize a heretofore creative art form—writing—and to conform those who would indulge—writers—to ideological zombies. He relays some counsel he received from Richard John Neuhaus prior to his death: “If you want to write, then write.” And he goes on to write how Neuhaus would be highly skeptical of the explosion of creative writing programs at American universities, programs designed to teach writers how to write—and what to write about. Boyagoda points out the danger posed by the American contemporary secular academia to the health and future of American literary culture:

We know how contemporary secular academia often constrains the mind, turning deeper questions of life and belief into objects of expertise. There is no reason to think that literature can maintain a catholic and diverse approach to the Big Questions if its producers first pass through five or six years of formal instruction in an ideological setting that tends to constrain ambition and concern.

One especially bad effect of the academic institutionalization of creative writing, he [David Foster Wallace] observed, is the reigning secular progressive ethic that comes to rule over emergent literary imaginations. Focused on current concerns and topical matters, secular progressivism treats history and tradition less as right storehouses for new writers to explore, learn from, and plunder, than as musty prisons from which to escape into the bright bare present: “Way too many students are being ‘certified’ to go out there and try to do meaningful work on the cutting edge of an artistic discipline of whose underpinnings, history, and greatest achievements they are largely ignorant.” Would be writers are taught to pass over “Homer and Milton, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Maupassant and Gogol, to say nothing of the Testaments.”

At this juncture there may be some question as to exactly how Steinbeck and Boyagoda should be connected and precisely where this is heading. I promise they are, and we will get there straightaway.

Memories are important for they remind us of our past and the wisdom gained from our experiences, our successes, and our failures, of all that has formed and shaped our lives. Similarly, cultures and societies are built upon the foundation and work of all that has come before. Memories and history are the records upon which we must rely lest we find ourselves beginning each new day as if it were the first. When either becomes clouded or distorted we must become newborn, placing our unquestioning trust in an ever malleable and fluid truth which no one has the ability to confirm or deny. We become dependent upon something other than our own intellect to tell us what or why we should remember anything at all.

Steinbeck wrote of the truth as he saw it then and Boyagoda writes of just how far we have succumbed to the mind-numbing incessant chatter of a gaggle of geese having been saved from the chopping block.

On the back cover of Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 is this inscription:

Fahrenheit 451 is a masterpiece that stands with George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” This is no rocket story or trip to the moon, but a frightening forecast of the world as it might be in the next few generations…when a powerful government has given people every physical comfort but denied them the right to think![2]

While we may not have yet reached the time when firemen burn books, we have certainly traveled well down the road toward a future when government provides every physical comfort. We have yet to be denied the right to think although the less we seek the truth on our own accord, the more we place our complete trust and reliance on what we are told rather than on our own minds, the sooner the day will come when we will deny ourselves the right to think. Think about it while you still can. Wake up America.

Just my thoughts for a Monday for what it is worth.

[1] Randy Boyagoda, Ph.D, Write Away, First Things, August/September 2015, pp.33-37.

[2] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, Ballantine Books, 1953.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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