Faith and Culture Lecture Series 2009

Riggs Library
Georgetown University
February 5, 2009

It’s my pleasure to welcome you all here this afternoon for “Hopkins and the Catholic Imagination: A Literary Conversation”—and to welcome back to Georgetown two such distinguished authors as Ron Hansen and Paul Elie.

These are authors who have both explored how faith can influence, impact,
and—ultimately—enhance—artistic creation…

…And authors who have striven, in the words of the late John Paul II in his Letter to Artists, to “search for new epiphanies of beauty”…

It’s fitting that we meet today—to help mark Jesuit Heritage Week on our campus. Thoughtful inquiry…intellectual curiosity…the joining of faith and reason—which is so beautifully captured by our University’s motto: “Utraque Unum,” or “both into one,” are hallmarks of the Jesuit tradition.

This afternoon we continue this Jesuit tradition by reflecting on the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, produced an extraordinary series of evocative and innovative religious poems that are completely unique in the English language for their rhythm and meter—partially derived from traditional Welsh poetry. Among these works is the “Wreck of the Deutschland,” a compelling account of the sinking of a German steamer. The story of five missionary nuns lost on the Deutschland is interwoven with the story of Hopkins’ life in the novel, Exiles—which is the latest book from one of our guests tonight, Ron Hansen.

Like Hopkins, Ron Hansen is also very much an artist and a man of faith…and he is someone who certainly understands the connection between the two. Speaking of this connection, Hansen once noted, “I can’t find a difference between praying and imagining—I think they’re kind of uniquely intertwined. Certainly, when people talk about their muse, I think they’re really talking about inspiration from the Holy Spirit.”

Ron serves as the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, and is a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church. He is the bestselling author of eight novels…a short story collection…a children’s book…and a compilation of essays on faith and fiction. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Award…and a two time Pen/Faulkner award finalist. Among his fellowships are those from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts…and The Washington Post called Exiles, “Dazzling and beautiful.

Ron was educated at a Jesuit high school…and he received a BA in English from Creighton University. He later earned an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop…as well as an M.A. in Spirituality from Santa Clara University.

The perfect partner to Ron Hansen in our literary conversation this afternoon is our second guest, Paul Elie—the editor of Exiles.  Paul was with us last year, when he gave a lecture on “Catholic Culture in a Critical Age”…45 years after a lecture by Flannery O’Conner that helped mark the 175th Anniversary of Georgetown. Paul’s lecture was later reprinted in Commonweal.

During the Q&A period, Paul discussed his first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. The title is taken from an O’Conner short story, and the work focuses on the most influential Catholic literary figures of the 20th century: Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; Flannery O’Conner; and Walker Percy. For three decades, the four corresponded…read one another’s work…grappled with the demands of faith and art…and shaped the American perception of Catholicism through their writing. They made great literature out of their personal and collective search for God.  The Boston Globe called it, “An ode to faith and the art of the book as the tool of that faith.”

At its core, Paul’s book also explores the interaction of Catholicism and culture…it demonstrates how the two have often affected each other…and it provides a prism through which we can better examine the fusion of religion and culture in the 21st century.

Paul’s book seems the natural outcome for someone who—like Ron Hansen—is dedicated to both his faith and his art. He received his BA from Fordham University—another Jesuit institution—where he studied not only theology and philosophy, but also English and art. And as he investigated how faith and culture are interrelated, he began to examine the lives and works of Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy. After receiving his MFA from Columbia, he became an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paul’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic,  and elsewhere.

The work of Paul and Ron certainly speaks to the quest for both spiritual and artistic fulfillment… to the Catholic imagination and the engagement of Catholicism and culture…and, perhaps most of all, to the power of both faith—and books.

It’s now my privilege to introduce to you the participants in today’s conversation, Ron Hansen and Paul Elie…