Literature as ‘locus theologicus’

Like a thorn in the heart that sets us on a journey

Pope Francis blesses attendees as he takes part in the 'Eco-Educational Cities' conference organised ...
02 June 2023

During his customary greetings after the Regina Caeli on Sunday, 28 May, the Pope mentioned the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, whose death 15o years ago was marked last week on 22 May. Praising his literary work, the Pope described him as a “voice for victims and for the least” and referred to his masterpiece, “The Betrothed”, which the Pope greatly admires.

In these 10 years Pope Francis has often spoken about poets, art and especially literature. These continuous references reveal not only the breadth of the Pope’s reading, but also the depth of his vision as a believer and a pastor. In other words, this is not a secondary area of his life as a man of faith, but rather, a central part of it.

Speaking to participants in a conference co-sponsored by La Civilta’ Cattolica and Georgetown University on “The Global Esthetics of the Catholic Imagination”, on Saturday, 27 May, the Pope referred to Dante and Dostoevsky saying that the “words of those authors helped me to understand myself, the world and my people, but also to understand more profoundly the human heart, my personal life of faith, and my pastoral work, even now in my present ministry. Literature is like a thorn in the heart; it moves us to contemplation and sets us on a journey. Poetry is open, it takes you somewhere else”.

This is a powerful statement: poetry as a tool for in-depth study also for one’s faith. It is however, a tool that should be handled with care because it “is like a thorn in the heart”. It is not idyllic. It is not a walk among the flowers, but a dramatic experience if not an abysmal one. This thorn resembles, but is not, that “thorn in the flesh” that Saint Paul mentions in his second Letter to the Corinthians, which mortifies and keeps the risk of pride at bay. Certainly, literature also has a risk, if it becomes an escape from reality, a frustrating alienation that led Stéphane Mallarmé to say in his poem entitled “Sea Breeze”: “The flesh is sad, Alas! and I’ve read all the books”. However, this is a thorn that does not mortify but rather enlivens because, the Pope says, it spurs us to contemplation and to journey. Moving (somewhat abruptly) from Mallarmé to Ian Fleming, a character from a story about the famous agent 007 comes to mind. Having been shot in the heart, he is not dead yet, even though the bullet continues to come closer to the vital organ. This fact has a collateral effect: the ambivalent “privilege” of no longer feeling any physical pain.

The thorn in the heart which the Pope talks about produces the opposite effect: it does not anaesthetise but rather makes one hyper-sensitive. The literary word achieves this effect: it increases the life experience of readers and makes it grow. They become more sensitive and gain a wider, sharper and more profound view. The artist feels “more”, and feeling allows others to feel. Artists are like a two-way radio. Once they receive a jolt (of pain or joy) from life, they put it into circulation, with their unique and unmistakable timbre, their own style that distinguishes them from thousands of other artists.

This role of opposition to today’s strong trend of finding ways to “anaesthetize oneself” makes poets and all artists fundamental within the social context, because art can move and awaken consciences. During his discourse on Saturday, 27 May, the Pope described artists as the “voice of the ‘restlessness’ of the human spirit”, that restlessness that often ends up “buried deep within our hearts”. Indeed, the Pope said, “You know quite well that artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting, since it presents both the beautiful and the tragic realities of life”. Therefore, the task of artists is “to be creative without downplaying your own spiritual restlessness and that of humanity. I fear any domestication process, for it takes away creativity, it takes away poetry. Always embrace, poetically, the anxious yearnings present in the human heart, lest they grow cold and fade away”.

On 21 November 2009, during his encounter with artists in the Sistine Chapel, Benedict xvi said, “Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy “shock”, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: ‘Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here’. The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: ‘Art is meant to disturb, science reassures’. Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life. The quest for beauty that I am describing here is clearly not about escaping into the irrational or into mere aestheticism”.

Restlessness, the turmoil that artists cause, becomes a fundamental task because it is vital, a font of life. Especially for Christians who find help in the works of poets which, Pope Francis says, “give life, flesh and verbal expression to all that humanity experiences, feels, dreams and endures, thus creating harmony and beauty. This ‘evangelical’ task also helps us come to a deeper understanding of God, as the great poet of humanity […] Never stop being original and creative. Never lose the wonder of being alive”.

One could say it is the antidote to “predictability”. (a.m.)

Andrea Monda