Deal W. Hudson
June 27, 2010
When I arrived at Emory University for my doctoral studies in 1974, I had just finished three years at Princeton Theological Seminary as an aspiring Southern Baptist minister.
Despite being a Southern Baptist from Texas, and having pursued Reformation studies – Calvin, Luther, and the Anabaptists – at Princeton, I was more than just intellectually curious about the Catholic tradition as I enrolled in my first classes at Emory.
During my last year in seminary, a class with Rev. William F. Lynch, S.J., had challenged my Protestant assumptions about the relationship between theology and culture. (How his initial lecture on Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex started me on a journey into the Church is related in my memoir, An American Conversion.)
My doctoral program was a mixture of theology, philosophy, and literature, chosen under the influence of Father Lynch, who, in books like Christ and Apollo, had pioneered such interdisciplinary work grounded in theology.
Faced with a bewildering list of courses from a half-dozen disciplines, I was blessed to receive guidance from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, a graduate student in the throes of his dissertation on Han Urs von Balthasar. Erasmo would eventually become a professor at the St. Ignatius Institute, a distinguished translator of von Balthasar, and author of many fine books, most notably a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
At the opening reception for new students, Erasmo listened patiently with a smile as I spoke of my enthusiasm for Father Lynch and his work. He told me about his work on the theological aesthetics of von Balthasar and also suggested I take a course with his doctoral advisor, Arthur E. Evans Jr., a professor of Romance languages and literature.
When I told Erasmo that foreign languages were not my strong suit, he assured me it wouldn’t matter to Professor Evans, who taught many courses in English using translations of the great European novels and poetry. On Erasmo’s advice, I went to meet Professor Evans to discuss taking a course from him.
He welcomed me at the front door of his home, a few blocks from Emory, as was his custom when meeting with students. He offered me some tea and suggested I go into the backyard and wait for him “in the garden.” As I passed through his hallways hung with original paintings and sketches, many of them done by his wife Tess, I realized I was in the presence of a special man, one for whom the life of learning was exactly that– a life.
Evans brought the tea, set it down on the table in the backyard, and we talked for several hours, without interruption, about the reasons I had come to Emory to study theology and literature. I was greatly taken with Evans, who had the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen; but his way of speaking about literature was constantly punctuated by the word “spirituality.”
That word wasn’t specific enough for me – it was one of the “wiggle words” used by people who didn’t want to talk about Christianity, the Christian faith, and Jesus Christ. I wondered if perhaps Professor Evans was one of those world-religions ecumenists who thought all faiths were fundamentally the same.
Yet there was something about the man that belied my suspicions, and I mentioned my discomfort with the word “spirituality” only in passing. Evans noted the objection and responded not as a philosopher or theologian but as a man of letters, a humanist, about which he had written extensively.
He spoke to me about man’s search for God, how that search is the “spirit” of “spirituality,” and how it is manifested throughout great literature, whether it could be called “Christian” or not. At the time, I was more interested in how I could identify things as “Christian” or “not Christian,” rather than this vague spirituality he was talking about.
I was ultimately won over to Evan’s spiritual reading of literature by his recommendation of the novels of Patrick White, the great Australian writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1973. There was no doubt that White, in novels like Voss and Riders in the Chariot, was a non-believer, but there was also no doubt he explored man’s spiritual and moral condition in a profound and unforgettable way.
Thus, from the hands of Father Lynch, I was passed to Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis and then Professor Arthur Evans, who told me to read Patrick White. After the fourth or fifth novel of White, I gave up my presumption that art had to be “Christian” if it was to illuminate the human condition. I, too, began to speak of the “spirituality” of literature and the other arts.
I thought of this journey over the past few days as I finished my third novel by the Irish writer William Trevor (Felicia’s Journey), who is still actively writing in his early 80s. Trevor, like White, writes about the human capacity for deceit, delusion, and violence with an honesty and accuracy that stays with you long afterward.
Trevor insists he cannot be put in a religious camp, though he presently claims more sympathy with the Catholic than the Protestant. But the spirituality of Trevor’s fiction is undeniable – his characters inhabit a world where no life and no choice is trivial, where stories of aspiration, disappointment, and resignation resonate deeply with what we see around us and in our own families.