(Fourth in series)
In previous columns I have mentioned how many discussion groups I have been involved with as a priest during the last 50 years. Reflecting on the important role both Catholic novels and films have played in my own education, I was wondering how I might encourage others to have the same wonderful experiences I have had reading Catholic novels and viewing classic films. It occurred to me that I should encourage readers of this column to form discussion groups about Catholic novels and / or great films.
Belonging to a discussion group can be one way of participating more deeply in the new evangelization. Forming a discussion group can be relatively easy. The first step is to find five to ten people who are interested in meeting regularly, perhaps weekly or monthly, to discuss matters related to the faith. If the meetings are to take place weekly I would suggest they be limited to eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring. This should mean that attending the meetings would not be a great burden for anyone. I also suggest that the meetings take place in the homes of those engaging in the discussion. My experience is that when held in the home the meetings might have a positive effect on those not directly involved in them, such as family members. I would also suggest that each meeting have a time limit of perhaps an hour-and-a-half.
One advantage of reading great novels and seeing great films is that we are being exposed to great stories, stories that might motivate us, encourage us, even inspire us. Experiencing great stories can help us in shaping and forming the story of our own lives. The importance of story came home to me when I first read John Haught’s wonderful book What Is God?: How to Think About the Divine (New York; Paulist Press, 1986, pp. 143, $7.95). Discussing beauty and our aesthetic experiences Haught writes the following:
“But one of the most intense instances of aesthetic experience lies in the spectacle of an heroic story. Since such stories involve the narrative patterning of struggle, suffering, conflicts and contradictions into a complex unity, they stand out as one of the most obvious examples of beauty. In fact, it is often our being conditioned by the stories of great heroes that determines our whole sense of reality, personal identity and purpose…
“The identity of all of us is established by our interaction with the narrative context of our existence. Our sense of the meaning of our lives, if we are fortunate enough to be conscious of living meaningfully, is a gift of the narrative nest in which we dwell. The meaning of our lives is determined by the way in which each of us participates in an ongoing story. And where people today speak of their experience of meaninglessness, isolation, alienation, rootlessness etc., such experiences can almost invariably be traced to an inability to find some meaningful story in which to situate their lives.” (pp.73, 74)
I have been thinking of which Catholic novels I would encourage people to start with if they decide to form a discussion group. I would suggest the following five: Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate, Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, and Shisaku Endo’s Deep River. When I teach Deep River at St. John’s University every autumn, I bring in Father Bob Keighron, a young priest who took the course about 20 years ago. At that time he did not think Deep River was a Catholic novel. He still doesn’t, but I do. His lecture is excellent and often he convinces the students that his interpretation is correct and mine is erroneous. Those in the class seem to love this session.
Five films I would recommend to anyone who wanted to start a film discussion group would be Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Some critics consider John Ford the greatest of all American directors and he is most well known for his westerns but I think his two best films are The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. Through the internet, an enormous amount of material about film is available if people felt they needed some background in order to discuss some films. The one requirement to take part in a film discussion group is to view the film before the meeting.
If a person likes reading Catholic novels and seeing great films, discussion groups can be a strong aid to education.