The Proper Ordering of Art and Writing

The creative impulse is a deeply rooted aspect of the human person because we are made imago Dei and God is the Creator. This desire to share in the creative action of God is evidenced by thousands of years in which art, architecture, and the written word have been shaped in endless ways. We are made for the good, the beautiful, and the true and different disciplines help us to enter deeper into reality and into God. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do I order my creative actions to God? Art in itself is a good, but it should draw us deeper into who we are as “embodied spirits” and point us home.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful piece of music, stunning painting, stained glass window, or a poem to remind us that we are not home. When the soul is elevated through beauty we sense in that ache deep within us that this cannot be all there is; there must be something more. This sense, which comes from faith, is meant to point us home. When we create, whether it be through painting, sculpting, writing, architecture, music, etc. we are  meant to glorify God in the process. We should raise our eyes to Heaven and give Glory to Him.

Catholics have a bad tendency to compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives. This is even apparent in Catholic artists. Many of us live in cultures where we are told our faith is a private matter, and this has been influenced greatly by the Reformation and rationalist philosophies over the last few centuries. The separation of Church and state in this country is often used as a cudgel on religious adherents because far too many do not grasp that this separation only extends to a formal state religion. As Christians, we have a right and obligation to live our faith freely. Unfortunately, too many of us fall for the lie and so we keep our faith to ourselves and the one hour we are required to give worship to God.

In reality, the Church teaches that every baptized member of the community is called to participate in the Divine Offices of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. We are called to sacrifice through charity, share the Good News with the world, and bring the world under Christ’s Lordship. There is no separation between our Catholic Faith and other aspects of our lives. How we live each moment of our day is meant to sanctify and help us to grow in holiness. What we do as an artist is meant to help us enter deeper into communion with the Most Holy Trinity and draw others into that communion as well. This can be done in countless ways.

Do we realize this reality as Catholic writers? I will focus on writing because that is the art form that God has given to me to share in His creative work in the world. It dawned on me recently that so many Catholics are busy arguing, disagreeing, and fighting that they do not realize that their primary–my–primary mission as a writer is to help draw people into the good, the beautiful, and the true and to point people to our Ultimate Home. This does not mean we cannot enter into suffering, pain, and darkness, those experiences point us to the Cross.

It also does not mean we have to be saints, yet. Often, we end up falling on false modesty to avoid the universal call to sainthood. I have a very long way to go and I pray God is merciful and patient with my weakness. The path to holiness is a life-long process. It does mean, however, that we need to take stock of why exactly we write. Is it our place to vent imprudently in cyberspace? Do we desire to share the beauty and truth of Catholicism with the world in charity? That charity is meant to be holy indifferent, by the way. Most of us have not achieved that level at this point in time. Is it an extension of our pride? Do we consider that we are serving God through our work? Do we consider the impact our work has on our readers’ souls? Do we prudently and prayerfully discern any work we produce before it is published?

I can say that I have written for all of the above reasons in some form. I have been writing since I was a child, and I went through a period where I desired esteem, praise, and as many social media shares as possible. I still struggle with the desire for praise. Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions frequently is a great reminder for people like me! This is a very real temptation and danger for writers in a world of immediate connection. I remember the rush of the first time one of my articles was shared and “Liked” on Facebook by 15K readers or when the comments on one of my articles went into the thousands. It is very easy to get sucked into the praise and adoration, and the criticism.

I started to see that the more I focused on these aspects of my work, the more despair I felt in response to criticism and the more often writer’s block would set in. The more I focused on me and my work, the more I would respond in anger or impatience to readers’ comments. You can probably see this if you look back on some of my work a couple of years back or even a year or so ago. It is true that every writer gets bizarre, incoherent, irrational, insipid, vitriolic, random comments on their work. We can have a tendency to focus too much on this group of vocal people, who are a minority. Most people read our work and go on. We have no idea how it has impacted them.

In reality, the reason many of us get so upset, is because we have not given our work entirely over to God. I still struggle with this problem. Some of my favorite pieces are the least popular and I will get frustrated. I sort of understand that nihilism, utilitarianism, and transcendent beauty are not high interest for many readers. The more I focus on me the more I will read nasty comments and fume. I can avoid these problems, which are only really impacting me, if I focused on why and for Whom I am called to write. It does not matter if I write about politics, Church polemics, current affairs, theology, philosophy, or the spiritual life, the  mission is always the same: To draw people towards God. We do this by pointing people to the truth to beauty and to goodness. We cannot achieve this mission if it is not even on our radar that God is the ultimate end of all of our work.

I write because I write. I write and don’t think about how it impacts people. I write to make myself feel better. I write out of pride. I write because I want to be published. Many of these are goods in themselves–pride is not–but they are not the purpose of our writing. God did not start publishing my work on a larger scale until I started to refocus more on Him. In fact, my first big publication (big to me) came out of nowhere.

God has given us a gift and He expects us to use it for His purposes. If we focus on His purposes over our own then we are less likely to be moved to one emotion or another when someone comments on our work, complains in social media, or even writes a negative response at another Catholic website. We are able to, by God’s grace, work towards a holy indifference in regard to our work. Focusing on God’s mission and desires helps us to focus on humility and it allows us to grow in holy detachment.

I no longer read all of the comments on my pieces that publish elsewhere. I cannot keep up with them on the secular sites I write for because there are so many. Plus, all I can do is put the argument out there and leave it to God to change people’s hearts and minds. I must commend my work to God for His uses and ways, not my own. Arguing with folks in comment sections does not accomplish much these days. Much of our work has to be left to prayer. My theology professors are always telling us that theology begins on our knees in prayer. The same goes for writers. If we want to truly transform the world and bring people to Christ then we will be people of prayer.  I struggle in this department as well, but I am working on it.

Disagreements are normal and a healthy aspect of the Church community, but how we go about those arguments and disagreements matters. If our work is truly meant for the Glory of God and to bring other people closer to God, then we should not be so focused on how everyone reacts to our work, nor should we be obsessed with always being right. This is sinful pride in action. Intellectual discourse between thinkers should be done with respect for the other person and a realization that other people are watching and reading. We will be held accountable for the people we lead astray. Whether we like it or not, people trust us. If we are focused on God’s use for our work, then we are less likely to fall into weakness, temptation, and pride in our work and dealing with others.

Everything we do should be ordered to God. It can be as simple as offering up the task of washing dishes or as complex as writing on the Summa. When we enter into the creative aspect of our nature, it is essential that we order ourselves to God first and then go about our task of creating. If we do not offer our work to God, we run the risk of falling short of His plan for us and even succumbing to temptation. Pride is a danger for all of us and for writers it can be difficult in an age of billions of “Likes”. A very blessed Advent to you all!

To My Fellow Catholic Writers

Here are some thoughts I have in light of observing increased sectarian hostility within the Catholic writing world. First, it might help all of us to remember that each of us has a unique mission as a writer. This is something I am learning as I continue to find my voice and where God wants me to serve Him with this gift *He* gave to me. I am not a mommy blogger. I tried and that is not my niche. There are far more creative and talented Catholic moms who fit that bill. My bent is to the more intellectual.

I don’t really consider myself to be an apologist and I am not an academic, even with formal theological study. I am somewhere in the middle and I am okay with that. God has called me to evangelize my fellow Catholics by sharing the good, the true, and the beautiful that is found within the Church, but far too many people do not know where or how to tap into those resources. I try to take people with me as I stumble, fail, and fall on the path to holiness. I also write for secular and Catholic sites on the Culture of Life because my own grief and pain is being used by God to minister to people in need. This is my minuscule (that’s even too big) section of the deep that is writing on Catholicism.

My point is there is room for different perspectives, talents, emphasis, and understanding. This does not include leading readers into scandal or heresy, as we will all be held accountable for those we drag down with us into error. Sectioning ourselves off from one another and creating “camps” within the writing world only sows division, discord, and scandal. How does that serve God? How does that help others and ourselves achieve holiness? Disagreement is inevitable, but are we disagreeing in charity and truth or anger with a smattering of truth? Part of the reason Confession is so necessary is because we do not fully know ourselves and we are masters of self-deception. We often do not understand our own motives. Anger is a difficult emotion to parse and order properly.

There is an obligation to point out error, but it should be done in charity and detachment. If we are relishing in another’s sin or error, or gossiping in a frenzy on social media, then we have become no better than those we desire to correct. I am a huge fan of intellectual discourse. It’s one of the reasons I struggle with Facebook so much. I am a rather isolated stay-at-home mom and I crave intellectual pursuits, but what I am observing these days is not discussion. Gossip is not a use of reason. It is guided by envy, pride, emotionalism, and sin.

I think all of us–including myself–need to be careful of the very real dangers of the sin of pride for a writer. We can quickly forget that our mission is the conversion and strengthening of souls on the journey to sainthood. God uses us for His purposes. Our writing is not to puff ourselves up or lord over others. Then we do become Pharisaical, as much as I dislike this overused reference at this point in time.

Being a writer is difficult because we take an onslaught of criticism and vitriol. All of us have to learn to let it roll off of our backs and continue in the mission. If a person is ranting and incoherent then there is no point in engaging with them at that point in time. All we can do is commend them to prayer, fast, or offer up our next Mass for them. The last thing we should be doing is falling into the trap of Schadenfreude. We don’t have to agree on everything and we don’t have to like the style of every writer (me included!), but we are called to love one another, and that includes respecting the dignity of each person made imago Dei.

Dear Readers, Writers Have to Make Choices and So Do You in Your Comments

120893bfb25c634d7aa87123f62826e65d300e4ea6c69f01a7c75e10f3b663be

Being a writer on the Internet is tough business these days. The criticism that is leveled at writers on a daily basis can be demoralizing and downright inhumane. Much of the criticism I see is from people who have not even read the piece that I wrote on that particular day. They make a comment purely based on the title. Since we pour ourselves into our pieces, we can tell when someone has actually read an article we’ve written. Either that, or I missed someone’s favorite item in the article and I hear about it.

When you finally land a freelance gig, you have to keep the momentum going that landed you that position in the first place. That momentum can slow when criticism begins to pile up. It is easy to criticize individuals who write on the Internet, whether as bloggers or professional writers. We can easily believe that our own worldview is the only worldview and we share that on the comments sections of various articles or blogs. The Catholic world, where I primarily write these days, is no different. We nit-pick at each other. There always has to be someone who criticizes or points out a believed oversight. Today I want to share with you a few thoughts on being a writer as well as suggestions for commenting on the published work of a brother or sister in Christ. I am going to share my view and experience, so that you can consider it the next time you go to comment.

1. Writers have a word limit, usually around 1500 words.

Most websites have a word limit around 1500 words. Some have even lower word counts and a longer article is usually for a special project. For people who do not like to write, 1500 can seem like a lot of words, but for a writer that is a very limiting space. It is even more limiting when we want to back up our articles with quotes or historical information. Bloggers are not limited because it’s their own space and they can write as much as they want, but to write for a publication means limits. Consider that the next time you are on Catholic Exchange, Crisis, First Things, Catholic Culture, National Catholic Register, etc.

2. We have to make choices in our work.

Much of what I write about is theological in nature and related to the Catholic Church in some way. When I write for the websites that I contribute to, I have to consider the audience, the mission of the site, and a topic. It is impossible for me to cover every single topic in one post. It is impossible for me to completely cover a topic in 1500 words. That’s what books are for. I do the best that I can to give the important information. When I worked as a linguist for the Navy, we called giving the main points a gist. When I write an article about a saint, theological point, or contemporary topic, I am giving you the gist. I give the most pertinent information. When I write about a saint, I have to pick ONE saint for the day. I cannot cover multiple saints in one article without doing an injustice to one of them. I pick the saint who speaks to me at that moment and I make the choice to learn more about them through research, intercessory prayer, and the writing of the piece. Most of the topics that I write about could fill a library, so keep that in mind when reading an article on the Internet.

3. We make inadvertent mistakes.

One of the hallmarks of charity is that we learn to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have chosen three websites to contribute to at this point, and they chose me. All of us are orthodox and desire to share the mission of evangelizing the world. These three websites do it in vastly different ways, but all with the same goal in mind. When a writer types a wrong date, phrases something wrong, or misses a typo, expect that it was an accident. If it turns out the phrasing was intentional, then consider if you have the knowledge, humility, charity, and ability to correct them. You may not be called to fraternal correction and maybe you are. Be prudent.

4. Writing is a very difficult discipline.

Writing is tough business. It is truly a gift that God gives certain people to be used in service of Him. There are days we have to force ourselves to write despite our mood or schedule. We have to come up with topics out of thin air. Yes, much of daily life and cyberspace provide a wide range of topics, but that doesn’t mean each article is easy. Some things flow out of us and other times it is like pulling teeth. Don’t assume because it is on the screen that it came easily to the author. Many pieces come from sweat and tears. Pieces that are written from deeply painful personal experience may have been written with a lot of sobbing involved.

5. Sharing our work in public is hard, and I mean hard.

Every single time I submit a piece to one of my editors or write on my own blog my heart begins to race. I get embarrassed because I have shared a part of myself in my work. It doesn’t matter the topic, there is a little piece of me in every article I write. I wait for the hammer to fall as people come out of the woodwork to criticize what I worked so hard to share. I write to share the Faith, but even that is not good enough for many people.

6. Editors are human beings too.

If we are a freelance writer for a large website, then we have an editor. They read every single one of our pieces and try to catch anything we may have missed during our editing process. They miss things every now and then. Many editors read more than 20-25,000 words per week from their writers. So cut them a break. Cut all of us a break. Yes, we will all make grammatical errors every now and then. It is not the end of the world.

A Few Words on Commenting About Our Work

Consider your training before you comment.

There are a great many lay Catholic writers out there, which is a good thing. There are a lot who have no formal theological training, which is fine. There are plenty of theologians out there who do write. Every Catholic should read the Catechism, but reading the Catechism is not even close to be the same thing as being a theologian. Theologians don’t just read the Catechism, they read the documents that are in the footnotes of the Catechism, while also learning thousands of ecclesial terms in Latin and Greek. Both serve the Church and are needed, but they are not the same thing. When we read an article by someone who is formally trained (I do not include myself here because I am still a student) we should consider whether or not we have the knowledge base to correct them. Humilitas is a good thing! Not every MA or PhD is correct, but someone armed with the CCC is going to be out of their depth pretty quickly. So, the Internet is not where we are King of the Mountain, it is where we can learn.

Do you really think the author intentionally missed your favorite thing?

Once again this goes with humility. It is not a bad thing if an author missed your favorite saint, item, song, book, theologian, etc. As I said above, we have a limited amount of space and we have to make choices. When there is more than one saint on any given feast day, I pick one saint to write about. I am trying to go deeper into the faith and that individual’s life. If I try to include multiple saints then I can only remain at a superficial level. If I am writing about Theology of the Body or some other theological school, there is no way I can give a full picture in 1500 words. Read the books I cite if you want more information! That’s how I learned. I read the books. Writers are limited and correcting us on your favorite item does no good. We are aware of those things, but chose to leave them out.

Stay on topic.

Please, please, please, if you are going to comment on one of our pieces, stay on topic. I do not respond to comments on my work that are not on topic. I don’t have time for those rabbit trails. If I write about St. Thomas More, then he is the only saint I am focused on for that day in my writing. If I write about Magisterial teaching authority, then all I am talking about is our obligation to obedience on that day, not prudential judgment. If I write about science and the Church, I am talking about the Catholic Church and not Young Earth Creationism (Catholics are not). If you are interested in genuine dialogue with the author, then write thoughtful, patient, charitable, and on point comments. We love to engage with our readers, but not when we can’t even understand what a person is talking about.

Check the sinful anger.

There is such a thing as righteous anger. It is the type of anger that leads us to pray Rosaries outside of abortion clinics and give up our job when people try to force us to violate our conscience. Ad hominem attacks, however, fall into the sinful anger category. Do not call an author names, even if they are the biggest jerk on the planet. You see what I did there. I personally leave discussions the minute they turn into personal attacks. It’s not worth it and the conversation has turned from discourse to a fight. When you become angry because of an article, consider first why you are angry. Did they strike a nerve? I can understand heresy making a person angry, but not sinfully so. Pray for them. There have always been heretics. If you can keep your cool and discuss the issue with them, then fine, but yelling, ranting, screaming, etc. does no good.

Think before you go full Grammar Nazi on us.

If we are writing for larger publications it is because somewhere, somehow, someone has seen our potential as a writer. You don’t have to agree with them, but that is what happened. Most of us have some knowledge of the English language. It doesn’t mean that we will not make mistakes, but it does mean that we are not uneducated and illiterate. Many of us are in, or have achieved advanced education of some kind. I am in graduate school. So, when you find an error, don’t go all English teacher on us. It is condescending and annoying. For me, I am quite happy to have readers correct my typos or errors. I pass them along to my editors. I don’t mind correction, but I mind people talking down to me. I am an adult and not sitting in your English class. Offer a quick, “There’s a typo here or a probable grammar error here.” I can figure it out without the English lesson. Fraternal correction, whether in the spiritual life or in matters of grammar, has a lot to do with presentation and tone. Just point out the error and leave it at that.

The Internet is a great place where people can exchange ideas and share the Faith. It is also a place of rabid anger and vitriol and that includes by self-professed Catholics. Let’s learn charity and humility in our dealings with people in social media. Before you share a comment, consider your tone and its applicability to the topic. If a writer doesn’t respond to your comment it is probably because it was too angry, off point, or unclear, or they are just too busy. All writers greatly appreciate their readers. We just ask that you treat us with the dignity and respect that human beings deserve. God bless.

In Which I Respond to an Amusing Critique of My Blog

Yesterday I chanced upon a random, short, and sarcastic review of the look and content of my blog on Reddit. I don’t even know the purpose of Reddit, by the way. It made me chuckle. I wasn’t angry, I thought it was funny. I found it amusing because it is so typical of us human beings to misunderstand, judge, and label people, even based on their Internet blog choices or writing. Since I found it amusing, I thought I would answer some of their complaints. This is not meant to be snarky at all and is really a reflection of my amusement with it all.

The commenter is clearly fed up with the Catholic Blogosphere and it’s declaration that it is its own Magisterium. I completely understand. I have argued against the same mentality and took a break from writing for that very reason. I no longer wanted to be a part of the problem, at least not intentionally. I could see that a great many people make their living in the Catholic world the same way the secular world does, through shock jock tactics and click bait headlines. I get it. It sells, but in my mind, it doesn’t serve the mission which is the conversion of souls. I examined my own tactics and style not only on my blog, but in social media and realized that I was a part of the problem. When I started graduate school last year, I started to see the wealth and beauty of the faith that can be shared with others. So I decided to focus on those things that will help people on the journey and steer clear of polemics as much as possible. I am not saying that my writing is the greatest out there, not even close, but I would encourage readers to pay attention to a new breed of Catholic writers who are coming up. We are also fed up with the fighting and want to focus on holiness. That is why I am so honored and love writing for Catholic Exchange. Their mission is the conversion of souls, not Catholic in-fighting and politics.

Moving from the topic of the Catholic blogosphere, they complained that I was just another self-proclaimed theologian. That’s not entirely accurate. In my About section I make it clear that I am a “student theologian”, which is what my professors call me and my fellow graduate students. I did this so that readers understand and are aware of my education status and knowledge level. Much to my shock, folks with doctorates and who are way more knowledgeable than I am, have visited my site. I want them to know where I am at, so that if I inadvertently make an error, they can offer the intellectual and fraternal correction that may be necessary. I am not sure what constitutes theologian in this person’s mind, but advanced study is a typical pre-requisite, which I am trying to fulfill. By virtue of my vocation, I am limited in my ability to study as much as I would like and may have to stop at the Master’s level. So, no, I will never be a great theologian, but perhaps God will use me in some manner because of the gifts and interests he has given me. For now I am focused on theological study at the graduate level.

The rest of the complaints were visual, and that is really what had me amused. They complained that Catholic blogs always have a specific look or name to them. Well, that makes sense. Catholic writers tend to be lovers of beauty, sacred art, and Catholic Culture, so that is what is reflected on our blog. Beauty is a very big theme on my blog. I don’t write every day because sometimes people just need a chance to marvel at the beauty of the universe. I go out of my way to make it easy for people to find some form of beauty on Mondays and Fridays. It’s not great intellectual work, but it is one of the very specific ways that God reveals Himself to us through reason. So, yes, my blog is a typical Catholic blog.

They complained that my picture was black and white, in they guessed, some attempt to be artsy. Actually, and this is why judgment is a silly thing to do, I found this picture on my phone after my daughter had change it to black and white. Being iPhone illiterate, I didn’t even know that my phone did that, and I was impressed that my daughter, who is 3 years old mind you, had changed it. So my profile picture is me, but it is also a reminder of my daughter. She made my profile picture. I guess it is easy to mock people when we have no back story or understanding of why they choose certain things.

They also complained about the self promotion of Catholic writers. I get that, but much of that is based on perception of the individual, not reality. I absolutely loathe self promotion. I hate that I have to “promote” my writing in social media. I especially dislike Twitter. I don’t like to use it and it is so much information that I don’t know how anyone finds anything in their feed. I essentially post and run. I share a few random things on Twitter, but not because I am particularly engaged. I use Facebook more because I think that it is a useful social media platform and I am connected to many learned Catholics who are smarter than I am. I feel awkward every single time I have to share something that I have written, whether it is from this blog or my professional writing for Catholic Exchange. I also try to promote my fellow writers at Catholic Exchange in social media since we are all trying to fulfill the mission of bringing the Good News to the world.

They also made fun of the title of my blog. I have actually struggled over the years finding my niche as a Catholic writer. I am not a mommy blogger. I came up with this title when I was contemplating the vastness of the Blessed Trinity during my first semester of graduate school. In my mind, I felt like I was swimming into an infinitely deep and vast pool. Swimming the Depths just made sense to me and it is my own private devotion to the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. People don’t have to like it, but it is a profound reminder to me personally of how small I am in light of the Beatific Vision.

I think what people like this forget, is that God does call certain people to writing. I love writing. It just flows out of me. Most of the time I read my own writing and think “How on earth did that come from me?!”. I use my writing to serve God, not myself. Yes, I have to fight pride, but as I told my Confessor earlier this week, that is part of the great struggle in public work. Many people write as a hobby, much like people who paint or draw. I was writing as a hobby until recently when, by the grace of God and the charity of an editor, I became a “professional writer”. I am not entirely sure what that means, but it does mean that I will occasionally get paid for my musings. We also need to remember that in this digital age, self promotion is a part of the task of becoming a professional writer. I don’t like it, but if I want to be a writer then I have to share my stuff. I think there are a great many writers who feel the same way. Perhaps some enjoy it, but most of the writers I know despise promoting their work.

I will end with these thoughts. Feel free to dislike my choices for theme and picture. Those items are a matter of taste. The picture on my site of the rose is something that I took in Charleston, SC, which is a beautiful city. I like the picture very much. Please feel free to disagree with me, although, any Catholics disagreeing because they are not submitting to the Magisterium should take that up with their priest. This blogger submits completely and totally to ALL teachings of the Catholic Church. If you want to discuss items that are open for theological debate, please do. I would say that it’s important to move from superficial judgments, however, or we may find ourselves thrown into pride and envy. I know. I’ve done it and still do it, which is why I write quite a bit about the great blessings of frequent Confession. I thank anyone who stops by and I truly hope you leave this little basement corner of the Internet better than when you came. I just ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt and not let superficial prejudices keep you from Catholic websites. God bless.