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Goofus Wears A Miraculous Medal

On Goofus Catholicism.


Well into my forties, I read the New Yorker for the cartoons. Most long-form journalism bored me, and the short stories—which I, a writer, might be expected to admire—left me cold. I could never figure out what they were supposed to be about, what was at stake. Most seemed like tiresome whingeing about this or that, ending five thousand words later on a note of tremulous irresolution.

I, too, wanted to be published in the New Yorker, but the sophisticated inner workings of such stories eluded me. I knew I couldn’t write one if I tried. To cheer myself up I skimmed the magazine’s cartoons, which mocked the attitudes and lifestyles of itsreaders: a symbiosis reminiscent of the old America, the one where people could take a joke.

Because I could not crack the code of the modern short story, I focused on writing other things. Then I converted to Catholicism (prior religious affiliation: none) and began to understand what short stories were for.

In her 2017 book Giving the Devil His Due, Jessica Hooten Wilson examined the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, both of whom “set out to expose the comfortable lies that had been digested by their generations and to replace these lies with ancient truths from the Christian Scripture.” Their novels and stories posed the choice of “whether to be humble or proud, whether to be truthful or blind, and whether to suffer or cause violence,” all of which boiled down, rather shockingly, to “the choice of whether to follow Christ or Satan.”

Here finally was a craft lecture I could grasp. Fiction was about ordinary people confronting moral dilemmas they might not even recognize as such, swaying in the wind while souls hung in the balance and unintended consequences multiplied. In fact, I realized that O’Connor’s tales of rural Georgia could be set anywhere. I’d spent years as part of the coastal professional class, and we were as selfish, sanctimonious, and obtuse in our Priuses as any squint-eyed hick Flannery dreamed up in the era of the Studebaker.

With Catholic doctrine supplying the themes, I suddenly had all the material I needed. A few months into the coronavirus lockdown, I began writing a short story about anger: a subject that I (like everyone else in 2020) knew well. The main characters were a suburban family of two sons, a lawyer father, and a mother whose life revolved around preparing her gifted younger boy for his career.

“Increasingly, in her forties, rage seized her unexpectedly like a physical force,” the story went. “She wasn’t herself during those times (or, she was more and horribly herself), and the episodes were louder and more irrational if she drank anything, even a half-glass of Shiraz.”

It was in some ways an easy story to write. Everything about these people was familiar, right down to their striped patio chairs and vague horror of blue-collar work. Channeling O’Connor, I had to make them suffer gaudily, and that was the unsettling part. There but for the grace of God went I.

I resolved to write a modern-day story about each of the seven deadly sins. What were they, again? Pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. As a new convert, I’d been confused about how they mapped onto the mortal and venial sins—how to confess them, for example?—until I read somewhere that they were the states of mind in which specific sinful acts were undertaken. This information improved my muddled examinations of conscience, though I did not go to confession very often.

In fact, unlike many converts, I was not terribly observant. After my husband and I joined the Church together, he took to the practice of religion like a duck to water, but though I attended Mass, I had no particular knack for any of it and mulishly persisted in my heathen ways. The pair of us sometimes seemed like the Goofus and Gallant of conversion: Gallant prays the rosary every day and never forgets to offer prayers for friends and family; Goofus wears a Miraculous Medal for one week and, when nothing unusual happens, takes it off. I’d be content, I often said, with the Catholic version of a gentleman’s C. I found it difficult to overcome lifelong habits of irreverence and presumption, but not overmuch.

Ironic by instinct, I also struggled to understand the gravity of sin. Writing a short story on each of the seven deadly sins could only help, I figured. Unlike praying, which I had yet to get the hang of, writing was second nature at this point, a psychological state I could maintain for hours. Meditating on themes of sin and salvation as a fiction writer might offer the best bang for the buck, so to speak, for me as a Catholic.

Daydreaming through the long, boring days of the shutdown, I pictured an elegant short story collection called The Seven. Of course popular culture had gotten there first, but Hollywood’s treatment of the seven deadly sins left much to be desired. In Se7en, a New York serial killer offs strangers in inventively gruesome ways, inspired by—of all things—theology. A miniseries, The Seven Deadly Sins, takes place at a high school in California, where “queen bee” and “frenemies” plotlines ensue. Recently, scrolling through streaming movie choices, we came upon a film, 7 Deadly Sins, illustrated by a female figure in a black bustier, holding a whip.

“Maybe we should watch it. It might be helpful for your stories,” said my husband.

“No, it would not help with my stories,” I said tartly.

As the shutdown dragged on, I craved structure and goals. In an early-summer bout of sloth (or was it gluttony?), I’d set aside my story about anger. If I could finish it in July, I could move on to the next sin—I had a good idea for envy!—in August. Pride was my most pervasive sin and also my favorite sin, one that seemed inextricable from the personality I’d lovingly grown from a seed. I’d have to work up to that one. If I could draft one story per month, I’d have a full set by February 2021.

One July night in the backyard, I sketched out the plots for anger and envy to see what my husband thought of them. Both stories were blackly comic, and neither one had a happy ending. Somewhere in the back of my mind was O’Connor’s belief that the dulled modern conscience needed a shock, that the chic moral ambiguity of New Yorker stories wasn’t going to cut it.

“That’s pretty dark. Do all of them end badly?” my husband inquired.

“I don’t really know yet,” I replied, sipping rosé. “I guess we’ll see.”

Maya Sinha is the author of the novel The City Mother, forthcoming from Chrism Press. She writes a humor column for the Saturday Evening Post.

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