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Strange Powers

On childhood reading.


How do we learn? Well, of course, we are instructed formally in educational systems, and by our families, by societies, by the media and the culture writ large. The same messy, complicated process applies to religious education, to evangelization, to belief and unbelief. And while there are metrics by which our educations are formally assessed, measuring how belief is acquired, maintained, or lost is another thing. When I was in the government and specialized, among other things, in studying Salafi-Jihadist propaganda, we always noted that there was no one path to belief, even to radical belief—what enthused one person left another cold. Moreover, the language, images, and arguments that could mobilize extremists also appealed strongly to ordinary believers.

The idea of the way of beauty, the via pulchritudinis, as a path for art that is expressive of Christian faith and that can draw people to that faith has been mentioned repeatedly by Catholic church leaders, theologians and popes. in recent years. Saint Paul VI famously addressed artists at the closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. He called on them to be allied to the Church as “the guardians of beauty in the world,” noting that “the world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair” and asking them to be free “from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions.” A cynic might look at the wreckovation of Catholic churches in the following years and the sterile and strange course of most contemporary art as evidence that Paul VI’s plea went unheeded. Subsequent popes have echoed such a fervent plea. Pope Francis called calling on artists in December 2020 to “transmit truth and beauty.” Perhaps no pope has spoken as much and as evocatively on beauty and faith as Pope Benedict XVI. In 2011 he said:

Before you there stood not only matter—a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds—but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

I am sure that these holy men are right, that beauty, so much of the Church’s precious physical and artistic heritage handed down through the ages, can indeed inspire and move, even evangelize and change hearts. The beauty of creation, of the natural world, can also inspire, even though in recent generations this type of inspiration seems to have been channeled towards activism or non-Christian spirituality. We all know of historical figures or intellectuals deeply moved by chant or the rose window of a medieval cathedral or the works of modern Christian writers such as Chesterton or Tolkien whose lives are changed. Pope Benedict saw art and the lives of the saints as the two greatest sources of apologetics for the faith. And great Christian artists who can inspire such a leap towards a spirit of transcendence still exist: the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the Lebanese Maronite nun Marie Keyrouz, or the Canadian novelist Michael O’Brien.

But I feel that we sell the path of beauty short when we think of it solely or even mostly in terms of high culture, of art aimed at or consumed by a cultured or well-educated elite. This is not to minimize the ability of great art to speak to common people. After all, much of the ancient art of the Church that is justly esteemed today, including by non-believing intellectuals, moved and inspired ordinary people through the ages, including the unlettered and illiterate. But people, all people, are moved by the strangest of things, and even the most humble hackwork, intended merely to entertain, can offer unexpected glimpses of a higher reality.

Growing up I had little exposure to sacred art or music. I know I was baptized in the great church of Jesús de Miramar in Havana and received my first Holy Communion at the parish of Saint John the Apostle in Hialeah, Florida. After that whatever I had been taught was forgotten. My family stopped going to Mass. This was amid the turmoil that followed the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of the New Mass, but I do not know why we ceased to attend and have no sense of whether our departure was connected with those radical changes. In any case, I would not return to the Church for many decades, when I was finally confirmed.

What I did do as a boy was read. And the true, the good, and the beautiful were not what I sought out, at least not intentionally. Like my parents before me, the first “real” (non-children’s literature) writer I remember reading was Jules Verne. The first book I ever purchased with my own money was an Airmont Classics paperback of Dracula. That same inexpensive publisher featured other favorites including the works of H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard. Haggard would lead me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Burroughs to that prolific Texan Robert E. Howard. Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu, The Prisoner of Zenda, Dumas and Conan Doyle followed. After that I read all sorts of things—adventure, fantasy, horror—for years. the classic writers, all of them long dead when I read them, were succeeded by humbler bylines, by those still living journeyman pulpsters churning out fast-paced lively tales, usually in less than two hundred pages. In terms of sheer quantity, it was those potboilers that consumed much of my time.

There was a paperback series called The Guardians, by the pseudonymous Peter Saxon, with lovely covers by Jeff Jones—fighters against the powers of darkness in Swinging London. The Guardians were a team of laypeople with special abilities except one was a righteous “Anglo-Catholic priest” named John Dyball. I remember one vivid scene in which he performs an exorcism and lighting from the heavens destroys a pagan diabolist. Good versus evil, light versus darkness, men—it was almost always men—of action and conviction: this was compelling.

There was the Inquisitor series by Simon Quinn (actually a young Martin Cruz Smith just starting out). I don’t recall these books being very good—Cruz Smith has never allowed them to be reprinted—but the premise was irresistible: Francis Xavier Killy, a former C.I.A. man turned secret agent for the Vatican—“a lay brother of the Militia Christi working for the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Rome.” A James Bond type of character, but when he kills someone in the line of duty, he has to do severe penance. The whole thing is an amusing fictional conceit coming at a time—the mid-1970s—when what had been the Holy Office had already been abolished.

Of higher quality (the stories were actually in hardcover) was John Thunstone, also a fighter against the forces of darkness—voodoo, devil worship, witchcraft—who had initially appeared in the 1940s in the pages of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales (famous for publishing much of the work of Lovecraft and Howard years before). Thunstone was the creation of the Southern writer Manly Wade Wellman. Thunstone, a dashing New York “scholar and playboy who investigates supernatural events,” wears a crusader’s ring and carries a sword cane with a silver blade, supposedly forged by Saint Dunstan, with the inscription sic pereant omnes inimici tui (a quotation from the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges). I didn’t know it at the time but Thunstone was one of a line of fictional supernatural sleuths or psychic detectives going back to the earlier work of scribes such as Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson. Wellman did not belong to the Church (his parents were Protestant medical missionaries in Africa) but as often happened in this genre, the symbols and imagery of spiritual power were overwhelmingly Catholic.

Even more vivid was reading Dennis Wheatley’s famous occult adventure novel The Devil Rides Out (first published in 1934) and his other novels in what is usually called his “Black Magic” series. The books came with a warning that such practices were real and to be avoided—a statement both true and clever as marketing. I had seen the Hammer film version, called The Devil’s Bride in the United States (the name changed because the original sounded too much like a Western), when I was a pre-teen and had considered it the most frightening film I had yet seen. The novel made an even greater impression. Wheatley, an English wine merchant bankrupted by the Great Depression, had turned to writing and become the “Prince of Thriller Writers” in the 1930s, something like an early combination of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown. One writer described the content of his voluminous work as “sex, jingoism, and black magic” and his novels written decades before made a comeback in the Age of Aquarius with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Wheatley was no Catholic—raised as an Anglican, he disliked orthodox Christianity and lived a life of unabashed hedonism—but this work would not have been possible without Catholic influences. This was especially true of Wheatley’s best fictional creation, the anti-Bolshevik, Satanist-bashing, Franco-Russian-but-exiled-in-Britain adventurer, the Duc de Richleau (memorably portrayed by Sir Christopher Lee in the film version).

Part of the attraction of the early Wheatley novels today—vigorous but crude potboilers—is that patina of a forgotten age, the Duc’s gilded life with the Hoyo de Monterrey cigars, Mayfair flat, Hispano Suiza, and Rolls Royce touring cars, the fine wines lovingly described. But what struck me most when young was the Catholic symbolism and doctrine (at times mixed in with the trendy Eastern religion stuff of the Edwardian era), which I had never seen so vividly portrayed in real life. A woman who is being seduced by Satanism is warned that “this promise of strange powers is only a filthy trap. At your first christening, your godparents revoked the Devil and all his works. Once you rescind that protection, you are completely exposed.” The heroes in confronting the supreme evil arm themselves with ivory crucifixes, holy water from Lourdes, rosaries, and the medal of Saint Benedict; they recite Psalm XCI, “which is immensely powerful against all evil manifestations.”

In convincing a skeptic of the existence of spiritual evil, Richleau appeals to religious history: “The Roman church, whose authority comes unbroken over nineteen centuries from the time when Our Lord made St. Peter his viceregent on earth, has ever admitted the existence of the evil power.” The Duc later makes this statement, which astonished me at the time, although I didn’t know quite why it did: “I only wish we had a fragment of the Host apiece. That is the most powerful defense of all, and with it we might walk unafraid in hell.” The soul of a recently dead character is at one point summoned back by the heroes to be interrogated and, to test its allegiance, is asked, “Do you acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ?” Wheatley was nothing if not in tune with the zeitgeist. At different times in his long writing career, his Satanists were connected to Nazis, to Communists, and to anti-colonial movements.

I don’t really recommend any of these mediocre, entertaining works as any sort of spiritual guide, of course. For me, they were merely part of the youthful pleasure of reading. In my twenties when I was mature enough for more serious things—fiction and non-fiction—I first encountered C.S. Lewis and Chesterton, Walker Percy, the novels of Charles Williams (who used to review thrillers in the 1920s and was inspired to write his own by reading Sax Rohmer), Russell Kirk’s Catholic fighter of demons Manfred Arcane (like the fictional Duc de Richleau, also an anti-Bolshevik). It was then that I re-read and truly appreciated Tolkien.

Our popular culture is, with few exceptions, so debased that it rarely exercises a wholesome influence upon young minds. Social media makes it even more ubiquitous. By the time many young people can encounter and appreciate that way of beauty so vividly described by Pope Benedict, the Palestrinas and Fra Angelicos of our rich heritage, their imaginations will have been colonized by a potent adversarial successor ideology. Conversion is always possible, of course, and it is something to pray and work for with devotion and diligence, but it is hard not to think that art could do its part.

Modest small-scale contemporary efforts directed at youth, such as the initially crowd funded indie comic Soulfinder created by Douglas Ernst, are to be welcomed. In those works, the heroes are combat veterans turned Catholic priests and exorcists and the issues are even marketed with rosaries on the ICONIC Comics and Rugged Rosaries websites. The positive influence of the Catholic subtexts in more mainstream comic and graphic novel titles such as Daredevil, Hellboy, and John Constantine is not to be discounted.

But in a seemingly post-Christian world where popular culture is increasingly used as a vehicle to market ideological and political agendas antithetical to orthodox Christianity, the need for compelling, informal counter-narratives and themes embedded in that same popular culture will only increase. Decades ago a non-Christian like Wheatley used Catholic doctrine, symbolism, and imagery in his novels not only because of their dramatic power but also because these things would have been more or less understood by his general audience. Today it is harder to imagine such a thing, in a world in which one cannot expect readers to possess an understanding of even the most basic tenets of Christianity. Having considered my own experience, I can only hope that some aspiring scribbler can follow in the footsteps of Wheatley and others on the way of beauty, even, or perhaps especially, if he sticks to the low road.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a retired diplomat and vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (M.E.M.R.I.).

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