Cornel West leaned forward, gripping the edges of the podium. He stood in the dining room of Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker home where the activist and journalist Dorothy Day spent the final years of her life—ill, her writing greatly slowed, and yet still in prayer. West was speaking in November 2012, on the occasion of her 116th birthday, and his address documented Day’s legacy, her verve, and her spirit.
“Dorothy reminds me in so many ways of Toni Morrison,” West said. “You know Toni Morrison is Catholic. Many people do not realize that she is one of the great Catholic writers. Like Flannery O’Connor, she has an incarnational conception of human existence. We Protestants are too individualistic. I think we need to learn from Catholics who are always centered on community.”
Toni Morrison converted to Catholicism in 1943, while a 12-year-old student at Hawthorne Junior High School in Lorain, Ohio. Named Chloe at birth, she took the name of St. Anthony of Padua. Her nickname soon became Toni. Her mother, Ramah Wofford, was “a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” yet several family members were Catholics. She was very close with a Catholic cousin, which in part led to her baptism into the church.
As a teenager, Morrison was “perfectly content” with the “aesthetics” of Catholicism. For Morrison, religion was very much a place of story and art. She loved her mother’s singing voice, so Morrison conceived of her mother’s Christian faith through the particular prayer of song. In a similar way, Morrison became a Catholic because of its sense of story and visuals. “That’s shallow,” she once joked. “But that’s what it was, until I grew up a little older and began to take it seriously and then took it seriously for years and years and years.”
Morrison was a storyteller shaped by a Catholic faith based in visceral narrative—and yet Cornel West is correct that many people do not realize she was a Catholic. It is not quite an act of willful ignorance on the part of critics and readers although Morrison never shied from framing her sense of story, thought, and belief within a Catholic worldview.
In a 2004 appearance at The Nation Institute, Morrison and West discussed the intersection of Christianity and political discourse. Their conversation veered toward the recently-released film The Passion of the Christ. Based on the trailer and the marketing, West stayed away from the film. Morrison, though, had gone to see it with a friend.
“Now, you know, I’m a Catholic,” she says. “We’re used to blood and gore. On the cross in the church, there’s the body, with the cuts and the bruises. Protestant churches: nice, clean cross. No body at all.” The film’s depiction of the Passion narrative, then, was nothing new for Morrison; as a young convert drawn to story and image, she would be especially drawn to that most dramatic sequence. Yet she thought the film’s “bloodiness was uninteresting, excessive, repulsive.” She even admitted that she fell asleep.
Morrison and West laughed along with the audience, but she then describes what happened next during her viewing. Although she felt the film did not ultimately succeed on its own merits, it was generative for her—she responded to the images that repulsed her. She tried to understand the film through her own Catholic theology, and reflected that the Passion wasn’t about “merely the Spirit, this really was about the flesh… and we forget that. This is real suffering. I was looking at it like a lynching… this is a betrayed man who is hung, lynched.”
The year before this conversation at The National Institute, Morrison was quoted in The Washington Post identifying as a “disaffected Catholic.” By 2007, her religious identity would be even more enigmatic; she spoke very much as a lapsed Catholic—not merely distanced from the institutional church, but open to an idiosyncratic theology, a set of beliefs of her own making.
She viewed belief in God as “an intellectual experience that intensifies our perceptions and distances us from an egocentric and predatory life, from ignorance and from the limits of personal satisfactions”—and affirmed her Catholic identity. “I had a moment of crisis on the occasion of Vatican II,” she said. “At the time I had the impression that it was a superficial change, and I suffered greatly from the abolition of Latin, which I saw as the unifying and universal language of the Church.”
Morrison saw a problematic absence of authentic religion in modern art: “It’s not serious—it’s supermarket religion, a spiritual Disneyland of false fear and pleasure.” She lamented that religion is often parodied or simplified, as in “those pretentious bad films in which angels appear as dei ex machina, or of figurative artists who use religious iconography with the sole purpose of creating a scandal.” She admired the work of James Joyce, especially his earlier works, and had a particular affinity for Flannery O’Connor, “a great artist who hasn’t received the attention she deserves.”
What emerges from Morrison’s public discussions of faith is paradoxical Catholicism. Her conception of God is malleable, progressive, and esoteric. She retained a distinct nostalgia for Catholic ritual, and feels the “greatest respect” for those who practice the faith, even if she herself wavered. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Morrison said there was not a “structured” sense of religion in her life at the moment, but “I might be easily seduced to go back to church because I like the controversy as well as the beauty of this particular Pope Francis. He’s very interesting to me.”
Morrison’s Catholic faith—individual and communal, traditional and idiosyncratic—offers a theological structure for her worldview. Her Catholicism illuminates her fiction; in particular, her views of bodies, and the narrative power of stories. An artist, Morrison affirmed, “bears witness.” Her father’s ghost stories, her mother’s spiritual musicality, and her own youthful sense of attraction to Christianity’s “scriptures and its vagueness” led her to conclude it is “a theatrical religion. It says something particularly interesting to black people, and I think it’s part of why they were so available to it. It was the love things that were psychically very important. Nobody could have endured that life in constant rage.” Morrison said it is a sense of “transcending love” that makes “the New Testament . . . so pertinent to black literature—the lamb, the victim, the vulnerable one who does die but nevertheless lives.”
“It’s always seemed to me,” Morrison said, “that black people’s grace has been with what they do with language,” and this writing is very much “in touch with the magic and the mystery and the things of the body.” The body, as Morrison knew, is a place of extreme emotions—a literary place of risk. Rather than approach the body with caution, Morrison liked “the danger in writing when you’re right on the edge, when at any moment you can be maudlin, saccharine, grotesque, but somehow pull back from it.”
Morrison is describing a Catholic style of storytelling here, reflected in the various emotional notes of Mass. The religion calls for extremes: solemnity, joy, silence, and exhortation. Such a literary approach is audacious, confident, and necessary, considering Morrison’s broader goals. She rejected the term experimental, clarifying “I am simply trying to recreate something out of an old art form in my books—the something that defines what makes a book ‘black.’”
What makes a book “black,” for Morrison, are unique elements of language, narrative, and religion. She said black stories “are just told—meanderingly—as though they are going in several directions at the same time.” Those directions are built upon tradition and structure; black literary style is defined by “cleaning up the language so that old words have new meanings. It has a spine that’s very biblical and meandering and aural—you really have to hear it.”
Morrison was both storyteller and archivist. Her commitment to history and tradition itself feels Catholic in orientation. She sought to “merge vernacular with the lyric, with the standard, and with the biblical, because it was part of the linguistic heritage of my family, moving up and down the scale, across it, in between it.” When a serious subject came up in family conversation, “it was highly sermonic, highly formalized, biblical in a sense, and easily so. They could move easily into the language of the King James Bible and then back to standard English, and then segue into language that we would call street.”
Language was play and performance; the pivots and turns were “an enhancement for me, not a restriction,” and showed her that “there was an enormous power” in such shifts. Morrison’s attention toward language is inherently religious; by talking about the change from Latin to English Mass as a regrettable shift, she invokes the sense that faith is both content and language; both story and medium.
From her first novel on forward, Morrison appeared intent on forcing us to look at embodied black pain with the full power of language. As a Catholic writer, she wanted us to see the body on the cross; to see its blood, its cuts, its sweat. That corporal sense defines her novel Beloved (1988), perhaps Morrison’s most ambitious, stirring work. “Black people never annihilate evil,” Morrison has said. “They don’t run it out of their neighborhoods, chop it up, or burn it up. They don’t have witch hangings. They accept it. It’s almost like a fourth dimension in their lives.”From the first page of Beloved, the story is focused on what happens when past sins bleed into the present, and take corporal form.
Beloved is a ghost story. A tale of evil, superstition, and phantasmagoria. The present action of the novel takes place in 1873, in Cincinnati, Ohio, at a home on Bluestone Road. Sethe, the main character, has escaped slavery at the Sweet Home plantation to reach this house, but there is no peace there. 124 Bluestone Road is “spiteful,” and “full of a baby’s venom.” Mirrors shatter. A baby’s handprints appear in a cake. Chickpeas, smoking, pile on the floor. A trail of crumbled soda crackers lead to the doorsill. Sethe’s sons, Howard and Bugler, have run away, leaving Sethe with her mother (who dies soon after), and her daughter, Denver.
Sethe had wanted to move, but her mother reminded her that there’s “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Her mother’s words are painfully literal. Sethe had killed her infant child. Afraid that her young daughter would be caught and brought back to slavery, Sethe killed her in a shed—a hideously public act that makes Sethe an infamous, almost mythic, figure. Slavery—the bondage and ownership of bodies, and the suffering of souls—is the prototypical American sin for Morrison, and from the first page of Beloved, the story is focused on what happens when past sins bleed into the present, and take corporal form.
Paul D, the last man remaining from the Sweet Home plantation, soon arrives; he says they should leave the house, but Sethe won’t: “No more running—from nothing.” Denver doesn’t want to leave, either; she “wished for the baby ghost—its anger thrilling her now where it used to wear her out.” Denver recalls seeing Sethe “on her knees in prayer” and a “white dress knelt down next to her mother and had its sleeve around her mother’s waist.” Sethe says that she wasn’t praying: “I don’t pray anymore. I just talk.” Sethe often speaks of memory as being permanent, physical. She says nothing ever dies. 124 has become a conduit; its physical walls are another body for the baby, now ghost. Denver’s prediction is simple: “the baby got plans.”
Paul D’s arrival, carrying the past with him, further disrupts the boundaries of time, of the real and unreal, and forces the ghost’s plans into actions. When Paul D tries to be close to Sethe, and hug her, the floorboards begin to shake. A table bursts toward him; he smashes it, and was “screaming back at the screaming house.” Undaunted, Paul D says they can make a life together. They go to a carnival in town, and “were not holding hands, but their shadows were.” Denver, sullen for so long, was “swaying with delight.”
On the next page, the character of Beloved first appears: “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water.” A ghost made flesh. Beloved emerges from a stream and leans against a mulberry tree. She sits there all day and night. Her whole body is in pain, especially her lungs. Soaked, her breaths wheeze like asthma, yet she still smiles. Her skin is “lineless and smooth.” A day later, she walks through the woods and sits on a stump near the steps of 124. She passes in and out of sleep, her neck bending. Her arrival is audacious, miraculous.
Sethe, Denver, and Paul D return home from the carnival, and see Beloved for the first time. The “rays of the sun struck her full in the face” so that “all they saw was a black dress, two unlaced shoes below it.” Denver tells them to look, saying “What is that?”; notably not “who” is that. They take Beloved inside, where she drinks four glasses of water. She says her name is Beloved, her voice “so low and rough.”
Morrison has said that all of her writing is “about love or its absence.” There must always be one or the other—her characters do not live without ebullience or suffering. “Black women,” Morrison explained, “have held, have been given, you know, the cross. They don’t walk near it. They’re often on it. And they’ve borne that, I think, extremely well.” No character in Morrison’s canon lives the cross as much as Sethe, who even “got a tree on my back” from whipping. Scarred inside and out, she is the living embodiment of bearing witness.
Beloved, Sethe’s own body, has returned. Beloved sleeps for four days, and awakens only to drink water. Then she pines for sugar: honey, wax, molasses, lemonade, taffy, cane sticks. She can barely walk, but can somehow lift a chair with ease. Her energy is directed toward one person: “Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes.” Paul D is suspicious of Beloved, but Sethe feels flattered and loved. She’s not the only one. Denver becomes obsessed with Beloved, and wants to spend so much time with her. Beloved dances; she speaks of being in the grave. She becomes ecstatic, incantational. “She is the one,” Beloved says of Sethe. “She is the one I need.”
Sethe takes Denver and Beloved to the Clearing, a spot in the woods where her own mother, Baby Suggs, held services. Her mother was an “unchurched preacher.” She led people to the clearing on Saturday afternoons. The congregation would become ecstatic: laugh, cry, dance, and then, “exhausted and riven,” they would listen to Baby Suggs preach. Rather than chastise them for sin, she told the people to love their flesh.
Sethe’s own flesh, it seems, is in danger. At the Clearing she feels a hand around her neck, possibly strangling her. Is it Beloved? Morrison writes with enough prosaic detail that even in the midst of her supernatural novel, we push aside doubt. Beloved’s body is wavering. She pulls out a tooth, and then thinks: “This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once.” She is jealous of Sethe’s affection for Paul D, but when he learns from a newspaper clipping that Sethe killed her child, he leaves 124. The women are finally alone.
The novel’s third and climactic section begins with the sentence “124 was quiet,” completing an evolution: the home has been spiteful, loud, and now silent. Sethe starts showing up late to work, and loses her job. She sees a scar on Beloved’s neck—where she’d cut her years ago—and she becomes even closer with Beloved, pushing Denver aside. They are mother and daughter anew, and Beloved “never got enough of anything: lullabies, new stitches, the bottom of the cake bowl, the top of the milk.” Beloved wears Sethe’s dresses and imitates how her mother “moved her hands, sighed through her nose, held her head.”Morrison’s Catholicism was one of the Passion: of scarred bodies, public execution, and private penance.
As they grow even closer, they almost transform into sisters. Affection becomes agitation. Beloved makes Sethe feel guilty for her past sin. She tells Sethe that “when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat.” Beloved breaks a windowpane, throws salt on the floor, and swipes plates from the table. Denver fears Beloved, no longer wanting to protect her. 124 becomes a place of madness. Beloved would claw at her throat, bleeding. “Other times Beloved curled up on the floor, her wrists between her knees, and stayed there for hours.” Beloved often seems like the ecstatic, tortured saints that Morrison had learned about as a child. Like Beloved, their presence in this world feels impossible and dizzying.
Sethe’s ultimate fear is that Beloved might leave. Now that Paul D. has left, and taken the story of 124 with him, word has spread around town, and takes on a toll on Sethe, who “was worn down, speckled, dying, spinning, changing shapes and generally bedeviled.” In response, a congregation of 30 women go to the home. The women pray, and then sing, in hopes of cleansing 124.
Sethe greets the crowd at the door, holding hands with Beloved. She feels as if her mother’s spiritual past at the Clearing has returned to her “with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words.” The cascade of voices “broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.” She lets go of Beloved’s hand and enters the crowd.
Beloved—the ghost, the spirit made flesh, Sethe’s savior and her phantasm, her daughter—disappears. People “forgot her like a bad dream” because “It was not a story to pass on.” Beloved’s story might not be spoken, but it enters the bodies of Sethe, Denver, and even 124. For the black men and women of Beloved, there is no distance between past and present: their years of slavery are fresh wounds.
Morrison’s Catholicism was one of the Passion: of scarred bodies, public execution, and private penance. When Morrison thought of “the infiniteness of time, I get lost in a mixture of dismay and excitement. I sense the order and harmony that suggest an intelligence, and I discover, with a slight shiver, that my own language becomes evangelical.” The more Morrison contemplates the grandness and complexity of life, the more her writing reverts to the Catholic storytelling methods that enthralled her as a child and cultivated her faith. This creates a powerful juxtaposition: a skilled novelist compelled to both abstraction and physicality in her stories. Catholicism, for Morrison, offers a language to connect these differences.
For Morrison, the traits of black language include the “rhythm of a familiar, hand-me-down dignity [that] is pulled along by an accretion of detail displayed in a meandering unremarkableness.” Syntax that is “highly aural” and “parabolic.” The language of Latin Mass—its grandeur, silences, communal participation, coupled with the congregation’s performative resurrection of an ancient tongue—offers a foundation for Morrison’s meticulous appreciation of language.
Her representations of faith—believers, doubters, preachers, heretics, and miracles—are powerful because of her evocative language, and also because she presents them without irony. She took religion seriously. She tended to be self-effacing when describing her own belief, and it feels like an action of humility. In a 2014 interview, she affirmed “I am a Catholic” while explaining her willingness to write with a certain, frank moral clarity in her fiction. Morrison was not being contradictory; she was speaking with nuance. She might have been lapsed in practice, but she was culturally—and therefore socially, morally—Catholic.
The same aesthetics that originally attracted Morrison to Catholicism are revealed in her fiction, despite her wavering of institutional adherence. Her radical approach to the body also makes her the greatest American Catholic writer about race. That one of the finest, most heralded American writers is Catholic—and yet not spoken about as such—demonstrates why the status of lapsed Catholic writers is so essential to understanding American fiction.
A faith charged with sensory detail, performance, and story, Catholicism seeps into these writers’ lives—making it impossible to gauge their moral senses without appreciating how they refract their Catholic pasts. The fiction of lapsed Catholic writers suggests a longing for spiritual meaning and a continued fascination with the language and feeling of faith, absent God or not: a profound struggle that illuminates their stories, and that speaks to their readers.
From Longing for an Absent God. Used with the permission of the publisher, Fortress Press. Copyright © 2020 by Nick Ripatrazone.