Trying to Say “God”: After the Conference Part I: Reflections

David Russell Mosley

Photo of the Grotto at Notre Dame by David Russell Mosley
Photo of the Grotto at Notre Dame by David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
26 June 2017
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Readers,

I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed up later, laughed more, or generally been happier at a conference than I was at the “Trying to Say ‘God'” conference. This conference was unlike any other I’ve been to. Most of the presentations, including my own, were not papers but true presentations, often by artists. It was not a perfect conference and had its own foibles, especially those attendant to a conference run for and put on by Catholic artists. But still, this conference managed to be both intellectual and practical. It was not simply theologians or philosophers sitting around talking about Catholic literature, but Catholic writers sitting around trying to enact Catholic literature. And this made it worth every penny.

Day 1

On the first day we heard the key note presentation by Bishop Daniel Flores.  You can read it (or listen to it) at Sick Pilgrim. The primary point was that the Catholic artist begins in poverty because we write out of our poverty. Words themselves come out of poverty in as much as they participate in the Word who impoverished himself for our sake.

I actually spent most of the first day lost and sweating. But I made it to Mass that evening in the Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame and it was enchanting. I skipped the evening’s plenary, for a number of reasons, but joined everyone at Notre Dame’s grotto for the rosary and to light a candle for private intentions.

Day 2

The next day, for me, was filled with time talking to friends. I’ve learned that conferences need to be customized to, for, and by the individual. If there’s not a panel of special interest to you, it is ok to skip. Still, I heard an interesting paper on how lectio divina can help us learn to read literature more deeply and contemplatively. Later I went to a paper that featured Jonathan Ryan of Sick Pilgrim and Rebecca Bratten Weiss of  . They were joined by author John Farrell to talk about vulgarity in religious art. I’ve never heard the f-word so many times in a conference panel. It was glorious. In the afternoon, I listened to Jonathan talk about Weird Fiction, particularly about people such as Andrew Machen and Charles Williams.

That evening I heard Heather King for the first time. I was moved to tears as she talked about being a Catholic artist. Though I will admit I did not always agree with her, since I cannot make her experience my own. After all, I have twin 3 year olds, and they cannot be ignored, not even for the sake of my art. Still, she moved me, and I bought a copy of her book. I even had her sign it as I shamelessly told her about my essay in Convivium since Rebecca had given her a copy. After Heather’s presentation, we heard the sacred music group from Notre Dame. I do not have words to describe how they moved me. That night we had an open mic, to which I added myself late in the game, and read a portion of On the Edges of Elfland with voices to a group of sleepy but attentive artists.

Day 3

The next morning, somehow getting out of bed despite not going to sleep until after 2, I had my continental breakfast and headed to a wonderful panel moderated and brought together by Karl Pearsson and presented by Tim O’Malley, Heather King, Malcom Guite, and Vinita Hampton Wright. They talked about devotional writing “with teeth”. Tim and Malcolm particularly spoke to me as they made sure we understand that not everyone needs a “dark” devotional or loves literary poetry. The others on this panel, however, did an excellent job of reminding us that so many do need something darker. Throughout this panel, I couldn’t help but think, “Saturn gives way to Jove.”

I took a break after that panel and later joined Kevin M. Johnson and Cassidy Hall to hear them talk about the Inner Room and silence. It was a beautiful and practical panel where we actually practised silence (which, we were reminded, is not necessarily the absence of noise but an interior quiet and focus). I needed this panel, for more than I could ever have realized. Later I attended a panel concerned with talking about the body in Catholic writing. The presentations were all different and difficult for me to describe. But the overall message was this: Catholicism is an embodied faith and that must come through in our art.

Sketch of me during my presentation by Joanna Penn Cooper
Sketch of me during my presentation by Joanna Penn Cooper

The final set of concurrent sessions was where my panel with Kevin and Jessica Mesman Griffith finally took shape. All of us, I think Jess and I in particular, struggled to prepare for our panel. And yet, something beautiful happened. Perhaps it was simply because we were tired, but we joked and laughed as moved flawlessly from Jess’s personal reflection on looking for magic and rediscovering the Catholic Church, Kevin’s reflections on the epistemological problems of modernity and the need for silence, and my own attempts to talk about sacramental ontology, liturgy, the Eucharist and Faërie. It certainly seems we touched on something important for many in the room that day.

The evening ended for me with Tim Powers and Br. Guy Consolmagno (the director of the Vatican Observatory). I have never laughed so much as I did in Tim Powers’ presentation. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the Sick Pilgrim after party since I had to get up early the next morning for my flight back home.

These short descriptions don’t do justice to this conference. They certainly do no justice to the presentations I heard (or to the ones I didn’t). But more, they cannot convey the spirit of the conference. I cannot convey the laughter I heard as I had drinks and meals with friends I was meeting in person for the first time. They cannot describe the glint I saw in so many eyes as the people at this conference discovered that they are not alone. The hugs, the love, the things extraneous to but made possible by this conference I cannot describe. But I loved it and I cannot wait for the next one in 2019.

Hopefully in the next day or so my panel’s audio will be posted and I’ll share it with you. Until then, make sure you check out the audio from so many of the other panels.

Sincerely,
David

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