Communion, Compassion, Charity
Below, I have posted the editorial that will appear in the upcoming double issue of Irreantum, due to arrive in your mailbox in November. The characters you’ll come to know in this issue include a pair of feuding farmers, a suicidal grandmother, an adulterous wife, a disgraced seminary teacher, and an earthen volcano erupting with snakes. (Okay, so technically the snake volcano’s not a character, but it’s a really cool image.)
On the face of it, none of these topics seems particularly “uplifting.” In fact, many of them are downright dark. But as I’ve read and reread the stories and essays and poems contained in this issue, I’ve found myself inspired, even spiritually fed. As I contemplated why such difficult topics can engender such seemingly contradictory responses, I began to fashion my editorial on the idea of communion, compassion, and charity in literature.
So before you read the editorial, I’ll pose my question:
It seems to me that Mormon theology can (or should) equip us as Mormon artists to create work that engenders and promotes charity. But are we doing this? If we are, where do you see it? If we aren’t, at least not very effectively or consistently . . . why? (I have my own ideas about this, but I want to hear yours first.)
What does your character want?
This is a question any writer of stories must be able to answer. At the core of every good piece of fiction or creative nonfiction—even, I would argue, at the core of every good poem—lies an unfulfilled yearning. Sometimes this yearning expresses itself in grand adventure. There are dragons to slay and mountains to scale. But often a character’s desires are circumscribed by the boundaries of the personal; there’s a longing for love, independence, faith, renewal, understanding. In the hands of a skillful writer, a character with these private yearnings can be just as potent and compelling as any sword-wielding hero.
This issue of Irreantum is full of heroes and heroines, and each one of them, in turn, is full of desire. The details of what is wanted change from story to story, but it seems to me the impetus for each character’s journey is essentially the same: the people in these pages want communion.
The sacred overtones of the word “communion” are appropriate for a journal like Irreantum. After all, this magazine attempts to bind two impulses—the artistic and the religious. But I see the broader definition of communion working somehow in every piece published in this issue. I sense the longing for intimate connectedness, the desire to be stripped of pretense, the need to be seen, to be heard, to be known.
I understand these characters’ desires. My own search for communion has led me, time and time again, to other people’s stories. To literature. The best characters—be they found in fiction or nonfiction—are those who let me know them. This intimacy not only helps me better understand those who live outside my personal and cultural boundaries, but I believe it helps me know myself better too.
In the contributors’ notes for Best American Short Stories 2007, the author Richard Russo posits that transformative literary experiences can help tear down the walls we humans erect around ourselves. He says:
The study of literature has had what I believe to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for—to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion? (409)
The idea that we create art as a way to encourage charity is a heavy one to contemplate. But it rings true to me. As a Mormon, I believe each individual on earth is a hero in his or her own epic, extraordinary, eternal journey. Each life on this planet is but a chapter in a decidedly character-driven story. As I try to see the world and the people in it more clearly, every story I know broadens the scope of my vision. I agree with Russo: my acquaintance with literature helps me live with compassion.
As readers come to the stories and essays and poems in Irreantum’s pages, it is my hope they will get a sense of the communion I believe the best art offers us. Perhaps some will see themselves in these characters’ yearnings and, in that recognition, gain a measure of power, or peace. Is this a lofty goal? I suppose. But if there’s any kind of literature that can “engender and promote charity,” I believe a Mormon literature can.