I have long thought F. Scott Fitzgerald to be a very Catholic writer, though explicitly Catholic themes show up only rarely in his work. There’s the urbane Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise, for example, and a few scattered references in Tender is the Night, but mostly Fitzgerald’s Catholic sensibilities come through in his moral vision, in the interplay of truth and illusion we see, for example, in The Great Gatsby.
In a Fitzgerald biography, however, I’d once come upon a reference to an early (1920) short story called “Benediction,” and I took advantage of a Chicago snow day last week to track the story down. I was not disappointed.
The story is a gem, written in the witty, dancing prose of the youthful Fitzgerald, and touching on many of his typical themes—the giddiness of coming of age, the wistful sadness of romance, even a hint at class sensitivities. The story centers around Lois, a romantic and beautiful nineteen-year-old travelling to Baltimore to meet her lover, Howard; on her way to their rendezvous she stops to visit her only brother Keith, a seminarian she has not seen in seventeen years.
Fitzgerald’s description of the seminarians spilling out onto the lawn after class like “a swarm of black human leaves” carrying thick volumes of Kant and Aquinas is typical of his lapidary prose—and hints at the identity of the crowd that Keith has gotten himself involved with:
There were many Americans and some Irish and some tough Irish and a few French, and several Italians and Poles, and they walked informally arm in arm with each other in twos and threes or in long rows, almost universally distinguished by the straight mouth and the considerable chin—for this was the Society of Jesus, founded in Spain five hundred years before by a tough-minded soldier who trained men to hold a breach or a salon, preach a sermon or write a treaty, and do it and not argue…
Keith, whom Lois remembers chiefly from the picture of a skinny teenager their mother keeps on her bureau, turns out to be a true brother—understanding, kind, insightful, sympathetic, confident. Lois describes him as “sweet.” He recounts his vocation story with slight dissatisfaction, feeling, as one often does when telling one’s vocation story, that something inexpressible—the most important thing—has been left out.
In Keith and his fellow Jesuits, Lois encounters something she recognizes as beautiful and weighty—and different. What is more, Lois, a Catholic herself, though by her own description a “lukewarm” one, seems to realize that this different something around which her brother’s life revolves makes a claim on her too.
This claim, while beautiful, also provokes a conflict. Howard, the young man Lois is planning to visit, whom we never see, claims to be a socialist; from the overwrought prose of a telegram he has sent to Lois, he seems the sort of brooding twenty-year-old pseudo-intellectual we’ve all met in college. We know that their relationship cannot end in marriage, though we are never told exactly why. We’re led to believe that even Lois recognizes its hopelessness—though perhaps this only adds to the affair’s romance. In a very telling line toward the story’s end, Lois confesses to Keith “how inconvenient being a Catholic is.”
All of this conflict, never fully articulated, comes to a head when Lois joins the young Jesuits for Benediction in their chapel. Everything is familiar and yet strange, and, overcome with the incense, the heat of the chapel, and her inner strife, she faints. In the chapel Lois sees Keith and his friends, with whom she had been joking and eating ice cream only moments before, as “like dead men.”
What Lois realizes in the chapel, and in a previous conversation with Keith, is that Christianity involves a real loss, a real death. Keith describes the first few months of his novitiate as a loss of “self-pity and pride,” but Lois describes this surrender as a loss of humanity and sympathy. One gets the sense that she knows, on some level, that Keith is right—in the story’s final scenes, he could not be more sympathetic—but that this knowledge frightens her.
The story ends ambiguously—we don’t see Lois herself, but overhear two telegram clerks talking about her instead—and we’re led to believe she has returned to Howard, after writing and then discarding a telegram to him breaking it all off. Such second thoughts, however, are a significant change for Lois. At the end of the story’s first section, after she has arranged her rendezvous with Howard and just before she goes to meet Keith, she thinks to herself “never be sorry… never be sorry.”
By the story’s end she realizes that life is far more complex, far deeper than this carefree and superficial sentiment conveys. Lois’ encounter with God, with Catholicism deeply lived by Keith and his companions, has changed her. It may not, Fitzgerald leads us to believe, have resulted in a conversion such as we read about in hagiographies, an about-face from a life of sin to a life of grace. But it has resulted in a life that is deeper, that contains previously ignored levels of meaning and profundity, a life perhaps more difficult, but also more real.
The same thing might be said about Fitzgerald’s own life and work. Jay Gatsby’s creator was a flawed man who nonetheless deeply mourned his flaws, a writer who understood the connection between loss and beauty, between pain and redemption: in short, a writer and a man of the deepest Catholic sensibilities.