Literary critic shines light on faith’s influence on Catholic writers

New Jersey native Nick Ripatrazone once considered the priesthood. But today, he is a teacher, literary critic and the father of twin daughters.

“I think writers go through phases (but) creatively, I’ve landed mostly in the genre of narrative non-fiction — writing that is inspired by and based on true accounts, but benefits from storytelling methods, such as characterization, dialogue, and pacing, that are germane to fiction,” he told Catholic News Service.

Ripatrazone and his family are parishioners at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Sparta, New Jersey. He told CNS about how he discerned his vocation.

“My father and I, when we were both in college, were formed by a Jesuit-Ignatian tradition, and that shaped our understanding of and appreciation for the priesthood,” Ripatrazone said in an interview. “While I was discerning whether to take the step of applying to the seminary, I met my future wife, (and) it was an easy decision. The priest who was advising me at the time told me this was exactly how discernment was supposed to happen –– God would reveal my true purpose and path.”

Ripatrazone is the author of seven books of literary criticism, poetry, short stories and a novella. He also serves as culture editor for Image Journal, a quarterly magazine specializing in art, poetry and prose with faith and spiritual themes. In addition, he contributes to the U.K.-based Catholic Herald with a monthly column on American Catholic culture.

Ripatrazone also teaches English at Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope, New Jersey. From 2004 to 2015, he taught at Bridgewater-Raritan Regional High School in Somerset County, New Jersey. Concurrent with his high school teaching, Ripatrazone lectured part-time at Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey.

While the author has produced books of poetry and short fiction, his forte appears to be in the area of journalism and literary criticism. His major work to date, “Longing for an Absent God,” is an examination of faith and doubt in the U.S. literary tradition. The book discusses the work of practicing and lapsed Catholic writers as illustrations of a lifelong quest to discover the purpose of religious faith against a backdrop of uncertainty, doubt and suffering.

As Ripatrazone notes in the book, “Contemporary Catholic literature is sustained by the interplay between works by practicing and cultural Catholics. That a Catholic worldview transcends the lived practice of Catholic belief has resulted in a rich and diverse literature that continues to make a significant contribution to American letters. Practicing or lapsed, Catholic writers long for God, and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.”

In his discussion of faith’s influence in contemporary fiction, Ripatrazone has a special place for the late Toni Morrison, who earned a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize and countless other awards during a 45-year writing career.

“That one of the finest, most heralded American writers (Toni Morrison) 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.”

Some commentators have described Ripatrazone as a writer who specializes in unearthing Catholic faith elements not only in fiction, but in various modes of popular media. Some of this writing appears in the Truly Adventurous, a digital magazine focusing on drama and real-life incidents.

Another recently published work is “Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age.” Ripatrazone is a long-time devotee of the late media guru, and the book highlights how McLuhan’s Catholicism became the foundation of many of his media theories.

As if he isn’t busy enough with the full-time teaching load, the author is now working on a new work, “The Habit of Poetry: The Literary Lives of Nuns in Mid-century America.”

“This book outlines the work of a handful of Catholic nuns and religious sisters who wrote skilled and noteworthy (but little-known) poems in the middle of the last century,” Ripatrazone said. “I have encountered women who both lived grace-filled lives as sisters and nuns, and other women who left those grace-filled lives for a world outside convent walls.”

Despite his full-time teaching workload, Ripatrazone is awaiting completion of motion picture based on one of his stories in Truly Adventurous magazine.

For Ripatrazone, Catholic fiction, particularly that created by lapsed Catholics, suggests a longing for spiritual meaning and a continued fascination with the language and feeling of faith, as well as a profound struggle that “illuminates their stories speaks to their readers.”

Ripatrazone in turn offers insights into the motivation and inspiration of practicing Catholic novelists.

“The sincerity of their literary faiths,” he says, “makes their works devotional, but not in a pedantic way. They are bearing literary witness to the power of story. For a practicing Catholic fiction writer, Christ is metaphor, body, symbol, blood, breath — Christ is all. It is a paradox, but one that resides in the ambiguity that is required of faith.”

Whether composing narrative nonfiction, poetry or short fiction, Ripatrazone remains focused on “Catholic storytelling.” His creative work emphasizes an original actor or central character as they muddle through the hills and valleys of a capricious, dimly understood existence. At the same time, Ripatrazone aims for the universal in much of his work.

“Catholic literature needs to be ‘catholic’, so to speak, to transcend the metaphorical walls of the church and reach a wider community,” Ripatrazone said. “Catholicism is a tremendous ‘story’ — a true story, of course, and writers and poets who skillfully and humbly examine the tensions, paradoxes, revelations, and images of that story can create beautiful and dynamic work. Above all, the language has to sing. Create something beautiful, and people will read it — and ponder the truth behind the words.”

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Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto.

Original Article