Friday, January 05, 2007

Wilde for Catholicism

A flurry of news stories this morning report on the growing interest in Oscar Wilde as a Catholic literary figure.

What? How is it possible? Fr Leonardo Sapienza, a member of the protocol department of the Pontifical Household of Pope Benedict XVI, has included some Wilde quotations in a new book, and this has drawn further comment on thread of faith that helps make some sense of his literary output and forms a fascinating narrative of this life: his intense interest in Catholicism stretches from his youth to his deathbed conversion. It turns out that Wilde's last words were not "Either these curtains or I have to go," but rather the Act of Contrition.

The best book on this subject, and really the best biography overall, is Joseph Pearce's Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. And here's my own contribution to the Wilde/Catholicism literature, which went to print just as the Pearce book appeared, and which I had not read during my own research.

Here is a passage from the Picture of Dorian Gray, one which illustrates the magnificence of the Roman Rite, a passage that reveals as much about the author as it does the protagonist:

It was rumored of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jeweled, lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the "panis caelestis," the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives. But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail.

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