Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My Recent Talk

Last Sunday I gave a talk at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College, PA. Afterwards there was a wonderful discussion. It was a lovely time. Here is the transcript of the talk:
“Writing the Faith in the Modern World”

People always ask about my pen name: My legal name is Mary-Eileen Russell but I write under my Spanish grandmother’s name to honor her. I have been around the world and around the country but this is the first time I have been invited to talk about my books right here in the town where I live. I would like to thank Monsignor Lockard for inviting me and for having this series on the Arts. Thanks to everyone here at OLV.
As Pope Benedict XVI said last year in his "Address to Artists":
Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality….
The novel is certainly an art form. I write historical fiction and I try to see my books as a window into the past, as paintings which come to life and bring history to life for the reader. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1999 “Letter to Artists”:
Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.
In this modern world we are surrounded by negative images, images which can seduce and disturb the soul, generating despair. As Pope Benedict said:
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy.
This is particularly true of novels and historical fiction, which often use false interpretations of history to attack not only the church, but to subvert morals and promote an anti-Christian agenda. I am thinking particularly of Dan Brown’s books which use bogus history to promote a false image of Christ and Christians. Such novels are now legion. The back lash of this is to write a Catholic novel where all the Catholics are saints and all the non-Catholics are horrible people. But that is not real either.

The Church has always been a hospital for sinners and the so-called “bad Catholics” have always been with us, and probably will be until the end of time. A genuine portrayal of the past will reflect that fact. One of the challenges of my new book The Night’s Dark Shade is that it shows Catholics Behaving Badly. Should we gloss over historical truth? I think that if we stay faithful to the truths of our faith as well as being faithful to historical accuracy, the faith will shine through. In the darkest times, there were always saints, there were martyrs. As I wrote in the preface of Trianon: "The darkness of the night makes the stars shine with an ever greater resplendence.” But prayer and research must accompany our journey, thorough prayer and thorough research.

In 1986 I had just received my Master's degree from SUNY Albany when I visited the cloistered Carmelite nuns in Schenectady, NY. I was fascinated with their austere, radical way of living the Gospel. I began reading the works of the Carmelite saints and going to daily Mass. I joined the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. The Third Order or Secular Discalced Carmelites are composed of lay people who make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience according to their state in life. They can be married but try to live the Carmelite charism of prayer in the world, in the spirit of the Holy Mother St. Teresa of Jesus. They commit themselves to saying parts of the Divine Office, including Morning and Evening prayer, as well as spiritual reading and at least a half an hour of mental prayer a day. Daily Mass is also encouraged, and devotion to Our Lady. Monthly meetings are required and an intensive formation period, too. There are certain days of fast, such as the vigils of some Carmelite feasts. The "habit" of Teresian Carmelites is the small brown scapular which symbolizes consecration to the Mother of God. Carmel is "Mary's order."

Being a tertiary has been a great mercy to me, for it has given a discipline and compass to my spiritual life. I have received much help, guidance and support over the years from my brothers and sisters in Carmel. It is a challenging but joyful vocation, of which no one is worthy, for like any vocation it is a gift from God.

Being a Carmelite has had a tremendous impact upon my writing, in that a lot of my flashes of inspiration have come during prayer time. An underlying theme in all my novels is that the trials of this world are nothing to the supernal joys of union with God. Nevertheless, we are called to carry the cross with Christ, which can be excruciating. While I was writing my first novel Trianon, I had to write about an infamous case of child abuse. It was so disturbing to me that making the Stations of the Cross everyday was the only was I could get through it.

People frequently ask me why I wrote Trianon. “Why would you ever want to write about Marie-Antoinette?” one of my cousins once asked me. One of the reasons is that I kept encountering educated people who really thought that Marie-Antoinette said "Let them eat cake." I kept running into Catholics who thought that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were killed as punishment for some egregious wickedness or, at least, for unforgivable stupidity.

Having read books about Louis and Antoinette since I was nine years old, I knew that not to be true; it was only after a great deal more research that I came to see how completely false is the common belief about the king and queen. But the demonization of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in the popular mind is necessary in order to justify the excesses of the French Revolution. When people have a false and distorted view of history, then it is difficult for them to grasp the present, and almost impossible to meet the future with any kind of preparedness.

The French Revolution was not necessary, simply because it is never necessary to murder tens of thousands of people. Reform certainly was needed, but reform can happen without death. Louis XVI was an intrepid reformer. He was not afraid to break with the past and abolish outdated customs, while introducing new ways of doing things. Louis was not resistant to change, although that is how he is usually portrayed. The changes were slow but over time might have been effective, had the violent upheavals not swept everything away. Too often the violence is represented as a sad but unavoidable means of achieving freedom and democracy. For the French Revolution overturned not only the social order but it was ultimately an attack on the Church. Many Catholics were killed, especially those peasants who did not want their religion taken away.

I started writing the novel about twenty-five years ago, while finishing graduate school. It was put aside for a long time, but after a trip to Vienna in 1995 the inspiration came to take it up again. It was never my intention to write Marie-Antoinette's complete life story but rather a series of vignettes from various points of view. The spiritual struggle in the lives of Louis and Antoinette became the focus. They were ordinary, flawed human beings who showed great fidelity and courage in a way that should never be forgotten. Where did they find strength and courage? Where does any Christian find it? It is such questions that I sought to explore in Trianon.

Madame Royale is the sequel to Trianon. It is about Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France, and her search for the lost dauphin~ a tale of mystery and political intrigue. I wanted to show how hard it can be for someone to be the sole survivor of violence in which one’s entire immediate family was killed. How does a person which such sorrow go on? Marie-Thérèse does go on because of her strong faith and sense of Christian mission.

Both Trianon and Madame Royale have been steady sellers over the years and have led to some remarkable experiences for me, such as being invited to appear on the EWTN BookMark show. Last year, I was invited to be a speaker at Eucharistic Convention in Auckland, NZ, which was an adventure if there ever was one. Let me just say it was a joy to travel to the other side of the world and find brothers and sisters who share the same Holy Catholic faith.

My new novel, The Night’s Dark Shade, published last November, takes place in medieval France and is about the infamous, highly controversial Albigensian crusade. I was told by an agent in New York that if I wrote a romance novel, instead of my usual historical fiction about the French Revolution, than she could make a lot of money for me. So about nine years ago I decided to try my hand at a romance novel, based on a story that came to mind when I was in Lourdes in 1994. However, as the story grew and the characters took life, and as I delved into the theological conflicts and liturgical aberrations of the time, then I knew there were too many important issues at stake to water it down into a rabid romance just for the sake of profit. I think Our Lady had her hand on me and wanted me to write something that would contain solid spirituality, while exploring the ravages of heresy in both society and individuals. The days of the Albigensians/Cathars were times that mirrored our own. In that way, history becomes relevant to the present. I hope that my novel helps people not only to understand the past but to gain insight into the issues of our own time.

Trianon and The Night’s Dark Shade are also available from Amazon Kindle as e-books. Madame Royale will be soon as well.

For anyone interested in a support group for Catholic writers, I would recommend the Catholic Writers Guild. It is for all kinds of writers who are trying to live their faith in a world that is hostile to our beliefs. They sponsor both an online and a live conference. They will be having their live conference in Philadelphia this year in August 4-6. I recommend it for those interested in getting ideas and inspiration for writing and for promoting one’s writings in an anti-Catholic world. I’ll be giving a presentation there, too.

In the meantime, please visit me at my blog called Tea at Trianon. I post daily on matters of faith and history. The blog has about 10,000 readers a month and has led me to meet many fascinating people around the world, authors and scholars, many of whom contribute to the blog with their own writings and commentary. So please stop by! My main website is

 I want to end with  another quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 "Address to Artists":
Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.


Julygirl said...

Jesus came to save sinners,and that too is the mission of the Church. However, there is sin within the Church, because the church is made up of people, and we are made of clay. That does not mean the Church in and of itself is evil. The secular world does not get that. They enjoy pointing their finger at the failure of religion to stanch the flow of evil. But each of us has to do what we can in whatever way we can to counteract the slanted view the world has of the Church. As a writer you could have chosen the low road and catered to mass appeal as have other writers. I commended you for, and God will bless you for, taking the high road in using your gifts as a writer to show the personal human struggle against evil and how one reaches out to God through the Church for strength in one's ever present struggle against sin.

Unknown said...

Beautiful! I love that final quote from Pope Benedict.

You are such a treasure, Elena. You really do keep this in mind when you write. Your work trulyy elevates.


elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much, you all!

lara77 said...

I must say Elena Maria,your novels illuminate and educate and made me realize how distorted our history books are; especially in the case of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Your faith sustains you as it does millions; this is what I so admire and am in awe. My late mother's Catholicism was her rock of Gibraltar and saw her through very tough times. I salute and embrace you in your work and faith. You illuminate my life and I am sure many others. God Bless you Elena Maria.

tubbs said...

Your penses here reminded me of the famous Wilde quote: "The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners; respectable people have to make do with the C of E."