Monday, June 2, 2014

Why the Priests in Novels Are So Often Jesuits



Two of my historical mysteries have priests as major characters.  Both of them are Jesuits.  I hadn’t thought about why they are members of the Society of Jesus and not Franciscans or Dominicans.  Then one day, at a Historical Novel Society Conference, I found myself on a panel with four other mystery writers.  The panel was called “Four X’s and a Y Mark the Spot.”   I think we were named that because four of us were women and the fifth was a man.  Then during the introductions, I learned that three of us had written about Jesuits. “They could have named this panel ‘Three Jesuits, a Jew, and an Anglican,’” I quipped.

But that set me to thinking—how did the Jesuits become the go-to guys whenever a novelist needs a priest.  I knew my explanation:  I wanted my priests to be deeply religious, really intelligent, and to have a capacity to embrace ambiguity.  That pretty much described what I learned about the Jesuits through history.  But I wondered if other writers had the similar reasons.  So I asked the others on that panel and another friend.  Here is what they said:




 First witness, the delightful Susan Spann, historical mystery writer and attorney who specializes in publishing law.  Library journal gave a much-deserved star to her Claws of the Catfirst of her Shinobi series—and declared it the debut mystery of the month. The second in the series, Blade of the Samurai will launch this coming July 15th.  You can visit her at http://www.susanspann.com


Susan says:  “In my case, I used Jesuits because the Jesuits were the only priests in Japan at the time I'm writing. The 16th century was the apex of the ninja's power in Japan, and also a brief window when a foreign presence was permitted in that then-closed country. I chose the overlapping years to set my novels because I needed a pair of western eyes to act as a focusing lens for some of the less well-known aspects of Japanese culture. I could have chosen a merchant, or a sailor, but the Jesuits had a unique perspective on indigenous culture that many laymen lacked. Many westerners saw medieval Japan as strange, violent, and unpleasant. By contrast, the Jesuits genuinely wanted to understand the Japanese culture. Most foreigners of the time kept to their native ways while living in Japan. The Jesuits embraced Japanese culture, living like the Japanese. Francis Xavier instructed the Jesuits in Japan to differ "only on vital points of doctrine," which means that my fictitious Jesuit would want to understand the subtleties of Japanese culture in ways that help me connect with and educate the reader (without sounding preachy).


Besides...Jesuits are cool.”








Our second to testify is Carlos Dews, half of the writing team called Sam Cabot, which also includes the marvelous SJ Rozan.  Their first joint story, Blood of the Lamb featured Father Thomas Kelly and is a marvelous race through Rome, twenty-four hours of breathless page-turning adventure that is also challenge to the intellect.  I loved it and eagerly await the next in the series Skin of the Wolf.  It will bring Father Kelly and his cohorts art historian Livia Pietro and scholar Spencer George to New York.  You can visit the Sam Cabot page on Facebook-- https://www.facebook.com/SamCabotWriter



Here is what Carlos, who lives near the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, had to say about making Father Kelly a Jevvy.



There are many reasons why Thomas Kelly, one of the two protagonists in BLOOD OF THE LAMB, is a Jesuit priest.   From the very beginning I knew I wanted one of the two protagonists to be a priest and I wanted him to be a historian of the Catholic Church.  That naturally made me think of the Jesuits, as they are popularly known as the intellectuals of the Church.  I also wanted Thomas to be Irish American and to have graduated from an important Catholic university in the U.S.  Boston College and Fordham University were the top choices.  Since Thomas is Irish-American, Boston College was slightly better, given the Irish immigration to Boston.  I was also attracted to the Jesuits as the order for Thomas because of their own problematic history within the Catholic Church itself. Since we hoped that Thomas Kelly, and his co-protagonist Livia Pietro, would feature in a series, we could use Jesuit institutions around the world to explain Thomas's comings and goings abroad (for example, Thomas is on sabbatical from his U.S. institution and is working temporarily at Heythrop College in London when readers are first introduced to him in BLOOD OF THE LAMB). Finally, for subtle plot reasons, a Jesuit was best--the primary and most explosive secret of the novel is known only to a few men at the very top of the church hierarchy.  Thomas's discovery would work best if no, or very few, Jesuits had been read into the secret. (Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, was chosen while BLOOD OF THE LAMB was in press).



The last of our group today has a resume that would daunt even a Jesuit scholar.  She has been a dancer and choreographer, a cop, and a college professor with a PhD in theology from Union Theological Seminary!  Judith Rock is four books into her critically acclaimed Charles du Luc mystery series.  Set in 17th century France, it not only gives us a Jesuit protagonist, but shows us precisely how erudite and far-ranging are the interests of the most fascinating priests in fiction.  http://www.judithrock.com




Judith writes: Well, there's a lot to say in answer to your question, but I'll do my best to keep it reasonably short! First, I'm not sure Jesuits are the 'favorite' religious order for novelists--lots of Benedictines out there. And some writers presenting Jesuits do so in order to use the anti-Jesuit conspiracy theory mythology--Dan Brown, of course, and others. 

I find real Jesuits and their real history much more interesting. During my 20 years as a professional modern dancer, I discovered that the 17th and 18th century Jesuits in France and Germany produced ballets in their boys' schools as part of teaching physical communication. Which makes sense, because they were--and are--Christian humanists who understand the physical and spiritual to be intricately connected. 



So when I decided to do a doctorate, I did a dissertation on the ballets produced at the Jesuit school in Paris called Louis le Grand(a secondary school for boys)from 1660 to 1760. The more research I did and the more French and American Jesuits I got to know, the more interested I was. I lived in the scholars' wing of a Jesuit community while doing the Paris research, and the guys there became my French family. They taught me better French, helped me with my research, and even had me give them a dance workshop, to which they came barefoot and in their undershirts--and leaped in the air, rolled around on the floor, and generally had a great time!  

No group is perfect, but in my experience, Jesuits tend to be very intelligent, open, interested in most everything, and with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. I've always found them great company!

When I decided, many years later, to try writing a novel based on my research, I wanted readers to find my central character, the young Jesuit Charles du Luc, equally good company. Charles teaches in Paris at Louis le Grand and helps produce the ballets there. He's tough-minded, funny, hates lies ,and has a rich interior life. He's too intelligent to think anything human is all black and or all white--including his own Society of Jesus. He's also an ex-soldier, having inherited bravery from real Jesuits I've known. In the  community where I lived in France, most of the older men had been active in the Resistance and in helping Jews escape during the WWII occupation of France. 


A few small notes to end with: 1.Not all Jesuits become priests--most do,but it's not a requirement. 2.The source of the conspiracy theory D. Brown uses is an early 17th century forgery written by a dismissed Polish Jesuit who wanted revenge. It's called The Monita Secreta (Secret Instructions),and was proven a forgery by non-Jesuit scholars when it first appeared. But because it claims to be instructions given to an inner circle of Jesuits about running the world, it lives on. Everyone loves a conspiracy theory...  

In the 4th Charles book, The Whispering of Bones, part of the plot revolves around the Monita . (I read a 1678 French copy of it in Paris in 2012, as part of researching WofB.)

Finally, on my website, there's a brief excerpt from the 1709 Paris Jesuit ballet L'Esperance, which I restaged in San Francisco in 1985.”

There you have it.  My conclusion is this: If you want your priest character to be at once believable and at the same time have an unbelievable range of interests and talents, make him a Jesuit.




Annamaria - Monday

16 comments:

  1. I worship at the altar of your historical perspectives. (Although I must admit to not being a mono-altarist.)

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    1. EvKa, Nor am I. Mostly I call myself an atheist. After 17 years of Catholic school, that is a lot to say. But sometimes I think like a pagan.

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    2. EvKa, these are all really excellent writers, BTW.

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    3. They sound quite interesting, and I intend to check out (not from the library, different "check out" :-) their works. Thanks for "exposing" them to us!

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  2. There's a 1709 Jesuit ballet? Okay! Thank you, a fun and informative column. And very meta; with 52 blogs a year to churn out, you induced your fellow panelists to provide most of this one; a move that might be described as Jesuitical.

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    1. Yup, Lenny, and everybody gains. My professor of courses in logic and epistemology was a Jesuit. I loved his courses. He and Machiavelli taught me how to win and how to be moral at the same time. I wish they were here to talk today's tycoons out of their evil ways

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    2. I have a soft spot in my heart for Jesuits. I'm sure that's because of my time spent at Boston College a clearly different experience from my growing up days in a distinctly non-Jesuit but Roman Catholic Pittsburgh neighborhood.

      I loved the intellectual honesty of the Jesuits...especially the late Robert Drinan, then Dean of the Law School...and now the great instincts Pope Francis has shown for what the world really needs: Honest humility and caring.

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    3. I agree completely, Jeff. To me, the Jesuits were always more fun as teachers and as writers than any of the other priests I knew. I have left the fold, but like most "fallen away" Catholics, I pay attention to what the Church is and is not doing. Frances is the best thing that has happened to it in decades. And he is from Buenos Aires, precincts I have taken a big interest in.

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  3. LOVE this article - and the graphic is stellar. Thank you for letting me weigh in on the subject, too. I love my Jesuit (and I'm delighted to be in such talented company in this roundup, too!)

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  4. Susan, I got you three to write most of my blog. I think I would have gotten way with it too, if Lenny hadn't outed me.

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  5. What a great article. I will take your advice to heart. Fortunately I know a few quasi Jesuits for primary research.

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    1. Michael, "quasi" Jesuits. Now that is suspenseful in and of itself. An ex-Jesuit? I can see him as a hero in a thriller. Mmmm.

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  6. Fun topic! I hadn't really been counting the Jesuits, but you're right, there are quite a few of them.

    My own priests (in a yet-unpublished historical) were Montesanos, brother-knights following the Cistercian rule, for a variety of historical reasons: a lesser-known group which no longer exists today, subject to another order's visiting master for plot convenience, and the unused-but-fun background of having been formed out of the remnants of the Iberian Templars. But maybe the next will be Jesuits. ;-)

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    1. Laura, this is what I love about historical fiction. Writers--like you--take us to completely "new" places in history, fascinating ones that we had before never known about. Keep at it. It took me ten years to find a publisher for "City of Silver." But here are am!

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  7. This was of great interest to me, as I commuted to the Jesuit monastery in Wernersville, PA for a year several years ago to study the Spiritual Exercises with them there and got to know many of the men as real people. I loved the atmosphere, their mental clarity and trueblueness as humans and will always think of them as a cut above most of the other ecclesiastical professionals in the world! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

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  8. Woops--This response is long overdue--I did write directly to Annamaria--but want to say again how terrific the column is! And how pleased I am to be part of it Also, to Lenny above who comments on the existence of the 1709 ballet, hundreds of baroque ballets were produced in Jesuit schools as part of teaching physical rhetoric from about 1660 to 1760. It's fascinating stuff! And congrats, Annamaria, on today's book release!!

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