When I was a youth, two novels that I didn’t read until recently caught my attention, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. My interest in the first was stirred by an article I read long ago in Atlantic Monthly. I had been repelled by the second; but, I was often reminded of it in those days of youth by the number of my fellow students who were carrying the book with a bright red cover around in school. It has been very popular, evidenced by its 65, 000, 000 copies.
Invisible Man tells the story of the misadventures of a young black man in the America of the mid Twentieth Century. He struggled against the stereotypes and prejudices of the time. After being unjustly thrown out of a black college in the American South, he time and again is the object of injustice. He perceived himself as invisible, of no account, a man not seen as an individual person by others, but existing only in the imagination of others as a representative of his race. So is the fate of many African American in our society. The novel speaks of great social, political, and spiritual dissonance among a significant population in our country whose ancestors have been in this land longer than many of ours.
I recently read the book, and was glad I did. The downside was discovering, yet again, how egregious black experience can be from the account of a gifted black writer.
Catcher in the Rye is also a book of dissonance, expressed in the thoughts of a disturbed young man named Holden Caulfield. Holden had been thrown out of a number of private boarding schools; and, when the book begins, he had just been thrown out of another one, again for failing most of his courses. The book then gives an account of his traveling to New York City to spend three or so days of freedom on the streets, bars, and hotels of the city before going home to his parents. Holden has a jaundiced view of the world and the many “phony” people in it. Actually, he possessed some acute insight into the way the world works and didn’t much like it. Though an atheist, he had feelings of a spiritual nature. He also loved his sister, Phoebe, and lamented the death of his brother Allie.
His account is given from a psychiatric hospital. As in Invisible Man, we find an instance of psychological and spiritual alienation in a young person that responded in a certain way to the difficulties and challenges of life.
Many youth today like our two young men in the novels have felt the harsh realities of modern American life. Though our protagonists speak from the middle of the Twentieth Century, their narratives speak clearly to us. The only difference is that things have gotten worse.
What can the church do that she had not done for the young people of our country? The question is not so easy to answer. I have only a little bit to offer. Our young people must know that we care for them and are concerned for their plight. We must encourage them to hold firm to the Christian faith; and where the opportunity presents itself, we must reach out to those who are not Christians. We must give them a taste of leadership in the church, training them up eventually to take charge when we are old or gone. We must not have contempt for them, yet we must be honest about the dark places they often wander. We must be relevant without thinking we must adopt silly and outlandish ways. We must come better to understand why certain destructive ways are so attractive to them. We must not patronize them, but praise their gifts, accomplishments, and good instincts. We need to listen to them so that we know what is going on with them. Also, we need to impress on them that we have attained some wisdom with the years so that they know that we are available to give counsel like the older folks have done for thousands of years (see Proverbs). We must never stereotype them, but see them as individuals in the crowd and treat them as God’s beloved children.
We must witness to the youth inside and outside the church with gentleness and respect, and show, as best we can, the way of Christ in word and deed. We must make every effort not to be “phony.” The programs of the church need to reflect such concerns. If we need to make our witness more effective, I know we can and, hopefully, we will.
Michael G. Tavella
Saint Benedict of Nursia, Abbot, July 11, 2023