An American Catholic Pilgrimage
Dan Hornsby is a young writer to watch. Via Negativa is this 32-year-old author’s debut novel, a relevant, funny, earnest, eloquent book that is soaked in theology. I spoke to him recently about the novel, but also about religion, spirituality, vocation and more.
Via Negativa is the story of a Roman Catholic priest who has been ousted from his parish in Indiana. The story begins on the interstate: “Somebody hit a coyote and I pulled over to the shoulder to take a look at it.” Think American Midwest in the age of Trump meets the Camino de Santiago. But more than that, you might think of vocation. As this septuagenarian priest ponders his identity on the road, so does the reader.
The priest is Father Dan. In other words, Father Anyone. He loves to read and has remained deeply engaged with books even decades after leaving the seminary. He is carrying stacks of Origen, Bede the Venerable and the Desert Fathers in the back of his Toyota Camry while driving west, meandering slowly, stopping at odd places along the way. “I’ve tried to make the car into a mobile monk’s cell,” he narrates, the first hint that he never had much time to himself in a lifetime of parish work.
Father Dan summarizes the thought of Origen: “At the beginning of time we were all made of fire and turned toward God in constant, sizzling contemplation, burning up His divine fumes.” Then he explains, with equal brevity and brilliance, why Origen was never canonized.
He has some experience with drugs: There was a bit of pot in minor seminary, and his car holds a bottle of Niravam, presumably prescribed to him for depression, although we never really know for sure. He administers it in half-doses to the injured coyote he has gathered from the highway and begun to care for in the backseat of the car.
While we are not usually supposed to associate writers with the characters they create, the similarities in Via Negativa were too close to pass unnoticed.
Their pilgrimage, as real as any I’ve encountered in American fiction, begins in Muncie. (“They’d given me two weeks to move out of the rectory.”) Father Dan and the coyote are slowly, uncertainly making their way toward Seattle to see Clara and Brian, a couple who were best friends with Father Dan at their Indiana parish but have since moved on. The Toyota takes the place of the rectory that Father Dan no longer has.
They journey across 2,500 miles of American frontier, taking a route that is not at all direct. Father Dan listens to compact discs of the artist Prince, in whom he hears “a real mystical theology.” He tracks his course on an old-fashioned road atlas. He’s a baby boomer, and a sincere one. “All priests are supposed to be without homes,” he reflects, probably to make himself feel better.
He sees his generation of priests in a way that made me smile and wince all at once:
There are guitar-playing priests, and there are pre-Vatican II priests, and there are Eisenhower priests. There are pedophile priests and there are communist priests. There are pot-smoking priests (subcategory of guitar-playing priests) and alcoholic priests (functioning, tragic, or, that fine balance, Irish). There are gun-owning priests, golfing priests, and tennis-playing priests. There are gay priests and there are priests that are much too straight. There are poetry-reading priests and there are Merton-esque meditating priests, categories I might fall under.
But these categories prove a bit too pat for our narrator, because we soon see that it is not at all easy to “place” Father Dan.
“I wasn’t a very good pastor, or parish priest, for that matter,” the narrator of Via Negativa reflects. “I was stubborn and prone to prickly megrims.”
Dan the author (not the priest)
The author of this book, the novelist Dan Hornsby, is of course also a Dan, and while we are not usually supposed to associate writers with the characters they create, the similarities in Via Negativa were too close to pass unnoticed. For example, the first line of the novelist’s biography on the flap of the dust jacket tells us that “Daniel Hornsby was born in Muncie, Indiana.” A few lines later we discover he has two master’s degrees, an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. Again, Hmm. These are seemingly significant parallels that have been deliberately pointed out in his biography. I asked Hornsby: Did you want the reader to see you behind Father Dan?
“At first,” Hornsby said, “naming him after myself was a little bit of self-trickery, scaffolding I thought I’d eventually remove. It allowed me to identify more closely with a character whose experience didn’t necessarily match up with mine—I’m not a priest, I’m 40 years younger than Father Dan—but whose interiority has some overlap. The name just stuck, since about 25 percent of all Catholic priests of vague Irish extraction are named Dan.”
“The more I thought about it, the more I liked it,” he continued. And then:
In addition to being something of a joke at the expense of autofiction, blurring the lines between the author and the narrator seemed like a way to riff on some of the weird tactics my favorite writers and spiritual thinkers use. Dionysius the Areopagite, the writer whose work forms the core of the apophatic tradition, hid behind a pseudonym; the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is anonymous, maybe for his own protection; even Dante’s pilgrim is both him and not him.
I had to ask what “autofiction” meant. It is a term of postmodern literature, current since the 1980s, that refers to books like Via Negativa, in which a novel’s protagonist shares the name of its author. This is in contrast to what we often refer to as autobiographical novels, like David Copperfield. In other words, autofiction is, by definition, meant to be playful.
Hornsby makes sudden and seamless transitions from plot and narrative to theology or the history of theology.
Dan the priest (not the author)
Father Dan is wearing his clerical collar along the way: in the car, at rest areas and at roadside attractions in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado and Montana. He alternates between pastoral counseling and screwing up badly at each of the places where he stops. “Priests creep me out,” one waitress tells him, and they end up having a long conversation about God, miracles and dreams.
There are several moments of self-doubt. “I wasn’t a very good pastor, or parish priest, for that matter,” he reflects. “I was stubborn and prone to prickly megrims.” And later: “I’ve occasionally been grateful not to have been a fisherman in Galilee 2,000-plus years ago. I worry I would have been asked to follow and wouldn’t have been able to. I’m afraid I would’ve just kept on fishing.” I didn’t believe these statements. By then, I already felt I knew the real Father Dan.
Hornsby makes sudden and seamless transitions from plot and narrative to theology or the history of theology. One second, the priest is throwing a blanket, soiled by the coyote in the backseat, into a rest stop trash can, and the next second the priest tells us: “Bede joined the monastery of Monkwearmouth when he was seven. As an oblate.”
Father Dan fasts and experiences visions, most of them inconsequential. He uses words like “thaumaturgical,” which means “wonderworking.” And he quotes Catholic mystics like John of the Cross along with the aforementioned Dionysius, Origen and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. He suggests at one point that it is his passion for these authors and his following of these texts (Thomas Merton too) that are “at the root of why I no longer live at the rectory, why I now live in a Toyota Camry.” Even if you are a priest, I suppose, to go via negativa—what Meister Eckhart called “the wayless way”—is not good for a career.
The road is Father Dan’s home and his life is now all pilgrimage—and there are misadventures.
He is also an eccentric. We hear anecdotes from Father Dan’s experiences in parishes over four decades. For example, he once spent two months at a parish in Crawfordsville, Ind., building a large geodesic dome near the rectory, modelled on a design by Michelangelo, and then used it for personal retreats to escape the other priests.
“The dome wasn’t the first time I’ve tried to give myself a mystical experience,” Father Dan says. There are other, similar attempts to experience something wonderful, including a bizarre vision while he is on a hermit retreat in the middle of New Mexico that includes nudists running past his campsite.
He has a visionary experience while immersed in the complete darkness of the dome for four days. The precision with which Father Dan details the experience made me wonder if Hornsby had written the scene from personal experience. “Did you try it?” No, Hornsby replied, he didn’t. However, “I loved that there was a way of seeing that came from cultivating darkness. John of the Cross could have made up that study. I didn’t try it myself, though maybe I should one of these days. A silent retreat for the eyes.”
Father Dan’s best friend left the priesthood years ago to get married after falling in love with a Unitarian Universalist minister. Father Dan himself considered leaving the priesthood in 2002, when The Boston Globe reported on priestly sexual abuse and coverups on a massive scale. Instead, Father Dan concludes, “I decided it was my role to remain on the edge of the outside of things.” Nevertheless, he begins to ponder a surprise visit to a guilty priest he once knew in Indiana, who is now living in quiet retirement in Montana. That potential visit takes on an increasingly ominous tone as the novel progresses.
The road is Father Dan’s home and his life is now all pilgrimage—and there are misadventures. Stopping at a garish roadside attraction billed as a bottomless pit to hell, he adds a teenage girl, Anna, to his car, accidentally. She stows away in his trunk. A day later, he returns her to her father. This causes the priest to reflect: “Hitchhikers are anachronisms. So are priests. I think it’s safe to say hitchhikers have more in common with Jesus than most priests do.” Further, “I think the holiest people are the ones who can leave everything behind in search of a true life.”
On another occasion, he obtains a handgun. He hides it from sight, but becomes increasingly interested in what it does. He likes the feel of it in the palm of his hand. He practices loading and unloading it.
He continues to rehearse mistakes that he made as a pastor. Then he discovers that his old best friend—the priest who left to get married—had once been raped by a priest when they were students together in minor seminary.
By the time Father Dan is ready to release the coyote, near the end of the novel, the animal is too accustomed to his crate and his cans of tuna fish to go. Together, they continue driving on to Montana, where Father Dan fantasizes how he might kill the retired pedophile priest with that gun.
I won’t tell you how it ends.
The last few decades have seen a great deal of spiritual reflection in contemporary fiction.
Theology and fiction
The last few decades have seen a great deal of spiritual reflection in contemporary fiction. Writers like Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo have written novels of the “spiritual but not religious” sort. What distinguishes Via Negativa is unique: a protagonist who is actively involved religiously, reflecting on his religious institutions and even wrangling over doctrinal controversies, yet in the context of a novel for the widest possible audience.
Via Negativa is full of theological insight—of the Catholic, via negativa sort. For example, Father Dan describes some of his health problems, which resemble those of some of the saints he adores. St. Teresa of Ávila suffered terrible migraines, and St. Francis of Assisi inexplicable ecstasies. Father Dan tells us that he has also had these experiences, part of a mysterious “cocktail of illness, depression, and illumination,” he concludes. Then he offers this: “I think my first religious instincts were partly born in these bizarre headaches and can be traced back to the holes in the world they made. Or showed.”
This reminded me of another novel that I love: Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. Like that earlier classic, Via Negativa is about a deeply religious life that is without much peace—or, perhaps better, a confusing and conflicting peace. There is nothing nostalgic here, just as there wasn’t in Hansen’s beautiful book.
However, Father Dan has become peripatetic like a friar, in contrast to Mariette’s cloistered life as a nun. At the end of Chapter Four, Father Dan reflects, “If we want to see God in the world, all we have to do is see the world.” I have long wrestled with a similar teaching from Martin Buber’s I and Thou: “One who truly goes out to meet the world goes out also to God.” So I shot the Father Dan quote back to Hornsby and asked him: Is this a via negativa teaching, or is it actually the antidote to such teaching? His response:
I turned this paradox over in my head a lot while I was writing the book. The present-absence of a God hiding everywhere. To start, I think this line in particular borrows from something Pseudo-Dionysius says: “God is therefore known in all things and as distinct from all things. He’s known through knowledge and through unknowing.”
There’s always something paradoxical to the wisdom of the negative way. The writers working in an apophatic mode are paradoxical just by way of writing, using experimental language to describe the way in which language can’t fully contain God. This feels pretty natural to me, despite the apparent contradiction. Painters and filmmakers are obsessed with darkness, musicians with silence.
As a writer, he is drawn to the limits of language, too: “There’s a complementary relationship, a conversation between knowing and not knowing, seeing and darkness, that’s part of a process, I think, for the soul to move toward God.”
Via Negativa is full of theological insight—of the Catholic, via negativa sort.
A vocation to mystery
I asked Hornsby: “You have two graduate degrees, and your novel seems well-born from both. What is your own vocation, and how is it related to the obtaining of those degrees?” I was fascinated by his answer:
To be completely honest, I’d lost all affection for faith and religion by the time I left Kansas for Michigan to get my MFA. For the reasons you might expect. Writing, and the hungry reading needed to do it, allowed me to cultivate my Catholic affinity for mystery, and I found in the books I loved the same kinds of sparkling and disturbing glimpses into reality that could keep me alive. Eventually I began writing more and more about people who were navigating the deep Catholic/Christian tradition, and as I read The Cloud of Unknowing and the sayings of the Desert Fathers, I found those texts spoke to me directly.
Hornsby said he still feels some anger and resentment that “so much of the tradition had been withheld from me when I needed it, especially the writers who offer a wilder, more mysterious and more demanding God.” At Harvard Divinity School, he tells me: “I tried to gain a greater sense of context for some of the texts that I admired, and also cultivate my own spirituality around darkness, silence and the limits of understanding. The book came out of that.”
There is a rootedness in the desert, not the pastoral, in this novel.
As for his vocation, he told me, “I think that when we make things—whether that’s a folk song or a [musical] beat or a poem or a dress—we participate in the same swirling mystery that made us. I want to be a part of that.”
There’s another much-discussed theological novel from about 15 years ago: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is also the story of a pastor in the American Midwest, a retired Congregationalist minister in Iowa. It is a generous, beautiful book, but Hornsby’s has a different feel altogether. Religion feels like a shared cultural identity in Gilead; in fact, the nostalgia of Gilead probably accounts for some of its success with readers. In contrast, the shared experience of Via Negativa is mostly, well, negative: clerical sexual abuse scandals and fights in the church over belief and power. But those elements are not why Via Negativa succeeds so brilliantly.
There is a rootedness in the desert, not the pastoral, in this novel. There is wisdom, but it comes from the reader’s experience of the narrative—the shared pilgrimage of the story—rather than the reflections of age and bygone times. Via Negativa is a story for the present and the future. It is also very funny and, frankly, we don’t give as many awards to humorous books as we should. It is inconceivable these days that a funny novel would win a major literary prize. But in these ways, I think Hornsby’s Via Negativa is a sort of anti-Gilead.
What’s next for the novelist? “The next book is almost the exact opposite of Via Negativa, with a truly despicable narrator,” he said. “There’s an evil biotech company, an indoor forest, punk bands and vampires. Not a lot of theology in this one, though the central startup is named Kenosis.” Wink.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “An American Catholic Pilgrimage ,” in the Spring Literary Review 2021, issue.