This year’s Nobel laureate for literature illuminates the mystery of the Immaculate Conception
A Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Jon Fosse was awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature. A recent convert to Catholicism, the Norwegian writer’s work is suffused with a deep spirituality, discerning the luminous in daily life rather than in extraordinary events.
The epigraph of his novel The Other Name (2019) is taken from the Book of Revelation, wherein “one like a son of man” says,
I will give him a white stone,
and on the stone a new name written,
which no one knows except him who receives it.
In pursuit of this identity, the novel’s narrator, a painter named Asle, speaks of creating an outer picture that corresponds to one that is inside him. It is his own deepest identity:
I have to paint a picture in a way that dissolves the picture lodged inside me and makes it go away, so that it becomes an invisible forgotten part of myself, of my own innermost picture, the picture I am and have, because there’s one thing I know for sure, I have only one picture, one single picture, and all other pictures, both the ones I see and the one I can’t forget that get stuck inside me, have something about them that resembles the one picture I have inside me and that isn’t something anyone can see but I do see some of what’s in it, some of what’s lodged inside me.
The challenge for Asle is to keep painting what he sees in the world around him, never knowing, until the end, what part of his world is truly his deepest self. However we collect the fragments of our own lives, we face the same challenge.
Gathering up his life, Asle sees two young lovers in a park at dusk:
It’s autumn, some leaves have already started changing colour, this is the best time of the year, the most beautiful, I think, and maybe most beautiful of all in the evening when the light is right at the point of disappearing, when some darkness has entered the light but it’s still light enough to see clearly that some of the leaves have lost their green colour.
The young woman sits on a swing. Her young man rises and begins to push her swing. She protests that she did not swing as a child. She is afraid, but before long she does not want him to stop. Fosse knows that, to the naked eye, even deep realities such as love itself appear as simple as two youths and a swing.
Asle the painter is obsessed with the role of light, especially as it emerges from shadow. For Asle the man, grace appears in the world as light. Here is his description of the lovers:
I need to paint them close and paint them away just the way they’re standing there now, I think because now it’s like a light coming from them, standing there so close together, as if they were one, standing as if two people were one, yes, they’re so close as it gets dark and the darkness falls over them like snow, a darkness somehow like snowflake after snowflake yet also like one darkness, one undivided darkness, not bits of darkness but one snowing darkness, and the darker it gets the more light is coming from them, yes, a kind of light is coming off them, I can see it, even if the light is maybe invisible it’s still visible, because light can come from people too, especially from the eyes, mostly in glimmers, an invisible light, but from these two comes a silent even light always the same and never changing, it’s like the two of them standing there are one light, yes, that’s what the light coming from them is like, one light I think and he realizes that she’s almost all light, at least that’s how she seems to him right now, he thinks, standing there, but how stupid is that? He’s standing here holding a flesh and blood woman and he’s thinking that she’s light, it’s not a good idea to think things like that, he thinks, and sure he’s never been all that smart but that’s how it feels, like he’s holding a light in his arms.
An artist sees the world, composed of flesh and blood, as a world of light and shadows. Sometimes, light steps forth from the darkness, and he must testify to its presence. A woman of flesh and blood is like “light in his arms.”
This is our entrance into the sublime mystery of the Immaculate Conception: Mary was conceived without original sin. From the first moment of her existence, she was, by the grace of Jesus Christ, kept free from sin. Why? Was this necessary?
But none of us is the artist! God is! Do not ask an artist what is necessary. Nothing is necessary; everything is necessary.
Christ is the light come into the darkness. Christ, who is creature in his manhood and creator in his divinity, wills that one part of creation, a sliver that is nothing but creation, should be suffused—in the eyes of the creator and therefore in reality itself—with light, clothed in grace. Mary should be like Christ, the light come into the world, without a tint of shadow. This is her own deepest identity to echo his: “She’s almost all light, at least that’s how she seems to him right now.”
A painter needs both darkness and light to create. Evidently, though God wants for nothing, God needs both as well. The darkness presents the light. It frames and encloses it, and thus makes it what it is. But on the canvas of creation transfigured, the destiny of all the redeemed and sanctified, there is one sliver untouched by sin. The artist has willed that she, like himself, be suffused in light alone. “It’s like a light coming from them, standing there so close together, as if they were one, standing as if two people were one.”