The faithful of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had a choice to make the evening of Nov. 17 — to gather around a flickering fire for Catholic literature, or a flickering television for a Green Bay Packers game. The juxtaposition could not have been more fitting for the second event in the Creating Catholic Culture Series, Faith and Fiction Around the Fire: An Evening of Storytelling with Joshua Hren.
Hubbard Park Lodge, the venue for the reading, was at comfortable capacity. Attendees of all ages gathered in the cozy, firelit log cabin, sitting dreamy-eyed and contemplative as Hren shared excerpts from his acclaimed novel, “Infinite Regress,” and poetry selections from his book “Last Things, First Things, and Other Lost Causes.”
“There is something about being in the same room together, leaning in to hear a poem read or a story told, that unifies us, if only for a little while, (that) brings us in from the cold and the humdrum. Especially in a post-COVID world, we all know what damage disembodiment can do,” Hren said. “We all know that audiobooks or YouTube videos or webinars or Instagram pics are radically, radically deficient: they tend to make us two dimensional, not just literally but on the level of the soul. We need to come together around a common story, around common stories.”
But Hren noted that literature is deeper than just sharing stories.
“Literature can activate all of our imaginations, it can stimulate deep joy and deep conversations,” Hren said. “Literature can make the good compelling, but it can also teach us how to grieve well, maybe purge us of sorrow or loneliness through cathartic dramatization of difficult trials.”
Literature has also increased our capacity for empathy — and sharing in our brothers and sisters’ burdens — to hasten works of mercy.
“If you’ve a hard time sympathizing or understanding others, poetry can crack open lives that may remain otherwise oblique,” Hren said.
In addition to being an author, father and husband, Hren is the founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He also regularly publishes essays and poems in such journals as The Los Angeles Review of Books and First Things, America, Public Discourse, Commonweal, The European Conservative, National Review, The University Bookman, The Lamp and LOGOS.
“As poetry and literature, music and movies, are at their best inflected with transcendence, one of the great goods of arts and culture is that they transcend the small-minded and narrow reductivism that has poisoned most of our politics,” Hren said.
One objective of the “Creating Catholic Culture Series” is to lead people to the truth through the great works of art, literature, poetry, architecture and other elements of culture, to increase their openness to God’s Word, according to Lydia LoCoco, who organized the event and serves as the director of community relations for the Office of the Archbishop.
“The word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin word ‘cultura,’ which means to cultivate the land,” LoCoco said. “We can fertilize the soil of society by restoring Catholic culture. Each person, on their own, can meet the truth in a work of fiction or piece of poetry, and ultimately this truth leads them to the one person (who) is the truth: Jesus Christ.”
The first event in the “Creating Catholic Culture Series” was held at the Catholic Ecology Center in Nashotah in September and, like the Nov. 17 event, was also at capacity.
Colleen Hutt of Oconomowoc, a mother of five and director of mission and outreach for the Well Read Mom reading movement, offered her enthusiastic endorsement of Hren and the broader effort to have Catholic cultural events in Milwaukee.
“What a society worships, or what it spends its time doing, is indicative of what it finds ultimately of importance — literature, language and the human experience is at the heart of life,” said Hutt, who is a parishioner at St. Jerome in Oconomowoc.
Hutt’s nephew, Thomas Deslongchamps, 22, of Milwaukee, was also at the reading.
“I knew many of the people in attendance and I was moved by the experience of listening to Joshua’s work together,” he said. “Rare and precious are the moments in which we so intentionally share beauty with our friends, yet those are the moments that sustain us throughout our days and weeks. It was great to hear everyone’s thoughts on the literature, especially because everyone took something different away from the evening.”
The next event in the Catholic Cultural Series is the Pallium Lecture, an annual event designed to foster conversation and engage the broader culture through the Catholic intellectual tradition.
“In February, we will be hosting one of the hottest preachers in the nation right now, Msgr. James Shea,” LoCoco said.
Msgr. Shea was inaugurated in 2009 as the sixth president of the University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota, and, at the age of 34, became the youngest college or university president in the United States.
The event will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Brookfield Conference Center. It is free and open to the public, but registration is encouraged. Register at www.archmil.org/PalliumLecture.
“The fight for culture is really the fight to orient yourself toward a life of truth,” Hutt said. “The Catholic Church needs to stay in this fight and show that it is relevant in an age that tries so desperately to black out her message of love and faith and hope.”
Hren offered a parting prayer for the future of literature in the Milwaukee community:
“May our reverence for the maker of reality, or repentance for whatever wrongs we have done, and our appetite to live fuller lives be piqued by the stories we share around the fire.”