In much of what now passes for Christian storytelling, the saints are all heroic, the sinners all repugnant and the answers all easily discernable.
There’s little room for exploring those shadowy, untidy spaces where people most often discover their need for redemption.
Catholic author Kate Basi plows her lead character’s radiator into that unsettlingly ambiguous realm in her latest novel, A Song for the Road.
“This is a book that invites us to question our rigid assumptions about how the world works,” said Mrs. Basi, a music minister and member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia. “It is NOT Catholic fiction, but it IS from a Catholic worldview.
“It’s populated by characters who have messed up and continue to mess up,” she stated, “who despite their faith have some pretty wrong-headed ideas about how the world works.”
It includes some rough language and a subplot involving an unresolvable question about a deceased character’s sexual identity.
There are no easy answers.
“But the lessons my character learns about love and life are very much formed by my Catholic faith,” said Mrs. Basi.
As such, she believes it’s a story that needed to be written and shared among people of all traditions and experiences of faith.
“I think that too often, we as Catholics want to whitewash the world in our entertainment, which encourages a black and white view of the world,” the author asserted.
“The reality is, we never get the answers to most of the most important questions.”
Mrs. Basi, a wife and a mother of four children, has written several books, hymns and numerous articles and blog posts.
None of these have chased or haunted her like A Song for the Road.
It begins with the phrase, “On her thirty-eighth birthday, Miriam Tedesco received flowers from a ghost.”
The lead character is a Catholic parish music minister who’s still deeply in mourning a year after the tragic death of her family.
On the brink of a personal and professional breakdown, she discovers a computer app containing a cross-country road trip her late teenaged daughter had plotted for a family vacation.
“She decides to take this road trip to honor her family,” said Mrs. Basi. “As she goes, she has to confront all these things she did not want to confront — about herself as a mother, about herself as a wife, about her own struggles to find God in the past year of her life.”
The woman uses language that religious people aren’t supposed to use. She makes mistakes that “cradle Catholics” aren’t supposed to make.
“She’s messed up,” said Mrs. Basi. “And that’s relatable, because even though we don’t want to admit it, we’re all pretty messed up.”
One for the road
Mrs. Basi pointed out that although she and her lead character in A Song for the Road have some things in common, the book is not an autobiography.
Neither is it a whitewashed version of Christian life.
“I’m looking at the world through my Catholic faith but not shying away from the fact that people don’t always make the right choices,” she said.
Like a pilgrimage, the book is more about the route than the destination, more about the questions than the answers.
“For me, a pilgrimage is a journey that changes you,” she said. “It’s not about where you go, it’s about how you get there, what happens to you on the way.
“The real destination is to become closer to God,” she added. “It’s what happens inside your heart that matters.”
She believes her character’s exploits will resonate with people whose experiences of family togetherness during the pandemic were less than ideal.
In fact, anyone who has struggled with life can find something to relate to in A Song for the Road.
“I’ve already been in contact with readers who say, ‘I don’t really do religion,’” she said. “They may have had some bad experiences with the Church and have left or never came at all.
“And the fact that they’re embracing this book tells me that you can hook people on any topic if you give them something they can relate to,” she said.
She pointed to Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene and other Catholics of literary acclaim who managed to make an impression among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Each wrote about deeply flawed characters subsisting far outside the Catholic ideal.
“Yet, there are themes of redemption,” Mrs. Basi noted. “Sometimes, you want to point out what’s not perfect in the world and show a better way.”
Mrs. Basi agonized over what to include and what to leave out of A Song for the Road.
“I prayed over this book like crazy,” she said. “There are things that frighten me very much to put out there as a Catholic. I fear being judged for it.”
She asked God to guide her, especially in areas where she felt driven to give thorough treatment but was tempted to hold back.
“Whenever I looked for reasons to play it safe and could not find any, I took that as a sign,” she said.
She is at peace with what she has written.
“I do still worry about my relationships with other people,” she said. “But I keep reminding myself that the only relationship in the final tally is the relationship with God, and my conscience is clear there.”
“Make me open”
Baptized and catechized her whole life, Mrs. Basi believes that she’s more Catholic now than she’s ever been.
“It’s become clear to me in the past year, the past several years, how easy it is to choose a sliver of the Catholic faith and cling to it. I think the tendency to be a ‘cafeteria Catholic’ is a pretty common failing across all of the things that divide us,” she said.
She’s convinced that part of the problem is that most Catholics largely exist in “a Catholic bubble.”
“That is to our detriment and to the detriment of the Church,” she stated, “because we need to see that the ugly things in the world often happen for a reason, and that the solutions they call for may not look like the black-and-white solutions we look for in our Catholic bubble.”
For her, the bubble burst 14 years ago when she gave birth to a daughter who has special needs.
Helping her achieve her full potential is challenging, exciting and occasionally exhausting.
“Since that day, I have been wrestling with my Catholic faith in the world,” said Mrs. Basi.
She has become increasingly aware of the difficulty and complexity of embracing the fullness of Church teaching while wrestling in an authentic way with things that are difficult.
“It starts with being truly honest with ourselves,” she said. “We have to pray to God, ‘Make me open to hear what I don’t want to hear, and to be able to see through other people’s eyes.’”