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Saying God Sacramentally

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My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

Christian Wiman begins his memoir of faith, My Bright Abyss, with the above poem. The short verse elegantly and poignantly captures the impossible project of trying to define the ineffable mystery of God whom Wiman, as a Christian, throws his entire life into believing.

At the end of this past June, Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts hosted a literary gathering entitled “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting the Catholic Literary Imagination.” This gathering commenced as the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s annual Liturgy Symposium, “Encountering Jesus Christ in the Bible and the Liturgy,” concluded. Both the literary gathering and the liturgy symposium meditated on words and the Word at the heart of the Christian life. As Bishop Daniel Flores remarked in his opening address at “Trying to Say ‘God’”:

“The whole Christian life is a participation in the expressiveness of the WORD. That the Church by grace both engenders and needs artisans of words, painters, sculptors, musicians, and other sub-creators is akin to an evident truth that flows from revelation.

Bishop Flores assertion of the necessity of the artist to the life of the Church was a bold charge with which to begin the discussions of the weekend.

From the first, the title of the gathering posed a challenge to me: what does it mean, indeed, to “try” to say God?  Saying “God” has been attempted and achieved for many millennia, and it seems to me that that is the real weight of the Catholic imagination: not the baggage of the tradition’s failures, but the intimidation of its successes. What I mean by this is that the Catholic writer begins her writing from a place of faith, from a positive, not a square one. She begins to write in and from a tradition which already speaks of a particular vision of God, which contains an already established set of collective utterances to say God. A Catholic artist does not formulate an image of God from scratch, but rather takes up the particular challenge of finding her own expression of this mystery as it can exist in an inherited, rich context. An inheritance, particularly one as full and beautiful as the Catholic imagination, is a great blessing. But it can also be a burden. An inheritance can sometimes weigh down an individual, cementing her in a wealth she did not build herself. The walls of that rich mansion can begin to feel like prison bars, confining creativity, and stifling inspiration.

“Re-enchanting the Catholic imagination,” which was the subtitle and putative aim of the gathering, is a credo unto itself. First, it presupposes that there is such a thing as the “Catholic Imagination,” that the fundamental quality of that imagination is enchantment, and that something has gone astray and the imagination has become disenchanted. Thus the task is laid out before us.

The phrase “Catholic imagination” is bandied about frequently, approaching a buzzword status, but perhaps one use of the phrase is exactly that intangible aspect of Catholicism which affects an adherent in a holistic and totally pervasive manner. To assent to seven sacraments is not simply to memorize a list of rituals, but to gain new modes of access into the mechanics of grace operative in the world. The Catholic imagination and the Catholic writer participate already in that graced world.

All art is an expression that arises from what Bishop Flores named in his opening address at the gathering, an “impoverished particularity.” “We are embodied and therefore historical creatures,” he said. Which is why art is a fundamentally human project. We would not trade our “particular poverty” or poverty of particularity, “for anything in the world; it is the indescribable richness through which the life of the Word comes to us and in some way gets translated through us.”

Thus, all art necessarily contains a bit of our own ego, because it is based in our own particular person. Its vision is impoverished by the limitations of our own self. Thus, the Catholic Tradition—an objective set of utterances, images, modes of expression outside our own—gently turns the egotistical expressions of self into art that reaches for transcendence.

The Catholic imagination, however, does not only influence the writer, but the reader. As the gathering brought together literary professionals, a constantly recurring lament was the constrictions of the publishing market upon the author’s art. Publishing houses need to make a buck to stay afloat, and they must publish what the readers want to read in order to make said bucks. They may want to publish something less secular, something more sacramental, something edgier, something in the trenches of a faithed or graced experience, but they are bound to the demand of their consumers. If the public is not a daring group or not particularly interested in the Catholic imagination nor its enchantment, the publishing houses, accordingly, will not publish anything they receive that is particularly imbued with that imagination. Not only are Catholic writers discouraged, but potential Catholic readers wither on the vine. Thus, re-enchanting the Catholic imagination must be a two-pronged project directed not only towards the artists, but the audience.

As a playwright, I was particularly perplexed by a notable lacuna in the presentation topics: the literary art of theatre, which is no small part of the artistic endeavor of trying to say God. Despite several [beautiful] sessions on sacred music, including two concerts, there were no discussions of Catholic imagination in theatrical literature. Theatrical literature is—at least historically—hardly a tangential wing of the literary mansion, but, rather, part of its very foundation. An English high school curriculum ignores Shakespeare’s plays at its own risk. Unlike a film script, which is not meant to be read, but outlines images which will be choreographed into a narrative, a play script is more often a literary piece of work, which is usually both performed and published.

Thus, I found the silence on that particular subject spoke volumes, not so much to the neglect of the organizers, but to the unfortunate diminution of status and cultural capital that theatre [which is not a Broadway commercial hit along the lines of Wicked or Hamilton] has undergone; and that omission pointed to a rather sidelined key factor which allows Catholic artists to access fresh inspiration in the midst of an old tradition, and ignites the imaginations of an entire audience of readers: the liturgy.

In his presentation at the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s conference “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: The Sacramental Imagination and the Senses of Scripture,” Anthony Pagliarini, of the Notre Dame Theology Department, described liturgy as a “performance of Scripture.” Liturgy cannot, of course, be reduced to performative storytelling or theatrics, but rather the liturgy brings to sacramental life sacred stories of salvation which are written in dead ink on a lifeless page, opening up their narratives in our present lives. In former times, God asked Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice of love. In the liturgy, we encounter the same God who asks of us the faith of Abraham, who demands we love none other more (Mt 10:37). Catholic art—literary and otherwise—rises from our human particularity as “a response of love to the Word who in his poverty has loved us,” as Bishop Flores said in his opening address. So, too, is the liturgy: a poetic and creative ritual of beauty for the Word whose beauty we derive all our poetry.

In a session on the Saturday morning of the gathering, Heather King pointed to the necessity of the liturgy in forming Catholic writing, and reframed the questions we should be asking of ourselves as Catholic writers:

“When we are nourished by the Sacraments, we don’t ask: ‘why are there not more devotional writers,’ we ask: ‘why are we not better devotional writers?’”

The sacraments, the modes in which the Catholic Church as a corporate body of believers liturgically encounters the grace of Christ, overwhelmingly infect the writer. As a member of the congregation, the writer enters into a heightened, sacramental mode of consciousness, of approaching the world through the prayer of the liturgy. Thus, infused with the liturgical life of the church, the artist can present something that is born of the ancient sacred but is truly new—a fresh iteration of the “deep down things” upon which humanity has been meditating for ages.

Outside of Debartolo Hall—the classroom building in which the gathering occurred— South Bend’s summer skies rewarded any attendee who broke away to gaze for a moment at the sky. The often oppressive humidity of Indiana June was blessedly lifted by a cool breeze, and the pure, brilliant sky thickly populated with plump, bleached-white clouds. The splendor of the summer day, was an effortless utterance of God by the beauty that oozed from it, “like the ooze of oil.” I was reminded again of Christian Wiman’s poem, with which I began this article. At the end of his book, Wiman repeats the same simple poem, but changing one crucial punctuation: the colon at the end becomes a firm and definitive period:

My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.

Featured photo by leolintang (CC BY 2.0)

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.