As I mentioned previously in the piece Things I Received at the Fordham Catholic Imagination Conference, at the end of April I was given the opportunity to attend the 2nd Catholic Imagination Conference at Fordham University. The notebook I carried with me from Indiana to New York City was my constant travel companion and confidante. Its pages are scrawled upon generously with every single little tidbit I could scavenge from the weekend. These notes are written in a very particular strain of my handwriting: not in my signature and presentable cursive reserved for thank-you notes, shopping lists, and even most of my lecture notes, but in my slanted, sideways, all-over-the-page chicken scratch that only comes out when I am absolutely desperate to cram ever little morsel of truth onto the page.
For those of you who are curious about this conference: I would like nothing more than to sit down with you and show you each page of my notebook, tracing through each and every fascinating thing that I heard and saw. But, in the meantime, I hope this piece will serve as the same sort of tracing through. In paging through my notebook, and rereading all of the details and tidbits, there was one thread that seemed to tie most of my observations together. And so, I present to you here, the single most important thing I noticed at the Catholic Imagination Conference: the ways the liturgy created the space for creativity to blossom for the poets, novelists, and artists who presented.
In the details of what these creative minds said, in the habits they shared, and in the ways they reflected on the creative experience, their own liturgical experiences and practices as members of the Church were continually referenced. And, as I referenced my own notebook in an attempt to figure out how to best share what I heard at the conference, I noticed that the small moments and quotes that I recorded as most beautiful were almost always tied up in the intersection of creativity and the liturgy. Here are those small moments, each in their own way a testament to the way participation in the liturgy has provided the framework for the rich, curious, creative life:
- During his reading, poet Phillip Metres pauses to explain the various kinds of religious and poetic texts he read as inspiration for his book of poems, Sand Opera. He tells us that he must have “spent a Lent or two reading these texts” before he was able to begin his book. In this small instant, we witness the way the seasons of the liturgical year have become the author’s means of time-keeping as he reflects on his creative process. His own creative process is taken up in the creative time-keeping of the Church.
- In a panel on Catholic women’s voices, author Mary Gordon reflects on the influences of her writing: “I had the rhythms of the liturgy, the rhythms of the Mass, the rhythms of Gregorian chant.” It is these rhythms of prayer and worship that provide an echo chamber for her own writing and thinking, that create the foundation for the rhythms of her own creativity to expand and explore.
- Novelist and deacon Ron Hansen’s entire reading is steeped in liturgical beauty. At the beginning of his reading, he asks the audience to begin with him in prayer, inviting us into a moment of silence in honor of a deceased friend. He proceeds to read one from one of his novels, The Kid, in which the movement of a character kneeling on the ground is subtly described as “genuflecting.” Embedded within this description is a posture in which ordinary movements are taken up in the language of worship. Later, speaking of his recent experience serving as a deacon at his home parish, Hansen reflects on the way interacting with people at significant liturgical moments in their lives has entered his fiction. It reminds him to present characters flawed and human, yet deeply loved by God. He explains the way fiction, as he sees it, forms the reader in this disposition of looking at a person as loved by God: showing us characters every bit as human as we are, and giving us paths to approach, know, and love them despite these flaws.
- During a panel on what it means to be a Catholic poet, poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talks about the structure of her poems, and the way the via crucis imprints itself on her poetry. Discussing her use of sonnets in her most recent book, she shares that her heart was drawn to the sonnet’s fourteen lines, because it has the same number of lines as the number of stations in the Stations of the Cross, a pacing familiar to her because of her Catholic upbringing. She has grown to think of the sonnet in new and creative ways precisely because of her liturgical experience: she sees the sonnet as a reminder of the beauty of form itself, of providential design, of the Incarnation as a way of being-in-the-world.
- During a panel on the situation of the Catholic poet in the modern world, poet Paul Mariani reads a poem written while facing the Atlantic Ocean on a Jesuit retreat (“Putting out into the deep of Gloucester”) and shares that it is has always been the Church that focuses his artistry. The first thing he does each morning when he gets up is read over the daily Mass readings with his wife—this is what helps to focus the day, to focus all of the creative thinking and imagining that may unfold. Then, he explains, when he writes, he finds himself not merely interested in poetry for poetry’s sake, but for the sake of Christ, and for His Church.
At the end of the conference, we all shuffle over to The Church of St. Paul the Apostle next door for Mass. Here, writers participate in worship together as members of the liturgical community, serving as Eucharistic minister, reader, greeter, and even deacon. Here, with hearts open to the rhythms and rituals of the liturgy, we find our creativity refreshed. Here, we find our imagination focused by faith, our wonderings lighted by our worship. And we go forth as renewed liturgical creatures, to live our rich, curious, creative lives.
Featured Image: Maurice Denis, Le mystère catholique, 1889; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.