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Christ’s Story Runs Deeper: The Sanctified Imagination

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In his collection of “diagnostic essays,” The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy reflects on the particular idiosyncrasies of the modern milieu, offering a prognosis for the malaise that manifests itself in pervasive cultural symptoms of dis-ease and dissatisfaction. In one essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy perceptively identifies the modern human as having been reduced to “a consumer of a prepared experience.”[1] Essentially, in a society of mass-produced goods and televised reality, consumers have begun to hunger for authenticity. The human being wants “to certify their experience as genuine.”[2] The modern creature hungers to know herself as a “sovereign wayfarer”[3] forging her own path of exploration and discovery, rather than a shopper selecting predetermined experiences.

Percy’s sense of the crisis of the modern person to find a genuine experience resonates particularly in terms of the social narratives in which human beings live. Cultural narratives control our imaginations and our actions, and these narratives can so tangibly shape the life we lead and the person we become. Our lives are determined by many narratives beyond our control, and too often it seems we operate as participants in predetermined narratives rather than sovereign wayfarers.

These thoughts were running around in my mind during a baptism I attended in early October. As the unwitting baby was held over the baptismal font and the priest signed his forehead with a cross of chrism, I was struck by this monumental watershed in this child’s story. As the water poured over his head, a concrete-if-hidden change occurred. He became no longer a slave to sin, but a participant in this mysterious new space called Resurrection which Christ opened up for human beings like him and me. We, the baptized who surround his baptismal font, have all been welcomed ourselves into that resurrected body of Christ, welcomed into an intimate union with God, called both heaven and resurrection. As the priest signs the child with the liquid cross and Trinitarian formula, his soul is permanently changed.

As I gazed at the baby’s beautiful wide eyes, my heart stung for this child—this little tiny bread loaf-sized human being. He has so little past right now, and so much future. I think of what a human’s future is full of: all the many nights of fear, of loneliness, of pain, of hurt—hurt heads, bruised bodies, fractured bones, broken hearts—of those who will label him cruel names, of a world which will try to box him into all sorts of narratives—narratives of what it means to be successful, valuable, cool, fun, beautiful, a man. This small being of infinite freedom and dignity will, with each increasing day, be living into different narratives he receives through television shows, books and magazines, comments made by classmates, social pressures that shape him in different directions. These narratives will have a real, indelible effect upon his life. He will live into them, just as I have, just as each human being must, to a certain inescapable degree.

But it is this moment—not those moments—which now claims the narrative of his life. In this moment, the child’s narrative is formed to Christ’s. He is baptized into the story which will define him for the rest of his life, his narrative now that of death and resurrection. As the child has been baptized into Christ’s death, so, too, will he be baptized into his resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Christ has claimed him for his own. Whatever story the world tries to foist on this small child, Christ’s story runs deeper, the narrative of baptism overwhelms and overruns it. And, although this seedling of a boy is not aware of this now, the radiant, inescapable truth of this baptismal claim will continue to radiate into his life until his final breath. Whenever the world will try to push him into predetermined narratives, the stern sacrament of cross and resurrection into which baptism has transformed this child will break open the narratives he is boxed into, giving him the gift of being a sovereign wayfarer in Christ’s story. Baptism has claimed him, has reached into the deepest foundation of his identity, and planted Christ there.

Sanctity, I imagine, is precisely this: a human being’s story conforming most intimately and totally to the narrative of cross and resurrection. The paschal mystery becomes lived out in them, as they transform their entire selves into images of Christ. This core narrative of the paschal mystery then offers the Christian a broad canvas upon which the creative life of God can paint a bold and fresh new incarnation of that same story. A narrative, which, as C.S. Lewis might say, is truly original not because it seeks its own originality, but because it “seeks to tell the truth.”[4] The truth of Christ shines brightly from the lives of the saints, those who embody the words of Cardinal Newman’s prayer, that their lives become only a radiance of Christ’s.

During the month of November, Church Life Journal will focus on the Catholic imagination as the imagination of sanctification. The sanctified imagination is an imagination which highlights the central narrative of cross and resurrection, as radiantly incarnate in fallen human beings like you and I—the saints. Thus, during this month Church Life Journal will spend time contemplating the saints who have already completed their narrative of paschal imitation of Christ: the saints in heaven, and the souls of the dead. Additionally, we will highlight various modes in which individuals and communities seek to make their narrative the one narrative of cross and resurrection in Jesus Christ. Saints, as the “authentic interpreters”[5] of the divine drama, are the basis of the Catholic imagination, as they represent the mystery of the incarnation—God taking up his life in humanity—reverberating throughout history. Through the saints’ sanctification of their lives, the entire cosmos is sanctified, made holy, transformed wholly into the image of Christ, the logos, who is all in all.

Featured Image: Biagio d’Antonio, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Five Saints and Two Angels, 1475; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature” in The Message in the Bottle, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York (1975), 60.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper One: New York (2015), 227.

[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 2Dramatis Personae: Man in God, Ignatius Press: San Francisco (1990), 14.

 

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.