All posts tagged: Catholic imagination

There Is No Salvation Through the University

The 173rd commencement exercises will take place at the University of Notre Dame this weekend. Like most University commencements, there will be a good deal of self-congratulatory statements about the remarkable promise demonstrated by the class of 2018. Likewise, there will be generic exhortations to the newly minted students to “change the world,” to respond to the “unique challenges of this generation.” Yet not everything about these commencement exercises is quite so formulaic. At the conclusion of graduation on Sunday morning at Notre Dame Stadium, students will sing the Alma Mater once more (this time facing their parents and friends). The personification of the University as “nurturing mother,” as the place that brought the students into wisdom, is shared across colleges and universities. Students at Harvard College sing out in praise of “Fair Harvard!” The Bulldogs of Yale pledges themselves in song to God, country, and Yale. At the University of Tennessee, students clad in orange and white sing a wistful hymn commemorating the search for wisdom begun “on a hallowed hill in Tennessee.” Notre Dame’s Alma Mater is …

The Eschatological Marian Image

In sharp contrast to the multiple-viewpoint technique and elongated figures dominating the old, Byzantine-influenced paintings, the new Western 15th century religious images are distinguished above all by an “increasing realism” embedding conspicuous moments in biblical narrative within landscapes or interiors of great spatial and symbolic complexity. Moreover, the increased availability of panel paintings and, by the mid-15th-century, woodcuts, naturally facilitates their acquisition as quasi-spiritual tokens for the purpose of private devotion. Hans Belting writes: “Individual citizens did not want an image different from the public one so much as they needed one that would belong to them personally. They expected the image to speak to them in person.” Jeffrey Hamburger notes that the transition from aniconic to an image-based vision is characterized by “the increasingly important role of corporeal imagery in spiritual life.” In this development, spanning from the late 13th through the 15th century, “the process of vision is detached from the process of reading [Scripture].” Less the focus of sustained exegesis or affective vision than a deposit of possible allusions and increasingly fungible …

Traversing Marian Economics

This August I will celebrate five years since being received into full communion with the Catholic Church. My journey into the Church was a long one, at least ten years. When I began telling friends and family about my upcoming reception, like most Catholic “converts” I received a wide range of reactions. I’d been raised within a small Protestant holiness denomination and later, during graduate school, I was confirmed in the Episcopal church. In addition to this, for many years I’d been studying and practicing canonical icon writing with a Russian Orthodox school of iconology. Some people couldn’t understand why I’d leave the Episcopal church as they knew I had convictions about women’s leadership in the church. Others couldn’t understand why I wasn’t becoming Orthodox, given my passion for the holy images. It is never easy to explain such journeys, and it is not my personality to attempt explanation. But some loved ones needed to hear something by way of explanation and so, when I found it pressing, I gave the best answer I could …

Relegating the Faith to the Private Sphere Generates a Distortion

Culture in the broadest sense can be defined as a way of life. The great historian Christopher Dawson created an entire corpus focused on the intersection of religion and culture. He claimed that four central pillars form the foundation of culture: people, environment, work, and thought.[1]  He describes how “the formation of culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a four-fold community—for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood.”[2] When Dawson refers to the importance of thought, he means especially religious thought, which provides the inner form for the material organization of society. He describes how “every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order,” because “it is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture.”[3] Although Dawson recognizes that we live in the first secular culture in human history, he also rightly claims that the modern world …

Met Gala: Catholicism Broken but Shining

“Yo que sentí el horror de los espejos,” says Jorge Louis Borges. “I’ve been horrified before mirrors.”[1] Such strange things, mirrors. Those mysterious surfaces that reflect the eye’s light back to itself.[2] Poets so like to speak of them. Perhaps out of vanity, and perhaps because in mirrors we see “darkly” (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). One can never quite tell with poets. As for mirrors: mirrors, they are everywhere. Mirrors are experienced “ante el aqua,” writes Borges. “Before water.” Before speculating water that imitates The other blue in its deep sky[3] Or mirrors exist in windows, some of which Rainer Marian Rilke describes as an “Auge.” “An eye, which seems to rest.”[4] An eye that “opens and bangs shut (zusammenschlägt) with a crack of thunder.”[5] It is as if both poets imagine entire worlds behind (beneath? within?) each reflective surface. I include the original languages if only to force the eye to pause, to interpret. To hesitate and search for understanding. After all, knowing is not like looking.[6] I cannot walk along and pick up …

The Strange Myths of the New Evangelization

More than forty years after the publication of the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi by Pope Paul VI and six years since the establishment of a new Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, it is a good time to pause and evaluate how the New Evangelization project is proceeding. While many doom-and-gloom prophecies abound in casual Catholic conversation, a serious analysis of our current situation is essential. I would like to suggest that the common understanding or “conventional wisdom” among new-evangelists about the New Evangelization’s status is not based on well-documented evidence. While statistical studies are often cited with pessimistic relish, I will report on recent statistical and sociological research that may point in another direction—though a comprehensive sociological analysis of Catholic evangelization efforts is still lacking. Unfortunately, despite large investments of institutional energy in the New Evangelization, many Catholic communities are still evangelically ineffective. Later, I will suggest possible strategic shifts that could be implemented in order to improve the outcomes of our efforts. On the one hand, a renewed effort at full implementation of the …

The Formation of the Imagination

Robert Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, has reignited the discussion on the connection between nature and the imagination. In Landmarks, his most recent book on the unique regional words used to describe English landscape, Macfarlane comments that “Our children’s vanishing encounters with nature represent a loss of imagination as well as a loss of primary experience.”[1] If Macfarlane articulates a concern for the disconnection between the decreasing number of experiences in nature and the imagination’s vigor in secular culture, is it such a great leap to question the connection between the imagination and the spiritual life? This very question was pondered by Father Conrad Pepler, O.P., a member of the English Dominican province, who addressed this topic some 60 years ago: There is a need of an imaginative response to life, a training of the imagination, not merely in a few cases of poetic talent, but as a common function in every member of society. Incalculable harm can be done to men generally by the perversion or deadening of this faculty. When …

An Accidental Allegory of the Sheep and the Goats

SPOILER ALERT: This review does indeed contain spoilers. The Shape of Water is a strange fairy tale about a mute cleaning lady named Elisa who falls in love with an anthropomorphic river creature. Despite the film’s oddity, and partly because of it, the selfless Elisa shines as a witness of how ordinary acts of charity can lead to unexpected happiness, or, dare I say (?) beatitude, after the pattern described by Christ in the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Elisa is a thirty-something mute woman working maintenance at a government research facility in the 1960’s. One day in a lab where Elisa is cleaning, a new specimen arrives: an Amazonian water creature that looks part human, part fish, and part Pokémon. The scientists in the lab see him as an object of study. His primary captor, Richard Strickland, sees him as an object of disdain. Elisa, his eventual lover, sees him as a creature desperately in need of help. Elisa, One of the Sheep When Elisa encounters the creature for the …

The Fear of Catholic Contamination at the Heart of American Individualism

Gothic fiction, the fiction of fear, has long been identified as paradoxically central to the literary tradition of the United States. Early exhortative texts such as the Declaration of Independence and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography clearly articulated an optimistic national narrative of rational, self-interested individuals escaping past tyranny to progress confidently together into an expansive future. By contrast, the Gothic fictions of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison have depicted nightmarish threats to national ideals, inherent flaws in those ideals and their implementation, or both—thereby radically challenging “America’s self-mythologization as a nation of hope and harmony.” Such is the critical consensus. What scholars have failed to recognize adequately is the recurrent role in such fiction of a Catholicism that consistently threatens to break down borders separating U.S. citizens—or some representative “American”—from the larger world beyond. This role has in part reflected enduring fears of the faith in Anglo-American culture. British Gothic fiction originated in the eighteenth century as what one scholar pointedly deemed Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, …

Bestowing Charity Hastily

Mary of Nazareth is at once the Mother of God and the first, perfect disciple of her son. In her willingness to patiently await the arrival of God’s word in her life, and her subsequent haste in acting upon God’s word, Mary enfolds the pattern of receiving and responding to the Lord within her hidden life of grace. Those who devote themselves to Mary discover the beauty of this hidden life, learning to receive as she receives and respond as she responds. Two of the most beloved modern saints discovered their own sanctity in this Marian rhythm: Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta. Childhood devotions to the Blessed Mother shaped the religious imaginations of both Thérèse and Teresa, resulting in a vivid comprehension of Mary as a living mother whose beauty calls for a response of the body and soul. Both proceeded to pattern their lives after Mary, maintaining a posture of generosity to the Lord, participating in the “hasty” bestowal of charity, and thereby experiencing a foretaste of the eternal joy of divine …