All posts tagged: Catholic imagination

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 …

97 Aphorisms and Apothegms Inspired by Reading John Henry Newman

Pascal is right in much of what says about grace, right in some of what he says about sin, and entirely wrong with regard to what he says about their relationship. The “average man” elevated by self-pronounced realists is a lemming, not only a symptom of the failure to thrive but even to begin. Whether we want it or not a human being is the tensile string between saint and sinner. The “average man” is a modern construct. He arises in an age of capital, when one man wishes to exploit another and feel good about it. The best way of complimenting Adam Smith is to ignore what he says about money, and listen to what he says about the affections. The “average man” is a fiction that institutes the power of number. The mediocre many can be adduced against the few who are excellent.  Lacking in the modern view of the “average man” is the sense of scale. Historical Christianity certainly recognized mediocrity and gave it cover. What distinguishes it from modern or liberal …

Welcoming Stranger Things Without Baptizing Them Too

SPOILER ALERT: This post gives away some plot twists in Stranger Things Seasons 1 and 2. In the past year, many writers in the Catholic blogosphere have commented on the theological richness of Stranger Things. One writer recently went so far as to claim that it is “the most Catholic show on television,” which may be a bit of a stretch. Yes, Eleven is a Christ figure, but I doubt The Duffer Brothers gave her the nickname “El” as a nod to the Hebrew word for God, though, admittedly, stranger things have happened. Sorry. Got that pun out of my system. Moving on. Yes, Eleven refuses to use her powers when asked to kill a cat (an act which this same writer compares to Christ’s refusal to turn stones to bread during his temptation in the desert), but moments later, she kills two guards who threaten her, an utterly un-Christlike action. While I can appreciate and in fact hope to demonstrate here that Stranger Things is a series with deeply Catholic sensibilities, the examples above …

The Extraordinary Is Wed to the Mundane in the Catholic Imagination

“Words move, music moves / Only in time,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets; “but that which is only living / Can only die.”[1] One of the ideas that these poems stress is what we see in the lines I just quoted: for us, living, expressing, and being always involve time. We need time in order to do any of the things that we do. Yet, for this to be so, it always also means that the current moment is passing away. As G.M. Hopkins says, “I am soft sift / In an hourglass.”[2] Everything that we give slips through our fingers, never permanent, because the condition that makes our creativity possible, time, is also that by which we lose everything. We are poor creatures, unable to possess even the moment we exist in. But of course: Blessed are the poor. If we want to talk about the “Catholic imagination,” it is helpful to remember that we depend on time. We are not only creatures of time, but that in us which experiences eternity always …

MacIntyre on What is Sinking Catholic Education

There is a university chapel in Washington State that always makes me think it could be easily converted into a low-key Starbucks café. It would not be the most architecturally interesting Starbucks, but it would do. It would make money. The university that houses the chapel is well-known for stressing its identity as formed by a brand name religious order, rather than being “Catholic.” I used to think this distinction was hyperbole, rather than actual practice. But then a friend told me that an acquaintance of his who is a recruiter for that very university tells its recruits that the university “is x, and not Catholic.”[1] I’ve withheld names because there is no reason to single out an institution when this pattern is all too familiar in Catholic universities.[2] I mention this because Tim O’Malley briefly proposed in “Letting the Imagination Out to Play” that the rejuvenation of the Catholic liturgical imagination will take place through Catholic institutions of higher education: Yes, of course, the Church needs to put aside money to this process. To …

Letting the Imagination Out to Play

Last weekend, I was in Philadelphia for the Society for Catholic Liturgy. This “multidisciplinary association of Catholic scholars” seeks to promote the “scholarly study and practical renewal of the Church’s liturgy.” The theologians, architects, philosophers, pastoral liturgists, and musicians of the Society range from advocates of the “reform of the reform” to those more sympathetic to Msgr. Francis Mannion’s “recatholicizing approach, one that “seeks a recovery of the sacred and numinous in liturgical expression which will act as a corrective to the sterility and rationalism of much modern liturgical experience.”[1] The Society brings together both those who prefer to celebrate the usus antiquor, the Latin Mass, as well as Novus Ordo Mass-goers who suspect that the low-Mass mentality of the pre-conciliar period has been canonized in the current ars celebrandi and aesthetics of the reformed liturgy. While attending this event, I often found myself returning to a passage from Artur Rosman’s last column on the retrieval of a Catholic imagination: Church life must once again become the heart of the Catholic imagination, but the onus of …