Monday, December 20, 2010

The Catholic Imagination

I'd rather say "Catholic Weltanschauung," because any reason to say Weltanschauung is a good reason to say it; but in this context "imagination" works well and doesn't cramp the Anglophone epiglottis, y'know?

Lately the Catholic Imagination/ Catholic Worldview has bubbled up in reference to Catechesis. In my class I want to spark the kids' imaginations (what catechist doesn't), such that they don't just get the knowledge, but the worldview as well. Readers my age may remember John Houseman's signal line in the movie The Paper Chase: "You come in here with a skull full of mush leave thinking like a lawyer." My kids are not in law school, but analogously I want them to learn to think like Catholics. I joke sometimes that converts have all the fun, and one of those fun things I see converts experience is the excitement of acquiring a Catholic imagination. And even though the kids grow up in the faith, they should enjoy that process as well. But all that begs the question: what is a Catholic Imagination?

For a concise answer, look to a book written a decade ago, The Catholic Imagination by Fr. Andrew Greeley (yeah, yeah, I know). In the front of the book there's an introductory quote by the endearing and stupendously imaginative non-Catholic, William Blake: "Imagination is a representation of what eternally exists, really and unchangeably." This is followed by a short Introduction which I give my blessing to, for what it's worth. I don't think there's a better short description out there.

And having re-read those six pages, I recall that in 1964 Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said the following about something that was neither Catholic or Imaginative: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

I know it when I see it, too. Here are a couple of examples I have on my mind these days, which show the CI in action:

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (thanks, Prodigal Daughter); and this poem by Pavel Chichikov, which he wrote just last week:

A poem for Advent

October’s lighted lamps are fallen
God’s lamp of trees is empty
November’s wick pinched black and cold

Look now in the monstrance of the Virgin’s womb
Where the sinless child is burning
Even through her sinless skin

She carries forth this inner lamp
Through day and night increasingly
Unceasingly for us to see Him

It is a gift to give a Gift
Returned that makes three kings
Prepare their winter journey

Light for gold, incense for a grace
Love for adoration
Life amassed from death

So on the cold skull-strewn plateau
They see the light, the beacon
Of a cradled Child

Lost within a night they find a lamp
Glowing in a bed of straw
That will not burn it

And they who touch Him
Touch the feet of fire
That will consume itself alone

Mothers know within that which they carry—
His alone to give and take
And to the Spirit marry

Now both of these examples are clearly pitched at adults; so how is this relevant to 6th grade? Well, if you look around the Sistine Chapel, you'll find the image of St. Batholomew I used in my recent Keys & Eyeballs post ("by the way, this painting of St. Bart and his skin is in the Sistine Chapel in Rome; if you ever go there, be sure to find him"); and I intend in a future class to read at least the first 3 verses of the poem, which liken Mary's womb to a monstrance, and Jesus to a burning lamp. 12-year-old brains will snarf those images right up. 

P.S Greeley's book can be had used for about $7 including shipping.