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The Sacramental Imagination
and Catholic Literature

(or, Flannery O'Connor and those other guys)

"Alyosha"

Analogical Imagination

I first came across the expression "Sacramental Imagination" in Andrew Greeley's book, The Catholic Myth, which is a sociological study of American Catholic culture, behavior and beliefs. 1 In the third chapter of his book, Greeley poses this question to his readers: "Do Catholics Imagine Differently?" He then proceeds to explain that, yes, indeed they do.

"Religion... is imagination before it's anything else. The Catholic imagination is different from the Protestant imagination. You know that: Flannery O'Connor is not John Updike." 2

This piqued my interest. "How is the Catholic Imagination different?" I wondered, and "Why might this be so?" Greeley writes:

"The central symbol (of religion) is God. One's "picture" of God is in fact a metaphorical narrative of God's relationship with the world and the self as part of the world... The Catholic "classics" assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically different from God." 3

Greeley defines this difference this way:

"(T)he Catholic imagination is 'analogical' and the Protestant imagination is 'dialectical.'" 4

So what does Greeley mean by an "analogical imagination?" He means that our Catholic mind-set tends toward analogy, where one reality corresponds to another. From our earliest days, we recall churches filled with incense and candles, statues and flowers, bells, ashes, oils and fonts of holy water; each standing alone as natural objects of the world, yet each signifying a deeper mystery of faith. The sacraments themselves (with the exception of the Eucharist, which is the Sacrament of sacraments) 5 are analogical. The new catechism states that:

"The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the grace proper to each sacrament." 6

Therefore, this notion that the Catholic Imagination is different from the Protestant Imagination presents a real challenge to the literary student; one which I hope to make the aim and focus of our class discussions. From the selected readings, we will explore the "analogical" imagination and, drawing upon traditional sacramental themes, discover what sets the Catholic author apart from other writers. Our purpose is not to encourage a rift between Catholic and non-Catholic sensibilities - not at all - our purpose is to highlight those things which are unique to the Catholic "metaphorical narrative," so that we may come to appreciate the Catholic writer's contribution to world literature, and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of our faith.


Sensual Imagination

In truth, literature is not the natural domain of the Catholic imagination. The natural domain of the Catholic imagination is the visual or sensual arts.

In a rather eye-popping essay for the New Art Examiner, Eleanor Heartney examines the legacy of the Catholic Church and its influence on contemporary art. Presuming her audience might be hostile to such a claim, she supports her contention with a brief "delve into theology" and explains:

"Catholic doctrine holds that the human body is the instrument through which the miracle of man's salvation from sin is accomplished. As a result, all the major mysteries of the Catholic faith - among them Christ's Incarnation, his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Resurrection of the faithful at the end of time, and the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood during the Mass - center around the human body. Without Christ's assumption of human form, there could be no real sacrifice, and hence, no real salvation for mankind. The Catholic Church has traditionally relied upon visual imagery and sensual experience in order to convey these truths. The medieval cathedral, with its elaborate sculptural programs and stained-glass cycles provided a visual summary of both biblical tales and highly sophisticated theological disputes to a public that was largely illiterate. By the Renaissance, art had become an essential tool for the promulgation of religious doctrine...
"All of this is of course in stark contrast to the Protestant emphasis on biblical revelation as the primary source of God's truth. Since the Reformation, Protestants have tended to regard Catholic practice of venerating Christ and the Saints through richly ornamented religious statuary as a form of idol worship. Sensual imagery and sensual language are seen as impediments, rather than aids to belief. The body and its experiences are things to be transcended...
"The tension between Catholic and Protestant sensibilities outlined here can be summed up as a conflict between the Catholic culture of the image and the Protestant culture of the word. Catholicism values sensual experience and visual images as essential tools for bringing the faithful to God. By contrast, American Protestants depend for their salvation almost exclusively on God's Word as revealed through the Holy Bible..." 7

It is no coincidence that the invention of the printing press and the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation occurred at the same moment in history. With the aid of the printing press, Reformers were able, not only to foster their ideas to the Christian world, but to print and distribute the Bible in the vernacular of the people (something the Catholic Church rigorously opposed). In a very important way, the Bible and the written word became the domain of the Protestant Imagination. In Protestant culture, this has translated into a rich literary tradition.

But what of the fiction writer who is Catholic? Where are our Catholic authors? How does the "sensual imagination" translate into the written word?

In the early part of this twentieth century, Catholic periodicals were asking these same questions, especially with regard to American literature. 8 While there were European classics, and a wonderful body of Russian Literature grounded in the sacramental, American Catholicism had still not produced a coherent, literary legacy. By mid-century, with a few emerging exceptions, this was still the case.

In a 1952 essay entitled "Catholic Orientation in French Literature," Wallace Fowlie writes:

"American literature is quite thoroughly non-Catholic. There has never been in this country anything that would resemble a Catholic school of letters or movement in literature. It is true that in 1949 a Catholic magazine was founded, Renascence, concerned with art and literature, but the title was ill chosen. It is difficult to have a renascence of something that never existed." 9

As for European literature, the Catholic character seems to be most profoundly embodied in poetry. Is it any wonder, when poetry is itself a 'sensual' art form, teeming with 'visual' imagery? Dante, the famed Italian poet of the Divine Comedy and our great precursor, is the first to come to mind as a master of powerful, visual verse; and yet the Renaissance which followed and flowered in southern Europe was primarily a renaissance of the visual arts, and not of literature.

Centuries later, the French poets, most especially Baudelaire and Claudel, began to develop the idea that religious symbolism and poetic symbolism are very much the same. Claudel speaks of nature as a temple, each part of which possesses a symbolic meaning. How is this different from St. Thomas Aquinas, who called the universe "a general sacrament which speaks to us of God?" In fact, the writings of St. Thomas had a profound and lasting influence on the French literary world. The renaissance of medieval philosophy, that school of thought known as neo-Thomism, got its start in France. St. Thomas provides the French poet with a sacramental aesthetic, according to which the universe is the mirror of God.

It's important to note that the seed of Thomistic thought does not die on the continental shores. It has a strong influence in Ireland, again most especially with the poets, though it's barely managed to make its way across the Atlantic or, at any rate, to spring to life here and be recognized beyond the usual Catholic circles.

That is until a young woman who raised chickens in Georgia started writing stories in the 1950's. Flannery O'Connor, self-schooled in Thomistic thought, managed to contribute two novels and a number of short stories to American Literature before her life was cut short at the age of 39. And yet she really does stand out as one of America's great prose writers, one whose sensibilities and whose personal faith were profoundly Catholic, and whose stories are steeped in the sacramental. O'Connor regarded her talent as a gift, but it was not an unconscious gift. She knew what she was about. She once remarked to a friend that, as an art form, fiction is "incarnational." In an essay on the "Novelist and Believer," she tells us:

"St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this - as the western world did up until a few centuries ago - this physical sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source... [The aim of the artist is] to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe... The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality." 10

This view is at the heart of the Sacramental Imagination. The central mystery of the Catholic faith is the Incarnation, by which God became man and dwelt among us. The great lesson of the Incarnation has become the pivotal theme of contemporary Catholic literature. In his essay on French Literature, Wallace Fowlie concludes with this remark:

"One wonders if Claudel ... is the only one close to the Dominican interpretation: Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects and raises it. Despair is not the ultimate secret. Claudel believes in a theocentric humanism. Nothing is more exultant than this conception of the universe. When the Word became Flesh, it assumed the universe." 11

My guess is, in 1952, Mr. Fowlie had not yet stumbled upon the hen-house Thomist in Georgia.


The Reader's Imagination

While this might seem very well and good, even perhaps a bit heavy-headed, it takes more than great writers to make literature. It takes intelligent readers as well. In this vein, Flannery O'Connor presents us (and I mean us, every one of us taking this class), with a more personal and immediate challenge. In a speech delivered to an audience of would-be Catholic novelists, she tells them:

"One of the most disheartening circumstances that the Catholic novelist has to contend with is that he has no large audience he can count on to understand his work." 12

For O'Connor, the modern secular world, which makes up most of the Catholic writer's audience, does not believe in the theological truths of the Faith, which is the foundation of the writer's universe and imagination.

"It does not believe in sin, or in the value that suffering can have, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that ... has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it." 13

Of course, the secular modern world does not make up the author's entire audience. And while it's fair to say that the Protestant believers are likewise confused by the Catholic imagination, there must be a few Catholic readers in the audience who do share the "theological truths of the Faith." It's hoped that these would certainly grasp the analogical underpinnings of the sacramental. However, Ms. O'Connor suggests that this is rarely the case. In a letter to a friend, she writes:

"The average Catholic reader is a militant moron." 14

Not exactly flattering, is it?

I would like to think quite a lot has changed since 1956, when she first penned those words, but this seems unlikely. The world has certainly become more secular, and even less equipped to understand the themes that underlay the Catholic mind-set.

As for the "average Catholic reader," well, our situation is not hopeless. While it's possible that we may have lost much of our sacramental temperament to the secularized world view, or to a more abstract, transcendental expression so common in American Protestant literature, it's also possible that much of our Catholic sensibilities remain, lingering, so to speak, in the vaulted arches of our memory. Fr. Greeley would surely agree with such an assessment. He would state that it is there, it has always been there, and it needs only to be recognized and nurtured and named.


      1. The Catholic Myth. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990. pg. 34.
      2. Ibid., pg. 34.
      3. Ibid., pg. 45.
      4. Ibid., pg. 45.
      5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, lines: 1211:1374
      6. Ibid., lines: 1131
      7. "Blood, Sex, and Blasphemy - The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art" Eleanor Heartney. New Art Examiner.
      8. Esp. America, Queen's Work and The Catholic Literary Revival. Arnold Sparr: To Promote, Defend, and Redeem - The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960. Greenwood Press; 1990.
      9. "Catholic Orientation in Contemporary French Literature" Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature, 1952, pg. 225.
      10. "The Novelist and Believer" Mystery and Manners. 1957, pg. 157.
      11. "Catholic Orientation in Contemporary French Literature" Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature, 1952, pg. 241.
      12. "Catholic Novelists" Mystery and Manners. 1957. pg. 181.
      13. Ibid., pg. 185.
      14. The Habit of Being, 1979, pg. 179.