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 does so in time. This fact both complicates and clarifies what a Catholic imagination might be, and it offers us ways to begin thinking of such an imagination as more than a wishful fantasy that Catholics use to comfort themselves on the sad, rainy days when they fear that their present art is not so wonderful as the art of their past. At the same time, we will be forced to surrender the idea that the “Catholic imagination” is easily distinguishable from any other kind.

When I say “imagination,” or when I try to explain to others what makes Catholic imagining distinctive, I tend to conflate two quite different ideas: imagination as a power or faculty of the mind, and imagination as those things that Catholics think and create (or have thought and created).[3] On my college campus in California, for example, I will frequently insist that my actions alone do not make a thing “Catholic.” I may be a theologian and a professor, but my presence does not bless an event unto the Church. It is, instead, when we start thinking and acting communally that we begin to be really “Catholic” in any sense that resembles Catholics of the past, that imitates present Catholic ecclesiology, and that gestures toward our ultimate eschatological unity. The Catholic imagination is communal. By “imagination,” here I mean something like those things that Catholics think and create, and yet also the act of creating them. Or, to put it another way, it means what Catholics past and present are wont to do, where we lean when we act, the things we tend to do at least in part because of the weight of our own past.

Augustine associates imagination with memory. In Book X of his Confessions, for example, he speaks in detail of memory’s ability to recall images not only from our own experiences, but also from what we have not experienced at all: from stories we have been told, or places we have heard about, and so on. In other words, my memory contains not only my experiences, but also what I have imagined. Thomas Aquinas speaks out of this tradition in De veritate when he describes how memory and understanding are different from each other. It is memory that guards the “phantasms” (the sense-experiences) through which we come to understand truth, but truth itself is invisible and general, whereas phantasms are sensate and specific.[4] In this thread of the Catholic intellectual tradition, at least, imagination and memory are identified with one another because both rely on images (or phantasms) to function. That is at least one reason why, when we talk about “imagination,” we tend to associate it with the sensible things it creates.

But imagination also is not what it creates. It is an ability or faculty that I really only know through the images it brings forth, but it is not, as a power, the same as those. That would be like saying that my feet and my bike pedals are the same: in fact, one gets them moving, and the other is what moves. Imagination also is not the same as what we might call “intellect” or “understanding.” One has to do with truth in some way; the other, when it is helpful, is a kind of dialogue between images and truth. Traditionally, at least, this way of speaking about imagination, as a faculty that assists in the mediation of truth, is not developed in as much detail as the other one. Perhaps this is because, as Thomas points out, what we mean by “understanding” can start to include things like memory.[5]

Since I exist in time, I know when I learned something. That is one way understanding and memory inhere in one another. More deeply, my understanding, my being, is shaped by the wider history I am a part of, so that I am never a raw, blank slate upon which truth can be written. Martin Heidegger likes to describe how we are “thrown” into existence, into the middle of what is already underway. Hans Urs von Balthasar adjusts this idea to give it a more positive, scriptural connotation: I always receive my existence from God, in every moment, just as I also always receive the present moment.[6] Philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur have pointed out how traditions also mediate the present moment to us, and we are often in the midst of speaking with those traditions or trying to critique their failings. In other words, time also is not a blank slate upon which the truth can be written.

When Timothy O’Malley asks us to imagine in more thoroughly symbolic ways, particularly when it comes to the liturgy, he is looking back upon the Catholic tradition in an effort of recovery that is meant to lead to renewal. Yet again, memory serves to give shape to imagination. This is one key to what we must mean when we speak of “Catholic imagination.” At the same time, recovering a part of the past will always make it different, or else it becomes mere imitation. A kind of empty gesture. Or, worse, it becomes a hollow activity that prevents us from genuine reflection. This deserves more attention.

Sometimes Catholicism “looks” different to those of us used to a certain form of it, and yet it is the same Catholicism. We can see this over time, or between cultures. Irish monasticism did not look the same as Benedictine monasticism, nor did this prevent them from creating a regula mixta. Other times Catholicism looks different, and this signifies a fundamental parting of ways. Based on beautiful artifacts alone (art, music, etc.) it is difficult to diagnose which differences divide communion and which increase the wealth of the Church. How different was the art of Arians from the Nicenes? The things of imagination may well hint at the answer, but intellect is forced to wrestle with the meaning each image gestures toward. The images themselves cannot tell us when creativity becomes heresy.

Our own history as Catholics shows us what it looks like when we make the fatal mistake of confusing the activity of imagining with its imaginative creations. When Spanish Catholics (and others) encountered entirely foreign peoples in Latin America, the Catholic response warred with itself in important ways. To make a complex story far too simple, there were those who cruelly overcame and enslaved the natives of Latin America; there were also those who, like Bartolomé de las Casas, vociferously defended the full equality of every person and decried the atrocities wrought against them. One response, I would argue, emerges out of the heart of Catholic tradition: that of de las Casas. The other looks upon the steep cultural differences between Catholicism of the time and the native people, and it sees enemies. This is like a cancerous growth or a wound in the Catholic tradition, since it forgets essential elements of faith, particularly that all flesh is hallowed now that God has taken flesh upon himself.

Here I admittedly blur the distinction between moral imagination and aesthetic imagination, though both are imaginings, in order to try and make my point. Beauty and goodness are not divisible, however; and aesthetics, while ambiguous, is not morally neutral. If I cannot look upon someone different than me and see my neighbor, then I fail not only morally, but also aesthetically. Balthasar might call it a failure to see the form, and alongside this is a failure to see form’s splendor, “that which shines forth from the figure, making it into a worthy, a love-worthy thing.”[7]

Modern scholars often worry about “colonialism,” and they worry over whether religion is a way to secret mechanisms of foreign control upon a people. The word “colonialism” is used widely and with great variance, but it does emerge from the experience of being colonized, from the explicit and implicit violence of being forced into certain cultural habits of being (among others). It is not uncommon for those who have experienced this to look upon the Church with deep suspicion. If we do not have a way of distinguishing between cultural artifacts and thought, if Catholic imagination becomes the same as all its products, then Catholicism will inevitably be an instrument of colonization, and the Church will never be free of such a charge. Neither the Church nor her works of art will ever be trusted. Even if critics of the Church sometimes bear a hesitance toward anything Western that results from much the same mistake, confusing things for thoughts, that does not relinquish us from our task of carefully distinguishing between the freedom of creation and its concrete works.

When we speak of “Catholic imagination” in this sense, in the sense of a faculty wavering between truth and image, I am not sure that we can mean some special ability set apart from all other human beings. Inasmuch as my faculties are enlivened by faith, there may well be a kind of potency available to me and not in others, since I will presume the things of faith when I move to create. And yet, these are the same faculties that I had before the grace of baptism. They are not radically different in their operation; indeed, I am possessed of the same fascinations and flaws that help and limit my imagining. I still need to learn, to grow, to be healed of the ways I curve inward upon myself. My imagination needs that too.

To approach the matter from a different angle: when we speak of “Catholic imagination” in this sense, as a faculty or power or operation, it becomes less distinguishable from the abilities of human beings in general. Catholic imagination becomes more ordinary, which is good. This is Catholic: gratia perfecit, non destruit. Sometimes (in fact, all the time) being a good Catholic means being a good human. Then again, this is not always what aesthetes want to hear.

We Catholics sometimes speak of Catholic imagination as if it were floating out there somewhere like a Platonic ideal, perfect and waiting to be realized; or we speak of Catholic imagination as if it were a special power endowed to us alone, a kind of magic given in baptism. We are given to a kind of Catholic Romanticism, which is lovely yet flawed. It is important not to deny ideals and not to deny the real gifts of the sacraments, but it does seem that “Catholic imagination” carries us away a bit, but not always, from the mundane, everyday work of the beautiful. To counter such a temptation, we must think instead of how Saint Francis speaks of Christ to his feathered friends and how he praises the moon. How George Mackay Brown describes the “woven monotonies of God,”[8] and how,

Time folded his breath about the world,
Fixed in us wondering apes a praising tongue,
Strung his bright harps along the cold sea caves,
And broke our winter into grape and grain[9]

These are examples of Catholics addressing ordinary things, everyday things. These things are what comprise the life of faith and the imaginations we bring to it. This is a part of our resplendent poverty: that is, here we see our ordinariness, and in it we are poor-yet-rich. After all, Ordinary Time is not a liturgical break from the quotidian wonders of God. So, when I call Catholic imagination in some sense “ordinary” or “natural” or “human” - when I say that it is the expression of a regular ability, imagining, but in a Catholic—I mean no insult. None at all. To be Catholic is, in a very real sense, to be profoundly human. To be no different than anyone, because Christ is for everyone.

Now that I have made my various distinctions, as Thomas has taught me to do, I must bring them together in a new unity, as Thomas also taught me. It would be a mistake to emerge from this essay with a tamed view of Catholic imagination, or an iconoclastic impulse. (Though, indeed, the Church has her Baroque monks and her minimalist ones.)

Our unity is, formally, the unity of the mind itself, a mind that needs my body, which exists in time. The memory of tradition (of being part of a tradition, of being in time) will always weigh on my mind as one of those easy yokes that can at times seem terribly heavy. Since I cannot create apart from where I am, and I cannot suddenly free myself from the time I am in, tradition always shapes imagining. There is no total revolution that can start entirely new. This means that the creations of Catholic imagining will bear, in one way or another, a resemblance to their own past. It means that tradition remains a resource, always, for what is new.

It also means that tradition alone can never suffice for the work I create, since I do not exist in the past as part of the past. That is, since I exist now, and have to respond to now. The arts are experimental, and they draw from many wells at once, particularly when the artist him or herself lives in a complicated world. Catholics cannot help but be Medieval-modern hybrids to varying tragedies and successes, often simultaneously. The Saint John’s Bible is a magnificent example of a Medieval-modern victory. Yet, this makes us, perhaps oddly, more responsible for our traditions of art because we must be more aware of them; it also makes us, not so oddly, tempted to retreat to what is familiar and to remain there. As if the art of the past were never bad, or weird, or failed. Of course it was.

I cannot confuse my imagination with my intellect nor the things I create with my imagination, but I will only ever know creativity through each of them working together as a single unity, as the unity that I am. It is my task to be this unity. To live as this unity knowing how fragile imagination really is in the face of the real, how hard imagination is to define, how little I can tell it to be something specific. What Flannery O’Connor says of writers we might say of all acts of creativity: “The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what is.”[10] That is, we must acknowledge our own poverty. This does not lead us away from Christ, but to Christ, precisely through the communication of grace through what is. Then we ourselves will be made signs of the extraordinary wed to the mundane; we will be signs of the Incarnation.

Though veiled to me that face of faces
And still that form eludes my art,
Yet all the gifts my faith has brought
Along the secret stair of thought
Have come to me on those hushed paces
Whose footfall is my beating heart.[11]

Other contributions to Church Life Journal's discussion of the Catholic imagination are all conveniently collected here:

Featured Image: Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1664; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] From “Burnt Norton”

[2] From “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

[3] This way of framing what gets confused is the result of several conversations I had with others. Since I am unable to untangle who of us said what­, I want to thank Karl Persson, Joel Pidel, Timothy O’Malley, Jonathan Heaps, and Ryan Hemmer.

[4] De veritate Q 10 a. 2.  Available in translation online from the Dominican House of Studies:

[5] De veritate Q 10, a. 2: “Since memory, taken strictly, looks to what is past with reference to the present, it is clear that memory, properly speaking, does not belong to the intellectual part, but only to the sensitive, as the Philosopher shows. But, since intellect not only understands the intelligible thing, but also understands that it understands such an intelligible thing, the term memory can be broadened to include the knowledge by which one knows the object previously known in so far as he knows he knew it earlier, although he does not know the object as in the past.”

[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Finite Time Within Eternal Time” in Explorations in Theology V: Man Is Created, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014), 56-59.

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. I: Seeing the Form, 2nd ed., trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 20.

[8] From “The Abbot”

[9] From “Saint Magnus in Egilsay”

[10] Flannery O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” in America Magazine March 30, 1957; republished digitally:

[11] From Roy Campbell, “The Secret Muse”


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

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