Catholic Voices - Cultivating a Catholic imagination

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A sacramental view of the world recognizes God in all of creation

Do Catholics imagine differently from other Christians? Our doctrines differ, certainly, but does our imagination differ as well? Though we experience the world through the same senses and read from the same Gospels, I do believe that Catholics have a distinctly sacramental view of the world, one that has come to recognize the underlying grace of God in all of creation.

Nina Butorac
Nina Butorac

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that the world mirrors God’s own beauty and greatness, that God is in the world, and that grace is everywhere. Is it any wonder, then, that Catholics thrive on allegory and symbol? Our churches are filled with the outward signs that signify a deeper reality: From statues to icons to stained-glass windows, we delight in imagery. This is sometimes regarded as scandalous by non-Catholics, who mistakenly presume we worship these images. But we do not. Catholicism asserts, again and again, that God entered our world in the Incarnation (literally: making flesh), and that the world is therefore graced by God. The Incarnation is the focus of our faith, and the images are the signs that point to it.

We might contrast this with a certain Protestant view that sees the world and our bodies as dangers to our souls, corrupt stumbling blocks that must be transcended. From this perspective, God is very distant from creation, and the faithful are encouraged to go beyond the depraved world and assume a spiritual relationship with God. The Protestant imagination relies on faith, individual integrity, hard work, and the word of God as it is found in Holy Scripture for its artistic expression, most especially in its literature.

Our Catholic imagination asserts a world that is steeped in the grace and presence of God. There is evil, and there is excess, and there is sin, but the world is good. Our bodies are good. The human body is, in fact, the instrument through which our salvation is accomplished! The human body is sacred because we were made in the image of God, and because Christ — by his incarnation — has sanctified our very flesh. We make this assertion every day at Mass and in the Eucharist.

Because the world is a sacrament of God, we find that Catholic literature is steeped in imagery and symbol and allegory, all pointing to the indwelling God.

Among our Catholic authors, few come closer to embodying this standpoint than Flannery O’Connor. Though her stories are fierce and strange, they are thoroughly sacramental. In her short story “Parker’s Back,” for example, we are introduced to a young man who has spent his youth acquiring tattoos over most of his body. For reasons difficult to fathom, he falls for a skinny and “plain, plain” country girl who finds his tattoos ridiculous but marries him anyway. Well, it is no wedded bliss.

When Parker gets into an accident on a tractor, he is struck by this near-death experience and vows to get a tattoo of God put on his back, the only empty place left on his body. The tattoo artist spends two days etching a Byzantine image of Christ into Parker’s flesh, and the tattoo changes him somehow. Christ is now literally embedded in his flesh, his body imbued with God. He goes home to show his wife, who is scandalized. “Idolatry!” she screams, grabbing up a broom and thrashing him with it, so that “large welts formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.” Parker stumbles outside to escape. There she spies him “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.” But these are not tears of despair; these are the tears of one born again.

O’Connor means to remind us that God did not redeem us in spirit. God has redeemed us through a bloody and bodily event in our human history. The sacramental signs are everywhere for us to see, in the world and in the sacraments of the church. They need only to be recognized, and nurtured, and named.

Northwest Catholic - November 2018