The poetry of Catholicism: living between absurdity and faith

The phrase “poetry of Catholicism” is the late Andrew Greeley’s, whose writing often revealed the poet in the social scientist. Interesting as it may be, it presents a topic of questionable relevance in this age of major challenges facing the Catholic Church—worldwide scandal, looming and significant structural changes and major reassessments of traditional teachings and practices. It is an age that reveals the old coziness of pre-Vatican II culture shaken beyond recovery. We have become accustomed to topics like “Why I Remain a Catholic” or “Why I Can No Longer Remain a Catholic” or “The Rediscovery of Radical Catholicism.” We find ourselves looking for solid intellectual and theological footing as we address the issues of change and identity, conscience and obedience, science and faith, church and state and more.

In seeking this solid footing, it may at first blush seem fanciful, if not irresponsible, to turn to something so ethereal as the “poetic” quality of American Catholic culture. We point with pride and assurance to quantifiable phenomena—including our leadership in matters of social justice, our patriotic service in the battle against totalitarianism and our public contributions to health and education—areas in which our women religious especially have been regarded with affection and admiration by persons otherwise indifferent or hostile to things Catholic.

Advertisement

Beyond such concrete evidence of Catholic participation in American life, however, we may still ask to what extent that presence distinguishes the individual Catholic in American culture and, indeed, modern society. We can, of course, point to the sentimentalizing of Catholic culture in popular entertainment—including stereotypes of the innocent (and often pretty) novice whose appealing simplicity wins over the cynical financier and saves St. Pericula Academy from ruin; the tough-talking prison chaplain who reaches the soft spot in the heart of the death-row killer; the touching pieties, sometimes bordering on superstition, of immigrant populations. Our comedians can feast, lightly or otherwise, on Catholic schooling, Catholic guilt and Catholic sexual anxieties.

Surely, in assigning a poetic quality to Catholic culture, Father Greeley, a respected sociologist, had something more substantial in mind than sentimentality or cliché. His use of the term assumes a reality, and we are provoked to ask whether this “poetic” dimension of Catholicism renders it a distinct force in American culture. Does it provoke public interest or response? Is “Catholic” as resonant a social marker as “puritanical” or “consumerist” or “neoconservative”? Does it evoke a distinct response when applied to an individual?

In addressing this question we ought not to equate Greeley’s “poetry” with such heightening but limited usages as “the agony of defeat” or “the bliss of a hole-in-one.” We must here understand “poetry” as Aristotle seems to have done—as an action of intuition and imagination taking form in aesthetic expression, and (most important) doing so because the truths, cautions and wisdom that formal actions convey cannot be communicated in any other way! Where concepts and language fall short of feelings, intuitions or musings beyond empirical reach, the formal structures of art and mysticism strike a provocative resonance, as a wordless cry in a dark cave may rouse a reassuring echo.

Representing All the Arts

In his Poetics, Aristotle uses poetry to represent all the creative arts. He argues, in effect, that while history and physical sciences may deal with tangible particular facts, the arts reach beyond the particulars of time and place to universal truths that abide for all time. One formulation of this idea goes: While history records what happened, art resonates with what happens—always. These universal truths, moreover, are conveyed not through philosophical concepts or clinical explanations but through their resonance with our human sensibilities, moving us to recognize their validity in our own lives. And it does this through the formal actions we call the play, the dance, the sculpture or the poem. The importance of the aesthetic sensibility, which the arts require and inspire, is caught in the striking observation of the American poet and business executive Wallace Stevens, who said, “We have imagination because we do not have enough without it.”

Understanding poetry in this sense, we can then explore what might be meant by “the poetry of Catholicism” in American culture. Apart from the phrase’s conventional suggestion that there is something sublime or spiritual or beyond ordinary language, what is there in American Catholicism that, like poetry, strikes a meaningful resonance in our daily lives, civic and private? What is there, for example, at an Irish wake in Boston or San Francisco that, with both prayer and whiskey, celebrates triumph over despair, hope over absurdity? What comfort in the clutch of mystery finds beauty in the sundown of a loved one’s life?

What is there in our forgiveness of the killer that redeems the killer latent in all of us? What justifies our donning the Mardi Gras demon mask, even as we renounce the demon? What music of image and sound embraces the mystery of loss in Hopkins’s autumnal lament, “though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”? What is it in the daily feast of the Eucharist that assumes our woundings and our blessings into a community of sharers, into a common “Thank you” that honors the gift of life more than it regrets the evil of suffering? In a society whose fascination with health threatens to turn label reading into a genre, what moderating grace and countercultural intuitions move us to fret more over income disparity or bullying than over carbs or sagging jowls? What sacramental earthiness disposes us to act more out of a habitual compassion than out of an anxious propriety?

In the Shadow of Mystery

Catholicism, of course, shares many of these dispositions with other traditions, but wherever the church has taken root, they take on a distinctive character born of our grounding in the pre-eminence of mystery. Robert Frost spoke of our need for “a mind of winter” in the face of darkness. Catholics espouse “a mind of mystery” that often seems indifferent to secular paradigms; that, for example, regards virtue-for-itself with a dismissive arching of the brow that laces compassion with humor, that seeks solutions as much in wonder and contemplation as in knowledge. Walking thus in the shadow of mystery and in a certain poetic openness to surprise and the discovery of value in simple things, Catholics may be less susceptible to the distractions of consumerism, the lure of popular trends, the narcissistic narrowing of self-realization systems that isolate our crosses from the Gethsemanes of a suffering world. In the sacramental grounding of our Jewish heritage, what Father Greeley called “the Catholic imagination” seeks, more than immediate resolutions, the lasting wisdom that trial and suffering effect in those who affirm life even in its darkest manifestation—not in dour resignation to bad news but in rejection of pollyannish solutions indifferent to our history of fallibility—solutions latent with the possibility that “the last state shall be worse than the first.”

Most important, the poetry of Catholicism embraces the physical world—not as an enemy of the sacred, but as a locus of the divine. Inspired by the ever emerging evidence of cosmology and evolutionary study, many Catholic theologians regard the unceasing evolution of the cosmos as a template for an ongoing revelation and renewal in the life of the church. For believers, it is a template marked by ambiguity (we see now “as in a glass, darkly”) and, at times, by uncertainty and confusion; but it is also a template that urges openness to what is new, prayerful discernment and human creativity. It is a template consonant with an old description of the church as “always herself, never the same.” This interplay of change and identity pervades all human culture and its arts. Contemplating the last of all temporal changes, Wallace Stevens, in his great poem of religious questioning, “Sunday Morning,” exclaims, “Death is the mother of beauty.” He is not the only poet to conclude that change—death to rebirth, suffering to wisdom—is the fundamental concern of poetry.

Sharing this same poetic intuition, the church has espoused and influenced the arts over the centuries—clearly in the very nature of the sacraments as external signs and vehicles of spiritual reality— but also in her prominent contribution to the aesthetic history of Western civilization. Granted, the formal poem (or statue or song) is something distinct from the poetic quality of a culture; still, a society’s art and culture do indeed interact profoundly. In both ecclesial and cultural lore, the aesthetic represents a moral energy that affects behavior and effects identity. The enormous changes in every aspect of our lives today and the sustaining images of our Catholic tradition are the everlasting stuff of drama and poetry: images of the unknown, of journey and pilgrimage, of suffering and transformation, of blindness and vision, of fall and redemption, death and rebirth; evolutionary images of violence and loss engendering ever greater beauty and complexity—the list goes on. And all this, in one way or another, the poetic energies that challenge, sustain and transform us!

When I am asked, in the face of current scandals and accusations leveled against my church, why I remain a Catholic, it is this very earth—turbulent, horrific and unspeakably beautiful—that is my referent. As one who justifies his addiction to sports as a cathartic form of ritual, I find, in the whirlwind of cosmic change, the great drama and challenge of this earth become conscious of itself in the human person—that same person so perversely and elegantly tragic and divine. This drama enacts the daily struggle between the absurdity of evil and our mulish, Job-like persistence in faith—and this against the glorious, frightening freedom to choose between these. And it is, finally, the trump card of hope that you slam before the fiercely humorous face of the divine, as you cry out, “Take that!”

If we can manage this pilgrimage—a miracle of grace beyond our merit—we can count upon an army of celebrants, here and departed, marching, in fact or figure, away from our wakes, glasses raised on high, reciting poems more beautiful than any we can imagine. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
2 years 4 months ago
Catholics have the best parades. We bless animals and fields and women thankful for the safe delivery of a child. We have more causes to celebrate because we celebrate most of the events of our lives in one way or another. Catholicism recognizes that life is not logical or quantifiable or a problem that can be solved - it can only be celebrated. Celebrating life in all its absurdity is a defense against the stupidly logical.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Democrats, and the Republicans who understand Dreamers are owed protection, could take a lesson from people of color around the country in how to navigate a political process tainted by racism. The lives of 800,000 Dreamers depend on it.
Antonio De Loera-BrustJanuary 22, 2018
“Separating fathers from families has been going on for a while. But now, even mothers are being separated from their children.”
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 22, 2018
“I ask forgiveness,” the pope said on his flight from Lima to Rome. “It’s a hurt [caused] without wishing it.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 22, 2018