Andrew Greeley on the Catholic Imagination

Andrew Greeley,  self-proclaimed "loud-mouthed Irish priest"

Andrew Greeley,
self-proclaimed “loud-mouthed Irish priest”

On the Relationship between Religion and Imagination

 The imagination is religious. Religion is imaginative. The origins and the power of both are in the playful, creative, dancing self.

(The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen)

On the Uniqueness of the Catholic Imagination

 A word about the Catholic imagination: Unlike the other religions of Yahweh, Catholicism has always stood for the accessibility of God in the world. God is more like the world than unlike it.

(The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen)

The objects, events, and persons of ordinary existence hint at the nature of God and indeed make God in some fashion present to us. God is sufficiently like creation that creation not only tells us something about God but, by so doing, also makes God present among us.

(The Catholic Imagination p. 6)

Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace….

This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a ‘sacrament,’ that is, a revelation of the presence of God.

(The Catholic Imagination p. 1)

On Stories and Doctrine

 Religion begins in the imagination and in stories, but it cannot remain there. The stories which are our first contact with religion… are subject to rational and critical examination as we grow older to discover both what they mean and whether we are still able to believe them. Bethlehem becomes the Incarnation. The empty tomb becomes the Resurrection. The final supper becomes the Eucharist. These are all necessary and praise-worthy developments. Nonetheless, the origins and raw power of religion are at the imaginative (that is, experiential and narrative) level both for the individual and for the tradition. The doctrine of the Incarnation has less appeal to the whole self than does the picture of the Madonna and Child in a cave. The doctrine of the Resurrection has less appeal to the total human personality than do the excited women and the awestruck disciples on the road to Emmaus that first day of the week. The doctrine of the Real Presence is less powerful than the image of the final meal in the upper room. None of the doctrines is less true than the stories. Indeed, they have the merit of being more precise, more carefully thought out, more ready for defense and explanation. But they are not where religion or religious faith starts, nor in truth where it ends.

(The Catholic Imagination p. 4)

On Lyrics, Liturgy, and Witness

 So if the troubadour’s symbols are only implicitly Catholic (and perhaps not altogether consciously so) and if many folks will not understand them or perceive their origins, what good are they to the Catholic Church? Surely they will not increase Sunday collections or win converts or improve the church’s public image. Or win consent to the pastoral letter on economics.

But those are only issues if you assume that people exist to serve the church. If, on the other hand, you assume that the church exists to serve people by bringing a message of hope and renewal, of light and water and rebirth, to a world steeped in tragedy and sin, you rejoice that such a troubadour sings stories that maybe even he does not know are Catholic….

Those Catholics who speak to the meaning of life out of the (perhaps) unselfconscious images of their Catholic heritage have a more profound claim to be liturgists than diocesan liturgical directors, for example, who gather to devise ways to use the liturgy to brainwash the laity into accepting the social action views of those who draft pastorals. (I do not know whether the assumption that this can be done is more hilarious than the attempt to do so is obscene.) The Catholic minstrels, such as these may be, are the true sacrament-makers because they revive and renew the fundamental religious metaphors. We must treasure them rather than ignore or denounce them. Or impugn their motives.

(The Catholic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen)

– Andrew Greeley, February 5, 1928 – May 29, 2013


A Mother’s Day Festivus for the Rest of Us: Some Inclusive Alternatives for Church Observance

Most reflective congregations will already be aware of the dividing walls between those settled in “traditional” families and those who are not. Do we want to religiously observe a day that builds up those walls or one that breaks them down and builds us all up together? I believe the Church does her best work when we regard one another primarily as brothers and sisters and act together as children of God. The Church is the family into which God has set each one of us. How might some different approaches to Mother’s Day establish rather than undermine that truth in our midst? Motherhood is one role/ ministry/ calling among many. As such, it should be honored within the Church, but not above or at the expense of other roles, ministries, and callings. How might we affirm, support, and challenge each other on Mother’s Day?

1. Skip it.

Everyone knows that it’s Mother’s Day. Multiple industries are working day and night to ensure this is known. Honoring mothers is a fine thing (honoring one another at any time is a fine thing), but churches are in no way required to drop everything to issue a statement on the subject of motherhood this morning in particular. This can be an emotionally charged day for people, but it is not a national crisis and needn’t override regularly scheduled programming.

Being asked to stand is not such a significant a form of recognition that anyone with a mother’s heart wouldn’t willingly give it up to spare her single-and-hating-it sister pain. None of us wants to win a potted plant for having the most children if it means another woman in the room is forced to wonder if her miscarried or stillborn or aborted or adopted out children “count.” Does she still “have” the child if he died or disowned her or if her parental or custodial rights were terminated? No one needs an African violet that badly.

Allow the congregation to relate to one another organically and appropriately during the natural times of greeting before, during, and after the service. Trust that your people will recognize and rejoice with any woman in your midst beaming with a pregnancy-rounded glow, or distracted by devotion to her newborn, or visibly chuffed in the company of her adult children who don’t normally join her in the pews. By not directing these times the congregation will also have the freedom to support the women around them for whom this day represents loss, whether that’s through a hug in silent acknowledgement of a mother’s recent passing or a more private grief, or by checking in with offers of practical support for those caring for mothers who are fading away, or by directing the conversation toward rousing speculation about the NBA draft because this marks another year that this day must simply be borne, and not celebrated.

If the fancy hat brigade asks why you "skipped" Mother's Day, tell them. They're moms. They'll understand

If the fancy hat brigade asks why you “skipped” Mother’s Day, tell them. They’re moms. They’ll understand

2. Address it.

Just know that it can’t be a one-size-fits-all gloss. Build language into your corporate prayer time in the service that contends with the struggles of the day as well as the joys. There is an excellent example here along with some potentially relevant editorial suggestions immediately following in the comments section and a lovely follow-up here.

As a matter of personal taste, I would reframe it as a prayer rather than a message, as a time of coming before God as one people with all these experiences. But then, I like to think that everyone in the church already knows they’re welcome there. If you preceive the message that we are all in this together needs to be heard, say it loud and clear.

3. Preach it.

But please, no sermons about following Jesus while raising children, especially if it’s romanticized as some greatest calling, and even if it’s gritty as all get out. As gratifying as it can be to hear someone publicly recognize the difficulty of maintaining a spiritual life while housebreaking small humans, I reckon doctors have to pray while surrounded by others’ bodily fluids as much or more than most mothers, and I know my friends in customer service and corporate America get pooped on more times in a week than I do. What other week of the year – besides Father’s Day, of course – do we choose to preach to a fraction of the congregation? If there are any families in your church you probably have better and more meaningful ways of supporting them that aren’t potentially heart-rending to the rest of your congregants. I don’t need my church to honor me for my fertility, especially when dear friends who I know to the core of my being would make better mothers than I am are struggling to conceive or adopt. I don’t want to be honored as a mother on general principle by someone who, chances are, has no idea how I’ve interacted with my kids over the last week. Give me an exhortingly honest contingent of other parents and friends privy to the sordid details over hollow praise any day. Parents need more support than an annual sermon, and non-parents need to know they are integral to the life of the church every week of the year.

If you choose to preach a Mother’s Day sermon, preach about the inconvenient and unifying fact that we all have mothers and talk about the work of relating to our universally messed-up families of origin in all their weird permutations and uncannily entrenched patterns. Preach the texts in which God longs to mother us, gathering us up, teaching us to walk, modeling flight and catching us when we fall, then tie in the physical impossibility of forgetting the children one has borne. Help us all see God as a loving mama with our names tattooed on her hands, who will always get a little misty-eyed thinking of us when we’re far away, even if it’s because we’re in juvie or run-off with a bad crowd. Who always has a room for us even when we call her names and can’t make the token $100 she charges us in rent. Who swells with pride for our every little achievement even when we have convinced ourselves we have done well in spite of our upbringing. If your congregation is into carnations give everyone a red one on the way out as a reminder that we all have a loving and living Mother who would rather die than see us hurt.

4. Re-radicalize it.

Mother’s Day in America only goes back a hundred years or so, and most of its early supporters envisioned a day that had more to do with community organizing and peace-making than with thanking women for having children. When it became a national holiday it was to honor women who had lost children to war. “Decorative” clay handprints and poorly executed breakfasts in bed were not the original intent. What if Mother’s Day became a rallying cry for fighting for everyone’s children? Revving up the fierce side of our collective maternal instinct and living into that day when war will no longer be taught by declaring that day begins now? Something along the lines of Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation?

Despite the assumptions of physical force, the mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. That word should now be heard, and answered to as never before.

Arise, then, Christian women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for carresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

Identify the social ill that breaks the hearts of your congregants and go at it like a mother protecting her young. Unleash your church’s inner mama bear on planning a clothes drive or activity for foster kids. Fund additional shelter beds in your town because everybody’s somebody’s baby. Scour the local middle school bathroom stalls and desks of cell numbers to call for a good time.

Mother’s Day was originally a day to mourn with those who mourn, but it is so much easier to rejoice with those who rejoice. How do we do both? What is your church doing for Mother’s Day? What ideas do you have?