Reflections on home and the Catholic imagination


This is an edited version of a lecture given by a leading academic at the University of Glasgow in September.

I want to begin by evoking an image of childhood. The place is Lusaka in the early 1960s. A little girl, maybe eight or nine years old, sits cross-legged on a red polished cement floor in a corner of a living room with bookshelves lining the walls behind her. She’s hidden behind a Parker Knoll chair.

Beside the child sits a fat old mongrel with B.O. and ticks that crawl up the wall and occasionally burrow into her ankles. She notices none of this, because she’s immersed in a book. The book is an anthology called A Book of Joy, and its companion volume is A Book of Beauty. These two books are the worlds this child escapes into. Her school reports describe her as a daydreamer who could achieve more if she concentrated, but why would she exchange those imagined worlds for the tedium of British imperial history and the geography of places she has no desire to visit, memorising the names of all those countries coloured pink on the map?

In my talk tonight I ask how memories of home might inspire creative sacramental imaginings.

The Catholic faith is a story told by a pilgrim people journeying between memory and hope, from a mythical paradise of origins to a yeaned paradise of endings. Marilynne Robinson describes what this means in her novel Housekeeping:

‘The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known as an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory – there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved in her spine’.

If, as I suggest, the recognition of God in the beautiful, the good and the true is a debt that the Catholic tradition owes to Greek philosophy, the shadow side of that inheritance has been an over-emphasis on the rationality, omnipotence and omniscience of God, and a failure to allow space in our theologies for the enigmatic creativity of the God of the Hebrew scriptures and of the parables of Jesus.

The Book of Proverbs speaks of the wisdom of God being ever at play in the world – a capricious, feminised spirit who eludes the entrapment of logic and necessity. The Book of Job deflects attention away from explanations and meanings by pointing to the majesty and mystery of creation. Time and again the psalms invoke the creatures and features of the natural world to praise God.

To allow images such as these to shape our language and to inform our theology is to seek a transformation in the ways in which we speak about God. To become as little children is to reawaken those memories of childhood with all their hauntings and fears as well as their delights and surprises, and to allow those to give rise to thought. Paul Ricoeur tells us that the symbol gives rise to thought. The world of childhood is a world of symbols, of meanings enfolded within meanings, of endless imaginative possibilities that present themselves to the mind that is still fresh and alert to the miracle of life.

Catholic education must connect with those faculties of imagination and creativity that are most intensely present in childhood and in memories and dreams of home. Those who teach the Catholic faith best are those who tell stories well, those who are performers and dreamers, who infect their students with a childlike capacity for curiosity and wonder and hope.

Pope Francis is bringing about a stylistic transformation in church teaching by adopting a lyrical, mystical approach which is narrative, dialogical and poetic rather than systematic, argumentative and dialectical. He recognises that, if we are to respond to the urgent environmental and social crises of our time, we need a new way of speaking about creation and our place within it. Environmentalist Mary Colwell describes Laudato Si’ as ‘a poem to the world’.

The encyclical calls for ‘a bold cultural revolution’ (LS 114) which is not just about changing the world but about changing our small daily routines, relationships and practices. So, for example, Francis asks believers to return to ‘the beautiful and meaningful custom’ of giving thanks to God before and after meals. He writes,

‘That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need’. (LS 227)

Laudato Si’ weaves together a rich tapestry of thankfulness for God’s blessings, care for creation, and attentiveness to social and economic justice. In all this, Francis is inviting us to nurture and cultivate what he sees as a fragile new ethos emerging amidst the violence and violations of late modernity. He writes, ‘An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?’

The task of Catholic education is surely to create the conditions in which young people can discover this authentic humanity within themselves and become part of that ‘stubborn resistance’ to the exploitative, degrading and abusive values and practices of our technocratic consumerist societies.

If we want to reawaken a sense of connectedness with God and creation through education, we need to move beyond abstraction and theory to a new awareness of the power of language to awaken desire for God through our relationships and encounters with the material world. Jesuit Josef Piper in his little book, Leisure the basis of culture, points out that the English word school derives from the Greek and Latin words for leisure – skole and scola.

How do we approach education in the spirit of wisdom that has shaped the Catholic understanding of intellectual formation? Simone Weil, in her essay ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God’ writes:

The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. … Academic work is one of those fields which contain a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it’.

Like all thinkers in the great religious traditions, Weil makes a connection between study and prayer. We need to allow time for concepts, ideas and arguments to seed themselves in silent reflection and openness to God, so that knowledge is transformed into wisdom, and wisdom is in turn transformed into loving activity in the world.

Let me return to that little girl reading A Book of Beauty and A Book of Joy behind the chair in Lusaka. Throughout my life, I had an intermittent itch of curiosity about Catholicism. I can trace this back to several influences – the Irish priests who used to come and drink whisky with my parents, my dad’s love of ritual and fancy dress expressed in his Freemasonry, and the fact that my parents sent me to the Dominican Convent school in Lusaka because it was the only good school in which a child could do ‘O’ levels. Those formidable German sisters made a lasting impression on me, and through various other influences and promptings I was eventually received into the Catholic Church in 1986, at the age of 31.

I left school at 15, following my mother’s advice to learn to type before I got married and had children. I started University the year the youngest of my four children started school, and I went on to do a PhD. I did my doctorate on the Virgin Mary as the New Eve – a choice that would have stunned my former evangelical Presbyterian self – and I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the apocryphal mother of the Virgin, Saint Anne. Over the years I’ve turned repeatedly to the medieval cult of Saint Anne and the art it inspired. She has been a vast figure in my intellectual and spiritual life, and her presence intensified when I too became a grandmother.

Preparing for this talk, I decided to revisit those two old books. And when I opened A Book of Joy, I found an image of the Virgin and child with St Anne.

This stunning image is almost unknown. I’ve never come across it in any of my extensive research on Saint Anne in art. I had no idea I’d ever set eyes on it until I started working on this talk. It’s in Liverpool Art Gallery. What then drew me back to Saint Anne after all these years? What seeds of imaginative hope and maternal love were sown in my troubled young soul, as I hid from the domestic turbulence of my childhood home? The text on the other side of the image is a romantic paean to the mystery of woman. Is this the seedbed of my intellectual curiosity in later life which led me to study gender and Marian art and devotion?

We should never neglect the power of children to imagine and to bring different worlds into being to render more exciting and hopeful the worlds that surround them. That is where religious faith and sacramental imaginings take root in a child’s soul.

Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.