The Duties of Details in Catholic Writing
The Catholic writer can achieve a sacramental vision through the use of grand images as well as those far less grand.
Editor’s Note: The “2022 Catholic Imagination Conference” will be held this week at the University of Dallas. The following excerpt is adapted from a handout for participating students.
The contemplative realist carefully and cautiously aspires to imbue “mundane” or non-sacred literature with a numinous sense; in part he does this to elicit wonder, a humbling of ourselves before Mystery. But the Catholic writer can come to the desk burdened by a proclivity to name and tell and show God too readily. Realism demands that we restrain our inclinations to charge too many literal particulars with an aura of transcendence, to lend every other detail a secondary, symbolic or spiritual significance.
True, literal scenes in the Scriptures are historically real in themselves but lead onward in harmony through the other levels of meaning toward the utmost Real, which is the interaction of God and his people in salvation history and, finally, the union of the soul with God in paradise. There is no contradiction between these levels of exegesis; the tangible literal, for the contemplative realist, is in harmony with the suggested spiritual. A naturalistic literature is in error insofar as it portrays the literal as all there is — as if the moral and the spiritual are wishful superimpositions.
In all matters, the contemplative realist is constantly discerning which rung of the ladder a given scene or even a given sentence seeks to represent. Ever calibrating according to prudence, this “realist in the higher sense” here allows the literal to redound to the moral, there lets the sensuous stroke remain plain, refusing to strain certain facts or impressions by forcing a supernatural significance upon them.
In addition, the Catholic writer can achieve a sacramental vision through the use of grand images as well as those far less grand. In Allen Tate’s marvelous essay “The Symbolic Imagination,” he hones in on Dante’s use of the mirror. The mirror, says Tate, is a manmade thing — and as such is a “common thing.” But in The Divine Comedy, the mirror is used to show us that the entire universe is a “replica in reverse of the supernatural world”: The sacramental mirror reaches its peak when Dante sees in the mirror of his beloved Beatrice’s eyes the sensible world turned inside out.
Joshua Hren is an assistant professor of humanities in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also founder and editor at Wiseblood Books.
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