Believing Is Seeing

Author: Patrick McGuire

My sister Rosemary was recently widowed. Her husband of more than 30 years went in for minor surgery but died later that night. Robert J. McNamara’s death was unexpected and, to Rosemary, earth-shattering. Like most Catholic widows, Rosemary was philosophic about the death; her faith never wavered. Her grief, though, was twined with confusion. How, she wondered, could she go to the library without Bob? How would she go to Mass alone?

Her children patiently understood Rosemary’s reluctance to be out in public. They went to the grocery for her, cooked meals, kept her company. Someone went to Mass with her on the weekend.

One of the kids heard that their parish, Our Lady Star of the Sea, was having a mission hosted by a priest visiting from Ireland. The children pleaded with Rosemary to go; the priest’s reputation for being able to get to the heart of people’s problems had spread through the parish like fire in a paper factory. Rosemary relented and went.

I cannot tell you what the priest did, but I can tell you Rosemary’s reaction: The mission was one of the most spiritual experiences she has ever had. And beyond that, the priest bore the same name as Rosemary’s husband and son, Robert J. McNamara.

When Rosemary spoke to Father McNamara about the name coincidence and about her grief for her husband and the serious illness her son Robert was facing, the priest told her he now understood why he had been called to New Jersey. He promised he would keep them in his prayers for the rest of his life.

To non-Catholics the coincidence of the names is mere accident. To fatalists, it was perhaps destined to happen. To Jungians, synchronicity would explain that the meaning of this unlikely occurrence is created by its participants. And statisticians would point out that Robert McNamara is not an uncommon name; for instance, the recently deceased former Secretary of Defense was Robert S. McNamara. But to Rosemary and the priest, their meeting was a gift from God, a blessing to make life holier and more endurable.

Soda bread

Here’s a less dramatic example of Catholic thinking. When I make soda bread, I slice a neat little cross into the top before putting the dough in the oven. Some have said that this cross — which they call an X — is a baker’s method for letting steam and moisture escape the rising bread. Others have said the X ensures that the bread may easily be broken into four equal parts. The physics of the first theory is probably correct; the practicality of the second works well. But to me, and my sister Eileen, who taught me to bake, the cross is not an X but a blessing by us to the people with whom we share the bread and a blessing, like all of our meals, from God.

Food can be a strange thing to a Catholic. When I was a child, the prohibition for eating meat on Fridays was still in effect, and the same observance applies today to the Church definition of fasting on Good Friday. But it offers a curious parsing of time — for the abstaining must begin at midnight Thursday yet does not end at midnight Friday. It only ends when one awakens Saturday morning.

Rosemary’s experience with the priest, the cross on Eileen’s bread and the calculations on fasting are all examples of the way Catholics sometimes think. And over the past 20 years, a lot has been written about this Catholic mind-set.

We may read of the Catholic imagination in the works of Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and J.R.R. Tolkien. An article in the Villanova Law Review asks if Antonin Scalia’s Catholic mind influences his Supreme Court opinions, and that xenophobia arises every time a Catholic is nominated for the Supreme Court or runs for president. The films of Scorsese, Ford, Coppola and Capra are scoured for evidence of “the Catholic imagination.”

The term “Catholic imagination” was popularized by Father Andrew Greeley, who explains it as a way of knowing God through metaphor and analogy. Some people, he says, tend to see God through their perceptions of the world and the persons living in it. Things that seem dissimilar — like God and a tree — are in fact metaphorical insights into each other. God is so present in the world that He is visible in everything. The world, in more traditional words, is a holy place, and Roman Catholics perceive nature and people as partial manifestations of God.

The opposite of the analogical view is the dialectical imagination, which Greeley aligns with Protestants. The dialectical sees difference. God and His creation are not alike; the world tells us almost nothing about God. The world, in this view, completely lacks sacredness — we cannot know God through His creation.

Greeley makes an important caveat. He admits that the analogical imagination isn’t necessarily limited to Catholics. In fact, I would posit that such 17th century English Protestant poets as George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, not to mention a host of 19th century Romantics, have sacramental visions of God’s creation. We see how Vaughan takes solace in “The Waterfall”:

What sublime truths and wholesome themes
Lodge in thy mystical deep streams!

These lines are every bit as sacramental as the oft-quoted line of Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

For me, the discussions of the Catholic imagination — Greeley’s as well as those of an ever-growing army of scholars — lack the details of the Catholic imagination in everyday life. It is one thing for Hopkins to say that God’s grandeur is all around us, but how, I wonder, did that influence him while he was at breakfast?

Scholarly and literary discussions about the Catholic imagination also leave unsaid so much of how Catholics think through their days. Greeley cites Mean Streets, a Martin Scorsese film, and The Book of Kells as works only Catholics could create. But neither creation expresses the typical sensibility of an ordinary Catholic.

Usually apologists for the Catholic imagination are content to deduce its existence from statements rather than activities. Hopkins’ poetic lines are one such statement. A passage from Thomas Merton is often quoted as well: “True contemplation is inseparable from life and from the dynamism of life — which includes work, creation, production, fruitfulness and above all love. Contemplation is not to be thought of as a separate department of life, cut off from all man’s other interests and superseding them. It is the very fullness of a fully integrated life. It is the crown of life and of all life’s activities.”

Two lives

But, I would ask, what does it feel like to have this “fully integrated life”? Similarly, when British theologian Ronald Knox, a convert to Catholicism, says, “The Catholic lives with two lives simultaneously: a natural life and a supernatural ‘life.’ As birth has brought him into a natural order, so baptism has brought him into a supernatural order of existence,” I want to ask how these two lives play out to a woman standing on a subway platform.

Lawrence Cunningham, John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame, references a passage in which Saint Francis explains how he changed from viewing lepers with disgust when he was a nonbeliever to seeing Jesus in them after his conversion. “Such an example,” Cunningham says, “could be multiplied ad infinitum, since the idea of Christ in others is a leitmotif of Christian spirituality.”

True enough, but doesn’t hearing that one specific change in Francis get us a little closer to the heart of the matter? Saint Bonaventure, Joyce Kilmer, Francis Thompson, Graham Greene, G.K. Chesterton, Merton and many other Catholics who put their views on parchment and paper are all special people whose writings announce their sacred view of the world. They still leave a lot unsaid.

How does reference to the Catholic imagination explain the experience of the woman in the mink coat weeping beside me at midnight Mass two Christmases ago? What about the old women, dressed entirely in black, who always kissed the foot of a statue of Jesus in the church of my childhood? How does the Catholic imagination explain the lapsed or angry Catholic who may see God in the world but no longer in the Church? The title of Jimmy Breslin’s book-length screed expresses, perhaps to an extreme, an attitude of anger and frustration that has dogged the Church for centuries: The Church That Forgot Christ.

The answer may lie within an important observation from social historian Peter Brown, quoted by John Pfordresher, in Jesus and the Emergence of a Catholic Imagination:

[T]he scribes of the Book of Kells and the craftsmen who produced the great votive crowns, the Crosses and the relic-cases of Gaul and Spain. . . . Their task was to take “dead” matter, associated with the profane wealth and power of great donors — precious pigments, the skins of vast herds [the source of vellum manuscript pages], gold and jewels — and make them come alive, by creating from them objects whose refulgent, intricate surfaces declared that they had moved, beyond their human source, into the realm of the sacred.

The impulse that drove the artist to make The Book of Kells is the same spirit that drives my sister Eileen to slice a cross into the top of every Irish soda bread she bakes. But that impulse is only part of the Catholic mind-set, only half of the story.


At the center of Catholicism is a belief in marvels. I use “marvels” instead of “miracles” because “miracles” has been made trite by inaccurate usage. For example, the oft-heard phrase “the miracle of birth” describes what is a common and natural event. But that Jesus was born once is miraculous.

For marvels, consider the Catholic martyrology, a catalog presented as a calendar of saints who died for the faith.

Here is a typical entry, for April 18th:

At Messina in Sicily, the birthday of the holy martyrs Eleutherius, bishop of Illyria, and Anthia, his mother. He was famous for holiness of life and the power of miracles. During the reign of Hadrian, he was placed on a bed of red-hot iron, on a gridiron, in a vessel filled with boiling oil, pitch, and resin, and also cast to the lions; but remaining unhurt through all of this, they finally cut his throat with a sword. His mother suffered the same torments.

To a non-Catholic Christian, or to a non-believer, the story is literally fantastic. But to many Catholics this account offers few surprises, for Catholics are asked to believe all sorts of incredible things — sometimes sharing the belief with other Christians, sometimes not. The divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, the Resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the multitudinous appearances of the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist feast are all examples of marvels we Catholics take in stride.

Yet if we were to take each one of these beliefs, and many others, and subject them to scrutiny, we could only be amazed. God walked the earth as a human being, fairly much like you and I? He teethed as a child? Stepped on a stray nail as a toddler in the carpenter’s work room? And then allowed Himself to be jeered and scourged and crucified? Mary conceived a child without a male human agent? Jesus not only raised Lazarus from the dead but also Himself? And we’ll receive graces and solutions to our problems by praying to Saint Eleutherius and his mother?

As odd as each belief may seem, we Catholics are not even awe-struck by them. In The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, David Tracy says that the analogical imagination transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. But with our marvels, we treat the extraordinary as if it were ordinary. We accept. A choir director I know once summed the irony like this: We acknowledge the joy of the Lord in everything, but we are hard-pressed to sing at Mass.

When a baseball player crosses himself in the batter’s box, when an old woman in a hospital waiting room fingers rosary beads, when reasonable men and women arrive at work on a Wednesday once a year with dirt on their foreheads, the non-Catholic world at large senses something comical or primitive and, perhaps, naively diabolical or worse. So we are often accused of blind superstition — which means Catholics are largely misunderstood by their non-Catholic neighbors, even by those who mean well.

Being misunderstood is part of the Catholic mind-set. Hearing the pope satirized on TV is part of the current Catholic experience. Hearing nuns and priests, guilty and not guilty, excoriated is also part of the current Catholic experience.

This, too: At the wedding reception of some non-Catholic relatives, I sneaked out to have a smoke. I was standing in the deep shadows of the garden when three attendants whom I didn’t know approached a bench beneath a light. One said, “Well, he’s a Catholic, and you know what blind fanatics they are.” From my darkened perch, I said, “I’m a Catholic, and I’m not blind.” And I puffed on my cigarette so they could see my location even if they couldn’t see me.

In a recent biography of American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch relates the story of the proudly Catholic O’Connor being told by a woman of the intelligentsia that the communion wafer was an apt symbol of God’s presence. O’Connor’s reply is famous: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”


Ordinary wonders

We cannot be Catholics without accepting these wonders as true and, paradoxically, ordinary. The wonder of the Eucharist is made common by its everydayness. In every Catholic parish in the world, the act of transforming bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Our Savior is repeated. Do Catholics in Sunday pews kneel in awe at this Presence? Do they focus their entire spiritual and physical being during this extraordinary event? Do they sing out God’s praises loud and clear?

Yes, I am as guilty of inattentiveness as any communicant. And yet, like others, when I accept the Communion on my tongue, I feel a grace of God’s presence in my life. We, like our first pope, are metaphorically asleep while Jesus goes through His sacrifice.

This acceptance of such wonders as ordinary is often blithely dismissed by non-Catholics as mere superstition. Most Christians, for example, do not see the efficacy of praying to the saints or to Our Lady. A friend once told me that praying to saints implies an image of God as a benign big-city political boss who metes out favors only to those who have friends on the inside. And yet, to us Catholics, praying to saints, honoring them on their feast days, choosing them as patrons for professions and activities, all make sense because we are united to them as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Prayers to saints and for the dead are part of a Catholic’s everyday behavior. In 1470, Portuguese sailors came upon an island off the coast of Africa that they named Saint Thomas, Sao Tome in Portuguese. They named it so because they first encountered it on the feast day of Saint Thomas. Praying to Saint Anthony to help one find a lost valuable may seem superstitious, and yet many Catholics would testify that such prayers work.

Domesticating wonders, then, is part of the Catholic mind-set. The doctrine of infallibility is such a wonder as well, but it is also part of another habit central to the Catholic mind-set: fastidiousness.

At every baptism that I have attended, the priest or deacon has asked: Is there any powder on the child’s chest? Apparently, nothing should come between the charismatic oil and the skin — such an interference would invalidate the baptism.

Such fastidiousness is so central to Catholic thinking that it invades all parts of daily life. It ranges from decisions about the clothes a priest may wear during Mass to the names a child may be given in baptism. The Church has rules for the naming of schools and universities; rules for associations; rules for what hymns and songs may be used inside the church; rules for what makes a valid marriage.

The Church also tells us that all sanctioned depictions of the Stations of the Cross must have a cross at each station that is made from wood. The indulgences for the prayer adhere to the wood; without the wood, the indulgences are null.

Yes, this is a bit medieval. Thirteenth-century scholastics tried to explain everything in the world and the Bible as it pertained to Christian belief; David Tracy borrows a phrase from American poet Wallace Stevens (who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed) and described this as “a rage for order.” Our fastidiousness is the legacy of that rage. Such fastidiousness is still at the heart of the world’s oldest bureaucracy, for whenever a Catholic wishes to do something unusual in the Church, he or she must first get permission.

Ronald Knox begins the preface to In Soft Garments with: “When the Holy See gave a general permission for Catholics to matriculate at Oxford and Cambridge, the stipulation was made that lectures should be provided for them, to safeguard their faith against the influence of an uncongenial atmosphere.” Knox was writing in 1941 about events that began in 1926.

As someone who teaches at a secular, state-operated university, I was shocked by that sentence, but I shouldn’t have been at all surprised. For centuries the Church told its faithful what it could and couldn’t read. To this day the Church is the arbiter of what is an appropriate understanding of Gospel passages and what Church traditions mean.

The bureaucracy

My son Seth is getting married soon. Through college and a few years after, he lived in the District of Columbia and never thought to join a parish. His fiancée is not a Catholic, and he attends Mass at a variety of Catholic churches, usually alone. When he sought out a church for the wedding ceremony near his fiancée’s parents’ house, he came face-to-face with the bureaucracy of the Church.

The pastor would not allow the ceremony unless Seth got permission from the priest of Seth’s parish. Seth, thus, had to join a specific parish, which involved his getting proof from our parish in the Midwest that he had been baptized and confirmed. Now the banns of marriage have to be read in a parish in which almost no other person knows him or the bride-to-be.

When I married my wife, a non-Catholic, 30 years ago, the priest (an uncle of mine) had a private talk with her in which he made sure that she would not be an impediment to my practicing the faith. That was in the late 1970s. Prior to Vatican II, things were much more difficult. Non-Catholics had to sign a document attesting to their intention to raise the children as Catholics; this document was signed after the priest had schooled the non-Catholic in all the rules and regulations the children and spouse would be required to live by. The wedding ceremony was performed in the rectory, and it was not a Mass.

Bureaucratic moments like these, I believe, account in part for why people leave the Church. Jesus and the Church teach us to be generous of spirit; if someone wants to steal your cloak, give him as well your shirt. But bureaucracies, secular and holy, are not about making generous exceptions to the rules. They are there to enact the rules.

Even beyond the bureaucracy itself, a Central Office of Permission exists in every Catholic heart. We Catholics constantly ask ourselves questions. Is it okay to pray while I drive? Is it okay to eat meat at 12:01 a.m. on Holy Saturday? If I go to a wedding on Saturday afternoon, is it a sin if I miss Mass the following day? May I befriend a doctor who performs vasectomies? May I attend the secular wedding of a lapsed, divorced Catholic? Is it okay to criticize the pope’s pronouncements on non-faith issues?

If anyone doubts these questions, I refer them to Often the queries there are about the subtle legalisms that plague our Catholic lives. The questions imply a timidity among Catholics in regard to their moral standing.

To be Catholic is to be haunted by such questions, for the purpose of Catholicism is to bring us closer to God. Catholicism attempts to do that through teaching an objective, timeless morality that stands in sharp contrast to the secular moral relativism which characterizes modernity. The Church’s teaching office, the Magisterium, knows what is right; it knows how to interpret the Gospels; it knows what parts of tradition may be ignored and what parts may not be changed. The Church is infallible in this regard. Which is another way of explaining the Church’s fastidiousness.

Take the pressing issue of marriage, annulment and divorce. The Church’s teaching follows Jesus’s dictum: “What God has joined let no man put asunder.” In Canon Law the phrasing is different, but not the message: “A marriage that has been ratified and consummated can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.”

This teaching is a fixed moral precept of the Church. Nevertheless, Catholic tribunals often declare marriages to never have been, even though many of them had been previously ratified and obviously consummated. Children are a sure giveaway of the latter. How does a tribunal manage to nullify such a marriage? I think it is Catholic fastidiousness: an attempt to keep the law while getting around it by saying a marriage didn’t exist in the first place.

I don’t know that the tribunals are wrong in such decisions. I refer to those decisions simply as examples by which Catholics try to keep their morality eternal and objective. The Church has to maintain its stance that morality is unchanging and its teaching is unchanging. In order to do that, fastidious legalisms are an important method, a method colonized in the heart of everyday Catholics. The effects of that colonization are both negative and positive. The negative is Catholic guilt. The positive outcome is an overwhelming commitment to do the best one can for the sake of God.

If we combine Catholic fastidiousness with the analogical imagination and the acceptance of marvels, I think we approach something far more complex than Greeley’s Catholic imagination. The combination, I think, begins to explain how difficult and wonderful it is to be Catholic.

Bus stop

It was a chilly, darkening afternoon, and large raindrops had just begun to splatter on my windshield. I was passing an unsheltered bus stop where a man wearing a turban and a woman in a sari were waiting. The woman held an infant. As I passed, the man’s eyes met mine. In that scintilla of time I sensed, but could not articulate until a few seconds later, that the man was pleading for a ride. His eyes were asking me to help him protect his wife and child.

I drove by, and when I realized, a city block or two later, what his look meant, I was tempted to turn back and get them. But I didn’t. And I don’t know why.

This was a grave Catholic moment for me. Legalistically, I had done nothing wrong. The worst that I had done was to forego the opportunity to help someone. In the fastidiousness of my Catholic training I was not culpable. No church laws require me to drive a free taxi. And yet.

That same fastidiousness in Catholic training told me that I had seen Christ in the street, and I had denied him. I had a holy moment and I blew it. It is not an important event as the world goes; it’s not even a mortal sin, as the old rubric would have. In fact, there are lots of deeds I have done that shame me more and that are far worse. And yet.

Though it has been 20 years since, I will remember that man’s face for as long as I live; I will ever regret having left his family in the rain.

Patrick McGuire is a member of the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.