The duties of details in Catholic scripture | National Catholic Register


The Catholic writer can achieve a sacramental vision through the use of grandiose imagery as well as much less grandiose ones.

Editor’s Note: The “Catholic Imaginary Colloquium 2022will take place 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 “banal” or unsacred literature with numinous meaning; in part, he does this to arouse wonder, a humiliation of ourselves before the Mystery. But the Catholic writer may come to the office overwhelmed by a propensity to name, say, and show God too readily. Realism demands that we restrain our inclinations to burden too many literal details with an aura of transcendence, to give every other detail a secondary, symbolic or spiritual meaning.

The true and literal scenes of Scripture are historically real in themselves, but lead in harmony through the other levels of meaning to the Supreme 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 that exists – as if the moral and the spiritual were godly superpositions.

In all matters, the contemplative realist is constantly in the process of discerning which rung of the ladder such a scene or even such a sentence seeks to represent. Always calibrating with caution, this “realist in the superior sense” here lets the literal fall on the moral, there lets the sensual trait remain united, refusing to force certain facts or impressions by imposing a supernatural meaning on them.

Additionally, the Catholic writer can achieve a sacramental vision through the use of large images as well as those that are much less large. In Allen Tate’s wonderful essay “The Symbolic Imagination” he focuses on Dante’s use of the mirror. The mirror, says Tate, is a man-made 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 backwards of the supernatural world”: The sacramental mirror reaches its climax when Dante sees in the mirror of the eyes of his beloved Beatrice the sensible world turned upside down.

Joshua Hren is an assistant professor of humanities in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also founder and publisher of Wiseblood Books.

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