The Particular Imagination

Richard John Neuhaus

Mention the Catholic literary tradition and the conversation promptly turns to the “Catholic imagination,” or, following theologian David Tracy, “the analogical imagination.” Catholics are good at making connections: between the immanent and the transcendent, between the eternal and the temporal, between the spiritual and the material. This proclivity for connections is attributed to the “incarnational principle” that is at the heart of Catholicism. All this is true, and hardly surprising in a community that eats the Creator of heaven and earth under the appearance of bread and wine.

A neglected aspect of the Catholic imagination, however, is the aversion to being carried away by flights of spiritual fancy. Put differently, there is an adamantine Catholic insistence that the connections be tied to the particulars of time and place. This is nicely illustrated in Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, discovers that her husband Constantius has become enamored of Mithraism, a fashionable mystery cult of the time.

She pressed her husband for information. “There’s no harm in your knowing the general story,” he said. “It’s very beautiful,” and he told her the tale of Mithras. He told it rather well and she listened intently.

When it was finished she said, “Where?”

“Where?”

“Yes, where did it happen? You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?”

“That’s a very childish question.”

“Is it? And when did this happen? How do you know if no one was there? And if the bull was the first thought of Ormazd and he had to be killed in order to make the earth, why didn’t Ormazd just think of the earth straightaway? And if the earth is evil, why did Mithras kill the bull at all?”

“I’m sorry I told you, if you simply wish to be irreverent.”

Lovely. It is the same insistence upon the particularities of time and place that Helena, later in the story, invokes to deflate the imaginative flights of gnostic heretics who turned the gospel of Jesus into ever so meaningful exercises in heightened spiritual consciousness. And, of course, it was that same insistence that led her to the very particular place where she discovered the very particular wood on which at a very particular time the Son of God effected the world’s salvation.

The Catholic imagination is always tethered to the particular. Storytellers who are authentically Catholic do not rush to edifying extrapolations from the story but let the stories reveal the wonders that dwell in the ordinary. The maxim is true: finitum capax infiniti—the finite is capable of the infinite. Like Evelyn Waugh and Helena, the Catholic imagination attends to that discovery in the finitum and when and where.

Richard John Neuhaus is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and editor in chief of the Institute’s monthly journal First Things. He is the author of many books, including The Naked Public Square, Death on a Friday Afternoon, and, mostly recently, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth.