Recently, in searching for help to better appreciate Flannery O’Connor, I came upon a fascinating essay by Nina Butorac, The Sacramental Imagination and Catholic Literature (or, Flannery O’Connor and those other guys.) She asserts that, “In truth, literature is not the natural domain of the Catholic imagination. The natural domain of the Catholic imagination is the visual or sensual arts.”
As evidence, she quotes what she calls “a rather eye-popping essay” by Eleanor Heartney in the [now defunct] New Art Examiner:
“Catholic doctrine holds that the human body is the instrument through which the miracle of man’s [sic] salvation from sin is accomplished. As a result, all the major mysteries of the Catholic faith – among them Christ’s Incarnation, his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Resurrection of the faithful at the end of time, and the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood during the Mass – center around the human body. Without Christ’s assumption of human form, there could be no real sacrifice, and hence, no real salvation for mankind [sic]. The Catholic Church has traditionally relied upon visual imagery and sensual experience in order to convey these truths. The medieval cathedral, with its elaborate sculptural programs and stained-glass cycles provided a visual summary of both biblical tales and highly sophisticated theological disputes to a public that was largely illiterate. …
“All of this is of course in stark contrast to the Protestant emphasis on biblical revelation as the primary source of God’s truth. Since the Reformation, Protestants have tended to regard Catholic practice of venerating Christ and the Saints through richly ornamented religious statuary as a form of idol worship. Sensual imagery and sensual language are seen as impediments, rather than aids to belief. The body and its experiences are things to be transcended…
“The tension between Catholic and Protestant sensibilities outlined here can be summed up as a conflict between the Catholic culture of the image and the Protestant culture of the word.”
This got me thinking about the Incarnational and Sacramental focus of Catholicism but, as an Irishman — with the fiction and poetry of James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde & George Bernard Shaw running through my heart and soul — I’m not sure I can agree with Butorac’s argument that “literature is not natural domain of the Catholic imagination.
What do you think?