The Catholic Imagination


Anthony Kelly, CssR


What do I mean by `imagination' here?  I do not mean fantasy.   For that is imagination disengaged from reality.   Nor do I mean `image-making'.  That would simply be public relations.   We can get closer to the matter by referring to Clifford Geertz's celebrated definition of a religious way of life:

A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations ..., by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence, and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.           

What this well known scholar refers to as symbols, moods and motivations, as an overarching and all-inclusive universal order, as a sense of unique reality, I am condensing into the word `imagination'.  It is a way, not only of expressing the world of our existence, but of forming it, embodying it, communicating it.  It is a comprehensive, restless faculty, bringing into the concrete what our faith believes, what our hearts have come to love, what ultimately we hope for.  More simply, but even more deeply, it is the whole inner poem of our Christian existence.  Though this can be expressed in doctrines and theologies, in liturgical forms and moral prescriptions, in devotional practices and spiritual traditions, in the vivid witness of saints and martyrs, to say nothing of daily lives of countless good people in their struggles to find and do the will of God, it is always more than these, just as a poem is more than any prose report, and more than any plan.  How much more can only be tacitly felt, never fully unpacked.

The distinctive language of such imagination is what Les Murray has called  `Wholespeak'.  Contrasted with the `narrowspeak' of our analytical, administrative and critical modes of speech, "Wholespeak" brings together poetry and religion to express the ultimate and comprehensive realities of our lives.  It is the language of real conversation, of genuine prayer, of poetry, and, indeed, all the arts.  It is dramatically different, say, from the political language current in Australia today.  It is rather foreign to the narrowspeak language of most of meetings and calculations.  More tragically, it so often contrasts with the torrent of exotic verbiage characteristic of many of our liturgies.

For `Wholespeak', I am suggesting, is especially characteristic language of Catholic imagination.  After all, the Greek roots of `catholic', kat holou ,  mean `on the whole', a universal range of reference, an all-inclusive imagination.  It is closest to the language of great visions and dreams.  For in it the ordinary barriers and divisions which structure the life of `Narrowspeak' meanings, no longer operate.  Wholespeak is the native language of mystery, inspired by the imagination that sees the world `otherwise'.      It is as though Catholic imagination is always seeking to express itself in a holographic apprehension of reality rather than a precise monodimensional outline.  In contrast to the two dimensional representation of the chart, the sign, or standard photography, the hologram is the product of a new technique of lensless photography gives a multi-dimensional view of object.  Hence the holographic Catholic imagination seems to sense that a single issue cannot be the whole truth; or better that each single issue must be set in the largest possible horizon if it is to be seen truly.  Catholics are committed to this larger imagination, to a universe of relationships founded in the relational life of the divine itself, the Holy Trinity.

But we have been living for a couple of centuries now with a mutilated imagination.  Narrowspeak has reigned.  The price to pay for the dominance of a one-dimensional scientific ideology was reduction of everything to quantifiable terms.  It has taken time to become not only critically intelligent, but intelligently imaginative in a more comprehensively human sense.  The influential American Passionist visionary, Tom Berry, catches the dimensions of the problem we are struggling with, as he refers to the history of the last two hundred years of Western thought,

During this period the human mind lived in the narrowest bonds its has ever experienced.  The vast mythic, visionary, symbolic world with its all-pervasive numinous qualities was lost.  Because of this loss, humanity made its terrifying assault upon the earth with an irrationality that is stunning in enormity while we were being assured that this was the way to a better, more humane, more reasonable world.' (Berry, 1987:198)

But now, in science and in faith, a new holism of imagination is called forth.  Studying laboratory rats or diagnosing our sorry variety of mental diseases may tell us something about ourselves.  But to omit an exploration into the creative imagination of the great religions will leave us locked up either in cages or hospitals. 

1.  Christ, The Imagination of God

We must stress, of course, that Catholic imagination is, in the deepest sense, a response to the imagination of God.  Christ, the Word incarnate, crucified and risen, is God's way of imagining our humanity.  To believe, is to be caught up into such all creative imagining: `The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory...  full of grace and truth' (Jn 1:14).  By becoming flesh, the Word has entered into human imagination.  In that light, we begin to live in a universe of grace.  It means having a sense of the fundamental goodness in creation.  Our world can never be totally corrupt, because God has created it and made it his own.  That is the crucial point: If God could so enter our human world, if God has owned this world as his very own in Christ, then the whole of creation can be seen as one great sign of God's presence and love.  And, in the resurrection of Jesus, we believe that the transformation of all creation has begun.  Hidden within the struggle and dying of our history there is always the hope of rising with him.  The whole of creation is shot through with the great cosmic mystery of Christ: `all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together' (Col 1: 16-17). 

Whatever, then, Catholic imagination might be, whatever great poem it expresses, whatever wholeness it brings to expression, it is always in response to the divine imagination, the divine Word as God's poem, the Gospel as our fundamental `wholespeak'.  It draws on the imagination of Jesus himself.

First of all, let us try to enter into the imagination of Jesus himself, for, by any showing, he as a man of most passionate and inclusive imagination.  He did not come to teach theology; he did not come to set up new structures; he did not come to teach new laws.  He came to draw us into the creativity and compassion of imagining the world `otherwise'.  The key evidence of his imaginative life is what the scriptures communicate to us in the symbol of the Reign of God.  Though he never gave a theology seminar of what this meant,  in his preaching and healing, in his acts of forgiveness and in all the ways he exercised his scandalous solidarity with the poor, and the sinful and the weak, in his style of relating to all he addressed and to those he called, in his conviviality and his contestations, he was continually imagining the world in the light of the all-inclusive mystery he so intimately invoked as `Abba'.  Those deeply ironic invitations into the world of his imagination which we know as the parables, were precisely calculated to make you see your ordinary world upside-down, and to break open the images that wrap it round.  Thus, it is a strange world to the imagination of any God-fearing Jew to find that a Samaritan could be good; that a shepherd could leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one that was lost; that a patriarch could make himself ridiculous by feting the return of a worthless son; that a hard-nosed business man could be so sentimental as to write off the debts of a somewhat shifty manager; to find, finally, that faith could move mountains... 

His imagination tore open the tissue of images that wrapped his world: to the devout he was irreligious.  To the learned he was untutored.  To the revolutionary he was too idealistic.  To the priests he was a meddling layman.  To the aristocratic establishment he was a subversive intruder from out of town.  To the Romans he was a cause for alarm.  To the poor and hopeless, this Jesus whom the great ones so dismissed, made God real in a way that no one else had done.

But the world of his imagination radiated the marvel of divine folly; it was the realm in which the infinite God appearing so humanly, in which mercy that could never be calculated, in which hope need never be limited.  His was a world of the impossibly new.  To him, what society thought mattered, did not matter at all.  Here, the last was to be the first, the least to be number among the most wise, and the sinner was the beloved of God.  If you had faith and let God really be God, then your world just had to change.  Your imagination had to change.  In making room for such a God, you had to make room for everyone.  If you came to accept that God was uncalculating in his goodness, then you had to be too: forgiving seventy-times seven, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, being generous and expecting nothing in return, leaving all judgment to an ultimate mercy.  It was all rather wonderfully foolish, - but that was how he imagined it to be!

All this was all so new and intoxicating.  The new wine bubbled in the old bottles.  An original imagination was reshaping the world into awesome and wonderfully gracious forms.  Now, you could no longer imagine you loved God because you loved no one.  And the poor and the despised, the manifestly God-forsaken, mattered as much as you did, - and more than you, if you thought you were better than they were.  The newness of the Kingdom wondrously exploded all the old limits: all those self-centred, closed, mean, violent little fantasy worlds of calculation and envy now had to yield to the limitlessness of a divine imagination.

Of course, it was all too much.  He had to go.  He had to go if anyone was survive in peace.  So the various factions found common cause in plotting his death.  In the end, a disciple betrayed him; and the Romans, after some hesitation, carried out the political solution to the problem he posed.

His execution was devastating to those who had been captivated by this fascinating man.  The Springtime of those months of pure energy and joy and new imagining ended in that bleak moment.  It was all blown away, like the flowers of the field that he had loved.  He had said in a final loving meal with those closest to him that his blood was about to be poured out for the cause that had occupied his every living moment.  And so it happened. 

In a number of safe houses and hiding places, those who had followed him passed hours of fear and dumb, unspeakable grief.  Through it all they were left with one tiny consolation.  It never could have worked, really.  The real world was too old and wise to be duped by such folly.  It was too stark and hard for such a beautiful dream.  There was no place for such imagination in the way things were.  Of course, he had to fail.  But life had to go on.  So they planned their escape, and began to talk about Galilee and the boats and nets they left.

What it was that happened after that we can never clearly express.  Even if, at the deepest level of the heart, we feel the stirrings of new imagination, we can never expect to find the words to describe the utterly novel and unexpected event that disclosed him as living, now transformed among them, present to these who had experienced his execution as the destruction of all their hopes.  It was certainly Jesus, they all agreed, - no one else.  He lived! He lived, -  even while bearing the marks of that terrible cross.

His return from the domain of the dead released an unfathomable joy.  That, too, is clear.  And yet, we must suspect, it was mixed with a special kind of pain, - even dread.  Because if now he was really alive, if death had been vanquished in him, then his way of imagining the world otherwise was what the world was meant to be; and none of us whose lives he touches can ever rest in peace again. 

2.  The Imagination of the Church

The imagination of Christ has entered into the imagination of the Church.  In the Body of Christ, the great tacit poem of our faith is embodied.  To enter into the ongoing imagination of the faith of the Church is a life-long affair.  Still, we are always inspired by the imagination of four classic figures in great poem of our faith.

First, there is the imagination of Mary of Nazareth.  She is the one who says `Yes' with the whole power of her being to the mystery of God, and so becomes the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of God-with-us.  The Gospel records her passionate enthusiasm: `Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word' (Lk 1: 38).  In her perfect surrender to the divine imagination, she shows us what the Church is meant to be: a mother bringing Christ to birth in all peoples and in every human being.  For this reason, the Church finds in Mary's imagination the special symbol of her own identity.

Then there is Peter, `the rock' on which Jesus will build his Church (Mt 16: 18).  Despite his human weakness, even to the point of denying Christ, Peter is given the task of another kind of imagination: that of organising the church in the world, of holding it together, to strengthen the faith of others, to supervise its growth.  If Our Lady, `The Mother of the Church' provokes us to imagine the intimacy of God's communication to our world, Peter provokes us to imagine the Church as a living recognisable reality in the world of our time and place, despite all the ambiguity and incompleteness of our present.

But then there is John, and the `the beloved Disciple' of his Gospel.  His imagination always expresses itself in terms of intimate love for Christ and those whom the Lord loves.  It is formed into the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.  In his imagination, the decisive reality is the mystery of God's original love, received and lived as the deepest form of life: `By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another' (Jn 13: 35).  The Church, consequently, must imagine its identity in terms of a great field of Love: `Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is born of God and knows God' (1Jn 4: 7).  For that reason, John tells of the Lord challenging the imagination of Peter three times with the question, `Do you love me?' (Jn 21: 15-17).  Out of that enlarged imagination flows the authority to `feed my lambs, ..feed my sheep'.

Then, occupying a unique place in the imagination of the Church, is the converted imagination of Paul.  It is the story of extraordinary conversion: the grace of God transforms Saul, the persecutor of the Church into Paul, the greatest proclaimer of Christ.  As Paul's imagination is transformed out its narrowness and hostility, it erupts into an extraordinary creativity: it envisions a universe of limitless grace.  God's favour is not conditioned by our merits, our virtues, or observance of laws: it is utterly free, sheer goodness, unimaginable generosity.  Thus, Paul stands in the imagination of the Church as a witness to the ever surprising power of the Spirit to lead us to Christ `in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge' (Col 2: 3).

It would be helpful, no doubt, to add many other instances of how all the variety of apostles and saints, and teachers and martyrs and mystics, religious founders and reformers have expressed and enriched the imagination of the Church (e.g, Bl. Mary MacKillop).  But the fundamental corporate imagination would remain as a matrix through it all: The overwhelming gift of God offering himself to our freedom (Mary); a mystery to be made real in actual history (Peter), as reality to be expressed in love (John), as `amazing grace' ever surprising us with its power (Paul).

However, note that we today are being given a free ride on the vast imagination of tradition.  For if the Church has formed us out of its original imagination, there comes a point at which we must contribute our imagination to the formation of the Church, in our time, our place, out of our grace...  Instead of living merely off the Church, there comes a time when we have to live for and in it.  And that bring us to the next point.

3.  The Imagination of the Church Today.

How are we to imagine the Church today? There is a danger of being fixated in the images of the past, more likely to induce nostalgia than creativity.  This century has seen a remarkable demographic shift in the composition of the 950 million people who make up the Catholic church.  At the beginning of the century we were a European Church, with 70% of Catholics in the Europe and North America.  Today, seventy per cent of Catholics now live in the Southern regions of the world, - in Central and South America, Africa, parts of Asia.  That seems to be where the future is.  The former European dominance, in terms of numbers and resources, is now dwindling, compared with the younger, poorer, populous, very religious, non-white, politically revolutionary, and increasingly inculturated, churches of the South (Bühlmann, 1986). 

Further, two decisive turns in the church's imagination must be mentioned.  First, the emphasis is on the local and regional church in contrast to past uniformity.  If before all roads led to Rome, now a travelling pope kisses the ground in different countries.  Secondly, the Catholic church has committed itself to a decisive option for the poor.  It seems to have exhausted its patience in trying to prove the existence of God to ageing European agnostics.  What is most vivid now in our corporate imagination is the presence of the compassionate God linking us in solidarity with those who are most powerless and voiceless in the world.  This, the body of Catholics feel, is the crucial test of Christian faith. 

As we try to imagine our own Australian situation, such points are given a sharper edge.    

4.  The Imagination of Australia Today

I wrote a little book, ten years ago, called A New Imagining.  Towards an Australian Spirituality, (Collins Dove 1991).  For the larger picture, I might suitably refer you to that.  For I refer to that new imagining required of us if it is to include, for example, a gracious appreciation of our Aboriginal inheritance, the massive fact of our multi-cultural diversity, the wonderful but threatened environment of our continent, the positive and negative features of our culture, the facts of our economy and Australia's global responsibilities (Edwards, 1987).  Here I can only offer brief asides, referring to how our Australian imagination has changed.

What kind of imagination is challenged, and what is called for when before we Catholics could presume sturdy patterns of family stability and recognisable, functioning community.  Such past facts are now goals.  Twenty per cent of any given class room of students would have gone through severe family trauma of one kind or another, typically ending in the divorce or estrangement of parents (Eastman, 1989).  The former tight parish community was grounded in the subculture of neighbourhood and ethnic identity.  As mobility, choice and job demands increase, Christian community is now a sprawling, eclectic kind of belonging.  How do we re-imagine ourselves in such a situation?

Then the economic situation.  As traditional trading partners have changed, and new economic blocs have come into existence, Australia has become something of an economic wanderer.  We cast the bread of our dollar upon the waters, to see it float or sink in the ebb and flow of the global tides of economy.  In our wandering state, we have become a target for international entrepreneurs in a position to profit from a de-stabilised economy.  In such matters the coastline of our continent is defenceless.  Jobs are lost.  Businesses collapse.  The appearance of a new underclass is noted on all sides.  How do we re-imagine our Catholic commitments in such a situation? The fact that our Bishops have commissioned such a widespread consultation on the distribution of wealth in our country gives some kind of clue.  The Catholic Church was once the voice of the oppressed Irish in this country?  For whom now do we speak?

Linked to that question is another.  Given the `multiculturalism' of our society, how Catholic is our imagination?  That is, of course, a very practical question for any school of college.  Is the Church imagining itself as a spiritual home for all the peoples of the world, or is less than that?

Heirs of a flatly secular culture, now largely bankrupt, Australians speak in a public language stunted to the point of being grotesque.  What larger imagination remains when the only solution to the drug problem appears to many to be legalisation, when the main strategy against the AIDS epidemic is more available condoms, when the only answer to the crises of education is more government-imposed uniformity, when the the horrors of youth suicide leave society so bereft of any hope-giving wisdom, and when the main solution to the plight of the growing number of the poor and homeless in our country is to deregulate the activities of the very rich? 

A distinctively Australian emblem of a more enlightened imagination is found in our growing appreciation of the depths of Aboriginal culture.  As Fr.  Eugene Stockton writes

In the harshest continent on earth, they learnt to survive by entering into partnership with the land which became a whole way of life, a spirituality.  Spiritual development was preferred to the technological in satisfying the basic needs and higher aspirations of a society, moulded as it was like no other and over a greater stretch of time in the matrix of a mothering land.  (p.21)

Aboriginal Australian stands for a forgotten dimension of human life lived differently, more simply,  more peacefully, more organically earthed in the wonder of creation.

5.  Imagining Our World Today

Simone Weil asked an interesting question, `How can Christianity call itself Catholic if the universe is left out?' ( Waiting for God, Fontana, London, 1959, p.  116)

In an obvious and urgent sense, Christian faith is being invited to find its place in new creative moment in history.  The dark limits to human greed and uncaring exploitation are now apparent.  It has been estimated that our planet is about 4, 600 millions years old.  To bring such a length of time into human imagination, think of it as 46 years old.  Then the extent of our crisis and indeed, of our human contribution to it, are apparent: for only at the age of 42 did anything begin to flower;  mammals arrived only 8 months ago; and we human beings have been here only a mere 4 hours: one hour ago we discovered agriculture; the industrial revolution began just one minute ago.  Then, a few seconds of incredible destruction; and now, in the last second, we begin to glimpse what has happened: paradise has become a rubbish tip, and survival has become a real question for living things on this beautiful earth.  Little wonder the Pope has recently underlined the importance of `giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere is telling us: namely that there is an order in the universe which must be respected...'1

Catholic imagination has to expand.  A new sense of planetary wholeness is slowly dawning.  An imagination `open to the whole' has to include so much more!

The psalmist of old saw, `The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork' [Ps 19: 1].  But the inspired writer, in one sense, knew only a fraction of that glory as he beheld the might of thunderstorms, the light of the sun and moon, the twinkling stars, the steady glow of the planets, the shimmering Milky Way.   Today this glory of the heavens includes the icy rings encircling Saturn, Neptune's mysterious satellites, the enchanting blue of the earth seen from the moon, our 300 billion sun galaxy, the ultra energetic quasars, the explosive enormous supernovas, space-time rifts called 'black holes'.   We know that a million earths could nestle in the sun; that light blazing through space at 300,000 k.p.s. takes 100,000 years just to span our particular galaxy.  From the quark, with its eighteen variations, to the quasar, it is a universe of incredible proportions.

It has to include, too, hitherto unimaginable expanses of time; and within that time, the evolutionary dynamics that have produced this human world.  Human consciousness, trembling before uncanny extent of the fifteen billion year history of this universe, comes to realise that these thousands of millions of years are, quite literally, our past.   In some uncanny sense, the universe, from its beginnings, `knew we were coming'.  As one philosopher of science puts it, `if the universe were in fact different in any significant way from the way it is, we wouldn't be here to wonder why it is the way it is'.2  For in the first few seconds of this 15 billion year-old universe, there appeared all the fundamental particles and constants without which life on this seemingly insignificant little planet would have been impossible.3   The velocity of light, the charge on the electron, the  mass of the proton, the constant emissions of energy, are exactly what they should have been if life were to teem in all its forms on earth.  A slight difference then would have meant no life now.   If the charge on the electron had been slightly different, if the reaction between two protons had been slightly different, if the force of gravity had been slightly different, then the universe as we know it, would never have come to be.   All those millions of hydrogen atoms formed fifteen billions years ago, which today in various combinations make up the composition of the human body, would have turned into the inert gas, helium.  There would have been no water, no life, no you, no me...' 4

And yet, here we are, in this moment of consciousness, alive on this planet, participating in this universe, just as both earth and universe are conscious in us.  Our bodies, minds and hearts are part of an awakening cosmic mystery.  Paul described the whole of creation as groaning in one great act of giving birth.  He saw us human beings as groaning too, for the fulfilment that is not yet; more mysteriously, he saw the creative Spirit of God groaning within us to inspire hopes and imagination worthy of the mystery at work (Rom 8: 18-28).     In other words, the sense of creation offered to us today brings together an appreciation of how we human beings are from God, -- 'children of God' in the biblical sense -- and 'children of the universe', born of the earth.  We are made in the image of God, and yet we are earthlings: we live only in a genetic solidarity with a myriad others forms of life on this planet.  If they serve and sustain us, we are called to a responsible stewardship of them.  We human beings are related in a web of life with some ten million other species.   Waratahs and wallabies, kookaburras and king prawns, frill-necked lizards and ferns, -- in the one web of life, they are all our relatives in a wondrous cosmic solidarity.  Indeed, elements of the stars are in the phosphorous of our bones.  The same hydrogen which makes the stars burn, energises our bodies and powers our imagination.

6. Focal Points of Catholic Imagination

In the light of the challenge to Catholic Imagination implied so far, it will be as well in the concluding stage of this reflection to focus on parts of our tradition that are usually thought merely as doctrines, and not as ways of imagining the world.

For example, what if it were true that God was truly the Trinity? If God were truly a communion of self-giving love, if the divine life was truly a love-life of mutual affirmation and surrender, what difference would that make in the way we imagined our world? We have to admit that the Trinity has made little difference to our imaginations.  We tend to think of God as a solid divine block, not as an open circle of self-giving, relational love.  This might say a lot about how we think of ourselves and our relationships with others when we confess that we are made in the image and likeness of God...  When science today is discovering that all reality is relational, that essentially causes no surprise to Christians, since God is like that.  But has it entered our imagination?

What difference would it make if this earth were really believed to be the place of the Incarnation of God? What if it were true that the divine is irreversibly one with us in this universe; indeed, that the divine is one of us, that ultimate mystery has a personal stake in the earth, and its future.  If our imaginations could thrill again to this truth of our faith, that the Word, born of Mary, is an earthling like us all, embodied in this planetary process, we would begin to feel differently about everything.  For if the incarnation of the Word is God's earthy relationship to the world,5 the crucifixion of Jesus is the incarnation of the divine compassion.  It manifests God's intimate familiarity with the darkness and evil we experience today in the tortured earth.

The incarnation, unfolding its mystery into the death and resurrection of Jesus, always remains the rock of Christian hope.  Primordial life has entered into our living environment; the divine has expressed its solidarity with human history: the Logos is part of our eco-logy.  The Advent antiphon sings `Let the earth be opened and bud forth a saviour'.6  God, in Christ, is enfolding this world into his own communal life.  Our hope promises a universal consummation in which God will be `everything to everyone' (ICor 15, 28).  In the words of Ambrose of Milan, `In Christ's resurrection the world arose.  In Christ's resurrection, the heavens arose, in Christ's resurrection the world itself arose.'7 How would we imagine things if all this were true?

Then, what kind of imagination are we exercising when we celebrate what we call the seven sacraments?  What sense of reality is implied when earthy elements of our world are celebrated as such earthly signs of God's presence and action? For water is used as the sacred sign of God's life-giving grace in baptism.  Oil is used in a number of the sacraments as a sign of healing, or strengthening or honour.  The bread and wine of eucharist, `the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands' are blessed to give us the body and blood of the Lord as our food and drink.  Then, in the sacrament of marriage, the love of man and woman becomes a revelation of the tenderness, the beauty, fidelity and life-giving character of God's love.  The gesture of being reconciled with the community is a sign of reconciliation with God.  Ordination of people we know to various ministries is a sign of Christ's presence to his Church.   

All such sacramental celebrations inspire Catholic imagination to expand into the sacramental totality of God's gracious universe. 

To sum up, our Catholic sacramental and eucharistic sense chimes well with the beautiful words of a noted ecologist:

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.  When we do this, knowingly, lovingly, skilfully , reverently it is a sacrament.  When we do ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is desecration.  In such a desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual,  moral loneliness, and others to want.8

As an product of such imagination, Les Murray's image of "The Common Dish" of our shared hopes and sufferings is a good instance.  It contrasts with the Holy Grail of elite spiritual attainment: for it is 

that vessel of common human sufferings, joys, disappointments, tragedies and bare sufficiencies from which most people have to eat in this world, and from which some choose to eat in order to keep faith with them.  This dish is the opposite to the medieval Grail, which was a vessel attained only a spiritual elite.  To refuse the common ration, or to fail at least to recognise and respect it, earns one the contempt and rejection of battlers and all who have lived under the laws of necessity.  It is a harsher vessel than the Christian chalice, and not identical with it, except perhaps for the saints, but I believe it lies close to the heart of Australian consciousness, and can never be safely ignored.  It is the fountainhead of much of the conformity so often deplored in our society, and much of the art of living in Australia consists in judging, continually and possibly gracefully, just what distance we may wander from the common table and how often to come back.'(Murray, 1982:25)

That is a way of imagining the basis of Catholic moral thinking, - the place of natural law, of social justice, the accent on solidarity with the suffering and the oppressed.


It may be that Catholic faith, as it recovers its imaginative force, will work, in ways that can hardly be appreciated at present, to locate us in a universe of hope and grace.  For the living imagination of Catholic faith has within it the capacity to stimulate a distinctive feeling for the whole as a beauty to be contemplated, as a common good to be desired and as a great transformation to share in. 

Such imagination can expand to include the gravitational bond uniting all the galaxies; the electromagnetic forces binding molecules into progressively complex forms; the genetic codes connecting all the generations of living things in the one great tree of life. 

It opens into a limitless horizon from within our own minds and hearts: for the tree of life has blossomed into our human consciousness; it has borne fruit in human meaning and human value.  The world has become thereby a universe to be progressively explored as an awesome mystery, the blessed ground of our co-existence.  As such meanings and such values are shared, the many cultures of the world come together.  New forms of interdependence and collaboration anticipate the realisation of one human history. 

When, through the gift of faith, the horizon of human consciousness expands in the light of a primordial and ultimate Love, it surrenders to the Spirit animating all creation, a limitless field of self-transcending energy.  This Spirit moves, connects, in the end to transform all reality into the Cosmic Christ, The Lord of the universe of grace.  Such is the Catholic vision.  Such is the path of a an ever-expanding Catholic imagination.  As regards the possibilities we hope for of the world's survival, of human flourishing, even of a mystery of life stronger than any death we know, the words of a poet are particularly pertinent: `The possible's slow fuse is lit by the imagination' (Emily Dickinson).

How, then, can your school... be more inspired by the vitality of a deeply Catholic imagination?  How might each of you, as principal, as teacher, as staff member (and not forgetting the students!) lead the school community to re-imagine itself as a living centre of Catholic vision?  How can the Easter Mystery, when we recall such a death and such a rising from the tomb, lead each of us into a more self-giving love and into the freshness of new life and hope?  The times are difficult; but these are the only times we have, the time of our lives, the time to live more wonderfully, hopefully, imaginatively.  I congratulate you on making this time, for taking this time out, to meet, to think, to pray– and to imagine things differently–   That is a good beginning!


1. Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all creation , Dec.8, 1989, #15, par.2. .

2. Mark Doughty, 'This Impossible Universe', The Tablet, 26 September, 1981, p.929.

3. For a fuller discussion see Stanley L. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists, Scottish Academic Press, 1990.

4. Ibid., p.929. For a more philosophical approach see John Jefferson Davis, 'The design argument, cosmic 'fine tuning', and the anthropic principle', Philosophy of Religion 22 (1987) pp. 139-150.

5. The mystery of the incarnation and embodied existence generally is suggested in Teilhard's insight:

My body is not these cells or those cells that belong exclusively to me: it is what, in these cells and in the rest of the world feels my influence and reacts against me. My matter is not a part of the universe that I possess totaliter: it is the totality of the universe possessed by me partialiter.

(Science and Christ, trans. René Hague, Collins, London, 1968, p.13.)

6. 'Aperiatur terra et germinet salvatorem'. This is an antiphon for the Liturgy of Advent.

7. De excessu fratris sui, bk 1. PL16,1354.

8. Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1981, p. 281.


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