Between Heaven and Earth

As a Protestant I gazed upon Catholic material culture. I kept holy cards on my dresser and icons on my walls. Little did I realize, when I converted to Catholicism that stuff had been unceremoniously relegated to the dustbin of history.

Robert Orsi, in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, explains why this happened:

I went to a dinner at a friend’s place in New York. My friend had been chaplain of the Catholic Worker House in Lower Manhattan in the last years of Dorothy Day’s life, and he was widely connected in the New York Catholic community. On this particular evening he wanted me to meet an old comrade of his, a prominent liturgist who was in town to visit the Worker house around the corner. This liturgist, who I will not name (he has since died), had been deeply involved in promoting the changes in ritual, practice, church aesthetics and ecclesiology following the Second Vatican Council. It was a beautiful warm spring evening. We drank great amounts of red wine… the lively sounds of the East Village at night came through the open window.

Then the visitor who had been reminiscing about the days after the Council asked me about my work. I started to tell him about Saint Jude, about the founding of the shrine in 1929, and about the feelings that people, especially women, had toward this saint, the way they treated images and statues of him… until slowly I became aware that he was becoming very agitated, turning this way and that in his chair, splashing wine from the glass in his hand onto the tablecloth and onto his pants.

red wine

Suddenly he pushed himself back from the table and said loudly and furiously as he got to his feet something along the lines of You are trying to bring back everything we worked so hard to do away with. Then he walked out.

…in the middle years of the twentieth century amid tremendous social and religious change Catholics in the United States struggled to redefine their relationship to the sacred, which entailed a new conceptualization of their bond to the past as well—to their own immediate past, their childhoods in the church—because the past had been filled with sacred presences no longer tolerable or even recognizable in the changed circumstances of lives directed now to new and unfamiliar horizons. Rethinking the sacred for Catholics in the 1960s meant repositioning themselves to what had gone on in relation to the sacred in their past; telling stories about the past became a medium for reimagining the holy. Father Grabowski had located the saints in the time of the “old,” “older,” and “outdated,” which was an argument both about the sacred and about the past. The past to be grown up and moved away from came to be represented by many things—by the dull rhythms (so it was said) of memorized prayer, for example, or by the steady clicking of rosary beads though people’s fingers during mass, or by the invisibility of nuns’ bodies—

vintage nun 2

but above all it came to be represented by the saints and the Blessed Mother, and denying and forgetting the saints, putting them out of memory and out of history, became the way of closing off the past from the present. In this way the saints performed one last service for modern Catholic in the United States: they became the pivots of the constitution and authorization of a new “past”.

Dipesh Chakrabarty says that moderns basically take two attitudes toward the past. One, which he calls “historicism,” is “the idea…that once one knows the causal structures that operate in history, one may also gain a certain mastery of them.” Historical inquiry frees the present from the dead hand of the past because it takes as given that the past is “genuinely dead.” The historicist approach to the past may be enacted confidently, certain of the present’s liberation from what had gone before, or it may be ambivalent and anxious. Chakrabarty associates this latter mood with Marxism. Marx had written that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” The danger as Marx saw it was that the new world which was to come into being out of the rupture with the past necessarily had to be constructed with tools of the past and so “could end up looking like a return of the dead” (in Chakrabarty’s words). Nevertheless, in both historicist attitudes is the assumption that historical knowledge frees the present from the past…

…But the impulse to hold the present and the past together in relationship was not the dominant one in the culture and became even weaker as the decade of the 1960s proceeded. More common was derision and contempt for “yesterday,” a sense of its uselessness. What had come before was spiritually and psychologically “sick,” Daniel Berrigan, S.J., declared in a 1962 article on church art—this language of the past as pathological…. Not even the Middle Ages, once the greatest of eras in Catholic imagination and a source of cultural and religious pride, escaped reevaluation. The past was inauthentic. It was characterized by secrecy, dishonesty, and alienation. There was a widespread sense among American Catholics that the past—that their past—had done little to prepare them for their particular present. The dominant temporal metaphor of the time—one that resonates deeply with the language and history of western modernity—was that Catholics needed to mature and come of age (although the terrible irony here is that by denying the past, Catholics deprived themselves of anything to grow up from).

“The mood of so many Catholic writers of the past two years, “ the great historian of American Catholicism Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., wrote in Ave Maria in 1965, “has been a kind of fear to look back as if opening the window of the church to let in fresh air meant closing the door on the past.” Catholics were prepared to celebrate those aspects of their common past that authorized their credential as moderns—the U.S. Catholic endorsement of American Democracy for instance, or the role of the church in Europe and Ireland. But the past that would not be engaged was the past of that the generation coming of age in the 1960s had most intently lived, that had formed them and given shape and structure to their deepest senses of self, namely the past of devotionalism—that array of practices, objects, liquids, images, ceremonies, and gestures


by which Catholics had engaged the presence of God, the Mother of God, and the saints, in the spaces of their everyday lives. Catholics looked back in the 1960s and 1970s, across what they though of as a tremendous temporal distance, at religious practices that had in fact existed in their own experience, that still characterized the faith of many contemporary Catholics and that were receiving new spiritual vigor…

The American Catholic devotional past had to be rendered utterly over and done with. But “the past…is a position,” philosopher of history Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes, meaning that the pastness of any particular past is not given and natural but achieved, secured, authorized, and maintained.The pastness of the past has to be constructed and reconstructed, over and over, often in the face of the dreadful (to those who fear it) and unavoidable evidence of the past’s enduring presence. Fundamental to the work of rendering the past past among 1960s Catholics were the saints: toppled from their niches

broken statue

in the churches that had been built with countless small donations to them, the saints and the devotional practices associated with them, the varied practices of sacred presence were repositioned in the firebreak between the present and the past. The strangeness guaranteed the otherness of the past.

To Chakrabarty’s typology of modern attitudes toward pasts construed as premodern we need to add another, a renunciatory impulse toward one’s own and one’s community’s religious history, a deliberate work of sealing off, in memory and history, by denial, contempt, exclusion, and silence, ways of being in relation to the sacred that are no longer acceptable within the normative construction of the modern. This peculiar impulse of renunciation does not belong to Catholics alone; it is widely shared among moderns and indeed is a constitutive feature of modernity as this is normatively defined… The historical project of the renouncing of a particular religious past is fundamental to the religious history of modernity and to the practice of modern historiography.

If the point of such renunciation was to build a firewall against the past it not only failed, it ensured that the past would remain a compelling object of desire among Catholics and ex-Catholics across the religious and political spectrum, who return today obsessively to the world of preConciliar Catholicism in fiction, film memoirs, plays, therapy modalities (the recovering Catholics movement) in the angry newsletters of Catholic separatists (those so dismayed by the changes in practice and theology in the church that they separated from it in independent congregations), in the bitter or jejune satires of liberal Catholics and ex-Catholics, and in the endless rounds of shared Catholic school memories. The members of no other religious community in the United States returns so compulsively to their past… Catholics in the United States today insistently reenact the past so that they can literally enter and move around inside it. Late Nite Catechism has become one site of the wider psychodrama of memory in contemporary American Catholicism…

The culture that tried to build so high a barrier against the past wound up creating an obsessive culture of memory. But because contemporary Catholic remembering and forgetting has its origins in the rupture between the present and the past—it is marked by this trauma. The not-so-long ago appears utterly sacred and magisterial among those who “remember” with longing and sorrow, but bizarre and ridiculous and cruel among those who “remember” with relief and contempt. In the early 1960s, amid vast social change, liberals told stories about the “past” that heightened its otherness, and conservatives told stories about the “past” that emphasized the beauty and holiness of it, and the two memory discourses first became parodies of each other and then “memories.” Memory in other words, was put in the service of forgetting. Memory became not the practice of engaging the past but another medium for fending it off and keeping it distant. Catholic “remembering” since the 1960s has assumed the task of denying the past for some, and for others of celebrating and canonizing the past, especially of the devotional past, was lost. Catholic memory served to ensure that adults did not have to access what was lost and what was gained—religiously, social, and culturally—in the era of revolutionary change of the 1960s and 1970s. Lamenting and celebrating, they could forget.…

In the emerging post-Conciliar culture of the 1970s and 1980s, the saints and the Virgin Mary were to be reimagined in the languages of friendship, morality, or mythology deemphasizing what the reformers considered an inappropriate culture of excess and emotionalism and of the miraculous. Above all the reformers insisted that popular devotions, if they were to remain a feature of the post-conciliar American catholic Church at all, but surrounded by words:

…one way of understanding the transition of the early 1960s, which continues to shape the intellectual climate of contemporary studies of American Catholicism, is as a shift from an ethos of presence and sacred intimacy toward a culture bounded by, and even obsessed with, words. Words were not absent from preConciliar culture, of course, with all its prayer card, novena booklets and pious ejaculations. The difference is that the words of the old devotionalism were efficacious not simply in themselves but in relation to specific cultic practices and disciplines such as vows, perpetual novenas, and devotion to particular saints. Devotional words mattered in circumstances of intimacy between heaven and earth. The new words belong to a professionalized class of liturgical specialists whose development and expectations reflected the higher educational levels attained by middle class Catholics in this era. The words derived their legitimacy from a strict and precise connection to church authority


and not from their association with a beloved saint. Devotions were necessarily now to be accompanied by some sort of discursive practice—explanatory sermons, clerical reflections on the meanings of particular expressions of piety, reading of Scripture of or some other devotional text—as if hedging those practices about with the written and spoken word their improvisatory and disruptive potential could be controlled or at least diminished.

More insight from Mr. Orsi: Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Dipesh Chakarbarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference