The sacramental imagination, which affirms the goodness of creation, animates an iconic imagination that affirms the presence of the invisible in the visible—that ‘lifts up’ the messiness of bodies to be more than biological machines.

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (via cwmyers)

I think this way of seeing the world – creation as sacrament – has value for the individual, but also for a culture. Consider the sacrament of confession, wherein the confessor considers the common things of breath and words to be sacred acts that declare the need for a just and merciful judge. The breath and words are a confession of guilt; a visible recognition of invisible complicity.

According to Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker in “14-18: Understanding the Great War”, in the near century since WWI, France has seen a cycle of infinite mourning; “the weight of the dead on the living”. The commemorations the nation of France [and other nations] have made for the war, have “partially repressed one of combat’s main consequences – the pain of bereavement.” Further, “specialists detect traces of ‘survivor’s syndrome’ among grandchildren of Holocaust victims. Perhaps [then] it is in the third generation that we should look for the existing scars of the great massacre of 1914-1918.”

I take these statements as a suggestion that where France [and all participants] needed to confess culturally its part in the atrocities of the War, it found instead marble monuments of heroism. Confession is not to take lightly the soldiers’ sacrifices – perhaps we should commemorate those – but it is robbing individuals and a people of that confession of guilt which eases a bereavement whose echoes are found in grandchildren who never saw the violence committed by their grandparents. This could have deep implications for America now at the tail end of two decade long wars. 

Veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes, an unprecedented eighteen a day or six thousand a year. They are 20 percent of all U.S. suicides, though veterans of all wars are only about 7 percent of the U.S. population. Between 2005 and 2007, the national suicide rate among veterans under age thirty rose 26 percent. In Texas, – home of the largest military base in the world and the third-highest veteran population – rates rose 40 percent between 2006 and 2009…Veterans are disproportionately homeless, unemployed, poor, divorced, and imprisoned… (Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, xii). 

What must be the implications – familial, educational, economic, psychological – of that rate over the next three generations? 

“We organize emotionally intense memories into a story in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where self-control, planning, reasoning, and decision making occur. The mind creates a pattern from memory fragments stored in various places. Emotions are essential to moral conscience, but until people can construct enough of a coherent narrative to grasp what they did, they cannot evaluate it” (Soul Repair). Confession as a habit seems to be the first stage in building a coherent narrative.

If the American church has any foresight at all, then the sacrament of confession needs to be emphasized. And if the American culture at large is to execute the campaign promises of both presidential candidates to help veterans returning from war, then it needs to begin in the sacrament of confession so veterans and our communities can imagine the rhythms of life in peacetime. Then we can deal with the monument making.

It is too often forgotten that man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to ‘ideate’ the character he is going to be. Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself…Among…possibilities I must choose. Hence, I am free. But, be it well understood, I am free by compulsion, whether I wish to be or not…To be free means to be lacking in constitutive identity…

From Ortega y Gasset’s London essay, “History as a System” in Philosophy and History, ed. 1936 (“by compulsion” italicized by author), as quoted in Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending, p. 140 – 141)

For expert writers like Bellow, Woolf, Carter and Nabokov, excess, somewhat paradoxically, is of the essence – so that excess might not even be the correct term after all. Life, they seem to say, is rarely transparent, and therefore neither are their sentences. More than this, their sentences do not merely reflect reality in any passive or apathetic sense, but actively work to create their own multiple realities. This is not to conflate their styles. They are fiercely individualistic writers. Excess serves very different functions for each of them, whether as an expression of wonder, adaptability, individuality, free will; or as a means of self-fashioning; even as a survival tactic. But whatever it embodies or performs, the sentence in their hands is expansive rather than constrictive. They demonstrate to us, again and again, that sentences are made up of multiple units – from the clause to the phrase to the individual word to the punctuation mark – and that each of these units can be its own little world, its own site of possibility. When the units are made to work in unison, the sentence becomes a powerful space of transformation and particularity that transcends any straightforward declarative utterance.

Above all else, language should be generous and liberating, and these writers remind us of the pure pleasure to be found in the free play and musicality of words. Their sentences sing rather than grumble or shout, and we are all the richer for them.


Still from chapter 8 of Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester, 1950)

Franciscan Grotesquerie

… [Francis of Assisi]’s public appearances … are always impressive, graphic, and indeed scenic. The anecdotes which relate them are very numerous, and among them there are some which strike later taste as almost grotesque or even farcical; as when we are told that, celebrating Christmas in the stable at Greccio, with ox and ass and praesepium, both in singing and preaching he pronounced the word Bethlehem in imitation of a bleating lamb; or that after an illness in the course of which he had taken some choicer food, upon his return to Assisi he ordered one of the brothers to lead him through the town on a rope, as though he were a criminal, shouting: Behold the glutton who crammed his belly full of chicken behind your backs! But in their time and place such scenes did not produce a farcical effect. Their arrestingness, exaggeration, vividness did not appear shocking, but as a graphic, exemplary revelation of a saintly life, directly illuminating, comprehensible to all, and inspiring all to examine themselves in comparison and to share in the experience. …

The saint’s manner of life and expression was taken over by the Order and produced a very peculiar atmosphere. In both the good and bad sense, it became extremely popular. The excess of drastic vigor of expression made of the friars the creators, and soon too the subject, of dramatic, witty, and frequently coarse and obscene anecdotes. The coarser realism of the later Middle Ages is often linked to the activity and appearances of the Franciscans. Their influence in this direction can be traced down to the Renaissance. …

—Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), ch. 7 “Adam and Eve”, tr. Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 168-170.

I have seen that “peculiar atmosphere” in the contemporary church: both the “exemplary revelation of the saintly life” and the “farce”. What a fine blade fits between the two: the difference between being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I don’t think I could say what it is, but there seems to be a lot riding on it. Maybe it simply is gratitude in both the observer and the “performer”.

I have a friend, Ryan Culwell, who writes and performs songs out in Nashville. It’s been a few years and a move across the country since he released anything, but here is the latest thing: Golden On the Plains. I think it’s pretty great.

Next month, he’ll release a four song EP called Winter Wheat. If you like this song, then keep an eye out for the EP.


P.S. Also, here’s a story about how he and I met.