(Disclaimer: I wrote this short essay for my philosophy of religion class in 2010, but ended up discarding it and posting it instead on my other blog. I am re-posting it here on Tumblr for kicks.)
The remarkable thing about the Catholic imagination is, I think, its ability to rehabilitate and reconfigure symbols, ideas, and objects according to its own vision of the world. We see this quite clearly in the most popular expressions of Catholic doctrine; we revere the symbol of a crucified man on a cross, in addition to images of Him being scourged and almost flayed to the bone, as well as images of His infancy (and if you’re familiar with Hispanic Catholicism, you may have come across the Santo Nino del Pasion— the Child Jesus contemplating the very cross on which He is to die). The gruesome character of these images is right to disturb us; the fact that they are revered, blessed, and displayed in our homes might even smack of a bizarre neurosis to some people. Yet Catholicism not only esteems these depictions of its central tenets, but also holds them to be holy.
Perhaps it is a product of purely modern times that we have come to bifurcate the holy from the sacred, not always consciously, but at least in practice. While we may have an understanding of holiness as a kind of moral value par excellence, we fail to see its menace; the holy then, becomes more akin to a celestial ball of fluff than something to be revered, let alone worshipped. At the same time, Catholic doctrine can hardly be said to be ‘nice’; Hell remains a metaphysical certainty despite the introduction of pastoral concerns into the present discourse, for example, and no amount of doctrinal wrangling can ever devalue it to the level of mere opinion. Perhaps this is one reason why I am fascinated with Folk Catholicism; it is in its imagination that the colors of the Catholic religious imagination remain most vivid, terrifying, and poetic. The image above is from the Good Friday procession of Procida, a small island to the south of Naples in Italy. It is particularly striking in its depiction of the sacred and the profane in the same tableaux. At the fore of the wagon sits the figure of Death riding a horse, seemingly riding through the desolate waste of a temple. Behind death are the figures of demons, ready to tempt and seduce man into perdition. And behind, the silent, muted, figure of the Dead Christ, ministered to by His angels and surrounded by a golden aureole.
I am honestly confused by the iconography here, but at the same time intrigued. In another float, shown below, we see the Pieta, and on the foreground of the image, a crucified skeleton. I imagine such a juxtaposition of the sacred and the monstrous would send many a finger wagging in disappointment, or else raring to pull the trigger of the flare gun of heresy. I myself am disturbed by it. Then again, I am reminded of the many stories I had heard from my parents and grandparents about Good Friday, and the various superstitions associated therewith. Come twelve noon up to three o’clock, all noise was discouraged under pain of sin. Jumping, smiling, laughing, and speaking were expressly forbidden; God was dead, and all creation ought to weep for His passing. Any sudden or quick movement was seen as an affront to the earth, which housed the body of the Lord; it was reasoned that jumping up and down, for example, caused the earth to press down upon the holy body of the Lord (apparently, He had been swallowed up by the earth), disturbing Him from His rest. These taboos also prescribed on Good Friday a double-faced reputation: on one hand, it is the holiest day in the universe, but at the same time, the most malevolent. Witches, sorcerers, demons and heretics were said to prowl about the world looking to sift the elect as wheat and throw them into everlasting fire. It was also thought to be a most propitious day to cast curses, since, with God dead, there would be no one to punish those who would commit such deeds.
This is probably one reason why the image of the Dead Christ— the Senor del Santo Sepulcro— was traditionally thought of as one of the most powerful “avatars” of Our Lord; it represents, simultaneously, the concreteness of man’s salvation, the debt to sin having been paid in full by His perfect sacrifice, and at the same time, the powerlessness of man to parlay with the Divine. The destruction of Christ’s human body reminds us of our own mortality, but also of the necessity of this destruction, leaving man, effectively, in a double bind: he abhors, and yet needs, perhaps more urgently, the wonderful virtue effected by the sacrifice, and as represented by that particular archetype.
And we have, too, the Anima Sola, the lonely soul of purgatory usually depicted as a beautiful woman, wrists bound by chains, her eyes gazing heavenward, looking for a respite from the burning flame which consumes her body. While we are certainly familiar with the idea of praying for the souls in purgatory, asking their intercession and protection seems alien. Perhaps, to the outside observer looking at this particular facet of Catholic devotion, it might almost look as if one were praying to a soul condemned to burn for all eternity in hellfire. Or worse, a devotee making a plea to some foul succubus to spare himself from damnation. Not just heretical, but also malevolent.
I have remarked before that our present age tends to see God and the celestial Hosts as a collective, cosmic Justice League— a noble, bland, and thoroughly non-threatening assembly ready to fight our battles for us at the drop of a hat. While I certainly subscribe to the Church’s teachings on the matter, one has to wonder if such a desensitized, de-fanged Catholicism would work well enough to save us. The genius of the pre-Vatican II Catholic imagination was how it incorporated all of human existence— even the tragic and the terrifying— to paint something coherent. The idea of Hell is admittedly quite terrifying, especially for me, sinner that I am. But, I would rather it be included in the Church’s metaphysical horizon than letting me figure out, on my own, what Catholicism is; it is not so much a matter of distrusting my own God-given talents to figure things out, but a matter of realizing how woefully insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things. If we balk at the idea of our own insignificance, it would seem, at least to me, that we have forgotten how to be properly self-centered.