Time was growing short. Prom was past, finals and graduation would soon be upon us. But when the students had finished A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I threw at them a chapter from George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic. “Meet me at the Cheese,” I said to the girls, and this is how we came to discuss the sacramental imagination, and the Gnostic imagination, and abortion.
In his sixth letter, “The Olde Cheshire Cheese, London,” Weigel introduces his young reader to “the Cheese,” a pub in London where writers such as Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, and Charles Dickens in the nineteenth, gathered for conversation and conviviality. In the early twentieth century, Hilaire Belloc—who, to the delight of the sophomores, crossed first the Atlantic and then the continental United States to claim the hand of the woman he loved—held forth at the Cheese, as did, of course, the subject of Weigel’s chapter, the robust and brilliant G.K. Chesterton, “literary genius . . . and first-rate Christian apologist.”
We owe the ensuing classroom discussion to Chesterton. In Weigel’s telling, it is in Chesterton’s understanding of the goodness of the world, of creation, of food and drink and conversation, of handshakes and shared laughter, of songs and jokes and all the rest, that we may identify “the sacramental imagination.”
“What does that mean, the ‘sacramental imagination’?, asks Monique. “You tell us,” I answer her. “Page 92. Read.” She begins: “The sacramental imagination is the belief that God entered the material world and saves us in our flesh.” These girls have been raised Catholic, and even if they do not grasp philosophy, they are surrounded by the teachings of the Church here in this small school. They are primed to understand. Monique looks up, expectantly, ever alert, ever eager to know. “Yes, keep reading,” I say.
Monique continues. Weigel is articulate and succinct: “Gnosticism can’t handle the Incarnation—the truth that God entered the world to redeem and sanctify us in our humanity, not to fetch us out of it. And God does that because, as in the beginning, God understands that what He has created is good, even very good.” To see with the sacramental imagination, I tell them, to understand that human beings, in their ordinary waking, breathing lives, are loved by God, and that it is in these ordinary lives that God is encountered.
“But,” Monique persists, “what does Gnosticism mean?” I am glad for her questions; I remember that sophomores don’t know everything, and I don’t either. I explain that “gnosis” is spiritual knowledge usually meant for the initiated few, those who separate themselves from the rest of plodding, fleshy humanity. Gnosticism values the thinking self, and does not see the flesh as important, necessarily. Gnostics do not go around singing, “I shall see him in my flesh.”
“So . . . the soul is separate from the body . . . like the part that thinks, our mind . . . is in a different place from the body that feels”? Monique wants to get this right. “Exactly,” I say, “and this is exactly the opposite of the Catholic understanding of the body as the form of the soul. We see the soul because we see the body. Each of us is a body-soul composite.”
Then I try a different tack.
“E-mail,” I offer as an example of Gnostic efficiency. “The words move with the speed of thought, unencumbered by breath, by emotion, by the scratch of the pen moving over the paper.” The Gnostic view of things, I explain, values the mind over the body, that slow and lumbering burden, ever subject to fatigue and hunger and pain. The body, in the Gnostic imagination, bears little ultimate significance. The body may be used as an instrument of pleasure, but randomly, because, to the Gnostic, what we do to and with the body does not, in the end, matter. We will slough off “this muddy vesture of decay” soon enough.
The girls are looking quizzical: uncertain, though expectant. They would not know what to make of the phrase, “a soul in a machine.” Yet, they sense that we are onto something important. I teach English, not philosophy, but much depends on the distinctions we are pondering. I try to summarize: “God uses the ordinary elements of the world, bread and wine, oil and salt, to encounter us in the sacraments and that means that our bodies are precious.” I read aloud again: “The ordinary stuff of the world is the material God uses to bring us into communion with the truly extraordinary—with God himself.” (Weigel 93)
“What does this mean for us? For our day-to-day lives and for our moral decisions?” I ask the class. “Everything,” says Lara, quietly, perhaps not willing to elaborate, but getting it, understanding that seeing the world as though everything in it is holy, and good, and precious in God’s sight means that you accept God’s creation, and your place in it, and that, like Chesterton, you see that everything—our waking, our breathing, the “is-ness” of all of our bodies, is good.
“Where in the contemporary world do we see this contrast of imagination? What example comes to mind?”
“Abortion,” says Jennie, with barely a pause.
These girls have their TOP-Life Club, attend the March for Life, and pray outside a Planned Parenthood clinic during the 40 Days for Life. This baby in the womb is close to their hearts.
“Also, transgender—the whole transgender thing—it’s so weird,” offers Kayley. The girls understand that if you see all flesh as good and holy, you cannot then propose that some flesh is a mistake. You cannot say that the baby in the womb isn’t really supposed to be there, or that there was a mix-up and your soul ended up in the wrong body and you need surgery to correct the error. Those shaped by the sacramental imagination know better.
“Does the sacrament—the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist—help us see the issue of abortion in a way that others cannot? Why or why not?” I had taught Chaucer. The people of the Middle Ages grasped that the Eucharist, this small wafer, contains all that cannot be seen but that can be known, the God of the universe, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Pause. The girls do understand, though they do not yet know that they do.
“I know!” says Annie, who sometimes struggles with reading comprehension but whom I often ask to lead the class in prayer. “We can see it! We know that the baby is there, even though it is so tiny. We know it’s there . . . like . . . we know that the Eucharist is God . . . is Jesus!” Annie smiles in triumph, and it is a triumph, more than she realizes. “Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see what you see, but did not see it” (Mt.13:17).
“Yes,” I continue. “What the sacramental imagination sees, and what the Gnostic imagination cannot see, is that in that tiny being is contained a whole person, made in the image and likeness of God. The body that grows, the organs that develop—the person, whole and entire—is present in this small being. Not only does it contain the person, but it contains the future as well—the generations that will follow, the progeny of the being now in the womb. What is present to the eyes of those who see as God sees is that every human being is weighted with glory and promise, and that the flesh of this tiny creature is good, is very good.”
“Miss Thompson,” says Caroline. Caroline has been wearing her auburn hair in girlish pigtails, now quite at variance with her serious expression. “I think this is really important. I think we really have to get this—it explains so much.” She has been engaged in an argument via social media with several of her public school peers, and in that arena, she stands alone. She must get it right. “What is the ‘this’? What does ‘this’ explain? Clarify,” I insist. “It’s about . . . it means . . . it’s about being able to see. People you talk to—they don’t see.”
But learning to see does not happen in one lesson. Learning to see requires, perhaps, a culture that nourishes the sacramental imagination, one that has places in it such as the Cheese, the pub where G.K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc could be found eating and drinking and conversing and laughing. Learning to see may mean just learning to be, and allowing the shaking up that comes with laughter. The sacramental imagination defended by Chesterton is, after all, an acknowledgement that we are in God’s imagination, and the sweet understanding that comes with just knowing, “it is good Lord to be here.”
“Miss Thompson!” bursts out Caroline. “That’s it!”