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Peace and the Christian Imagination

from Woodstock Report No. 69, March 2002

On February 7, the Woodstock Theological Center sponsored an "afternoon of conversation" that featured visiting research fellow John Farina and his paper, "Imagining God''s Peace."

The former editor-in-chief of the Paulist Press Classics of Western Spirituality and Sources of American Spirituality series, Dr. Farina is currently editing the new Crossroad Visionaries series. His own writing includes works on the history of religion in the United States, including Romantic Religion in Ante-bellum America: The Diary of Isaac Hecker (Paulist Press, 1988). He is the editor of Beauty for Ashes: Spiritual Reflections on the Attack on America (Crossroad, 2001).

Woodstock plans to publish Dr. Farina''s full text as an occasional paper. Here is an edited version of his remarks at the afternoon of conversation, which brought together 35 people in the Woodstock Library at Georgetown.

Three Models, and Moments, of Imagination

In addition to being an editor of a couple of series of books on spirituality, I''m also an attorney. And I feel like I''ve been given a very difficult assignment here in defending a client, who is asking to somehow relate imagination and peacemaking. So I''ve chosen the following method in doing that. I want to look at three historical moments, three examples of peacemakers from vastly different times. One is Augustine and the model is Peacemaker as Policy Analyst, as Political Theorist. The second is St. Catherine of Siena: Peacemaker as Prophetess/Saint in the 14th century. And the last model is Isaac Hecker: Peacemaker as Evangelist of Culture, or Evangelizer of Culture from 19th century America.

Augustine: Peacemaker as Policy Analyst

While Augustine''s understanding of peace and order are open to interpretation, the larger outline of his theory is clear. The state is an external order. The peace it maintains is an external peace, the absence of overt violence. The state is maintained by the use of force; it has no weapons by which it can save the souls of persons. It is rather a remedial coercive order that is a result of the Fall.

That external order is contrasted to the city of God, which emanates from the true nature of persons and of God and is built on love rather than coercion, is eternal not temporary and is participatory rather than remedial. Many of the debates about Augustine''s view of peace miss the mark because they attempt to extract his view of peace out of a political theory of Church and state. Now while the City of God does speak to issues crucial to public theory, it nevertheless is primarily a theology 末 as Thomas Merton, writing the preface to the 1950 Modern Library edition, realized quite well.

Augustine was confronted with violence on a massive scale, like a thousand September 11th''s, in the Sack of Rome. Recall the stories of Christian virgins raped, children cut open, while pagans ran into Christian churches and were spared. This is something Augustine could not easily dismiss. He took 13 years and over 800 pages in 22 books to work through this problem. How is God with us? How can we believe in a God of peace and justice in the face of such a thing? He imagines a vision, not simply of heavenly existence in which all tears will be wiped away, nor of a completely secular order deserted by God, but something far more complex.

In that order, neither the earthly nor the heavenly elements are subordinated to one another. It''s a kind of micro/macro cosmic isomorphism, if you will, in which God works in history. God works in the history of Rome, the history of the Jews, and of the Church. Through it all, he is building the city of God. We cannot always see the exact limits of that city. It''s not coterminous with the Church; it''s not completely absent from the state. It stands apart from them, yet is manifested through them. How do we experience peace in such a cosmos? Here I think we must read the City of God, which Merton called "the autobiography of the Church," along with Augustine''s own autobiography, The Confessions, and what I think is his most important work of ascetical theology, De Trinitate, On the Trinity.

Imagining peace for Augustine begins with seeing our personalities as reflections of the Trinity. The memory corresponds to the Father. It is the storehouse of ideas, the place from where our energies and thoughts first emerge. It includes our imaginative power. The understanding corresponds to the Son. It is the place of our intellectual powers to shape, order, and arrange. The will corresponds to the Spirit. It''s our power of desire, whence come our passions and, most importantly, our love. The person at peace is one who rightly sees the image of God within, enters into herself, and ascends to God and to a participation in the life of the Trinity. Seeing, vision, is important. Augustine again and again describes the city of God as "the heavenly Jerusalem" and he always defines Jerusalem as "the vision of peace." That vision cannot occur without the grace of God in Christ, to be sure, which sets us free from the power of concupiscence, heals our divided will, and allows us to love God above all else.

When charity replaces concupiscence we are united to our authentic selves and to one another in the bond of our common creaturehood. We then know true peace. In that experience of interiority we know the peace of the city of God where all are united in the beatific vision. And, as we behold the image of God within, we understand the right order of things and burn with love. In that sense, our imaging of peace is a real participation in the eschatological peace, an experience of the not yet but already.

St. Catherine of Siena: The Peacemaker as Prophetess and Saint

When we look at Catherine, we''re confronted with a paradox. Here we have a woman, supposedly uneducated, not from a wealthy or connected family, who dies when she''s 33 years old. Nevertheless, she has an important effect on the politics of the time. She plays a crucial role in the relocation of the papacy back to Rome from Avignon where it had been very comfortably ensconced for 75 years. Adding to that paradox is the fact that in 1970 she is declared the second female Doctor of the Church.

She was born in 1347, a twin, the 24th of 25 children in Siena to a merchant class family. When she was 20, she decided God was calling her to be more actively involved in the social life of her city. She started working with the poor and trying to make peace between some famously feuding Italian families. In 1376, she actually went to Avignon to petition Gregory to return to Rome. It seems Gregory had made up his own mind for various reasons to return. But he depends a great deal on this young woman. He sees her as a kind of soothsayer, or prophetess, and depends on her vision to provide a kind of divine stamp of approval to his move, this tremendous move. When he finally does move, it takes 600 ships sailing from Marseille back to Rome. But, at the last moment, he''s wavering, and Catherine goes up to him and reminds him of a secret vow he made to God when he was made Pope. This clinches the deal, and back they go to Rome.

With Catherine we see the imagination at work in two distinct ways. One is what may be called the creation of the Church-imagined legend of Catherine. The other is the imagination of the saintly woman herself.

In the Church legend, Catherine is imagined as the saint on a divine mission to return the papacy to its God-appointed home in Rome. In the longstanding battle between popes and kings, Catherine is the protectress of the purity of the Church. Appropriately she is presented as supernaturally pure. She is not defiled by sex. She dedicates herself to virginity at age seven. There is no adolescent fascination with members of the opposite sex, as there was with St. Francis of Assisi. No ill-fated marriage, as with St. Catherine of Genoa. Furthermore, she is depicted as even being pure from the defilement of food. She hardly eats, and in the last year of her short life, she lives entirely on the bread and wine of the Eucharist, prompting one recent student of hers to dub her a "holy anorexic."

Undefiled by the world, she is joined to Christ in her body. She receives the stigmata in 1375, right as her intervention in papal politics begins.

Second, there is the imagination of Catherine herself. One of her visions, related to the Church legend, comes at age 28, after receiving the stigmata. She sees the believers in the papacy and the Church and "unbelievers" entering the wound in the side of Christ. The message is plain. Division in the Church extends the sufferings of Christ. In her vision she is then given an olive branch and a cross, which she interprets as a command to bring both peoples together. The message is again plain: out of the suffering of Christ, and of her suffering as a pure stigmatist joined to Christ''s body, come healing and reconciliation.

The imagination of Catherine the woman 末 in her own writing 末 is at work in the imagery of her first letter to Gregory XI. She wrote: "I long to see you as a productive tree planted in fertile soil and laden with sweet mellow fruit. For a tree uprooted from the soil of true self-knowledge would dry up and bear no fruit." Here the image of a tree planted in the soil is interesting. The soil, one would think, would be Rome. But instead Catherine tells us the soil is "true self-knowledge." An intriguing twist, one that goes to the psychological, personal, spiritual appeal of the prophetess.

It is no accident that this fresh direction comes from her own writing, which is most likely more historical than the legends of her visions. She tells Gregory that he is Christ on earth, the successor of Peter, shepherd of the flock who should not fear the political machinations of men. No appeal is made to practicality, for Avignon is, practically speaking, a comfortable alternative to Rome. The appeal is to the heroic, the idealistic, to the imagination, not to practical reason. As the prophet always does, she calls Gregory to look with different eyes on the political situation and to choose an alternative that comports with true self-knowledge and faith. She asks Gregory to see himself authentically, not simply through the eyes of his courtiers.

Isaac Hecker: Peacemaker as Evangelist of Culture

Isaac Hecker is born in 1819, a Methodist in New York. He grows up part of a business family. He and his brothers start a bakery. His brothers work at it and become millionaires by middle age. Isaac is not interested. He instead gets involved with them in politics. They''re involved with radical Jacksonian politics in the 1840s in New York.

However, Isaac finds that the political movements cannot solve the central problem that many radical movements in America have: translating ideas steeped in individualism into some kind of corporate action. Remember de Tocqueville had observed that individual ties were more attenuated in America than they were in the Old World. Hecker came to believe that politics alone simply could not cure people of their selfishness and create these ties, and that religion was a key to doing that.

His journey in religion takes him on a fantastic odyssey that involves going to the New England Transcendentalists, living with Henry David Thoreau, knowing Emerson (he hated him), and living at Brook Farm at a place called Fruitlands. There he becomes a Catholic, of all things. Catholicism could answer the social question. It could, Hecker believed, teach us true individualism, but yet fidelity to the whole.

Hecker was not an Augustinian, and there''s no evidence that he ever read Augustine. But he was a Romantic; and in the works of Romantics like Friedrich Schelling or Thomas Carlyle the imagination plays a crucial role.

Hecker''s doctrine of the Holy Spirit follows Carlyle''s notion of reason and Schelling''s idea of the aesthetic power or aesthetic intuition, einbilden. Devotion to the Holy Spirit was the hallmark of Hecker''s spirituality. The dynamic notion of God working in the world, the Church, and the soul in a harmonious sense was crucial to Hecker. The Spirit shaped history and enfolded God''s will through guiding the individual. The Spirit did that by drawing on the natural tendency of the person, including her national characteristics, so Americans could be Catholic and American at the same time. A person could best respond to the Spirit's leading by following his attractiveness. In spiritual direction, therefore, there was no need to break down the person, but rather to build on what was naturally there. As he said later when he read St. Thomas, "grace supposes and perfects nature."

Now, as you might suspect in these hallowed halls, we must mention that there was an Ignatian influence here. When Hecker was in France as a novice Redemptorist, before he started the Paulists, he read French Jesuit Louis Lallemant, a 17th century writer of The Spiritual Doctrine. Lallemant''s work stressed fidelity to the guidance of the Spirit and dependence on his gifts. He used the principles of the Spiritual Exercises and instructed the individual on discernment. What he added to it was a new sense of subjectivity and affectivity that was very much part of 17th century France and came to define spiritualit鳬 much in the way in which we talk about it today. So faith in this insuperable synthesis of the soul, the Church, and the world 末 God''s Spirit working in all three 末 becomes the basis for Hecker''s political vision. Like his patron saint, Paul, he could urge his culture to be reconciled to God. Only then could America be the force for good in the world that many hoped it would be.

Peace and the Not-Yet

In conclusion, we''ve seen a number of ways in which the imagination helps us live out the meaning of the Christ event.

Men and women are organically connected to that reality through the operation of their imagination. When we talk about Christians making peace, how else can a Christian make peace if not by imagining a situation different from the present and struggling to claim more of the not-yet reality of the eschaton? Christian perception of the present is in this sense always imaginative, for it sees through the lens of hope. Our glimpses of hope come most clearly from that inward vision of Christ in us, the hope of glory.