Essays & articles

Catholic With a Small c

By Andrew Johnston
from The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism,
edited by Mark Williams (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1995)


If the shift key slips, Catholic comes out as catholic. With a big C it means one thing, with a small c it means many. The word is from the Greek katholikos, universal, literally in respect of (kata) the whole (holos); what I want to do in this essay is chart a few of the journeys that exist between two attitudes to meaning, an upper case system of belief (Catholicism) and a lower case system of uncertainty (lyric poetry). Both present ways of writing about the world: in the first, the world has already been written; in the second, the world is still writable.

Those journeys start at the point at which one realised that one is Catholic, which when one realises that not everyone is. They reach as far as the point at which one might say, as Tomas Tranströmer has—and only half-jokingly: “I believe in God, but only when I am writing poetry”.

Somewhere along the way it is necessary, it seems, to lose one’s faith. If to be Catholic is to be fallen, then to be a lapsed Catholic is almost to be more Catholic—twice-fallen, shunted out into the awkward world with a set of obsolete instructions, with an old story that has long since passed its Best Before date. Or perhaps not: it might depend on how far you fell the first time. In any case, you might think that a lapsed Catholic, removed from the practice of the religion, could best examine the influence of Catholicism as a “cultural” force. But it proves extremely difficult to disentangle such an influence—to separate the religious from the cultural, for one thing, when one has long since disqualified oneself from that religion; and to do this for oneself, for another thing, which would be a bit like trying to psychoanalyse oneself: who asks the questions?

Help might be sought from that canonical text for Catholics falling into writing, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but Joyce’s bildungsroman serves mainly to confirm how universal, how catholic, one’s experience is. Lapsed Catholics spend the rest of their lives trying to leave the whole lot behind, and are not inclined to admit to having a few sacred objects among their personal possessions, especially when they have had to put up with the supercilious chant (which one of the medieval popes probably invented) of “once a Catholic, always a Catholic”. There remains nothing for it but to use the lens of one’s current practice, however much it might distort; to travel backwards and forwards between a Catholic outlook and a catholic outlook, and to see, in any case, which stitches hold.


A lyric poem occupies a space that has somehow been charged with meaning (or at least a sense of meaningfulness) as if a vacuum had been crossed by a spark. That spark can come from the surrounding framework—from the process of reading the world that is going on at the time—or from a kind of reaction between whatever happens to enter that space at a particular time. But first of all there must be a space. I would like to suggest that it is a social space, a space that exists between or among people who are in a certain state of alertness, between readers, or listeners.

The word contemplate is from the Latin contemplari—something that people do together (con-) in the templum—a temple, but also and originally “an open space for observation” (notably the taking of auspices). The purposeful silence that ensues in the Catholic Mass just after Communion when the priest says “Let us pray” is a contemplative space in this sense.

It is one thing, as a child, to be alone and wonder about the world, and quite another to experience the purposeful silence of a full church, whether or not you think God comes into it. As a child I wasn’t very convinced about God, though I was prepared to concede he might yet show up (there was a small balcony high above the crucifix in our parish church where I was sure he would appear; I imagined him therefore as quite a small man). Even so, I enjoyed the “pray-time” for its sense of communal alertness; it encouraged in me what Peter Robinson has called “truant attention”. I would listen to the noises of people’s silence, and of the world carrying on as normal outside the church, and would lift my head slightly to spy on those around me: an elderly woman slipping a pill into her mouth, perhaps, or a couple using the merest of hand signals to carry on a subtle argument, or two teenagers catching each other’s eye and blushing deeply.

Amid all this surreptitious activity were people engaged in praying, in “talking to God”: there were levels and levels of attention and distraction co-existing side by side. I felt uneasy about pretending to talk to God when I wasn’t sure he was there, but I felt that what I was doing—paying attention to my surroundings—was all right, even if it wasn’t really praying. (Praying, I decided, was something that grown-ups did when God started talking to them, or when you believed in him so much that you felt you could begin transmission regardless.)

The experience of “pray-time” at church felt similar to the experience of reading, amid the din and bustle of home, The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, and especially my favourite poem in it (for its simple strangeness, and for its shortness), by Christina Rosetti: Hopping frog, hop here and be seen, I’ll not pelt you with stick or stone: Your cap is laced and your coat is green; Goodbye, we’ll let each other alone. Both experiences were of a heightened awareness of the world that led to a heightened awareness of oneself; but the world came first. “To separate I from it, bring the self to it-self, allow what is to be,” says Charles Simic. “That’s almost a prayer.” It may well be that a bookish child in a bookish home would have experienced the kind of space that lyric sparks can fire with meaning. But I think the contemplative space in the middle of the Mass, with its various levels of attentiveness, planted in me early on a sense that, however paradoxical this might sound, contemplation is a social activity, in that things only really make sense in the spaces between us.


This paradox presented no problem as long as I was in company, or felt myself to be in company, as I did later on, at Catholic secondary school, when I decided to believe, and started to pray, to “talk to God” (God knew my thoughts, I was told, so I decided I had better find out what he knew).

But my religious phase didn’t last very long; the religion and the religious education carried within them the seeds of their own demise. I breathed in Catholicism in an atmosphere rich with the symbolism of the Mass and of the whole Christian cosmology, only to encounter, in “Christian Doctrine” classes that became increasingly theological, the church’s history of turning its symbols into “facts”, of turning the figurative into the literal. Really to believe, I was told, I had to accept that all sorts of untenable things actually happened. Asked to trade my imaginative participation in Catholicism for a dry, rational one, I balked. Many Catholics reach the same turning point, the narrative of their personal gain and loss of faith echoing the narrative of the rise and fall of the Christian tradition. The latter narrative, and especially the way the church has abused its rich store of symbolism is expertly laid out by Lloyd Geering in his book Tomorrow’s God: “Paul Tillich observed that the first step towards the non-religion of the Western world was made by religion itself, when it tried to defend its great symbols by treating them as literal stories instead of accepting them as symbolic.”

I was loath to relinquish the framework that had given me, in the act of prayer, an intense emotional experience of meaningfulness. (Perhaps it was just the kind of adolescent fervour that also finds expression in the worship of sporting heroes or pop-stars. I’m not sure.) But in the end, in the story I tell myself about my life, it was something like an emotional experience of meaninglessness that finished it for me: a Mass at which the white-robed priests, muttering about flesh and blood, suddenly resembled the druids familiar from my childhood History of Britain, or the Romans we’d learned about in Latin class, gathered at the templum to take the auspices—examining the entrails of animals for messages from the infinite. Or a scene from that most Catholic of genres, the Theatre of the Absurd.

Like most lapsing Catholics, I set off in search of other explanations, other systems of thought, taking what I later discovered was a classic route, through existentialism (the novels and other writings of Camus and Sartre), half-baked Marxism (via student politics), the literature of Modernism and the gossip of post-modernism; and the several strands of literary theory I encountered in my final year at university. Of the latter, structuralism and post-structuralism gave me the tools I needed to view all these systems—religious, political, scientific, literary, philosophical—as “kinds of writing”, about the world and being in it, rather than as competing revelations of Knowledge, as created meaning rather than revealed meaning. What I objected to in each (including structuralism itself) was its scientism, the singularity of its claim to truth, its attitude to meaning.

I think this is why lyric poetry itself is the “kind of writing about the world” I have come to. In its inclusiveness—its catholicism—and its uncertainty, lyric poetry offers the mind a way to discover its own shape, to articulate itself to itself. But it took me a while to discover the kind of lyric poetry I am talking about (the “new lyric”, as Eavan Boland has called it ). For start, what happens to one’s sense of contemplation as a social activity when a social context for it has vanished? In attempting to explain the path I’ve gone down, I’ll have to be a bit more personal.


I began writing poems early because I enjoyed playing with words. But in adolescence and after they became attempts to rekindle an emotional experience of meaningfulness such as prayer had supplied. And then they dried up altogether, each thought or phrase choked off by the post-modern cynicism about meaning that I had swallowed.

I had clung to an idea that I would write, without quite knowing why. It was when I had a need to articulate myself to myself, to stem the process of fragmentation, that I went back to this idea. I gave myself the time necessary for me start writing “seriously”; suddenly, it seemed, without having reached a frame of mind in which solitude made much sense, I had a lot of time on my hands.

Initially, that solitude reminded me strongly of my experience of prayer. But who was there to pray to? The question became an old question: who was I to write for? Some writers, I knew, had no problem with it, and just went on writing. But I had to get to know myself a bit better before I could do that. With the benefit of hindsight I would say that what I had to learn was to write for myself, as they wrote for themselves; one might say they prayed to themselves, and wrote out their prayers for others.

The comparison with prayer is an apt one here because of the honesty both require. When you “talk to God”, there’s not much point in being less than honest, because God is meant to know what goes on inside your head. When you engage, as writers do, in the process of listening to the world and listening to the words we wrap it in, a similar honesty is essential.

The kind of morality of meaning involved here runs like a theme through much American poetry in particular (Eavan Boland uses American examples, by Robert Hass and Jorie Graham, in her essay about the “new lyric”.) William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things“ is a radical statement of this theme. When the verb “to contemplate” shifts from intransitive to transitive, and takes an object—even if (some might say especially if) that object is language itself—the writer needs also to acknowledge that meaning itself is social, that, as Mikhail Bakhtin has said, “word is a two-sided act. It is determined by whose word it is and for whom it is meant.”

From this honesty of attention comes a renewed sense that someone is listening, or is going to listen: a sense of the lyric space—that space crossed by threads of sense and music—as a social space. The poem can become a place where things are simply shown. “The world is beautiful but not sayable. That’s why we need art.” (Charles Simic ) Each poem is its own way of reading the world.

Within this space, knowingly overheard, you can write to hear yourself think—this is “voice”—to repeat yourself to yourself, and hence to move on. “I must be one of many poets who feels that if I do not write the poem it is not that I fail to express the experience; it is that I fail to experience it.” (Eavan Boland ). (And, especially if you keep your poems in your head—while you are writing them and after—the words become the kind of prayer that is also a charm; at the point at which the sounds are on the verge of losing their meaning, they gain more, they become “charmed” because, as Wallace Stevens said, “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”. )

Meaning that is social is also contingent, and therein lies a freedom that “the new lyric” embraces. Much has been made by theorists, of the loss of God as the final guarantor of meaning, but rather than dwell on this absence, the new lyric accepts it and enjoys the contingency of language as it is used, and of meaning as it is found. Hence the new lyric feels free to use whatever tones of voice and levels of language it chooses, because above all it is inclusive, heterogeneous and therefore contradictory. Its way of writing about the world cuts across the others, incorporating them, stealing from them, parodying them. It celebrates the shift from Catholic to catholic, from the wholeness that is oneness to wholeness that might include anything and everything.

Lyric poetry is secular prayer in the sense that, like prayer, its meanings happen in a shared, social space but, unlike prayer, it exists in this world only, now that the other world, to which prayers once were sent, has gone. But there is an “other world” within this world, from which the previous “other world” emerged: the world of the mind. All we know of it is our dreams, and our language, which developed along with it (out of it and into it). In that other world we find no God but only the imaginative self in its curious search for meaning. If God was just our name for this search (as if the search were already over, as if the mind had settled on a shape) then like Tranströmer we might say that when we are writing poetry we believe in God. Its grace is the grace of observation, of listening; of the mind exploring the world and discovering the shape, not of the world, but of the mind.

© Andrew Johnston / Victoria University Press