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Essay

The Road Behind Us
Image’s Founding Generation

When Image was founded in 1989, the cultural landscape looked different than it does today. Religious writers and artists felt cold-shouldered in the public square and often ill at ease within the church. The need for a journal that demonstrated the continuing vitality of contemporary art informed by faith—art that upheld high standards, grappled directly with historic faith traditions, and avoided false uplift—seemed more or less obvious. We asked several members of Image’s founding generation, writers across a number of disciplines, what they see as having changed over those years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.

Paul Mariani
Beautifully Dogged

SOME TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in the summer of ’89, Greg Wolfe and Harold Fickett wrote me and several others that they were starting up a new magazine to be called Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, and would I be interested in serving on the board and perhaps contributing something to the first issue?

In truth, I had to rub my eyes a couple of times to be sure I was reading the letter correctly. Were these guys serious about starting a magazine devoted to what the great twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar called Beauty—a serious magazine of art, literature, faith, and mystery?

Could such a venue—a magazine devoted to what was central to those of us who revered writers like Hopkins, Chesterton, Eliot, Auden, O’Connor, Percy, Merton, Francis Thompson, Caroline Gordon, J.F. Powers, and Denise Levertov—exist and flourish for more than a few issues, like so many of the little magazines in the early part of the twentieth century?

And what did my own generation and those coming up after me have to contribute to the fray or canon or melee or whatever you chose to call it? Of one’s own generation, one is always less certain. Nothing is settled, and the dust of the laborers still fills the air, complicating matters. Who could I turn to, talk with, learn from, offer something of my own? I remember one of my colleagues at U Mass years ago speaking only half-jokingly of the “invincible ignorance” of Catholics like myself. You learned to laugh and swallow it, joking along that being a Catholic or Christian intellectual was something of an oxymoron, but—still—it left a sting. Which meant this: that you got up again and stumbled on.

In my own family there was nothing—outside of my mother’s yearning—like an intellectually sound faith community. There was Mass, the rosary, the nights spent in nocturnal adoration each month, serving as an altar boy in grade school, high school, and college, my year in a Marianist school in Beacon, New York, preparing for the priesthood. In my New York City and Long Island neighborhoods you didn’t talk literature unless you wanted to get punched in the mouth, and religion was a matter of this sect or that: Catholic, Protestant, or Jew.

College changed some of that. The great books courses with Homer and Virgil, the pre-Socratics and Aristotle, and on and on (happily) through the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Enlightenment and Romantics and modernists and postmodernists and….

But as a writer who saw vast riches in the Bible, as well as some of the uncanonical texts and the church fathers (both East and West), and those other riches offered by the secular classics: who was there to talk to, not merely as a professor, but as a writer and as a believer?

One of the factors that has meant a great deal to me was the presence of Image, reminding me that there was a viable and electric community out there committed to the same values I’d found essential to my own life, that there were oases in the vast deserts of secularism and the dumbing-down of American culture. It’s not something I can easily talk about, even now, with my family, who tend to keep a respectful distance from such questions. Nor with writers who are close to my heart but who don’t share the same spiritual values, or see what I see, so that I find myself shifting constantly to some other idiom or topic (“How ’bout them Sox?”).

And then you find someone like Greg Wolfe, who has managed to bring together such a remarkable collection of poets, fiction writers, and writers of truly belles lettres. The list of people I’ve been privileged to learn from—including my students—is too long to give here.

Just today I was asked to provide an endorsement for a poet new to me, a woman steeped in the Christian tradition, who has been published in Image. I found myself mesmerized by what I read. Reading her poems was like entering the dawn of the eighth day of creation; they were that beautiful and true. The self, the other, the dream: all seemed to merge into one, as in Dante’s vision of the Trinity, each utterance a distinctive selving radiant with love and utter caring. How was it, I found myself asking, that a poet today could so quickly and quietly and seamlessly draw me into the living dream of the holy?

Having been in the thick of much of what Greg has been doing and writing over the past twenty-five years, I have too often taken his advocacy for what matters most to so many of us for granted—as if things were proceeding normally, or the way they were supposed to in the ongoing work of bearing witness to the mystery.

But then a time comes—as it has for me—when one stops long enough to consider what in fact has been done and continues to be done, and how Greg, in his daily work as in his epistles to the Oklahomans, Californians, New Mexicans, Georgians, Ohioans, New Yorkers, and even those in far-off Massachusetts, has transformed the way we see and value the mystery by adding—as he has in his inimitable, beautifully dogged and unfailing way—to the available stock of reality. The truth is—it has come home to me—that I don’t know what the game would have been without him. Ave, frater. And thank you.

 

Paul Mariani’s most recent books are Epitaphs for the Journey: Poems and Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life. The Whole Harmonium, his biography of Wallace Stevens, will be published next year.

 


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