Revitalizing Catholic Culture: An Interview with Anna Keating

dsfafdsfdAnna Keating is a blogger, writer, small business owner, and mother of two. She’s the co-author, along with Melissa Musick, of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide To the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life. You can read an excerpt from the book here and Millennial’s review of the book here. The following is an interview with Anna Keating by Millennial editor Robert Christian:

Robert Christian (RC): The idea of a field guide to the daily acts of a Catholic life seems premised on the need for instruction or guidance in the absence of a robust Catholic culture where such traditions would be passed down orally or in another more organic way. What do you think has been lost with the collapse of this culture in certain areas or simply its absence in other areas?

Anna Keating (AK): I grew up a few blocks from my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1918 in Tulia, Texas. She called people “good ole boys” in her Southern accent, and said things like “She took to him like a sick kitten to a hot brick.” My grandmother died a few years ago, and I’m already starting to forget her sayings. If you don’t use the language, or record it, it’s lost. It happens very fast. That’s what’s happening with our faith. We don’t know the words or the works. We don’t remember how our grandmother used to braid those palms on Palm Sunday, or what braiding them was all about, or why our aunt was always making sick people casseroles. It’s vanishing.

Many of us didn’t grow up with these customs, with this way of seeing the world, even if we grew up Catholic. Stumbling upon this ancient way of life in this book, or elsewhere, is almost like discovering a foreign country.

Of course, we don’t want to idealize the past. Part of why American Catholic culture was more robust in the early and mid 20th century was because of Nativism. The KKK burned a cross in my great grandfather’s front yard because he was Catholic immigrant. We held onto our beliefs, in part, because of persecution and ghettoization.

Now we face the opposite problem of being mainstreamed. The faith gets boiled down. Reduced to a couple of bullet points. We live in an increasingly homogenized world. I’m intrigued by these ancient Christian habits, but often have no idea where to begin.

fsadfsdaThat’s why my coauthor, Melissa Musick, and I, wanted to write a resource that met people where they were (spiritual but not religious, Catholic, ex-Catholic, Protestant, agnostic). We wanted the book to be a field guide, an open window, a way in. Just pick one thing that resonates with you and try it. And then one thing leads to another, and another, and so on.

RC: Do you think there are particular challenges and/or opportunities when it comes to millennials and the revival of Catholic cultural practices? 

AK: As a generation, we’re uncomfortable with truth claims and mysteries. There aren’t many grand narratives anymore, except the ones that are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to us (e.g. utilitarianism).

We pick and choose from various moralities and symbol systems, but we tend not to put down roots. It’s an awful burden, in a way, to have an endless number of choices, especially when you don’t have any formative experiences with any of them and aren’t well informed about what it is you’re accepting or rejecting.

Sometimes we choose not to choose, out of the fear that picking a path and walking it will limit us in some way.

But I also think Millennials want to dive in, to taste and see, to feel alive, even if that means making sacrifices.

We’ve gone so far in the opposite direction (individualism, consumerism, nihilistic tendencies) that we’re ripe for a renewal. Millennials want more than nice stuff and endless distractions. They want love, meaning and purpose.

And they’re interested in rediscovering beautiful practices. Growing real food. Walkable neighborhoods. Religious life. Working with their hands. Buying local. Sacred art and architecture. Chant. Contemplation and meditation. Marian devotions. Jesus. Helping the poor and the environment. Social action. Building community. Nonviolence.

ewrqrOf course, being different can be unappealing. It’s natural to want to be accepted and well liked. And to love anything is to risk being misunderstood or mocked, or put in a box. Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd”?

People have told me my shoes were cool, or that owning a small business was cool, or that my kids were great, but no one has ever told me that being a Catholic is cool. They’ve seen certain practices and found them compelling, but they could do without the label. But even that can be liberating. If you’re someone like me who suffers from the disease of caring too much about what other people think, it’s good to cultivate a healthy detachment, to, humbly and with a sense of humor, walk your path.

RC: Do you have a favorite chapter? Is there a particular ritual or activity that is among your favorite from the book?

AK: Catholicism is often an excuse to celebrate and drink, but I also need its quiet and meditative aspects. The ritual gestures. The deep sacred wisdom of the liturgy. Letting the words of the Scriptures wash over me and compel me to act.

kjjjjjMy favorite chapter is Holy Water and the Sign of the Cross. I’m fascinated by how these ritual gestures (bowing, bending, touching, tasting,) turn us into brothers and sisters, make us one in Jesus.

I go to Mass with people from different backgrounds, races, classes, political parties, sexual orientations, abilities, and parts of town. People I would never otherwise cross paths with, exchange the Sign of Peace with me at church. It’s the only place where I really feel that we are all lost, all found, all one in Christ.

RC: There is still a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement over Pope Francis. But it seems to me that the “Francis Revolution” can only really come when Christians live authentic lives of Christian witness in a way that is essentially countercultural without retreating entirely from the broader culture. It seems to me that the Catholic Catalogue offers a lot of advice on what that witness might look like. Do you see the book as aligning with key themes of Francis’ papacy? Can the book help people who are inspired by Francis to live out the things he talks about in their everyday lives?

AK: Absolutely. When the Pope is on the cover of Rolling Stone, a lot of people are taking a second look at a Church and a religion they thought they knew.  The word pontiff means bridge and Francis is a bridge figure. He reminds people that the Church welcomes sinners. He goes out to the peripheries. He meets people where they are. He tries to get us to put aside our differences and come together to serve others and carry Christ into the world.

So many spiritual books are marketed to camps within Christianity. This book isn’t like that. You want to end capital punishment with Sant’ Egidio?  Awesome. You’re interested in consecrated virginity?  Great. There’s something in this book for everyone.

The question in the Acts of the Apostles isn’t “How do you feel? Or, What’s your opinion? It’s: “How then shall we live?” Francis is asking that of the Church and we’re trying to help people who want to make it a practice.

RC: Along those same lines, one theme that I think is present in the book is that there can and should be holiness in everyday life. What are some challenges of living a Catholic life in our contemporary culture with our often frenetic daily lives? And how can we go about living religiously, not just one day or one hour a week, but in our daily lives?

AK: My favorite part of my house is the upstairs balcony, because there’s nothing to accomplish out there. No WIFI. No sink full of dirty dishes. No weeds to pull. No laundry to fold. It’s just a place for sitting with old friends. For hugging my babies. For looking at the sky. For lectio divina. For rest.

Wiping children’s noses and bottoms is holy. Going to work is holy. Scrubbing pots and pans is holy. God is present in all of it, but it is easier to find him, if our manner of living isn’t just one damn thing after another. If we make room for the Sacrament of the Present moment. For being present to our lives.

kkkkkThat’s also why I wrote about sacred art and church architecture in the book. Beauty is healing. We need places we can go (nature, a home altar, a church) where it’s easier to open our hearts.  Everyone needs a place.

RC: A second key theme seems to be the importance of the body. Do you think there is often a disconnect between our spiritual and physical lives as we live them now? If so, how can that divide be bridged?

AK: What we do with our bodies we do with our souls. Think about the popularity of yoga. There’s clearly a need to get out of our heads and into our embodied hearts. This book focuses on activities that engage all five senses: holy oils, incense, blessing your home, feeding the poor, making and praying with candles, baking bread with kids, taking a Catholic road trip or pilgrimage. Come and see the wonder in a child’s eyes when candles are lit on a dark winter’s night? Or when sweet rolls appear on St. Lucy’s day.

trtrRC: A third theme that I thought was present in the book was the importance of community. You are constantly encouraging people to include others, to build community, to have shared experiences. We seem to be living in an increasingly atomized society with more transient friendships, people frequently moving, and higher levels of loneliness. What are the challenges of building in community in this type of culture? And how can some of what you mention in the Catholic Catalogue counteract these forces that are fostering individualism and even isolation?

AK: Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them.” God didn’t come to a person. He came to a people. He chose to be born into a Jewish family.

We all need a place where we can go when we have nothing to offer, where everyone says welcome, and come back soon. It’s no good to go alone. Of course, being in relationships with other people is hard because it means putting up with their flaws, but it also means knowing others who are willing to put up with yours.

In the book we talk about inviting people over to decorate your Christmas tree, or being St. Nicholas to a family in need, or celebrating Carnival with friends.

When you know your neighbors, even when they’re simply acquaintances, life is better.

RC: A final recurring theme that I thought was important was the book’s focus on the value of beauty. Our society seems to value what it considers to be beautiful, but often the focus seems to be on the superficial and ephemeral, and this misunderstanding of beauty seems connected to consumerism and the objectification of others. How should Christians understand beauty, and why should we value it? What is the relationship of beauty to the divine? 

AK: Like all people we value what is aesthetically pleasing: a sunset, a beautiful face, a rose window. All beauty points to its Author.

And yet, if Beauty is an attribute of God, then in order for something to be truly beautiful it must also be good and true. You see this in ancient Greek thought as well.

If Beauty points to the universal law, which is Christ, then it must also reflect human suffering. That’s why even a birth or death could be described as beautiful.

The Protestant theologian Karl Barth writes about the Isenheim altarpiece as an example of this kind of challenging beauty. It was painted by Matthias Grunewald for the monastery of St. Anthony, where the monks were known to care for people with the plague and other diseases of the skin. In the painting Christ’s body is covered with sores. This too is beautiful, because it speaks to the true and the good. God shares in our sufferings. It speaks to the vocation of the monks, to see the image of God in every person they serve.

Having a handcrafted crafted cross or an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe might seem like mere ornamentation. But as Doestoevsky writes in The Idiot of Christ on the cross, “Beauty will save the world.”

So yes, beauty is essential, but we need a more robust understanding of it that incorporates all of these elements.

All illustrations in this article are by Chau Nguyen and featured in the The Catholic Catalogue.