History and Presence offers illuminating insights into the hidden.
Robert Orsi may have left behind his Bronx Italian neighborhood, but he spent his life investigating its impact. His dissertation on Italian Harlem became The Madonna of 115th Street(1985). This launched him on a prestigious career, from Fordham to Indiana, and then Harvard to Northwestern. A leading scholar of last century’s American Catholic religious experience, Orsi records its oral history and its merchandising through icons, holy pictures, shrines and devotional practices.
Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth(2005) championed the “materialization of religion.” He explicated the “corporalization of the sacred” and urged his colleagues to recognize that religion “is the practice of making the invisible visible.” He admitted his ambivalence as a scholar about being half-in, half-out of the milieu that his work examines. Yet he insisted that a third way between confessional, theologically biased and radically secular scholarship could enter the intersection where self and subject meet, rather than marking off a boundary between observer and participant. Orsi diagnoses the “pain” suppressed by immigrants’ children in post-WWII America, which he finds crippled their assimilation and their ambition.
History and Presence expands this analysis. Orsi enlivens his account through the eyes of believers. Natalie suffers abuse, but eventually finds comfort rather than accusation in the eyes of an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Lizzie fights cancer and joins the many who swear by the bags of holy soil from the shrine of New Mexico’s El Santuario de Chimayo. A woman in Detroit gains peace through Marian prayers which she makes to protect her sons in the military. While the massive changes after Vatican II diminished the ecclesiastical encouragement of such actions, Orsi reminds readers that the broad claims of a secularized American polity advanced in a graduate seminar or a data-dense monograph do not always jibe with the reality, especially among working-class and poorer congregants, which persists in placing its faith in folk traditions and family-instilled rituals.
The professor studies how despite the onslaught of modernity and the elite’s denial of the intangible or the invisible, these powers of the holy embody themselves. This “equivocal nature of the real presence” which by the sacramental method of Catholic belief makes the concrete and the empirical charged with divine energy sustains itself. Orsi extends the heady concept of the Mystical Body of Christ and his Church into the daily sights, sounds, and substances which in Catholicism have been infused with blessings and which bestow grace on the faithful. These remain, for millennia, devilishly difficult topics to sum up. Robert Orsi, therefore, serves as an observant and sensitive guide on a tour of enduring or abandoned media which promote the “hyperrealism” of “the excessive aesthetics of Catholic devotion.”
From the field, Orsi conjures up from his own experience the “stench of death” and the aromas of incense and candle wax. He scrutinizes the display of purportedly “miraculous roses” during a wake he participates in—and examines—at a funeral home. This location signals the disintegration of the old ethnic parishes, now shuttered or monuments to demographic change, and the end of the perennial habits for generations continued by ancestors of the now-suburbanized and intermarried heirs who stop by at a Little Italy only to find its core eviscerated.
This study stands on its own. But a newcomer may want to begin with Madonna. Orsi repeats some of his best anecdotes from its predecessor. Here, oddly, George Steiner’s Real Presences (1986) gets barely a glance. More on recent revivals such as the recital of the rosary among troops, and the remodeling of the shrine at Chimayo where the customary ex-voto plaques of thanksgiving for cures have spilled out to patios where hundreds of family photos and sacred items commemorate the pleas and petitions of Mexican-Americans would have enhanced the academic presentation. While Orsi does his best to describe the sites and images he selects, many more illustrations could and should have been inserted, to widen one’s comprehension of the objects and the settings which reify the unseen, for far fewer today understand the depth and the breadth of Catholic aesthetic art.
In a memorable section, Orsi recreates the mindset of pre-1960s daily life within parochial schools and settings. Even R. Crumb enters, for the catechetical comics of this era influenced his own creations, long before his own dignified tribute as The Book of Genesis (2009). An intimate tie to the spiritual realm and the pains or pleasures promised from the afterlife bonded millions of the New World’s children to the continuity of their rooted and diverse Catholic cultures across Europe, which had morphed into concentrated ethnic enclaves abroad, at least for a generation or two. As Orsi’s own urban path charts, the sons and daughters left these redoubts against Protestantism and American prejudice after the mid-century.
Orsi confronts the tainted legacy of this era. The “horrific proximity of evil to holiness,” in the sinister embodiment of too many a nefarious clerical leader of the community, persists in today’s headlines which document the longstanding neglect by the Church of its most vulnerable victims, often its defenseless children entrusted to the care of the priest. The “unconditional obedience” instilled within youth to obey domestic and religious authorities damaged the good works promoted by Catholicism. Yet, delicately, Orsi takes care to include how the ultimate representation of the transforming of the mundane into the sanctified, in the Eucharistic communion in the Mass, has offered solace to those who have been wounded by such sinners. He limns the recovery of those who have endured agony.
Appropriately, to emphasize the weight of these brutal forces, Orsi editorializes. “To say that God had nothing to do with this, finally, is also to recognize that God did nothing.” Orsi caps a distinguished record of scholarship connecting today’s fragmenting Church to its evident glories and its exposed damnations. As radicalized priests and liberalized nuns fled the big parish plants to work and live among their parishioners, the laity in turn replaced them to run the schools and, with far fewer clergy to direct them, the parishes. The irony of the post-Vatican II period is that the anticipated boom in the countercultural generation which would flock to join a revitalized Church never happened. Few who read R. Crumb likely became vowed or ordained. The clergy keep declining in status while the laity steps up to seek power. This “messiness” testifies nonetheless that for millions of parishioners, the comforts of the familiar structures which had grounded themselves in American Catholic immigrant parishes outlive their dwindling congregations and echoing sanctuaries with a remnant of believers. The persistent faithful, Orsi avers, seek “intimate encounters between humans and the holy.”
Orsi ends his book with a thoughtful reflection on the post-modern predicament. “The unseeing of the gods was an achievement; the challenge is to see them again.” Anyone who has grappled with the pull and push of faith and its organized structures, which guide or halt billions in their actions and their inner selves, may reflect on this. History and Presence offers illuminating insights into the hidden.