28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (2005)

In Between Heaven and Earth, Robert A. Orsi argues that religious worlds are made by men, women, and children in relationships with each other and special beings. Religious idioms are intersubjective in that they are real, personal experiences shared among any number of networks of people. Intersubjectivity is understood as: 1) the nature of particular social, cultural and religious identities and realities (bonds of love/hate); and 2) the balance of familiarity/difference in the relationship between the researcher and his/her subject(s).

Orsi suggests that religion is not a “web of meanings but of relationships” and cannot be labeled with dichotomies. Scholars must move beyond the secularization thesis and the “from-to” paradigm of modernity. Belief is the wrong question to ask and the “realness” of religious idioms should be understood as real in experience, practice, and relationships. Orsi explains these ideas in the stories about Sal. These illustrate the relationships between handicapped people, other Catholics, and the saints who embody suffering. While handicapped people were made models of suffering and purity like certain Saints, this fantasy marginalized the lives and actual suffering of the “cripples.” This fantasy obscured their unequal relationships.

In chapter two Orsi examines the presence of Mary among the devout in pre- and post-Vatican II. Orsi explains the presence of Mary after Vatican II as: 1) psychological in that people placed Mary as a mediator in their lived relationships and experiences; 2) social in that Mary is a cultural figure who makes and is made by culture; 3) a symbol of American and other cultural/ethnic identities; and 4) emotional in that Mary’s emotions reflected those of the devout. The presence of Mary is not something that is either true or false, but her presence and people’s engagement with her reflect “the daily circumstances of their lives.” Her presence alters lived experiences and relationships through art, prayer, and history.

Chapter three considers how adults made the presence of God material in children’s bodies and imaginations. Like the holiness associated with “cripples,” the holiness imbued in children made them vulnerable, objects of desire, and idealized childhood. These experiences shaped relationships among children and adults to create American Catholicism.

Chapter four relates the hagiographical accounts of Saint Gemma Galgani and stories about Orsi’s grandmother. In these stories, heaven and earth not only reflect one another, but are made in relation to one another (diptych). “Meaning making” is a linear process and does not take into account that the lives of people can be made by meaning in stories. Orsi suggests that the “meaning making subject” be replaced with “a more tragic figure whose engagements in the world…proceed through media that may embody meaning against him or her.”

In chapter five Orsi examines the relationship between the researcher and subject. The study of religion is the study of relationships that use, make, or re-make religious idioms in particular cultural, historical and political contexts. To study or interpret a culture means to be engaged with the people in the culture and their conversations; to understand religion as dialectics. Orsi understands that while he cannot pray to Saint Jude like Clara, he can experience the feelings of loss and hope that she does. In this case, scholars should rethink the boundaries of “us/them” in research and realize that while there are differences there are also similarities among the researcher and his/her subject. Difference does not mean otherness. This intersubjectivity will help scholars understand religious ways of living and the researcher’s relationship to them.

In chapter six, Orsi traces the history of religion in the West and in the American academy. Scholars must understand how this history impacts their research. The evangelical and postcolonial critiques present compelling challenges, but ultimately re-establish boundaries in their work (like Covington with the snake-handlers). Orsi proposes a third position where the goal of research is to get beyond “otherizing” by disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in the “in-between place.” This position is transformative in that the scholar must go beyond understanding religion as ethical, and not affirm or deny the studied religion. Scholars should proceed in their research with risk, suspension, and engagement. Haberman’s fieldwork maintains this third position. Religious witnessing is not for the university classroom since the expectation is for discussion, analysis and open exchange. Religious worlds and their morals must be studied through the lived experiences and stories between people and their gods.

28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Thank you, St. Jude (1996)

In Thank You, St. Jude Robert A. Orsi examines the prayers that American Catholic women have made to Jude Thaddeus, the Saint of Hopeless Causes, in Chicago since 1929. Orsi traces the rise in popularity of this devotion to historical and cultural developments that made for “hopeless” situations among immigrants’ daughters and granddaughters. This study explores how women engaged in relationships between heaven and earth as they prayed to St. Jude and participated in the material culture of the devotion.


Devotion to St. Jude emerged as one of the most popular devotions among women from the 1930s to 1960s. Men were integral to the devotion as they stood at the forefront of promoting and overseeing the devotion. But, women played a more central role in the practice and care of the devotion. The devotion to the Saint of Hopeless Causes emerged during the Depression, World War II, and after the war as women prayed for themselves and their families at home and abroad. Women prayed to St. Jude about marital relations, love, war, health, birth, and their jobs. Mostly, women prayed for and about the men in their lives. Women were also central to the devotion as they were responsible for responding to other women’s letters and petitions in the Voice of St. Jude and in the periodical’s office. Material devotions to St. Jude continued even after the Second Vatican Council’s call in the 1960s for the devotion to be surrounded by words, not things. Despite women’s centrality in maintaining and constructing devotions to St. Jude, women were also constructed by their participation in the devotion. Periodicals attacked women for their constant problems that had to be taken to St. Jude. Advice literature called women to be more moderate consumers of goods and American culture. It advised women to focus more on the spirituality of their homes. According to Orsi, “The whole culture directed the immigrant’s daughters into devotionalism, and there they were remade against the movement of their own times” (94). Devotionalism provided women with agency and their own voices (particularly in the growing field of American medicine overseen by men). At the same time, devotions to St. Jude encouraged women to be passive, to be submissive to men, and to be dutiful sufferers.


Orsi argues that scholars must go beyond using theological, socio-historical, and psychological dichotomies for explaining why women turned to St. Jude from the 1930s to 1960s. Rather, devotion to St. Jude must be situated in the “in-betweeness” of these poles. Orsi argues that women used these devotional practices to negotiate how culture, men, and their families imagined them and how they imagined themselves. St. Jude was also a part and product of this “in- betweeness” as he constituted and destabilized American Catholic culture and women’s perceptions of themselves. The narrative and the material cultures of the devotion were integral parts of women’s relationships as they were used to give St. Jude and women agency. Orsi argues that women were subjects to and subjects of American Catholic culture and devotion to St. Jude. Orsi’s theory for understanding devotional practices as relationships between heaven and earth is profound. It allows scholars to study how people perceive themselves to interact with “the supernatural” without reducing religion to a fantasy.

25 Mar

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Selection of her “Letters” (1805)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) converted to Catholicism in 1805. She founded the Sisters of American Charity and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975 by the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth grew-up in New York and joined the Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth helped establish The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and served as its treasurer. In 1803, Seton travelled with her husband, William Seton, and children to Italy. Early on the trip, William died. Elizabeth and her children stayed with William’s business partners who introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth returned to New York. For two years, Elizabeth contemplated converting to Catholicism, and faced ridicule and alienation from family and friends. Elizabeth also suffered financial hardships after the death of her husband. In 1804, she started a boarding school to support herself and her family. However, local Protestants refused to send their daughters to this school on hearing of Elizabeth’s bent toward Catholicism. Elizabeth’s letters record these struggles and her desire to become a Catholic. These letters include her correspondences with Catholics and non-Catholics, and correspondences on her behalf. Below I’ll highlight some of these letters.

Writing to Anthony Filicchi in January 1805, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore expressed his concern for Elizabeth. Bishop Carroll hoped that “after being put to the severe and most distressing trials of interior darkness, doubts, and terrors of making a wrong step, our merciful Father in heaven will soon send her relief, and diffuse light and consolation in her heart.”[1] Bishop Carroll also offered reading suggestions for Filicchi to pass along to Elizabeth. These included Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Following of Christ, particularly the ninth chapter of the second book “Of the wants or absence of every comfort.” Bishop Carroll also advised that Elizabeth should focus on asking God to “revive in her heart the grace of her baptism.”[2] He also urged her to listen to the voice of God if this meant painful sacrifices. Bishop Carroll hoped that Elizabeth’s current trials would make her stronger for the trials that would come after her conversion to Catholicism.

Elizabeth wrote to Philip Filicchi in January 1805 and described her doubts, anxieties, and troubles. In the summer of 1804, Elizabeth had been left alone by her family and A. Filicchi, her spiritual advisor. She engaged in prayer and read Protestant authors about the Prophesies. The authors argued that Catholicism was a temptation by Satan. For months, she struggled and doubted which version of Christianity was true. Elizabeth visited the Protestant church in her town, but often wished she were at Mass. She started reading a volume by the French Jesuit Priest Lois Bourdaloue. It encouraged her to read again the other books she had on Catholicism. She tried to visit the only Catholic Priest in New York, Mr. O’Brien, but to no avail. Elizabeth could not come to a decision about her faith. She ended the letter requesting to see A. Filicchi, Philip’s brother, when he returned to town.

Elizabeth also wrote to Amabilia Filicchi in January 1805 and expressed similar doubts and concerns. She described how she read Bourdaloue and tried to visit Mr. O’Brien. Nevertheless, she had doubts about converting. She could not decide if the Catholic Church in New York was a bad as people had described. Elizabeth resolved that these rumors would not hurt her faith and that the ministry of the sacraments would be enough to satisfy her yearnings for the Church. She argued, “I seek but God and His church, and expect to find my peace in them, not the people.”[3] Elizabeth described going to a Protestant church, St. George’s. She felt the need to go to church, but after going felt indifference to Protestantism and decided not to return. She realized that she had no faith in the prayers of the Bishop at St. George’s. After reading a book from Mr. Hobart she also realized that Protestant churches claimed no apostolic history. They had no connection to the True church of Christ. Communion at St. George’s also made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable because it was not given as the real presence of Christ. The Catholic Church represented a church steeped in apostolic authority, and linked to Christian history and beginnings. Elizabeth resolved, “For if the chief church became Antichrist’s [the Catholic Church], and the second holds her rights from it [the Protestant Church], then I should be afraid both might be antichristian, and I be lost by following either.”[4] Elizabeth waffled in her decision on which church to join. She wanted to have faith and to be a good Christian. But, she did not know if either of these were the right choice. Doubt plagued Elizabeth.

Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi again on March 14, 1805, and expressed her joyous conviction in choosing the Catholic Church. Elizabeth moved to Baltimore to be closer to a Catholic church. She expressed happiness in seeing the cross on top of the church instead of a weathercock. She also basked in the “great crucifixion” above the altar. Elizabeth also enjoyed the Irish priest’s talk of “death so familiarly that he delighted and revived me.”[5] Elizabeth made her profession of faith. She felt clearer in head than she had in months. Nevertheless, she begged “our Lord to bury deep my heart, in that wounded side so well depicted in the beautiful crucifixion, or lock it up in His little tabernacle where I shall rest forever.” Elizabeth gloried in talk of death, Christ’s suffering, and the material artifacts at this Catholic church. They evidenced a more real faith to her. Elizabeth notified Amabilia that she was preparing for her confession of faith and hoped that after it she would “begin a new life, a new existence itself.”[6] As Elizabeth continued in her preparation, she relayed feelings of satisfaction and freedom: “How awful those words of unloosing after a thirty years’ bondage!..How bright is the sun these morning walks to the church for preparation.” After years of struggling with her doubt, Elizabeth decided to become a Catholic.

[1] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, “Letters” in R. Marie Griffith, ed., American Religions: A Documentary History, 1 edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid.

23 Mar

Orestes Brownson, “Become a Catholic” (1857)

Orestes Brownson was a nineteenth-century New England intellectual and well-known convert to Catholicism. In 1857, Brownson wrote The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience. The book chronicled Brownson’s life-long religious experiences and his conversion from Transcendentalism to Catholicism in 1844. Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” described his conversion.

Brownson was born in Vermont in September 1803. He was brought up by an older couple as a Congregationalist. The couple taught Brownson to read. The family library included the Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, and Edwards’s History of Redemption. Brownson attended Congregationalists meetings as well as those of the Methodists and Christians. He was also acquainted with “new sectaries,” universalists, deists, atheists, and “nothingarians.”[1] When Brownson was nineteen, he attended a Presbyterian meeting and was “much affected” by it. He began to question religious truth and doubt his Congregationalist faith. Brownson struggled to submit his reason to revelation, but did so in 1822 when he was baptized in a Presbyterian church in New York. Soon after, the Presbyterian Church passed resolutions that forbade Presbyterians from any kind of personal or business intercourse with non-Presbyterians, except for conversion attempts. By the late 1820s, Brownson realized he did not want to be constrained in this way. He felt that he was being watched by other church members for any infidelity with non-Presbyterians. He also began to regard predestination, eternal sin, and eternal punishment of the wicked (Reformed doctrines) as too harsh. Brownson also felt no loyalty to the Presbyterian Church.

Brownson searched for a religion that suited him by reading books about religion. He decided to become a Universalist minister. This form of liberal Christianity, however, did not stop Brownson from having doubts about religion and he continued to search for religious truth. Brownson edited the Universalist journal Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator and published essays about his doubt. Brownson also criticized organized religion, Divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the supernatural. He recognized Universalism as a more rational doctrine than evangelical Protestantism.

In 1832, Brownson joined the Transcendentalist movement that became popular among Boston Unitarians. Brownson lauded reason, social egalitarianism, and social and religious reform. Browson became “a believer in humanity, and put humanity in the place of God.”[2] Like other Transcendentalists, he recognized the divinity of humanity, not the divinity of Jesus. Neither did Brownson recognize miracles in the Bible nor the supernatural in nature. Brownson continued to read about religion and religious truth. He eventually came to believe again in the divinity and superiority of God over man. By 1843, Brownson considered converting to Catholicism.

Chapter XVIII “Become a Catholic” describes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism. Brownson realized that his conversion to Catholicism was carried out by “divine grace.” Yet, this grace did not exclude reason. Brownson recognized conversion as a “rational process, though not always distinctly noted by the convert.”[3] Brownson realized that the Church did in fact promote the progress of society, but that this was not “the end she proposes, or what she directly aims to effect.” The real end “is not attainable in this world, and the heaven she points to is a reward to be received only after this life.”[4] Moreover, Brownson understood that punishment was personal. Individuals needed to take responsibility for their actions, go to church, and beg for forgiveness. Brownson accepted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church since it was “clearly the Church of History.”[5] There was less in-fighting and denominational splits among Catholics than Protestants because of scriptural, church, and clerical authority. In 1844, Brownson contacted the Right Reverend Benedict Joseph Fenwick, Bishop of Boston, and announced his wish to convert to Catholicism. The Right Reverend John Bernard Fitzpatrick served as Brownson’s spiritual advisor, council, theologian, and catechist for eleven years.

On October 20, 1844 Brownson was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Brownson’s acquaintances deemed his conversion unreasonable and illogical. Even so, Brownson wrote “but I honestly believe, as I believed in 1844, that [Catholicism] does, better than any other philosophical doctrine, show the harmony between the natural and the supernatural, and remove these obstacles to the reception of the Church, and her doctrine on her authority, which all intelligent and thinking men brought up outside of the Church in our day do really encounter.”[6] The Catholic Church provided clear and reasonable answers for Brownson and the modern world about the natural and supernatural.

Brownson felt that the modern world had forsaken Christianity and promoted methods of skeptical reasoning: “the philosophy which prevails, and after which the modern mind is, in some sense, moulded [sic], is opposed to Christian revelation, and does not recognize as fundamental the principles or premises which warrant the conclusions drawn in favor of Christianity. The prevalent philosophy with very nearly the whole scientific culture of the age, is not only un-Christian, but anti-Christians, and if accepted, renders the Christian faith an impossibility for a logical mind.”[7] In fact, Brownson argued that this sort of reasoning had infiltrated Evangelicalism to the point that most believers doubted the faith they practiced. “There is always lurking in the mind a suspicion of the antecedent improbability of the whole Evangelical doctrine.”[8]

Catholicism presented a worldview that supported faith, authority, reason, and history over doubt. Catholicism ordered the natural and supernatural world in such a way that Brownson no longer felt doubt about religion. Catholicism was reasonable and logical in a modern. Catholicism reconciled faith and reason in ways that Evangelicalism, liberal Christianity, Transcendentalism, evolution, and science could not. For Brownson, Catholicism was a modern religion for modern people. It would resolve the questions of doubt that ran rampant through the United States. In fact, Brownson suggested that Catholicism should be practice in public schools as a means “to combat the unbelief of the age and country.”[9] The Catholic Church, not Transcendentalism, provided ways of thinking about the natural and supernatural in reasonable terms.

[1] Orestes Augustus Brownson, The Convert: Or, Leaves from My Experience (E. Dunigan & Brother, 1857), 13.

[2] Ibid., 148.

[3] Ibid., 368.

[4] Ibid., 370.

[5] Ibid., 371.

[6] Ibid., 384.

[7] Ibid., 388.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 396.

20 Mar

Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard” (2010)

“Skeletons in the Cupboard” explores the “afterlife of relics in the wake of the English Reformation.” Walsham argues that relics were a part of the “confessionalization of material culture in post-Reformation society” and that they became embroiled in the “politics of religious identity formations.”[1]


Protestants decried Catholics’ reverence and use of relics during and after the English Reformation. They argued that Catholic relics were unscriptural inventions of the Papacy and Catholic clergy. Nevertheless, the veneration of relics continued among Catholics in post-Reformation England. Some Catholics recognized the power of the reliquaries of destroyed relics. Others hid relics in their homes. Walsh recognizes that “A significant side-effect of the Reformation was to transfer relics from the custodianship of monasteries and churches into private hands and domestic settings.”[2] Moreover, new relics were formed during this time as priests and believers were martyred for their faith. By the seventeenth-century, relics became confessional badges and markers of the Catholic faithful.

At the same time, a reformed relic culture emerged. Protestants also kept the body fragments and possessions of people who had been martyred for their faith. Many of these acted as memorials that carried “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.”[3] For many Protestants, these objects were signs or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. For many other Protestants, relics still carried divine powers that could act in the world and on people. Protestants also infused other objects, like the Bible, with powers that could heal and ward off evil. Relics and material objects became badges of adherence to the Protestant faith, just as they had for Catholics. Protestants also incorporated relics into their own religious practices by defining proper burial practices and displaying relics in cabinets of curiosities. Relics carried multiple meanings for Catholics and Protestants in post-Reformation England.


Walsham’s main contribution is her recognition that Protestants continued to use and revere objects in post-Reformation England. This was not due to any syncretism, popular religion, or failure of the Reformation. To the contrary, many Protestants, despite their abhorrence of relics, participated in their own material culture. This material culture often looked like that of Catholics’ devotion to relics as Protestants revered body fragments of martyred clergy and believers. At other times, this material culture was different in that it “remained commemorative in character.” Walsham suggests that this material culture tells us about “a Protestant culture of memory and identity centered as much on material objects as on distinctive dogmas and rituals.”[4] Walsham’s insight are significant in that they recognize the development of a Protestant material culture in post-Reformation England. Protestants did not stop employing things in religion, but they redefined how this material culture worked.

Despite this insight, Walsham’s distinction between relics and memorials in the explanation of this Protestant material culture is unclear. To be sure, some Protestants stopped using material objects as relics. But, I am not convinced that Protestants who employed body fragments of martyrs understood these objects to function as signs, memorials, or remembrances that served a didactic purpose. What would this didactic purpose be? The recognition that good Protestants are willing to die for their religion? Moreover, what exactly is a memorial? And, how is it different from a relic? In “Introduction: Relics and Remains” Walsham suggests that “relics can also be memorials, or material manifestations of the act of remembrance” because they link the past and present. In this article, memorials do not seem to function as relics. Walsham suggests that memorials have “spiritual and emotional rather than material and miraculous character.” But, these memorials were particularly material; they were body parts. And, their emotional and spiritual character does not exclude their power or relation to the divine. So, what is the difference between a relic and a memorial? These body fragments as memorials likely worked in some way to connect living Protestants to martyred Protestants in some material way. This seems to be one of the definitions of a relic, not just a sign of remembrance. Perhaps, further studies of this Protestant material culture can examine how Protestants employed memorials to get a better sense of the powers and functions of these material items, and how Protestants came to understand them as didactic objects, not relics, over time.

[1] Alexandra Walsham, “Skeletons in the Cupboard: Relics after the English Reformation,” Past & Present 206, no. suppl 5 (January 1, 2010): 122, doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq015.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] Ibid., 143.