Saturday, 24 June 2023 08:59

11. ‘Tracing God’- Practices in Imaginal Catechesis with Eucharistic Considerations: Pioneering an Adult Catechetical/ Faith Formation Method with Parents and Students.

Darren Maslen, SSS.



Catechesis and faith formation is more than a onetime event or process but rather motivated by nurturing the lifelong unity of the Christian life and, as education, the integration of lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vivendi- praying, believing, and living. This study sets out from theoretical perspectives and maps out a journey toward the development of a method to accompany others in eucharistic catechesis. Tracing God utilizes the imagination’s creative ability to organize and communicate from and to the cross-roads between daily life and faith. Pioneered by parents in a suburban Chicagoan parish and practiced by students who populate a formation house in the state of Telangana, India, the study also includes perceptions of these participants experience of imaginal catechesis as case studies.


An Imaginative Renaissance

School provides some indications what adult life will be like for us. Despite attempts from a variety of art teachers, paints, pencils, and crayons failed to spark my imagination. I realized very quickly that being an artist was one thing, and being a copyist was another, because I mastered tracing easily. Perhaps you remember securing that waxy piece of tracing paper to another with paperclips, and carefully tracing with pencils or felts over an impression or form that lurked underneath. Is it possible to trace God? The idea of tracing impressions where God has been and where God is needs some imaginative illumination. The theoretical and practical foundations of ‘tracing God’ is based on an understanding of the imagination as one of the deepest capacities available to human nature in which we are able to enter into God’s desire to cooperate in the divine life. What this cooperation means and entails can be detected as conclusions to two of the synoptic gospels and gives fundamental shape and orientation to all catechetical and faith formation practices.

Mark’s Gospel establishes the smooth transition into a life of cooperation with God as its conclusion, for immediately following Jesus’ ascension, the disciples went out preaching with the Lord working with them. [Mk 16.20] This is the verb sunergeó in action, bible-speak for what we call today ‘cooperation’. Matthews’ finale is an intentional focus into Jesus’ deep desire for discipleship as the way to forge ahead into the future with him: Go and make disciples- baptize them- teach them- and know of my presence with you. Here we have the cognate verb of the noun ‘disciple’ that is uniquely adopted here as an imperative: mathēteusate- ‘make disciples.’ Jesus’ commission reveals that disciples are created or made; they are not adopted or appointed. There is an implicit craft at play in creating disciples. Catechesis is a collection of cooperative and creative practices with God as a response to faith that are both inspirational and imaginative, and so be able to communicate effectively both the call to discipleship and instigate responses that bring about a life of conversion.

Human imagination has always been afforded a home within the Christian theological community to varying degrees. As Ivancic succinctly states, transcending empirical investigation “the imagination, not merely the mind, is where the human person engages divine revelation.” (2006: 127). Toward the end of the twentieth century scholarly interest in the significance of the imagination in biblical, liturgical, and catechetical theory and practice emerged demonstrating the validity of imaginative approaches. This was especially evident in faith practices where these approaches coalesce. What feeds in and leaps out of Christian liturgies is served by the unassailable imagination that helps us to discern biblical foundations in how Christian’s worship, and then how to effectively teach truths and meanings about it to others being nurtured into a lifetime of worship. As White observes,

Only by understanding liturgy as a deeply imaginative act can we account for liturgy’s claim that a bowl of water is the Red Sea, the cosmic waters of chaos, the River Jordan, the uterine waters of new birth, or that a loaf of bread and a cup of wine are the body and blood of the Risen Christ, the foretaste of the messianic banquet, the food of angels. (1983: 54).

Jacques Lipchitz considered that the imagination “…is a very precious thing…it is not fantasy; the person who invented the wheel while observing another walking- that is imagination.” (Bogunovic, 2013: 168). It seems to me that to create a person from walking to riding is to narrate a person from dead to risen- precisely because the gospels post-resurrection narratives contain an imaginative quality of their own:

Jesus’ appearances were very mysterious, stretching human image-making possibilities to the limits, as did the appearances of God, the angel of the Lord, and the glory of God in the Old Testament. How does one begin to describe an appearance of God? For the risen Lord, however, the early Christians had the finest possible image, that of the historical Jesus during the months and years he spent with them. (LaVerdiere, 1996: 6).

Ever since spirituality and psychology began to map-out characteristics accounting for faith and spiritual development it has been widely accepted that young children pioneer the active use of their imaginations in grappling with God. Westerhoff for example identifies how preschool children enjoy experienced faith- that is an imaginative life that is marked by exploring, testing, imagining, creating, observing, and copying, and upon these behaviours will grow everything else that will follow. (2000: 89). This becomes especially evident when children have exposure to eucharistic worship. Feldmeier observes that for a child, “The eucharistic celebration itself can be experienced as part of a drama or game. It can and ought to be an early creative experience of acceptance and belonging. These experiences also become formational for acquiring meaning later on.” (2013: 95). These practices correspond to what Thurston calls imaginative truth- where truthfulness is not linked to facts, but to its capacity to speak to experience. The myths, poetry, and symbols of scripture leap out of biblical stories more readily for the child; “The story told over and over again becomes a means for the child of interpreting her own experience. We remember, we imagine, we hope. This is precisely what we do in liturgical contexts.” (1995: 46- 47).

The pinch comes when we turn our attention to how readily adults avail themselves to the capacities of the imagination. Cultures across the world that have been steadily moulded and shaped by the supremacy of science from the seventeenth century time and again picture the adult as being hardwired for facts. Shuman has demonstrated how imagery holds greater power than words because images engage the whole person, not merely a part of the self. Adopting a critical stance to systems of schooled education in the U.S.A., which too easily pushes aside the imagination, Shuman concludes “Our first day of entering school was for many of us the last we spent in wonderland.” (1989: 8).

Largely unquestioned and naïvely embraced, influential metaphysical underpinnings proclaim the operations of science as real, and the faculty of the imagination as unreal. Green has recently sought to remedy this oversight by demarcating fictive imagination from realistic imagination, and how both are differentiated on the basis of how the imagination is used. The Brothers Grimm for example produced an array of folklores during the nineteenth century sourced from their fictive imagination. We are likely to claim that the fictional imagery upon which their characters are created is indeed realistic, -the product of the brothers’ imaginations,- but the first of their characters, ‘The Frog Prince’ has no claim in reality whatsoever. However, Green convincingly argues that realistic imagination, infallible as it is, is indispensable in the pursuits of both natural science and theology precisely because it can allow us to glimpse what is really there.[i] This is what catholic theology has earmarked the catholic or sacramental imagination.


St. Peter Julian Eymard: The Imaginative Catechist

I would argue that assessing the use of the imagination in catechesis, particularly eucharistic catechesis, is a necessary conversation to be undertaken amongst the wider Eymardian family as Fr. Eymard’s primary source teaching documents attest to his mastering of it. We can see this most clearly when we compare those texts that were created for others, against those that were written for his own self-reference, such as his personal retreat notes.

The large corpus of letters that were produced by St. Peter Julian reveal a lively capacity to use the imagination to extend the purpose and meaning of his message into the concrete lives of his spiritual children. Facilitating a week-long series of classes at the scholasticate community of the Kristu Jyoti Province in Pune during 2018 into Eymard’s narrative theology revealed to the students and I how his use of metaphor, and focussed imagery in particular, was designed to enhance the practical advice he gave in how to animate the life of the Eucharist in the quotidian.

It is widely recognized that Fr. Eymard adopted imagery around themes to do with fire to amplify his eucharistic catechesis, with the fire hearth being a particular reference point. Pierre Édouard Frère was a contemporary of Eymard whose artistic inspiration was orientated to realist paintings of everyday domestic situations of the unseen poor that others in the art community ignored. For this reason, Frère is credited as the founder of the French realist ‘sympathetic school of art’. What is most intriguing is that what Frère painted represents what Eymard saw. The vast majority of Frère’s works place the fire hearth or the open stove at the centre of the picture. Therefore, in his paintings, ‘Lighting the Stove’, ‘The Little Housekeeper’, ‘The Young Cook,’ and ‘Roasting the Chestnuts’ without the fire, the images would lose their capacity to speak.

From the hands of Pierre Édouard Frère we can at least conclude that Fr. Eymard’s imaginative use of fire as a eucharistic catechetical image derives from the fact that it was the most readily available domesticated ‘thing’ and ‘place’ upon which to nurture and teach his spiritual children about the Eucharist as center. Writing to Mme. Nathalie Jordan in January 1864, he creates a mini allegory based upon the image of the fireplace to nurture and teach exactly that point:

You surely know, the eucharistic kingdom of our Lord in you. Notice that I did not say devotion, virtue, or even love, but the kingdom, that is, the gift of your whole self to this good Master to be his thing, his field, his heart, his life and even his death. We must absolutely come to that; otherwise, you would only be like wood that is put close enough to the fireplace to be dried; it may smoke, cry, shout, be warm; it will never burn if it isn’t in the fireplace, assimilated by its power. Please, you know that in order to light a candle we must take fire from the flame itself and not from the draft.[ii]

As Nathalie Jordan read this allegory designed for her in the middle of the winter, she would have been sat next to that very fireplace that Fr. Eymard would have known. Such pre-knowledge appears to be the crucial dynamic in how St. Peter Julian’s methods of teaching were so successful. His letters also reveal a very natural affinity to the use of pre-knowledge he had accumulated about rural living, nature, and extracting images from the countryside to serve the purposes of both written and oral catechesis. Firsthand witnesses and biographers alike testify as to how Fr. Eymard’s rural assignments, such as parish priest of Monteynard, brought to light an imaginative and quite natural way of relating to the lives of peasant farmers through the use of imagery that spoke to their daily routines; and his teaching was perceived as credible because what he taught- he lived.

There are glimpses in Peter Julian’s writings of how he understood the source and purpose of the human imagination both in an anthropological sense and through his own introspection. These kinds of references portray a person who not only read his life through the Eucharist, but also one who cajoles others to use our shared human faculties to do the same. Reflecting on Fr. Eymard’s prophetic role, Caron quotes his expressed opinion that it is sourced in ‘passion’, the agency of the imagination:

Our happiness depends on the passion of our hearts. Every person has a passion which becomes their very life. This royal passion of the heart inspires our thoughts, occupies our imagination, becomes our heart’s ardent desire, the blessed goal of all our sacrifices… Only the noble passion of the divine Eucharist can make the heart happy, good, and generous.[iii]


Giving Scope to Imaginal Catechesis

Imaginal catechesis is a resource to be used amongst others. Specifically, I understand imaginal catechesis as a necessary accompaniment to other catechetical/faith formation methods. It has the potential to elicit deeper insights and responses sourced from the human imagination based upon previous and formative life and faith experiences. My contention of the ‘necessity’ of imaginal catechesis has become clearer in-light of a series of practices and theoretical frameworks that places the imagination firmly within the toolbox of nurturing faith.

There has been an acute awareness for some time that exploring appropriate and effective catechetical methods is vital so that the nurturing of ongoing initiation into the fullness of Christian faith is realized concretely. The creative challenge will always be to move beyond conveying information and offering explanation to the opening of the door to living intimacy with Jesus Christ, the very object of catechesis.[iv] The implication found within this challenge is to discover ways to transcend the limits of explanatory language so that participating in God’s life is not only learned but actualized by transformed living.

Leonard drew on investigative experiments on the eyes of frogs to demonstrate how words alone stifle human transformation. The optic nerves of frogs, prevents most of the beautiful world that humans can see getting passed its retina. Whilst a frog will be able to see a small dark object approaching its eye, it will not be able to detect it moving away in another direction. A stunning sunset leaves no imprint upon the consciousness of a frog. Just as the design of the frog’s eye prevents it from enjoying a three-dimensional view of the world, likewise how we use and rely on language can restrict our capacity to view things from multidimensional perspectives. Any attempt to describe an appearance of God in scripture, or indeed in our own lives entirely with words restrains the witness to the fullest potential of human transformation. As Leonard summarized in 1974, “For a long time, words have been used to block the way towards transformation…Perhaps our knowledge that transformation is possible comes from the realm of no-words. But we will need words to let that happen.” (1974).

Nurturing transformative faith in others is about forming or reaffirming a new identity and preparing the ground for total responses to God’s initiative. This is where cultural backdrops become crucial in how to design and frame effective ongoing catechesis. We glimpse something of the challenges from North American cultures within many others in a modern world largely guided by values and lifestyles inspired by consumerism. What we are and what we do is largely dictated by what functionally fills life- being and doing increasingly do not recognize each other. When overriding culture becomes a challenge to forming faith, what is required is a form of imaginative communication that reveals alternative possibilities and choice-making strategies which speaks persuasively to the ‘whole’ person that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is communion with God. Recognizing such a challenge, the National Directory for Catechesis in the U.S.A. highlights:

For many Catholics, there is a gap between their faith and their everyday life and an inadequate connection between their religious beliefs and their moral choices. The U.S. culture at times excludes or marginalizes both the individual and institutional religious values of Catholics. Catechesis needs to present the Christian life as a response to Christ’s invitation to follow him- in one’s personal life and family, the parish, and the wider human community. (USCCB, 2005: 15).

Imaginal catechesis grows out of the challenge posed by such cultural backdrops, and finds its momentum within the inventiveness of human imagination, an aspect heralded by Kearney as prophetic in postmodernity:

Renouncing the pervasive sense of social paralysis, the poetic imagination would attempt to restore man’s faith in history and to nourish the belief that things can be changed. The first and most effective step in this direction is to begin to imagine that the world as it is or could be otherwise. (1987: 44).

To argue that the imagination serves an indispensable function within adult catechesis and faith formation practices because of its inventiveness, brings us to two other foundational aspects that are evident in Jesus’ own imaginative teaching. That the human imagination is both interpretive and immanent are key factors which make Jesus’ public teaching ministry a dynamic possibility within our twenty-first century contexts. A consideration of Jesus’ parables is a good example. The overriding introit to many of Christ’s parables was The kingdom of God/heaven is like…. Looking at the way Jesus frames these public parables leads to an inquiring question: ‘What exactly was Jesus doing when he stated, “The kingdom of God/heaven is like...”? Referring to the metaphorical dimension at play in parables, McFague identifies the notion of moving beyond so that a parable can be what it is intended to be: not literal but interpreted. A parable must move on. (1982: 22- 23). That invokes one response to my question- Jesus’ parabolic teaching was about inviting interpretation.

Secondly, it is significant how Jesus’ phraseology brings all the parabolic scenarios he paints directly into the immediate: a parable is always of the Now. There is some correspondence here to Rahner’s reflections about how human beings experience God: God is mediated by the world- the immediate-, the God of the Now is channelled by a “mediated immediacy.” (1978: 83- 84).

Discovering and acknowledging the inventive, interpretive, and immanent capacities of the imagination during graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union at Chicago led me to undertake focused and intentional research in-light of adult catechetical practice within a Chicagoan suburban parish, which subsequently formed a part of my doctoral studies in practical theology. Tracing God emerged as a catechetical method as a result of these insights in the hope of making a methodological contribution to an ongoing conversation about the value of imaginal catechesis within the North American catechetical constituency, of which Professor Richard McCarron, with whom I was working, formed a part.[v]


Tracing God: Unifying Vision to Method

The world of linguistics is a bundle that incorporates a myriad of concepts that frames reality and is built upon inner imagery which is saturated with meanings- if only we could express them! The world of mental imagery, however, is profound and reveals a depth to who we are precisely because the imagination is pre-linguistic and acts by unifying both spiritual and material reality. Perhaps the most familiar psychological assessment that corresponded human and faith development was provided by Fowler. He argued,

This forming of an image does not wait or depend upon conscious processes. The image unities ‘information’ and feeling; it holds together orientation and affectional significance. As such, images are prior to and deeper than concepts. When we are asked what we think or know about something or someone, we call up our images, settling in motion a kind of scanning interrogation or questioning of them. Then in a process that involves both a forming and an expression, we narrate what our images ‘know.’ (1981, 26).

The method Tracing God began to grow in my thoughts as something viable and contributory precisely because imagination, catechesis, and eucharist contain a unifying impetus. Both initial and ongoing catechesis is orientated to a formation and transformation of the whole person as an intentional response to God’s initiative and, as Sullivan identified in a recent issue of Practical Theology the eucharist brings an adhesive to what we receive, do, and become: “Eucharist is not just something that we consume, it is what we must do to make the world a better place because of what we are called to become through the transforming power of the Spirit of God.” (2020: 573). Sullivan’s perception is echoed by the United States Bishops Conference who conclude twenty-eight aspects that makes for lifelong eucharistic catechesis stating, “Instructs the faithful that we are called to realize that we become what we receive- which has great implications for how we live and act.” (USCCB, 2005: 126).

As well as being a unifying power, the human imagination also serves as an organizing principle, a reality that is made explicit in how mental imagery seems to work. Mental imagery acts in such a way both concretely and abstractly, which coherently gathers together our realities in a way which spoken language cannot. When reflecting upon practices in adult faith formation or ongoing catechesis in a variety of contexts, what was revealed was that faith development ministry with adults presupposes a reservoir of experiences that can be called upon as participants open themselves to being further nurtured into communion with Christ. It is possible to utilize the imagination to trace where God is and where God has been. It is because the imagination is designed for what Bloch calls “time travel” (2012: 108)- having the ability to recall past encounters and vision future events from the now- that Tracing God as a method is appropriate and adaptable for catechetical/formation ministries with adults.

A final aspect to the growing vision of creating Tracing God as a method was to be precise about points of convergence. Having recognized the myriad of life and faith experiences that participants could bring to the animation of the method, as well as the dynamic operations of the imagination, I also needed to have clarity about the necessary role of discernment between participant groups and God, and what that looks like to bringing practicable outcomes for transformed and renewed lives. ‘What is God inviting?’ is the question that requires a capacity to bring it to an answer. Zaker’s recent publication Surprised by God puts a name to what discernment had looked like as Tracing God developed. Forming part of her defining vison for theological reflection Zaker introduces the concept, ‘carving out the space’- “to carve the space for that presence to invite us into a new vision.” (2020: 31). By bringing convergence between participants experience, the operations of the imagination, and intentional discernment of God’s cooperative invitation, Tracing God emerged as a contributory ongoing eucharistic catechetical/adult faith formation method which occupies a carved-out space created to respond to God’s invitations and sourced from our pre-linguistic and largely mysterious imaginary worlds.


Mapping Out the Method

Figure 1 represents how experience, imagination, and discernment converge in relation to the six accumulative steps of the Tracing God method. Whilst represented here as distinctive aspects which converge to demonstrate how the method flows in terms of its incremental practices, it is important to recognize that experience, imagination, and discernment commingle throughout the practice of Tracing God. Crucially the central practice of the method is to bring participants concrete life and faith experiences to a form of representation elicited from their imaginations. Subsequently the method cajoles the imagination further by inviting participants to trace upon these representations, with a discernment as to where God’s impressions are to be found within the events, experiences, and scenarios that have been communicated pictorially or symbolically, and to discern within a group context what God invites as faith responses.

 tracing 1

Figure 1. Representation of ‘Tracing God’ as an accumulation flow method.


The initial stages of developing this method all occurred within the context of a pre-existing ongoing catechesis parish programme for patents. The location of the parish was a suburb of Chicago and epitomized the Midwest of the United States as it was populated by the predominant cultures that lived in the proximity of America’s third largest city. The composition of the parents group mirrored that of the parish. The vision of Parents-Helping-Parents was to bring African American, Asian American, Caucasian, and Latino/a parents together so that they could mutually support, encourage, and nurture each other spiritually and practically through their respective concrete experiences of parenting children in modern-day largely individualistic America. At the launch of Tracing God the group comprised twenty-two parents, with the number rising to thirty-three during the subsequent year. As the only non-parent of the group I acted as facilitator with the responsibility of animating programmes in consultation with the parish’s religious education coordinator.

The designing and evolution of any method must take time, purpose, and effectiveness seriously. Our very first attempt at adopting Tracing God as an ongoing catechetical method amongst the parents served the purpose of preparing the parents for the ensuing days of Holy Week to come. At that particular time, the differing practices that gave flow to the method looked slightly different; these would be adapted following evaluation based on consultation and responses received from the parents. The first session was an exercise of scriptural preparation for these important days and was a direct response to what I had encountered in Ivancic’s work into the biblical imagination, variously defined as,

Neither an exercise in fantasy, nor an indulgence in unreality, the biblical imagination is an encounter with the ultimate reality of God in faith by means of the metaphorical language of Scripture…It recognizes in divinely revealed texts one’s analogous experience of God, self, and the world. It sees in both material creation and human history the ongoing presence and action of a God who has not only created human beings in the image of God but also personally entered human history. In discovers God “lurking” in the objects, events, and persons of ordinary life and interprets these circumstances as hints of what God is like…In brief, the biblical imagination is the process whereby God encounters the human-person through images evoked by Scripture texts in order to nurture a faith-relationship. (2002: 132).

Entering into the first practice of Tracing God was accompanied with the question: ‘Could this method provide an opening to discovering God’s “lurking” sourced with the imagination from those objects, events, and persons from ordinary everyday life in the quotidian?’ How the parents responded to the first animation of the method suggested to me that the answer could possibly be affirmative. The ‘reflecting’, ‘imaging’, and ‘tracing’ steps of the method had been set within the context of Jn 18.15- 27, and Jn 21.9- 19. Both of these texts narrate encounters around a burning fire and touch upon experiences and responses to denial, betrayal, Jesus’ identity, self-preservation, renewal, and the fragility of faith. It is because the imagination has its own organizing principle that imagery corresponded to words. The fire in the courtyard of the Temple and the fire on the beach during Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance gave enormous scope to the participants’ imaginations to represent in image and symbol episodes from life, and then verbally express coherently in narrative what they had discovered from the imaginations’ operations. Just as fire changes things, so the life and faith experiences of the participants could be shared for the mutual building-up of the culture of parenting amongst group members.

Subsequent evaluations of Tracing God after its first animation were extremely positive but pointed to the fact that whilst the method served a ‘therapeutic’ function amongst the parents, -especially in carving out a space to arrange and express verbally life and God experiences- it lacked focus in bringing about what could be implied for future renewed faith practices. In short, the method lacked the capacity to bring about God’s invitation; not enough space had been carved out to bring about discerned collective or individual responses to ongoing participation in God’s life and mission. It was in-light of these perceptions that Step 6 was added as the intentional conclusion to the method: Practice outcomes.

Mapping out the method certainly provided a foundation. The obvious question remains: What do the six accumulative steps of the Tracing God method do to bring about its purpose? The clearest way to bring about responses to that question is to offer case studies from two different cultural contexts and project objectives so that the character of the method can speak for itself in its practice and application. In both instances the method is attempting to reawaken participants awareness, acknowledgement, and faith responses in-light of the Eucharist. For the purposes of anonymization the case studies will be presented to mask participants’ identities and locations.


Case study 1: Discovering the Cenacle (Upper Room) at Home

The context of this case study is the same suburban Chicagoan parish that pioneered Tracing God in its formative stages. The animation of this practice formed part of a year-long programme that was geared to discovering ways of more consciously recognizing and living the sacraments within the weekday family home. By this stage, the number of parents who populated the Parents-Helping-Parents group had risen to thirty-three, with Latino/a parents comprising 60% of its membership. The application of the method to a programme that was geared to animating and living the sacraments at home proved to be a poignant moment in the history of the group, because what became evident was a tangible sense of cross-cultural peer identity as parents rooted within the Eucharist. Here is how the method facilitated that realization:

  • Preparatory toolbox: Access to relevant scriptures in English and Spanish; each participant needed one sheet of card and a piece of tracing paper the same size; a good supply of paperclips, crayons, felt pens, and adhesive shapes, glyphs, and symbols that are obtained from any art shop.
  • Step 1- Context: The group assembled around a large candle, crucifix, and opened bible marked at Jn 21. They prayed for each other as fellow parents; this was the opportunity for participants to express thanksgivings and seek support through current family challenges. As facilitator I introduced the overriding statement into the group: You cannot expect to journey with Jesus in the eucharist and not be changed; Jesus changes things- often we do not see that! I encouraged the participants to maintain a disposition of mutual prayer as we followed through the various steps that followed.
  • Step 2- Reflection: Participants spent time reading and highlighting what inspired them from the risen Jesus’ fireside fellowship with the disciples on the beach (Jn 21.1- 19). This fireside encounter was chosen because it reflected what some members of the group had previously experienced when the method was first being attempted a year earlier. I encouraged participants to identify the Eucharist in this encounter and name empathic words from the scripture that corresponded to previous events in their own lives.
  • Step 3- Imaging: On the piece of card provided, I invited participants to image their response to the following question: What do you see when you participate in the eucharistic liturgy? A considerable amount of time was given to this step because for many in the group this would have been the first opportunity to have imaged and represented their eucharistic-identity in such a way.
  • Step 4- Tracing: Attaching the tracing paper over the first image and affixing with paperclips, I then invited imaginary responses to the following question: How do you see the Eucharist alive in your family home?
  • Step 5- Commissioning: The session concluded with group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in English and Spanish. I requested participants to take their two images home with them and to ask God during the ensuing month to bring discernment to what these images represented for their families and homes. The participants were also encouraged to actively seek mutual prayer support from other parents in the group for the purposes of sustained, focussed, and tangible discernment with God.
  • Step 6- Practice outcomes: The following session was entirely given to this decisive step. Having undertaken prolonged prayerful reflection, I asked the participants to initially disclose to each other in groups of three what God appears to be inviting through the imagery that they have created emanating from themselves. How could the insights of these parents be further incarnated in practical ways?

In this particular instance the Tracing God method revealed a shared and deeply rooted appetite for the presence of family members one-to-another in a more intentional way. Across African American, Asian, Caucasian and Latino/a cultures that populated this parental group, the sense of simulating something of the Upper Room within the home became a primary response to the program. Household members were tired of living increasingly separate lives. The images that were created upon the tracing paper spoke poignantly and directly of bringing realization to living communion amongst family members that they publicly celebrate in the eucharistic liturgy at the beginning of the week. With imagery such as discarded mobile phones, a switched off T.V., a full table with Christ at its center, a family praying gathered around pictures of ancestors, making concrete the responsibility of presence to each other as families especially during meals, had the dominant voice that became audible as images were coherently explained.

The outcome became realized through parents making a year-long commitment to hosting a cenacle evening in their homes once a week, which would take first priority. No mobile phones, video games, T.V., or takeaways, and in some cases older children would shop and prepare the family meal. Before eating, the gathered family would sit with the Scripture readings from the previous Sunday and be encouraged to foster a space for praying together. Cenacle evening would become the night of the week when intimate communion with Christ and to one another that is celebrated through the Sunday Eucharist is incarnated within the weekday family home.


Case Study 2: How do you Recognize the ‘Interior Cenacle’ in you?

This case study accounts for the practice of Tracing God among a group of 20 young men in Telangana, central India, who are undertaking a discernment process as possible future members of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. As faith formation, their primary focus is the acquisition of community life skills as well as mastering the English language over a two-year period. The group predominately represented the states of Odisha and Tamil Nadu with their respective cultures and languages, and so the corporate language amongst all participants was English. The animation of the method in this instance formed part of a week-long programme orientated to giving the participants an opportunity to encounter realizations and practical manifestations of an aspect to eucharistic spirituality that had been transmitted by our founder to its members. Often founders of religious congregations have been notorious for communicating central aspects of a charism abstractly what is meant to be incarnated concretely. As Fabio Ciardi reflected “…we often do not know how to actualize (implement) what we have understood. We notice almost a dichotomy between intellectual understanding and our lived experience.” (Posada, 2002). Could Tracing God carve out the space so that apprehended understandings and concrete realizations have correspondence?

St. Peter Julian Eymard’s eucharistic charism that was to be deposited and shared through his religious congregations, lay aggregation, and varied initiatives was the product of evolution over time. It would be toward the end of his life he began to speak and write about the interior cenacle: this imagery symbolized the discovery of God’s loving presence through intimate communion. A eucharistic life brings with it an Upper Room within. What might that look like?

  • Step 1- Context: The participants gathered outside encircling a jug filled with water. A member of the group read Lk 22.7- 13 that describes Jesus’ instruction to follow a man carrying a jug of water who will lead disciples to the house in Jerusalem where the Passover is to be celebrated. Immediately another participant led the group upstairs carrying the jug and into a room simply furnished with floor cushions and drapes. Once seated the group prayerfully recited the Passover psalm, Ps.118.
  • Step 2- Reflection: Each participant was given a copy of Jn. 15: 1- 9: this portion of the allegory of vine and branches told by Jesus to the disciples in the Upper Room concludes with the invitation “Now remain in my love.” As facilitator I asked participants to read this passage slowly to each other in pairs, and to ask each other: Why do you want to remain here?
  • Step 3- Imaging: I invited participants to image their responses to that question.
  • Step 4- Tracing: Having represented through imagery the nature of their desire to remain, I asked participants to affix tracing paper to their original images, and to trace responses to a subsequent question: What does the interior cenacle look like in you?
  • Step 5- Commissioning: I asked the participants to prepare a verbal description/explanation/narrative to accompany their traced images. The following evening the formation community would host a ‘Living Art Gallery’ where other students and staff who populated the house could look at the images and ask questions of the participants who would be holding them. This would give opportunity for them to use their recently acquired English to express their interior discoveries about God and themselves.
  • Step 6- Practice outcomes: The ‘Living Art Gallery’ offered to the participants the vital connection of recognizing, naming, and assimilating an aspect of the eucharistic charism that they had discovered forming part of themselves. As an outcome, this could provide a foundational experience for future religious life formation that brought with it the acknowledgement that cooperation with God is concrete, knowable, and expressible.

This case study identified in a particular way how Tracing God gave the opportunity to correspond imaginative representation with expressive spoken language that was immensely powerful for the participants. The doublet here was that these young adults were not only mastering English but, learning to grapple with spiritual concepts concretely into which they may be asked in the future to probe, participate, and inculcate as members of our religious institute. The method afforded the opportunity for a default encounter with a spiritual aspect of this eucharistic charism that was sourced in the participants pre-linguistic interior world. In that sense it acted as a point of reference for all of the students.

Figure 2 is an example of a participant’s recognition and representation of the interior cenacle from this case study. The impact of this tracing exercise came to light during verbal descriptions that narrated this image. A cursory glance at this image would imply to the viewer that its creator is a musician. The narrative however revealed a story of reversals, sourced from the imaginations ability to interpret interior instincts, feelings, and a sense of faith-identity with God. The creator was in fact no musician at all! He understood his discovery of God’s loving and abiding presence by God’s desire to fill those capacities of his life that he lacked: this was the participants understanding of intimate communion with God as a kind of reciprocal cooperation.

Tracing 2

Figure 2. An imaginative response to the question, ‘What does the interior cenacle look like in you?’


This kind of imaginative discovery emanates from what Moore describes ‘a hermeneutic of wonder’, which is “the art of dwelling on another (a text, person, sunset, or tree) with full attention to its wholeness, its complexity and simplicity, its intricate patterns of relationship.” (2004: 55). The wonder and interpretive life of the imagination uncovers “blessings so intimate, so closely binding, that they do not seem to be blessing at all.” (Thurman, 1961: 19). This case study has identified how Tracing God as a method had the capacity to make explicit an interiorized self-identity of a shared life with God, which in turn gave a freedom for the participants to verbally witness to a depth experience of belonging to and living cooperatively with God in light of the Eucharist.



This study began by posing a direct question: Is it possible to trace impressions of where God has been and is? Setting out from theoretical perspectives to telling a story how a method of imaginal catechesis was conceived and pioneered by a group of parents in suburban Chicago who worked in collaboration with myself, the answer appears to be ‘yes’. Converging experiences of life and faith with what the human imagination does opens the door to active, intentional, and hope-filled discernment in God. In that sense Tracing God brings authenticity to what ongoing catechesis and adult faith formation is striving to engender, which we discovered in those gospel endings: renewal in the re/making of disciples and that acute awareness of living and working in cooperation with God.

There is a sense that imaginal catechesis has great potential to accompany other catechetical and faith formation methods owing to the homogeneity of the imagination. The human imagination is universally our creative ability to move back and forth between two fundamental realms- ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ and that includes our horizons to being and living in intimate communion with Jesus Christ: life in the Eucharist. This implies that Tracing God as a method is adaptable and able to be deployed in the wider service of the Christian community. My hope is that will be somebody else’s story!




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[i] “The realistic imagination functions throughout human experience, enabling us to envision the whole of things, to focus our minds to perceive how things are ordered and organized- in other words, it allows to see what is really there, rather than just a blooming, buzzing confusion.” Garrett Green, Imagining Theology: Encounters with God in Scripture, Interpretation, and Aesthetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 10.

[ii] Peter Julian Eymard, Letter to Nathalie Jordan (January 8, 1864), IV 50/75.

[iii] Catherine Marie Caron, “Mystic and Prophet of the Eucharist,” in May God be Praised!, edited by James W. Brown (Cleveland, OH: SSS, 2013), 19.

[iv] For example, Pope John Paul II summarized the purpose of catechesis succinctly: “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.” John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae (October 16, 1979), art. 5.

[v] See for example: Robert Brancatelli, “Liberating Catechesis: A Call for Imagination and Renewal,” America (September 13, 2010), 17- 20; Richard McCarron, “Toward an Imaginal Catechesis,” New Theology Review 25: 1 (September 2012), 1.


Last modified on Saturday, 24 June 2023 09:26