Material children: Making God’s presence real through catholic boys and girls

Robert Orsi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

12 Scopus citations


Presence is central to the study of lived Catholic practice-the study of Catholicism in everyday life is about the mutual engagement of men, women, children, and holy figures present to each other. But presence is a human experience; how sacred presence becomes real in particular times and places is a question. That is what I begin with here. How do religious beliefs become material? How do the gods and other special beings-and, more broadly, how does the world, visible and invisible, as the world is said to be within a particular religious culture-become as real to people as their bodies, as substantially there as the homes they inhabit, or “as the stucco-over-chicken-wire from which these houses are made?” Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s influential 1973 definition proposedthat religion is “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973: 90). Geertz was primarily concerned with the cognitive realness of religionand its emotional and intellectual viability. Religions offer and substantiate accounts of the world that render the chaos and pain of experience meaningful and tolerable. But Geertz’s reference to religion’s capacity to clothe-to give material substance, fabric, and texture to-a culture’s vision of the way things are suggests another account of religion. Religion is the practice of making the invisible visible, of concretizing the order of the universe, the nature of human life and its destiny, and the various dimensions and possibilities of human interiority itself, as these are understood in various cultures at different times, in order to render themvisible and tangible, present to the senses in the circumstances of everyday life. Once made material, the invisible can be negotiated and bargained with, touched and kissed, made to bear human anger and disappointment, as we have seen in men and women’s relationships with the saints. But the question remains: how does this happen? […] Religious cultures offer multiple media for materializing the sacred. There are images, statues, beads, ritual objects, smells, visions, colors, foods and tastes, vestments, oils, and waters.The invisible often becomes visible as faces, in heaven (in the face of Blessed Margaret of Castello looking at my uncle Sal) and onearth (in the face of a woman who keeps an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on her bedroom dresser and teaches her grandchildren how to pray to this holy figure and who is forever associated in their minds with the suffering savior). Religious rituals, with their movements, smells, sounds, and things, are privileged sites for rendering religious worlds present in the movement of bodies in space and time as well.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationReligion, Media and Culture
Subtitle of host publicationA Reader
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781136649608
ISBN (Print)9780415549554
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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