In Memoriam: Stratford Caldecott (1953-2014)

Stratford Caldecott, the director of Oxford’s Centre for Faith and Culture and editor of its affiliated journal Second Spring, passed away on July 17, 2014 from cancer. Caldecott was a guest on volumes 102 and 116 of the Journal. He was the author of several books, including Beauty for Truth’s Sake (Brazos, 2009) and Beauty in the Word (Angelico Press, 2012). 

Caldecott was well known for his winsome pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty through the nurturing of the imagination. As he stated in his essay, Landscapes with Dragons and Angels, “the imagination … is an arena of spiritual warfare.” “Within the soul,” he states, “Memory preserves the images that come to us through the senses, Imagination manipulates them, and Reason tries to make sense of them.” The imagination, then, is the part of the soul that “mediates between the sensory and the intellectual world,” just as the soul mediates between spirit and body. The imagination’s singular place in the typography of the person gives it a quality that is, as Caldecott puts it, “ambiguous,” amenable to both high and low ends.

It is not surprising, then, that Caldecott paid special attention to the role that symbols play in our lives, since symbols, also, are mediators, or portals to spiritual realities—what Caldecott referred to as the archetypes or forms (i.e. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty) that are ultimately part of God. 

In the above essay, Caldecott draws from Chesterton’s division of fantasy writers into two categories, the Fabulists and the Symbolists. While Fabulists dwell in make-believe or illusions that are ultimately interested in this world, Symbolists seek to evoke glimpses of an Otherworld. Caldecott observes that both Fabulists and Symbolists may use their imaginations for good or evil, but resists the temptation to brand a particular artist’s oeuvre as wholly good or otherwise. This is because, for Caldecott, the stuff of fantasy is not merely make-believe, but expressions of a true form or logos: “The Fairyland of the Fabulist may speak to us of a real Otherworld that its author hardly suspects. This is for the simple reason that the traditional ingredients he uses to construct his tale owe a great deal of their literary power to the fact that they are themselves symbols, regardless of the frame in which they are set.” In other words, the materials that the fantasy writer has to work with are already meaningful.

Seen as such, symbols may in fact fuse with literal and physical realities, making them more than arbitrary signs. When incorporated into the narrative, or myth, that is God’s creation, this understanding of symbol has significant consequences for our “role” in that myth. In an essay from Touchstone entitled Speaking the Truths Only the Imagination May Grasp, Caldecott draws from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s concept of “theo-drama,” in which the drama and our role as players become more real than the literal:

“The English word ‘person’ derives from the Etruscan phersu and the Latin persona, meaning an actor’s role or mask. Thus the word originally referred to the face that the actor assumed for the purpose of participating in a drama. For an actor, of course, real life is what happens when he takes the mask off. Christianity reverses the relationship. Real life is what happens when he puts it on. The play, the cosmic theo-drama, is more real than what happens out of character and ‘off-stage.’ It is only by accepting and carrying out a drama, that is, in the myth, that we can become persons who are real for eternity.” - Fruits of the Spirit

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    Caldecott on the medieval quadrivium

    In tribute to Caldecott's work, we have reissued our interview with him from Volume 102, in which Caldecott discusses his book on the medieval quadrivium: Beauty for Truth's Sake.