Sister Corita’s Big Children

Headlines and Footnotes: A Play-Pray Book by Sister Corita, foreword by Daniel Berrigan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967)

I’d know Sister Corita’s art anywhere. Her graphic sense, handwriting, and genius use of color is unique—as is her religious sensibility. Her magnificent “play-pray” book Headlines and Footnotes remains wonderful both as a visual experience and as a spiritual inspiration. It, like the best art, is both utterly of its time and transcendent, speaking to us in the here and now.

Sister Corita was a successful artist, graphic designer and member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order. She later left the I.H.Ms and went back to being Corita Kent, but I suppose for many people she will always be Sister Corita. The thought of a nun doing all these things fills me with an odd joy. I don’t think for a moment that religious life is easy, but to be a sister enjoying secular—artistic!—success is a very powerful statement indeed. Even as I have an odd and possibly outsized fear of forced-garbing, the sight of her in her veil teaching “big children” at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles makes me a little swoony. So much of religion is anti-fun, jargon-laden, and bummerific that the thought of this supertalented and joyful woman living the life of a religious makes me think that she was possibly the best kind of person one could wish to be, shining the glory of God both in her art in her daily life.

The book, which contains free verse and reprints of prayers and bits of prose, features lots of Corita’s collage art, which contains lots of cut-up words from ads and headlines, sometimes reconfigured, sometimes not. She notes that

all the words we need are in the ads
they can be endlessly re-sorted and reassembled
it is a huge game a way of confronting mystery


all the words for all the views of the common experiences are there
pain words joy need and help words

This book is deceptively simple; but, as I spent time with it over a few weeks, I found myself thinking of Sister C out in the world. Ad slogans take on new meaning when seen through her gaze, as does the world itself. Her art reclaims the sacred in the secular, or sees the enchantment of everyday life. It’s easy to succumb to the psychic barrage of commercial messages designed to make us feel we are lacking, or stimulate our primitive hungers, or just grab our attention and lure us with false promises. Corita’s art shows that you can find the holy anywhere, you just have to look “with new eyes.” Let’s face it: the likelihood of having a miraculous encounter with the divine is slim at best; but every day we live we can look, really look, and see all that surrounds us and all the beauty there, whether in the created environment or in Creation.

I find myself thinking a lot about one page with some words from an ad: “We insist on being fresh.” Corita’s prayer reads:

we insist on being fresh
in the human race there is a long tradition of freshness
in a way things are always new and always the same
we eat every day, fix fresh food and break new bread

That is the paradox and lived experience of humanity. We crave newness, yet want things to be always the same. But, Corita reminds us, newness doesn’t have to take the form of huge changes or great adventures. Sometimes we just need to pay attention to the people and things which are always around us, or as Corita says, “one way to prepare for big celebrations / is to allow life to reveal its many small ones.”

Note: I have a copy of this book to give away to the person who can answer this question. In the late 1960s, which legendary Jesuit had a poster-sized picture of Sister Corita decorating his shower, with a button pinned to her shoulder which read “Save Water, Shower With a Friend?”

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.