The Threefold Beauty of this Day

Three “Takes” on All Saints Day

Today’s Feast of All Saints is a favorite of mine.  I thought I’d share three takes or angles on this beautiful feast and its pastoral applications:

The Personal/Family Angle – I’ve always understood it as a day to remember not only the canonized saints, but all those whose names we either don’t know… or know only privately.  There are members of my family I’m convinced have arrived in the fullness of heavenly glory.  I can’t praise them from the pulpit.  No one will name churches after them, but today, the Lord touches our hearts to ask for their prayers in his heavenly presence.  “All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!”

A Day for Urban Ministry – The missal describes today as “the festival of [God’s] holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother.”  So in some senses All Saints Day is a great feast for those who love city life.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to lift the entire population of Washington to heaven?  As God’s people in the city, that’s exactly what we are called to do.  I’ve begun working with a great group of Catholics called the Downtown Serra Club.  Part of Serra International, their mission is to help each other grow in holiness, and – as an act of thanksgiving to God – support the growth of priestly vocations.  The Serrans were a big part of our lives as seminarians, so it’s a pleasure to be their chaplain.  More than that, though, I’m excited to be reaching out to young professionals in our downtown parishes and offering them “mobile spiritual direction.”  Meeting them, literally, where they’re at to talk about what God’s doing in their lives.

A Day for Catholic Aesthetics – Today’s Morning Prayer reading is just two verses from Ephesians 1 (17-18).  Paul prays for the Ephesians, “May he who is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father to whom glory belongs, grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight, to give you fuller knowledge of himself.  May your inward eye be enlightened, so that you may understand to what hopes he has called you, how rich in glory is that inheritance his found among the saints.”  The verse was so beautiful, that I went to the Bible to read the whole first chapter of Ephesians.  Just a few highlights (using the Knox translation of the New Testament):

“[The Father] has chosen us out, in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be saints…” (Eph. 1:4) Jesus is the Revelation of the Father, the eikon (icon/image)  of God, the refulgence of the glory of God, the shinning forth of God… Jesus is, more simply  put, the beauty of God.  Insofar as we were made in the eikon (image) and likeness of the Father, we were created in light of Christ.  Likewise we find re-creation/redemption in him.  Insofar as we resemble Christ… insofar as we are beautiful we are saved.  All Catholic aesthetics is based on this truth.    The saints are those who heroically manifest Christ in the world… they radiate his beauty so clearly.  This harkens back to what St. Paul said yesterday to the Romans (8:18), “If creation is full of expectancy, that is because it is waiting of rot sons of God to be made known.”  All of creation waits for us to make Christ visible in the world!  Beauty is the mission of the Church!  It cannot be said often enough.

“So rich is God’s grace, that has overflowed upon us in a full stream of wisdom and discernment, to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1:8) – God’s way is always the way of abundance!  of overflowing!  It is beyond mere efficiency.  Indeed, from the very beginning, the Catechism tells us, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” (CCC, 1)  He didn’t need to make us, he did so as a gratuitous act.  Beauty is rarely “useful” or “efficient,” it’s a mark of generosity, of taking things to the next level even though it’s not necessary.  Jesus himself says that he told us everything, “that my joy may be yours, and the measure of your joy may be filled up.”  (Jn. 15:11)  This abundance is on display whenever people marvel at the sheer number of canonized saints… and the fact that we’re still making more!

Finally, Paul identifies his role in this midst of all this… he is in awe: “…I too play my part; I have been told of your faith in the Lord Jesus… and I never cease to offer thanks on your behalf or to remember you in my prayers.” (Eph. 1:15)  Encountering beauty engenders awe in the heart of the beholder… which then inspires him to imitate what he has seen… to spread the beauty further.  It requires little explanation… no force or coercion… When beauty gets under your skin it is self-perpetuating.  This is what Paul experienced… this is evangelization!

Today, pray with those who’ve gone before us.  Pray for those in the city who still accompany us, and think on the immense beauty with which the Lord has graced the world.  Happy all Saints Day!

As Autumn Leaves Fall

Yesterday, walking through Congressional Cemetery, there were some splendid views of DC’s autumn laves; a bright light show of reds and golds prefacing their inevitable fall. As we come to the end of the growing year, and another liturgical year, the Church turns her attention toward the passing of all things.  Indeed, the month of November is dedicated solely to prayer for the dead.  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!

For me, thoughts of the “last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell and purgatory), bring some concern, but I’ve reached a point in my spiritual life where concern rapidly shifts to practical considerations: Am I being honest with myself about my spiritual life?  How does my training for heaven look?  What can I do to keep moving forward… not get stuck on the road to a positive judgment before the Lord?  Far from a tortured process of guilt (as many portray it), the Christian life is a beautiful series of opportunities.  As autumn leaves fall this year, they’re reminding me of some important spiritual tools that can help me get closer to heaven, and maybe help bring some others along for the ride.

Mortification is a classical concept in the Christian life, but one that gets short shrift in preaching these days.  Nonetheless, it’s been the key to happiness for every saint ever canonized.  “Blessed the people whose God is the Lord.” (Ps. 144:15)  The Psalms remind us that living out the First Commandment is the key to happiness.  But so much gets in the way, gums up the works…  “Sin speaks to the sinner in his heart.  He so flatters himself that he knows not his guilt.  In his mouth are all mischief and deceit.  All wisdom is gone.”  (Ps. 36).  Life happens, it makes it hard for us to see clearly good vs. evil.  Eventually, without ever purposely intending it, God is no longer first in our lives.  Our own yearnings, interpretations and decisions become the “gods of our idolatry.”

The saints, realizing this tidal drift away from the worship of the Lord in and through all things, bravely take up the process of mortification in order to restore true happiness and life!  A superb example of this process if St. Philip Neri.  Everyone knows that Philip was a saint marked first and foremost by JOY.  His smile, his humor and his love are widely remembered even today, 500 years after his earthly ministry.  What many casual observers don’t know is that Philip’s joy was grounded on a firm foundation of mortification.

Mortification means to deny oneself.  Classically, it’s broken down into three categories, mortification of the senses, understanding and will.

[For more on this, consider reading, Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli a renaissance spiritual master.  The book is avaihalbe in print and in digital format.  Also, Fr. Francesco Agnelli’s Excellences of the Oratory]

Mortification of the senses denies unnecessary appetites focusing us on what is truly good for us.  The easiest example is: I see and smell chocolate cake, but I know that at the end of the day, what would really be better for me is a green salad.  I deny my urge for the chocolate cake and start mixing vegetables.  This can be applied to any of the senses.  Mortifying sight to avoid pornography, mortifying hearing to listen only to edifying music… etc. etc. Eventually, the cleansing process of mortifying our senses purifies the lens of the heart enabling us to see the world as it truly is… as God himself sees it.  And this we call “chastity/purity.”

Mortification of the understanding is an active acceptance of the reality that we really don’t know all of God’s plan, or why things have been allowed to happen.  Put another, perhaps more positive way, to mortify our understanding is to actively trust that however impossible it may seem, God can and will pull new life from every situation.  “Lord I don’t know why my friend got cancer, but I trust that somehow you will bring resurrection life from this experience of darkness.”  Mortification of the understanding admits and begins to love our own inner poverty by trusting the Lord.

Mortification of the will is where the rubber really hits the road, because this is where all our inner thoughts about appetites and understanding get translated into action, “Lord I submit my decision to a will other than mine.”  We may subject ourselves to God’s revealed truth/commands… We may subject ourselves to the will of another person, a spouse for example, or a poor neighbor.  In this we live out obedience.

Note how each of these forms of self-death (mortification) participates in one of the evangelical virtues: chastity, poverty, obedience.  They’re called “evangelical” precisely because living them demonstrates the power of the Gospel in our own hearts, where our God is now the Lord… and when other’s see this… and see us finding true happiness, these virtues become a mysteriously attractive quality drawing others to live the Christian life as well.

As autumn leaves fall, we may feel a little glum, but Jesus is a master at turning death into life.  Don’t flee the experience; embrace it!  You may be surprised at the freedom and new life you find on the other side, and consequently a greater happiness on earth in preparation for heaven. Preferisco Paradiso!

A word on silence

“Silence is golden,” so they say… and whoever they may be, they’re right!  All the best things happen in silence.  In silence a person realizes that he loves another.  In silence we realize that we are loved.  As Cardinal Sarah points out in his wonderful book, “The Power of Silence,” even the voice of God telling us we are loved emerges, in and from… silence.   I want to muse on a few examples of silence’s beauty that I’ve encountered and then make a modest, quiet proposal regarding recent headlines in Catholic media.

Between 1999 and 2003 I was a student at the George Washington University, here in DC.  When we first introduced Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to the Catholic Student Center it was a new concept for many, myself included.  We needed to have music played/sung throughout our holy hour.  But as time went on and our relationship with Christ matured, more and more students wanted more and more silence.  I came to discover that the same holds true in many youth movements: Steubenville, life teen, charismatic renewal etc. While people initially associate them with loud joyous musical praise (all of which is good), the long-initiated participants begin adding more and more elements of silence to their lives.  Silence is a place we should aim for as a goal of spiritual maturity.

In 2005, Pope St. John Paul II died.  I was there, in St. Peter’s Square when it happened.  Their was a quiet recitation of the Rosary…  The Holy Father’s death was announced… a brief applauds to commend his soul on high… and then silence.  What was more amazing was what happened next.  Millions, perhaps six million visitors came to Rome to observe his funeral.  The world stopped… foreign leaders, some of them at war with one another, gathered peacefully in Rome to pay homage and pray.  In the squares you could hear a pin drop as the Eucharist was consecrated at the altar.  How beautiful!  BUT even more impressive was this: The world had been a very noisy place during John Paul II’s more than quarter century in the Chair of Peter.  In that noise, many thought the Church was dead, done for.  And yet… the entire world showed up for this sainted man’s funeral.  What explains the disconnect?  Silence.  Catholicism bears the greatest fruit in quiet, humble, ministry carried out by men and women, priests, religious and lay people everywhere under the radar.  When John Paul II died, the whole Church in all her mighty beauty rose up out of the silence to celebrate his life and commend him to God.  The world… the noisy world was shocked and awed by the Church’s thunder.  Far from dead her new springtime was just beginning.  But it begins and germinates like all life… in humble silence.

Just a few years ago, a fellow priest won an award.  He will remain safely anonymous to prevent any chance of embarrassment.  I’ve always known him to be a nice guy, a good priest, and steady worker in his field… but always so quiet.  He doesn’t publish books.  He doesn’t hob-nob with the wealthy.  He’s always gentle, even to the point of being a little awkward.  He prays and he ministers, a smoldering wick he does not quench, no reed does he bend.  Then someone noticed… almost by accident and it was so blatantly obvious that he deserved the award he received.  After the photos, celebration and claps on  the back, this good priest returned to the grand silence of his daily work… and I’m forever grateful for his example. I want to be more like him: silent and radiant with Christ.

Finally, there’s the beauty of the confessional’s silence.  In the most humble, quiet, secret of places, the greatest work of the Church is done.  Sins are forgiven.  Healing is brought to bear.  Souls turn back to face God again.  Is it any wonder that the silence of this place is the most closely protected privileges of the Church?  In the quiet of the confessional… and in the quiet that follows… I’ve been so privileged to accompany people of diverse backgrounds through a wide range of life-challenges, gently applying both the love and the teaching of the Church in a way that no one ever knows about, but brings conversion.  It won’t ever make it on to the news or twitter, but real change happens in the silence of the confessional’s truth and charity.

I’m offering up this meditation on silence… something I’ve been thinking of a lot lately… because of recent events in Catholic news.  As one might expect, so many headlines surround news coming out of the Vatican.  More locally, there’s been a big dust up over Fr. James Martin’s recent book on the Church’s relationship with people who have same-sex attractions.  And in the coming weeks, months, years, there will be yet more news-quakes over other many issues in the realm of Catholic social media.  My opinions on any such matters are held… in silence.  What follows is for all on all sides of every issue.  My quiet, modest proposal is this: In all things, on all sides, regarding all those concerned from every background… do we perceive the grand silence of the Church that marks spiritual maturity, fruitful ministry, and conversion?  Silence is the lens through which we should judge “am I going in the right direction?”

Does a priest whether a parish priest, author, or blogger have followers…? disciples…? If so he should stop his writing immediately lest they or he be tempted away from humble service of Christ.  Remember Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:12-ff) who were treated as gods… any priest who thinks he may have “followers” or “disciples” should rend his garments, his tablet and his manuscripts and disabuse such followers.  Only Jesus is Lord.  Better to bring your media empire crashing down around you than lead one soul astray… whatever the opinion, whatever the issue however right you think you may be.

Do the lay faithful get wrapped up in twitter debates and the like, choosing sides and fostering division within the Church?  Remember St. Paul’s words (II Thess. 3) “Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly…”  Even if you are 100% sure you’re side is right… STOP… the fight is not winning others to conversion… and the misery is doing little to save your own soul.  Repent, pray, adore, serve others quietly and you’ll be on a better track.

In almost ten years as a priest I’ve been wowed, privileged to see lots of conversions of heart.  The two subjects-du-jour seem to be divorced and remarried Catholics, and those who self-describe as part of the LGBT community… and from BOTH of these groups I’ve encountered, accompanied and been part of people coming to Christ, to healing… to conversion.  What a beauty!  What a blessing!  but it never happened through blogs, books, publications or news interviews.  It happened in silence… a personal internal silence for the people concerned… the silence of long-developed pastoral friendships with them… the silence of the confessional.  The Church needs more silence… I know my soul’s future is riding on it as are the souls of all those Jesus is calling us to love.

Trinity Sunday

Today, Trinity Sunday caps what I call the “grand cycle.”  We recognize that the Father who created us and planned our redemption… The Son who came at Christmas and rose at Easter… and the Spirit who descended at Pentecost are with us as the Holy Trinity.  Sent on mission at Pentecost, we have the privilege -during Ordinary Time- of sharing our experience of God with all those we meet.  This sharing process reflects our Trinitarian identity.
God is one loving communion of divine Persons.  The Father Loves the Son.  The Son Loves the Father.  The Love between them is so strong is has its own personality: the Holy Spirit… a love the binds and gives life (He is, after all “The Lord and Giver of Life” dominus et vivificantem).  And isn’t that what the Church does each and every day and in every place, most especially in our neighborhood parishes.  We love each other and our neighbors… And when that love is strong enough it blossoms in new life.  Usually this new life takes the form of newborn children, but it also has other forms: adults who come to be baptized at Easter; family members and friends long distant from the Church who come home to be reconciled in the sacrament of Confession; a long suffering neighbor who forgot something of their identity as God’s child, but remembers it after contact with our community.

Some folks, in blogs or other churchy publications question whether the parish system here in the US is on its way out.  I don’t believe that.  Whatever reversals Catholic communities have faced over the last several decades are nothing compared to the loving power of the Trinity.  What is required of us is that we are intentional in living our faith, and that we never forget, there’s more to us than first meets the eye: we are not just people, not just neighbors… we are the living breathing icons of the Holy Trinity… the Father who made us, the Son who Redeems us and the Spirit who sustains us unto new life.

Living with high adventure and mundane frustration all at once

I’m reading a great book by Michael Chricton, author of Jurassic Park. It’s all about his world travels, a memoir of sorts. One line stuck out this week as he described his efforts to watch the great sea turtles of Malaysia lay their eggs: “Driving miles back and forth in the dark looking for my hotel, this wasn’t high adventure, just mundane frustration.” Rarely does a written word make me laugh out loud, but that phrase had me roaring. As we traverse Lent, there’s certainly a dimension of high adventure: “Lord, I’m with you in the desert. Lord, save me from my sins; make me holy! Lord make me more perfectly your instrument in the world!” All off this is very real. Like the woman at the well, or the man born blind, or Lazarus in the tomb, Jesus desires to do great things for us. But those great things don’t come along every moment of every day, do they?
The woman suffered years of humiliation, the blind man a life without sight, Lazarus death before the hero -Jesus- arrived to save them… and afterwards all of them had to clean their homes, go shopping and deal with the desert heat like anyone else. The Blessed Virgin Mary too… she had lots of great adventurous moments, but in between she lived, daily, with the knowledge that one day a sword would pierce her. Hence, even in happy moments, she is portrayed with a very pensive almost sad look.
The line between high adventure and mundane frustration is thin indeed. While I can’t take away or speed up those hard moments, the witness of Scripture has certainly helped me through so much frustration. In the famous Lenten Psalm 51, we learn, “Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus.” “A spirit afflicted with tribulation is a sacrifice to God.” The standard English translation, “my sacrifice is a contrite spirit,” doesn’t really capture the substance of what God is telling us. He’s saying that he knows our struggle… he knows how the long days and even years of challenge hurt our hearts. He knows because Jesus his Son experienced all of it. …And just as Jesus offered the high adventures and the mundane frustration to his Father as a worthy sacrifice to save us, we can do likewise through him. Be not afraid, our sufferings have meaning! With Christ we are winning great graces from the Father for the salvation of our families, our community, our world.

Walking with Mary during Lent

Well, it’s here.  Tomorrow we begin our yearly observance of Lent.  The following are some reflections I offered to our parish Sodality about walking with Mary during Lent.  I hope you find them edifying:

March 2017

Dear Sodalists,

Peace!  I’m writing with gratitude and encouragement for your good works in our parish of St. Francis Xavier.  As we enter the holy season of Lent, the witness of your devotion to Our Lady takes on special meaning for our community.  Walking with our Lord toward the Cross and Resurrection, we so need for Mary to be with us at each step of the way.

In life’s general challenges, we might think of Mary during the hidden years at Nazareth.  Nearly every painting made of our Lady shows – to the surprise of most viewers – a serious or even sad look on her face… even as she holds the Christ child in her arms.  The cross was part of her existence even then.  Recall Simeon’s prophecy, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” (Lk 2:35).  So even through the events of daily life, perhaps  even before Jesus himself grew to understand the sacrifice that would be required of him, Mary had to bear the weight of a shadowed future.  We can be assured that Our Lady will be sympathetic to our pleas as we deal with the cross in daily life.

In the actual and most intense moments of challenge, when we walk with Jesus up the via dolorosa on the way to Calvary, the one face in the crowd we know we can count on is Mary.  She is the Mother who never forgets her child and in a uniquely maternal way shares with us the pains of our sacrifices.  It is precisely in that sharing, in that solidarity that we find hope; we are not alone.

Finally, after the sacrifice has been made, as we gather in the Upper Room with the Apostles, we learn from Mary how to wait… how to wait patiently, faithfully, upon the coming of Resurrection Life and Light.  How often would we completely collapse were it not for the warm embrace of a loved one saying, “it’s OK, just a little longer and everything will be all right.”  Such is the love our Blessed Mother gives in that quiet time after the immediate pain has passed and all we can do is wait.

All my prayers and encouragement go with you this Lent as you direct our parishioners and neighbors to the maternal embrace of Mary directly in prayer and mirrored in the life of our Holy Mother the Church.

Your parish priest,

Fr. De Rosa

Love among the catacombs

Surrounding Washington are a series of beautiful places that most people never pay much attention to: cemeteries.  Like Rome before, Washington’s cemeteries are on its peripheries.  Historically, dead bodies were always interred outside city boundaries for reasons of hygiene.  As a result, however, they take on their own sort of civic identity, becoming necropolises, “cities of the dead.”

Visiting cemeteries is an important part of Christian existence.  It helps us keep up a real relationship with those who have gone before us: each visit to a loved one’s grave is a little sacrifice we can offer up for their sake, contributing to their journey to heaven.  Such visits can also serve as important reminders of our own mortality… a reality many prefer to ignore.  And those reminders aren’t just a help to our own [hopefully] distant judgment, but to our daily lives here and now.  St. Philip Neri told the faithful of Rome,

“An excellent way of keeping ourselves from relapsing into serious faults is to say to ourselves every evening, ‘tomorrow I may be dead.'”

Philip’s suggestion is full of a typically dark Roman humor, but I’ve found it very practical.  He certainly had taken time to consider the Last things (death, judgment, hell and heaven).  For the first few years after St. Philip’s arrival in Rome, he spent considerable time walking among the catacombs outside the city walls.

It was an odd practice.  The old cemeteries had not been mapped at that point.  Grave robbers and other unsavory types were known to seek refuge in the catacomb tunnels.  There was no light save the candle St. Philip brought with him, and the tunnel paths were far from stable.  It should also be mentioned that unlike today’s well preserved and clean pilgrimage sites, the catacombs in Philip’s day were filled with dead bodies!  Despite all that, Philip felt drawn over and over again to visit these holy sites, to commune with those who’d gone before, especially the martyrs.

It was a monastic period in St. Philip’s life.  New to the city, he had disappointed his family’s hopes for his future in business.  Philip knew he wanted to serve God, but wasn’t sure how.  He earned his bread by tutoring the children of a local merchant, didn’t really know anyone.  His catacomb walks were, perhaps, distilled expressions of a deeper loneliness he experienced walking the streets of the living city, pondering his future. Nonetheless, from within that solitude a voice began to speak to St. Philip, the voice of God our Father.  He was directed to serve the needs of the poor and of pilgrims entering the city after long grueling journeys.  From among these good deeds a small cadre of disciples began to emerge surrounding St. Philip and evangelizing the city.  They became the Oratory: a loose family of priests and lay people bound together by charity and a commitment to the evangelization of culture.  They changed the history of Rome and so the whole Church!

In spite of the crowds that flow up and down DC’s avenues each day, so many people feel as if they’re walking among open graves… alone, scared, worried about falling into a pit at any moment.  It’s true, one can certainly look at an urban life’s journey that way… and given the trials and tribulations so man people face each day, I get it.  Even as a priest, I sometimes feel like I’m walking alone among the ruins.  But Philip’s experience reminds us that there is another way to use our solitude… to use it as a time of privileged listening for the Love of God.  Surely he’s calling each of us to a path like St. Philip’s, by which we do works contributing to the building up of something truly great.  This week, apropos as we approach Lent, consider visiting one of DC’s cemeteries… drive in, park your car and take a walk among the graves.  You may find a surprising clarity and approach things differently when you return to the city of the living.

“Who walked for so many years among the catacombs, pray for us!”
-from the Litany of St. Philip by Bl. JH Newman

The silver linings of cliches

It’s a hard thing to realize that one conforms to a cliche or stereotype… ‘happened to me yesterday… actually it happens to me frequently, but yesterday was striking.  Sitting in my room,tapping away at my iPad, I was trying to multitask.  I was building a parish website while drawing background inspiration from DC’s local NPR station (WAMU)… and it hit me, “Geez am I a millennial!”  At first, like so many in my cohort, I brayed at the very notion of labeling… even self-labeling.  Then, I remembered that there is an upside to everything, even stereotypes, even cliches.

For better or worse, people tend to live “seventy years, eighty for those who are strong” as the Psalmist tells us.  And those years, in which we all find ourselves in some sort of social grouping, are nurtured by some positive goods.   I mean they have to be present or we’d die, right?  Even we espresso drinking, iPad tapping, label rejecting millennial shave some great things going for us; among them are the free exchanges and sharing we experience through podcasts and the like.  Consider listening to two particularly inspiring ones here both from the Moth Radio Hour:

The Story of Jonah Lehrer

The Epic of Ed Gavagan 

Both are great witnesses to the experience of loss and the tremendous possibilities for growth when we finally embrace the reality of what’s happened to us.  In other words, how to embrace the cross and come out resurrected on the other side.  Enjoy.

Toulouse-Lautrec: A Tradition Considered

Anyone who’s ever yearned to visit Paris will feel right at home in The Phillips Collection’s latest special exhibition, showcasing the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) because his work is literally the stuff that populates dreams of the Cit’s of Lights. In a relatively brief life, Toulouse-Lautrec documented and defined French popular culture in a way that still affects us today. It’s impossible to visit any of DC’s universities without running into the famed “Chat Noire” on a freshman’s wall.

The galleries and living rooms of Northwest frequently boast the artist’s work; his posters, once quotidian, now fall under the “vinatage” genre, a point of pride to collectors. Beginning to understand this artist, reflecting on his work has been an eye
-opening experience for me in several levels.

Each of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints captures some facet of belle-epoque Paris. Author Charles Hiatt put it this way,

“For his posters are at once realistic and grotesque; they are delineations of life as seen by a man who, possessing the most acute powers of observation, is poignantly impressed by the incongruities of modern life.”

Personally impressed, Toulouse-Lautrec then pressed his perceptions indelibly into the modern medium of printing: preserving and diffusing far-and-wide a vibrant record of his age. In this, modern as he may have been, Toulouse-Lautrec was a man of tradition: he handed on what he had received. And not only from his own era. From time to time, he would borrow or carry over motifs from earlier prints (17-18th centuries), updating them for his day. This understanding of tradition, so critical to the Christian faith may be what’s so endearing to me about Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.

This image from “l’Artisan Moderne” is based on a 17th century print

What a wonder, to have all the world agree that in a few brush-strokes on paper you have captured the multifaceted living breathing reality of an entire society! And what a society!

Here we move beyond Degas’ dancers or Parisian women ironing. Toulouse-Lautrec descends from the wrought iron balconies of the Champs Elysees into the dirt and grit of Paris’ late nineteenth century demi-monde. Here we meet celebrated poets, clowns, dancers, and even prostitutes of the day.

They drew artists and tourists alike to the city Haussmann built… so strong was the attraction that even the Franco-Prussian war could not long slow Paris’ growth nor dim its glow.

This praise must be matched, however, with a certain mourning. If Toulouse-Lautrec’s capacity to preserve and hand on the Paris of his day is a joy to behold, the content of that day is certainly a cause for weeping. …and that’s no prudish judgment on my part. Look carefully at each of the exhibit’s posters. Do you see any happy people?

Is anyone thrilled or even positive about the glories of the belle epoch? The artist indeed captures incongruity: a society famed for joy and celebration seems absolutely dour… a people famed for their dedication to freedom seem trapped in sadness. They hold up a fetid bourgeois feast as the god of their idolatry, but what is there to praise. Elsewhere in the Phillips Collection you’ll always be able to find Renoir’s “Boating Party,” another iconic snapshot of belle epoch France. I’ll never forget my freshman art appreciation professor’s essay question “Are the characters happy?”

Often, Toulouse-Lautrec’s figures practically drip. In some cases their features almost resemble wax melting off a candle… a sign of the excess of the age. In other works, the artist’s reductionist approach yields lumpy broad-angled bodies.

No time, no care has been taken to move the figures beyond sketch-status. Is this a commentary on the regard in which people held each other? It would certainly fit wider themes of the Industrial Age from which atheist Marxism rose, reducing all people to angled cogs in the great machine. It’s telling that one of his last works was a print of model/actress Jane Avril, a representative woman of her time coiled in a serpent’s embrace.  “And his heart was moved with pity for them.” (Mt 9:36)

Reflecting on tis exhibition, questions naturally arise: how does this relate to life today? Are we, the great-grandchildren of the belle epoch, different? Better? Worse? I’m not sure… and there’s really no time for me to dive into it here and now, but the estimable work of this artist certainly lends credibility and merit to the questions… questions to be carefully examined with eyes of faith.

The signs are already there

I can’t stand driving in Northern Virginia… specifically on the roads running along the Potomac’s southern bank.  Granted, they’re beautiful, boasting some of the most scenic approaches to D.C.’s monumental core… but I wish the signs were bigger!

My running theory is that under the Parks Service the roads are beautifully kept, but the Parks Service signs stink.  They’re the same ones you see in all national parks: small white letters in quaint font plastered against a ubiquitous forest green background.  They work wonderfully driving at five miles per hour on a deserted road in Yellowstone… not so well at fifty miles an hour in a city where everyone is in a rush and in the same road as you all the time!  I want bigger signs, but if I’m honest with myself I have to admit… the signs are there.

Today’s mass readings are replete with a similar truth: Cain murders Abel jealous that God likes Abel more.  Nowhere does it say however that God didn’t love Cain, just that his plant sacrifices weren’t as impressive as Abel’s animal offerings.  Cain was beloved of God… even after his transgression, God did not allow anyone to kill him.  Note also, it was Cain’s decision to leave God’s presence.  Why couldn’t Cain see the signs that were there?

In the Psalm, we read,

“You sit speaking against your brother;
against your mother’s son you spread rumors.
When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.”

The Lord himself promises to draw sins before our eyes so that we can correct them and grow beyond then.  Why do we have so much trouble identifying our sins?

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus is tested by the Pharisees “seeking from him a sign from heaven.”  Were the miracles already done by Jesus not enough?  Even without miracles, wasn’t his manifest goodness enough to convince them at least that he wasn’t the bad guy they suspected?

A certain myopia seems to afflict our humanity.  To be honest I think the reasons are different for each person and circumstance, but the common lesson seems to be: pray for vision, pray for the peace where vision can do its work, and pray for the will to carry out what vision reveals.  Pray to see with eyes of faith.