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!

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.

Beauty for its own sake

What do Toulouse-Lautrec, The Feast the Presentation and a doctor of Canon Law all have to do with one another?  No it’s not the start of a bad pulpit joke, it’s just my day today.

Today is, after all the feast of the Presentation.  It happened at the end of the days of purification; Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple to present him to God the Father according to Law and custom.  Why?  Because they needed to?  Certainly not.  The eternal Jesus was already well-acquainted with his co-eternal Father… and Mary certainly needed no purification, having been preserved from original sin.  So why?  Because the Law was a beautiful thing, a gift from God beautiful in and of itself, worthy of observation…. in the same way that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan to fulfill all righteousness.  It wasn’t “necessary,” it wasn’t “useful,” but it was worth doing.  Here we stumble upon the concept of aesthetics: doing the beautiful simply to do the beautiful.

Today at the Phillips Collection, I’ll be getting a sneak peek at their new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle-Epoque”  The drawings of this famed French illustrator were not exactly high art in the vain of Michelangelo, but they are said to have captured the spirit of their time and place.  Like so many other works of, let’s call it “day-to-day” art, Toulouse Lautrec’s illustrations are still with us because they have a certain beauty all their own, irrespective of any usefulness.  One enjoys looking at them just for the sake of saying, “Wow, there are beautiful things in the world and man is part of them.”  Indeed, art – as an extension man – is an extension of the only creature on earth created for its own sake.  Man serves no useful purpose.  God did not need to make us to praise him.  He made us purely from love as an act of unadulterated non-utilitarian beauty.

Later in the day I’ll go to a mass of thanksgiving and farewell celebration for a friend of mine, Father James Bradley who departs these shores for his native England, doctorate of Canon Law in-hand.  Father Bradley is a master artist when it comes to music and his awareness the Church’s most sublime musical form, chant.  During his time in Washington, he’s brought a really luminous enthusiasm to so many masses, days of recollection and countless other encounters he’s been part of.  It’s not the kind of stuff we use on a daily basis… and in that sense not, useful… but to have been touched by it is to have experienced something of heaven.  I’m so grateful for my friend, his discipline and zeal.  Utilitarian, perhaps not (at least not by post-modern standards), but I feel closer to heaven for having experience his love of beauty for its own sake.

Looking at the world with eyes of faith, how much time do I spend experiencing beauty for its own sake?

Eyes of Faith Goes to the Hirshorn!

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd -Mk. 6:34

It’s been there for years… staring at me, taunting me, a self-confident concrete donut complacent on the Mall: the Hirshorn Museum.  I give in… I confess, since my arrival in the city (1999) I’ve never thought any good could come from a place that flies so obviously in the face of classical culture.  Recently, however, my conscience got the better of me, “If you really believe in looking for Christ in all things, you have to seek him at the Hirshorn too!”  So I did.  Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not a museum it’s a space station!” but I have to say the contemporary art collections at the Hirshorn led to some fruitful meditations.

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The Hirshorn Museum seen from the Mall

The most striking part of the Hirshorn immediately formed a key for my understanding of it.  The museum is a concrete circle.  Other than its third-floor balcony, which offers stunning panoramic views of the entire Mall, there are no windows on the outer ring.  Inside, however, all eyes look to the circular courtyard and its centerpiece fountain.

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Calm pervades the inner court.  Taking in the geometry of the place, there’s a sense of earth being lifted heavenward as the squares (earthly symbols) are elevated into the perfect [heavenly] circle of the structure.  It’s a dynamic similar to the National Gallery’s rotunda: a perfect cube base containing a perfect sphere (i.e. the dome).

Circles and squares, heaven and earth, inward-facing windows… add to this the subjectivity of modern art: It exists to (a) reveal the inner thoughts of the artist and (b) invite a subjective analysis by the viewer.  The Hirshorn is a place of deep introspection.

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Ron Mueck, “Big Man”

Entering the museum itself, my initial sense was “infinite.”  Looking down each corridor, I could never see the “end” of the circle.  It was comforting at first, the concept of having all the time in the world to explore art, both on the walls and in the human heart.

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Further examination of the art brought changing thoughts, sadder thoughts.

Works by artists like Lucian Freud, Willem de Koonig, and Alberto Giacometti were among the most expressive to me because they directly represented and expressed the human form.

Lucian Freud, "Nude with Leg Up" (1992)
Lucian Freud, “Nude with Leg Up” (1992)

The humanity explored by these artists is broken, deeply wounded.  A form without nobility, confused, frustrated, sorrowful.  Consider Freud’s “Nude with Leg Up.”  The stripped subject reclines next to a stripped bed, collapsed, as it were, on his crumpled linens.  The subject’s upraised leg gives sense of having fallen out of bed.  All representations of humanity necessarily show humanity’s fragility… we are, after all, fragile fallen creatures, but this art shows no indications of redemption or even the hope of it.  The Hirshorn’s circle was changing from an orbit of infinite possibilities into a self-enclosed loop of futility.

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (Painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (Painting)

Giacometti’s sculptures and de Koonig’s paintings are indicative.  Both artists made their careers in post-war Europe.  The destruction and broken hopes endemic of the time is obvious in their works.  Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego are described by curators as rough and naturalistic.  I suppose there’s something to be said for roughness as a style, but as to the message conveyed I see only sad incomplete man, frozen in abstraction perpetually incomplete.  Likewise, de Koonig’s studies of the female form which, we are told, were a search for the true identity of “woman.”

Giacometti, "Diego" (bust) de Koonig, "Woman" (painting)
Giacometti, “Diego” (bust)
de Koonig, “Woman” (painting)

Two other works summed up and, really, confirmed my sense of loss, of mourning for the human condition portrayed by contemporary art.  The first is “Untitled,” by Jannis Kounellis (1980), in which a series of classical sculptures are unceremoniously piled into a closet-like space.  The broken shelves of the space intensify the sense that not only has form been passed by, but that it has been actively shunted onto the ash heap of history.

Jannis Kounellis, "Untitled" (1980)
Jannis Kounellis, “Untitled” (1980)

Finally, Hector Zamora’s video work, O Abuso da Historia shows a traditional courtyard in Brazil, into which dozens of potted palms are thrown crashing from the upper stories of the structure.  A throwing out of history?  It felt to me as if the whole structure was being prepared for demolition, destruction, fall.

O Abuso da História from Hector Zamora on Vimeo.

Leaving the Hirshorn, sad as my impressions were, I was so glad I had encountered the art and the building.  I offer no judgment against contemporary art.  It is only a record of what people are feeling.  It is data.  Reflecting on my experience, I felt as if I’d just finished listening to the stories of a grieving family preparing for a funeral, but the family is my society, my neighbors, the men and women who’s culture has given rise to the art.

If we want the Church to be a place of encounter, if we want to go out “ad extra” as Pope Francis encourages us, modern art can give us a prescient snapshot of just how much work, how much love and hope we need to bring to bear upon our world.  I’m glad I went to the Hirshorn, and I highly encourage the faithful to do likewise.  It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd Mk. 6:34

 

Florence Foster Jenkins and the Victory of Music

This evening, as part of my day off, I went to see Florence Foster Jenkins at the Georgetown movie theater.  Based on a true story, the film follows a NY heiress in 1944.  I followed her experience, watching with eyes of faith.  As the movie makes clear from the start, Madame Florence has no ear and even less voice, but she has a huge a heart for music.  Not one for  overly sentimental subjects, I was incredulous through the first third of the movie, but this story eventually touches deep truths.

Madame Florence’s love for music and what it can do for the human soul moved her to sing.  While her singing is (in a word) terrible, something  shines through it to win the admiration of many, including a packed house at Carnegie Hall.  It’s not just an affection for music, but rather a reverence for it… and a celebration of life even in the midst of great imperfections.  For Madame Florence, those imperfections included a life threatening 50-year battle with syphilis (contracted from her unfaithful first husband), as well as the setting for the whole film, World War II.

There’s a certain tragic clarity when someone who can’t sing adores music… when a woman fighting daily for her life can be a celebrated socialite and rouse the spirits of young men wounded in war.  It says to us, “there’s more to this.”  Florence Foster Jenkins’ music was, perhaps, a witness to hope.  For that, it deserves a standing ovation.

Hubert Robert and Inspiring Imagination

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H. Robert, “Discovery of Antiquities”

It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art.  So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808).  This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome.  His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city.  Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed.  Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?

Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.

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H. Robert, “Hermit Praying”

Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city.  Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot!  This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress.  Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere.  It slows down life.  Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work.  Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot.  Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.

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H. Robert, “Archaeologists”

La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians.  It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it.  Consequently life should be enjoyed.  Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature.  Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.

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H. Robert, “Architectural Capriccio” of the Pantheon and Porta della Ripetta

Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision.  Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome?  No.  Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty.  To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive.  The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding.  And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality.  One sees this on display in Rome today.  The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion.  Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.

H. Robert, "Architectural Fantasy"
H. Robert, “Architectural Fantasy”

Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often.  St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world.  St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises.  In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government.  That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.”  Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.

H. Robert, "Stair and Fountain"
H. Robert, “Stair and Fountain”

Preparing ourselves for life in the cloud

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The second stage of holiness, “the cloud” of God’s presence, is something most active Christians experience in one way or another during their lives.  Whether we think in terms of Moses on the mountain, or St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the senses, the fact is that being in the dark can be scary.  It can also be beautiful (more on that tomorrow).

How can we prepare ourselves for life in the cloud?  Well, as we’ve already said, when sensory comforts are removed all that is left to us is an invitation to deeper love; love understood as a decision to affirm the life of another even to the point of self-sacrifice.  In the cloud, this decision is an internal affair, since all external data has been cut off.  So, the tools we bring into the cloud must be internal tools… and this brings us to our task: study.

Christian intelectual formation is great training for life in the cloud because it arms us with a self-supporting internal structure for our being.  What should we study?  The short answer is, everything… but some particular helps will be:  The study of Scripture.  As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  We can also study, very fruitfully, the lives of the saints; those cheerful givers and happy warriors who went before us into the cloud.  They’re example teaches us how to proceed.  Consider for a moment St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was wounded in battle.  During his convalescence, cut off from his accustomed secular pleasures, the only thing he had to read was a Bible, and a collection of lives of the saints.  In the solitude of his hospital room (a sort of cloud), Ignatius discovered – through study – the mode in which God was calling him to love… and from that Love sprang the Society of Jesus (thats is, the Jesuits), which went on the change the face of the world!  Study of the official teachings of the Church (i.e. Catechism, preaching by the Pope, etc.) will also yield great benefits.  And if formal theology isn’t an option, the study of the arts: music, poetry, literature, sculpture… All of these can be helpful in discovering, implicitly, the truths conveyed explicitly by theology.

Studying doesn’t seem very “holy” or “spiritual.” Pop-spirituality has, over the last hundred  years, tended to create a distance between intellectual formation and what it means to most people to be “spiritual.”  The intellect is a thing of the person… perhaps it is the most personal thing we have.  But popular spirituality encourages us to seek something outside of us… an, “out of body experience,” or zen-like state of total self-abandonment that treats our humanity, essentially, a an encumbrance to holiness.  This is NOT Christian tradition.  Human intellect, reason, choice… these most uniquely human qualities are precisely what -out of all creatures- make us resemble God the most.  We must bring these tools into the cloud of God’s presence to help us keep moving closer to his likeness.

Art and the Illuminative Way

The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)
The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)

Thus far, meditating on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s First Phase of Holiness we’ve touched on some significant themes: 

  • That the first stage is illuminative, a burning bush moment when God reaches into our existence to lead us by a better more meaningful way.
  • That the first stage is ethical, inviting our humanity to grow and exercise itself for the sake of virtue
  • That the first stage is sensory, lived our preeminently through relationships of deep friendship (i.e. Sts. Paul, Timothy and Titus)

Today we consider another sensory dimension of the Illuminative Phase: ART

The reflection could not be more timely.  Just yesterday President Rouhani of Iran visited Rome.  Italians were shocked to find that their own Capitoline Museum had literally boxed off nude statues in deference to the Iranian president’s religious concerns during his tour.  Personal aside: As a lover of Roman/Art and a former resident of the Eternal City, I was deeply hurt by this decision on the part of the Italian authorities.  Perhaps if Italian President Mattarella ever visits Iran, the authorities their will consider our religious/cultural beliefs by unveiling their female citizens and serving a pork roast with a robust chianti for the state dinner.

Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) 
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Greek Bronze Bust currently on view at the NGA’s “Power and Pathos” Exhibit

Art has been an illuminative part of human history from the beginning.  Our earliest ancestors recorded… and in some ways extended… the reach of their lives in cave paintings (for example).  Classical Western civilization had a love affair with art, to be sure.  Evidence of this is currently on display at the National Gallery’s exquisite exhibit of Greek bronzes, “Power and Pathos”   And of course Christian civilization inherited and extended this appreciation for art as God became visible entering into his own Creation, the revealed, incarnate image of the Father.  Art illumines the way to God and can play a significant role in the first stage of holiness.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC

All that said, the relationship between the West and art has not been without its critics.  Recognizing arts power for good and for evil, Plato recommended banishing certain artists from his ideal Republic.  The Byzantine Empire once tried to destroy all Christian art, latching on to the idea that art was idolatrous.  This iconoclasm was ended by the Church, which, without denying that one could sin by making an idol out of art, discerned that the holy goods that art could inspire were well worth the risk.  Later, proponents of the protestant reformation banished art from many of their communities for similar reasons.

How can we concisely describe the incredible illuminative power of art?  Regarding ethics (again, part of the illuminative way): what is it’s relationship with art?  Donald Beebe, in an insightful exploration of Florentine aesthetics at the time of the reformation had this to say,

“Art functions properly when it leads the beholder to worship and to emulate correct behavior.  It functions inappropriately when it exists for its own sake, when its didactic message goes unheeded or is the occasion of heterodoxy or sin.”  Beebe goes on, “As God’s creation, nature is the artist’s teacher.  In the same way, a sudden learns to draw by copying drawings produced by the master’s intellect.  Little by little, the student learns the style of the master, as the master learned to cry creation that in turn originated by the ingenio of God.”
(-Beebe, Donald.  Savonarolan Aesthetics and their Implementation in the Graphic Arts.  In: In No
Strange Land
, By: Jonathan Robinson, CO.  Angelico Press, 2015. pg.115)

Whether or not one subscribes to such an ethically-oriented sense of art is another conversation, but for our purposes, exploring the illuminative way, I think Beebe’s words are a great guide.  Along those lines, as a very practical resource, I highly recommend reading The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization by Jem Sullivan, PhD.  A local DC luminary in her own right, Dr. Sullivan offers a great review of the role art can play in spirituality, especially in terms of using art as a source of meditation (lectio divina).  It’s a useful essay to have in mind as you walk the streets of DC admiring our public art and architecture, hopefully drawing from it an inspiration to holiness.

For further rumination on the role of art as it inspires ethics and illumination, consider two secular reflections:

PBS’ American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
and
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ” 

 

The Turks say, “Yes.” – On the evangelical quality of sacred music


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This year our parish began the Advent/Christmas season with an evening of sacred music and readings in honor of Our Lady.  Last night we closed out the season with a similar concert in honor of our Lord’s Epiphany.  It was a sublime way to bookend such a sacred and joyous time.  Listening to the music and the readings from some of Christianity’s greatest writers last night, I did not forget all my troubles… but I was lifted to a place where I could see them for what they were, mere distractions from the Love of God for me.  Prayer has often been defined as “a lifting of the soul to God.”  No other medium does this in the way that music does.  That’s why in all the teaching of the Church, music is considered an integral part of Christian life… and sacred music, in particular, is not only integral but constitutive of the the Holy Mass.


For more on this concept I highly recommend reading the teachings of recent Popes and of the Second Vatican Council:

St. Pius X, “Tra le sollicitudini,
Vatican II (Bl. Paul VI) – “Musicam sacram,” and
St. John Paul II – “Chirograph on Sacred Music
My own reflection will be somewhat limited (Sunday mornings are pretty busy around here).


 

Last night, as people walked in off the street to listen to their fellow parishioners and neighbors singing great works of the western musical canon, I was reminded of a true story from one of our teacher in Rome.  Father Marcato was our professor of New Testament scripture.  A Dominican, he had spent a significant amount of time visiting holy sites from the first century in Asia Minor, especially Ephesus.  While in a Dominican priory in Turkey, he met local Christians and was amazed to discover that many were recent converts from Islam.  Turkey, while technically a secular state, doesn’t make conversion easy for its citizens, certainly Turkish civil society has little time for those who want to leave Islam.  I only mention that to highlight Fr. Marcato’s surprise at his confrere’s success in baptizing Muslim Turks.  My professor asked the local Prior, “How do you find a safe space to speak with these people about the Gospel.”  The answer: “We leave the doors open at Vespers.”  Like so many religious communities, the Dominicans in Turkey chant the psalms at Eveing Prayer, according to the customs of the Church.  Western music is infinitely more melodic than anything the local Turks experience at their mosques and so people would just walk into the Church attracted and elevated by the music.  There, in the privacy of the cloister, they could ask all the questions they wanted about this thing called Christianity, ultimately asking for Baptism.

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In American parishes our musical development has been largely stunted these last several decades.  The reasons are many, too many to examine here.


**For more, consider reading Thomas Day’s excellent book, “Why Catholic’s Can’t Sing,” and its follow up by Jeffrey Tucker, “Sing Like a Catholic.”  (the second book is slightly polemical expressing the author’s heartfelt concern for the spread of the Gospel and the quality of music, but it’s points are well-made and researched)


Among the many reasons given I can anecdotally relate one: We need to make Church more accessible.  Access is good, all people should be able to access the Truths of the Gospel, but all too often our imperfect human nature slides from “accessible” music to “comfortable” music, and then to music which is purely of this earth… and by definition then, “secular.”  What begins as a well-intentioned desire to give people access to the saving truths of the Gospel too often ends in parish music programs that trap people in earthly categories.

Last night’s concert (and really all the music our choir presents at Mass) reminded me once again that “hard” and “challenging” are not the same as “bad.”  …that humbling ourselves before the musical patrimony of the Church can be a new, even an uncomfortable experience at first, but that it ultimately rewards us with tasting heaven on earth… and that gives HOPE.  To use a family analogy, it’s like  giving yourself over to a grandmother’s hug.  When you’re a kid, it’s often awkward, even embarrassing to be smothered in the love of an older relative… but when you get over it, you realize, there’s nothing more affirming or elevating that the warm (if sometimes choking) embrace of family.  If more of our parishes embraced people with sublime sacred music, might we win more converts?  The Turks would say yes.

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What Guides the Law

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The bronze above is a beautiful piece on display at the Freer Gallery on the National Mall.  Cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens its title is “Law Supported by Strength and Love.”  Saint-Gardens was an American sculptor of the 19th century who engaged in serious study in Paris before returning to the U.S. to memorialize great achievements of the Civil War.  He was part of an entire American movement to bring knowledge of the arts and sciences from Paris to our still-new Republic (see David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey”) .  Over the course of the late 18th-19th centuries, both the U.S. and France underwent revolutionary changes that were taken by the rest of the western world to be shining lights of what government of, by and for the people could achieve.  Neither experiment was perfect.  But at their best these two newly democratic states discovered important truths. One of them is above.  “Law Supported by Strength and Love” shows a critical part of democratic government.  Most people can deduce that the coercive power of strength is essential to governance… but just as necessary, especially in a democratic system, is LOVE.

The concept isn’t new… it dates back to the earliest recollection of the Romans.  In his History of the Republic, Titus Livius (Livy) describes the camaraderie of the early settlers of Rome, their concern for each other overthrew the Tarquinian monarchy to establish the Republic.  It was founded on a love of country, concern for neighbor, service of family and piety before heaven.  The Romans discovered that such love is the basis of the self-regulating civil society essential to the functioning of a republic.  Why?  Because citizens inevitably tire of and rebel against coercive power.  States shouldn’t be in the business of intimidating their people, but rather inspiring them.  Likewise, citizens shouldn’t have to call on the power of the state to regulate their relations with each other, but rather they should serve each other.  Love has the power to move a nation without whipping it into submission.

This great advance in political thinking was not however the unique preserve of enlightenment philosophers.  In fact many of them would’ve readily discounted such a sentimental approach to democracy (Hobbs, Hume, even our own Alexander Hamilton, for example).  Nonetheless, mutual respect for human dignity became the basis of western democratic thought.  How?  Here we have to look with eyes of faith.  Faithful people (at that time of an almost entirely Christian background) exercising their religions brought New Testament LOVE and compassion to the nascent French and American democracies.  As a result the greatest achievements of those democracies (the American Constitution / Bill of Rights and the post-Napoleonic French Republic) liberated both countries’ citizens for the pursuit of happiness.

Stop in at the Freer and visit Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture in the central court.  It’ll make you think… it might even inspire you to love your neighbor… for his good, for your own, and for the good of our country.