In The Idea of a University, Blessed John Henry Newman said this:
“We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away; we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own.”
Newman’s observation plays out well in my last two posts about hip-hop music and the dance form, “jookin” in which a thing of nature (music and dancing) is put to higher, even sacred uses by the human artist in question. Today I ran into two wonderful 19th-century examples of this same phenomenon.
The first comes from St. Therese of Lisieux. During a pilgrimage to Rome, Therese had her first encounter with… wait for it… and elevator! It may not seem like a big deal to most, but the new technological wonder would eventually be put to sacred uses. Years later, Therese, recalling the awe of her first elevator ride described Christ’s saving graces lifting us to heaven as… “a spiritual elevator.” The term is now a classical phrase of 19th century French spirituality.
Another – if more mundane – example is Edgar Degas’ Woman Ironing (on display at the National Gallery). In it we see what seems like an ordinary scene: a woman ironing in her apartment. But in 19th-century Paris this was more than a daily task, it was an icon. It was a new city – rebuilt by Haussmann in the 1850’s… a modern metropolis with modern amenities like irons in ever home. With a few strokes of his brush, Degas uses this ordinary moment to demonstrate the wonder of a new technological age… as well as some of its burdens. He generates what we might call today, a teachable moment; something that makes us think about deeper human realities.
What dimensions of the world we live in stick out to us? How might we use them to lift the hearts and minds of ourselves and others? Something to think about as we look on our world with eyes of faith.
Today the Church observes the memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist. We recall his death at the hands of Herod. As St. Bede points out in the Office of Readings, John was not executed explicitly because he pointed to Christ (though this was the thrust of John’s ministry). No, John died for testifying to the truth – namely: that Herod’s affair with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias was unnatural.
John’s heavenly father reminds us in the Church today that all Truth is worth professing… The earthly circumstances surrounding his fate remind us that with or without ever mentioning the name of Jesus, Truth can have a degree of danger associated with it.
John described his prophetic mission as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Normally my reflections on John the Baptist turn to Richard Wagner’s opera Salome. It’s well-worth a listen, especially when the discord of Herod’s court is pierced, silenced really, by the pure tones of John’s voice rising from his prison cell… but that’s not today’s focus. Today I want to point readers to a very fine interview from NPR (see below) with an intriguing artist, Sir “The Baptist.” Sir is a preacher’s son who’s using hip-hop’s art form to cry out in the wilderness about the needs of our most vulnerable in the inner cities. Whether or not you’re a fan of hip-hop, you may find yourself mesmerized by the poetry of Sir’s words and the pathos inherent in his message. His efforts to spread a message about real human needs using contemporary cultural methods is certainly worthy of a standing ovation.
I just read a great article on the website of The Atlantic. In it, James Hamblin makes an eloquent defense and promotion of arts education in our schools. Gamblin’s piece explores the concept of multiple intelligences, pointing to the arts as a useful way of accessing them all. The example he cites is an innovative dancer named Lil Buck who’s rendition of The Swan (accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma) brought him national attention. I’ll be the first to admit, ballet is not my thing… actually, I can’t stand ballet. I may be the only person on earth who finds ballet utterly un-graceful. Lil Buck’s use of jookin a hybrid form of modern dance, on the other hand, is one of the most graceful and evocative movements I’ve encountered. He seems to skim, rather than step, across his performance zone transforming his ball-capped self into a truly convincing… swan. I’m amazed. Something so beautiful must, by definition participate in truth and goodness… and thus in Christ. I’ll be re-viewing Lil Buck’s interpretation of The Swan with eyes of faith trying to encounter our Lord in his art form.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.