The Thanks We Fear to Give

Thanksgiving was wonderful in DC!  One of the things I loved most this year was marveling at how the city empties out.  Walking home from dinner last night I past huge apartment buildings, normally packed with young adults, windows twinkling with signs of life… but last night almost every window was flat black.  The rare exceptions, those who stayed in town for the holidays, stood out like lonely sentinels keeping vigil over the quiet street.

Amidst all of my considerations about gratitude I thought about writing to some folks who’ve helped out a lot over the last few months here at the parish… and then a strange thought occurred to me, “What might happen next?”  I’m usually fairly effusive in my thanks, never more so than when I write to someone… and it’s an unfortunate sign of the times that the desire to express gratitude is sometimes squelched by the need to [potentially] cover your back.

It’s not just gratitude, actually… there’s all sorts of silences that have begun to pop up in Church life.  When a colleague… or even more so, a superior… asks me, “How are things going?” a flat “OK” or “Fine I suppose.” is sometimes the best I can manage… not because it’s actually how I feel, but because the neutral response can’t come back to haunt me later.  Right?  I mean when you answer, “Oh things are going great… couldn’t be better!” and then something blows up the reply comes back, “but Father we thought everything was just dandy and now this…”  And so I (and many priests I know) limit ourselves and our official correspondences as much as possible.

It’s painful on a number of fronts, mostly summarized in this: Limiting communication means limiting the good that may come, even as you limit liability.  And there it is… the word that has so come to dominate Church life, “liability.”  Priests are treated as potential liabilities instead of treasured resources… conversations with parishioners always have, “how could this come back to bight me?” hanging over them… not only from the chancery but from the parishioner himself/herself… So we adopt protective measures… insurance policies, ostensibly to protect the Church, ourselves, you name it… The irony is, we end up being less Church-like and more corporate.  Isn’t that one of the many overarching concerns about the deliberations of our leaders lately? Stuck inside our newly agreed upon silence, one begins to feel its limits more and more… its dehumanizing.

Recently I’ve been going back and forth over leaving the social media platform Twitter.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the positive digital evangelization, but there’s just so much negativity… and often so unfounded.  I’ve seen good people derided and squelched on Twitter… I’ve seen very dangerous and unorthodox people celebrated on all sides of all issues.  The limits of Twitter -as a medium- are something akin to the unhealthy silence I mused on above.  There’s another kind of silence: that of the official/public person.  As a priest I try to be VERY reserved on Twitter because of my official and public position in the Church… meanwhile I watch other priests and even employees of my own local Church spout off on all sorts of things… seemingly without any consequence… Is there a level playing field to be had?  The silence hurts.  It stands in stark contrast to the beautiful affirming silence Cardinal Sarah speaks about in his book, “The Power of Silence”.

Should I stay on social media?  If I do, should I be more vocal…? less?  A devil-may-care attitude has never really been my thing… but …well, I don’t know.  But it strikes me that when the administrative culture of the Church (under which I include not only the actual governance but also how we communicate) gets to a place where I am nervous about being grateful… that’s a problem.  And when good Catholics lambast each other online… that’s a problem too.  More questions than answers today I’m afraid.  But one mustn’t be afraid to confront them with eyes of faith.

Sometimes the sidelines are more interesting…

Earlier today I visited the National Gallery of art.  I took in a beautiful special exhibition, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy“.

Chiaroscuro is a printing technique utilizing wooden blocks, each of which carries the etching for part of a picture, and the colored ink that belongs to that portion of the picture.  When the block prints are layered one over the other, you end up with a complete image.  For the world of renaissance art this [then] new technique represented a huge leap in the ability to multiply images and sell them… or send them to far off markets.  What strikes me, however, is this art form’s ability to convey such pathos.

Take for example this Deposition From the Cross, printed by Ugo Carpi, a father of the technique.  The limp body of Christ, the strained bend of the figure over the Cross’ left arm… To convey such motion and emotion by carving in wood.  And to represent such depth through the application of successive printing blocks… It blows me away.

What’s equally moving about these pieces is how many “moments” they convey; not just the principal subject matter but the ancillary stories.  In the “Deposition,” you could spend an hour just meditating on the women ministering to Mary in her need (see detail below).

In a carving, no easy feat by itself, one can perhaps expect more motion… sculpture -after all- utilizes three dimensions.  In fact, elsewhere in the gallery I found this piece… same subject matter:

Monnot, “The Virgin Mary Swooning Over the Dead Body of Christ”
Monnot, -Detail-

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the “Healing of The Man at The Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3) you can see the surprise and excitement in the man as Peter and John restore him:

Likewise in the “Catching the Draught of Fish”(Lk 5)… the nets are heavy, the boats lie low in the water and you can almost hear Peter cry out, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (5:8)… It wouldn’t be the last time he needed to say it.

Just amazing… but back to the main theme: side themes…

Carpi, “Death of Ananias”

Several other prints had important side stories.  In the “Death of Ananias” (Acts 5) The Apostles stand in judgment over Ananias, who having lied to the Holy Spirit out his generosity (or lack thereof) was struck dead.  Certainly a cautionary tale about administrative life in the Church… but look at what’s going on at the right.

Carpi, -Detail-

While the Apostles govern, the other disciples are busy handing out charity to those in need.  Both are happening at the same time.

In “Martyrdom of Two Saints,” by Parmigianino, the swirling motion of the swords and the soldier’s cloak focus us on the main them, framing out the martyrs-to-be, but check out the juxtaposition of the Angel vs. the Imperial Eagle at the top: angel totally wins!  It’s a beautiful exercise to consider, “What are the side characters talking about among themselves?” Are there conversions about to happen among them because of the martyrs’ witness?

In life, there’s usually more going on than initially meets the eye.  Taking a contemplative moment to see things through eyes of faith can reveal so much more!  At the moment, the picture of the American Church would appear to be chaos, a horrific swirl of bad news and sadness.  But look to the side stories, especially in your own parishes.

Today a young man in my community gave thanks to God for helping him in time of deep mourning.  Another parishioner took a moment of pause in the midst of the midterms and had an epiphany about holy detachment.  A woman took special time out to pray for her grandson. Three simple but beautiful actions of grace… and they’re just what I heard about on my day off!  Is our central frame a mess… YES!  But it’s hardly the whole story.  Look to the sidelines!!