Taking a queue from my last post’s saint, Philip Neri, and a nice encounter two days ago, I’m starting a multi-part reflection on joy in city life… I hope you’ll follow along:
It’s a basic tenet of nearly every school of human philosophy that happiness, true happiness is the universal goal of everyone… However one defines it, all of us seek to be “happy,” rather than, “sad.” The Greeks called this eudaemonia – a happiness that is tied up with goodness and living out one’s divinely given purpose. I’ve been praying about this search, and got input from an unexpected source this past week: my taxi driver. Commenting on the dichotomy between DC’s beauty and the anxiety of its residents he remarked,
“What’s the good of having the good life if you don’t live it? Seriously man, some people are never happy ’til they’re miserable.”
There’s something to the cabbie’s wisdom. It’s not just the classic, “If only Americans would be more European; working to live rather than living to work.” We take ourselves, our careers so seriously… as if they were eternal, galaxy-changing things. In the midst we find ourselves sad. Our dour demeanors might not be so bad if life promised to respond with security for each of us, but that’s not the case is it?
The most stone-faced pin-striped lawyer is just as likely to get caught in a smoke-filled metro tunnel as anyone else. Plans thrown off, an important deal ruined as a result… Where did all his seriousness get him? All of us know stories of friends who worked, planned, struggled for a promotion only to lose it, perhaps even a whole career, for reasons completely outside their control. At the end of the day, such a person doesn’t even have happy memories to enjoy… only stories of struggle sadness and a tragic end. Looking at the state of affairs through eyes of faith, what might we discern?
If gravity doesn’t necessarily get us happiness maybe a little foolishness, or at least some light-heartedness will? Dont’ get me wrong, I’m not proposing anyone be foolhardy (which Thomas Aquinas defines as a vice)… this isn’t about ignoring real responsibilities in order to go on a round-the-world cruise… or going skydiving with a heart condition. That’s just stupid. But if we have a child-like trust in God our Father, our joys reman just as strong as ever while our stumbles don’t bruise us as they used to. In tomorrow’s post we’ll consider some saintly examples of this lesson, but for now, consider praying about your own happiness… how’s it going? Do you feel truly FREE to be happy in your life?
Tomorrow we’ll consider some examples of saints who discovered the wisdom of foolishness…
When we think of holiness we often think of great ascetics, men and women whose acts of self-denial may seem – at first blush – bizarre. In a city as comfortable as our DC, is daily holiness possible? Is great asceticism possible? The answer is “yes.” More surprising is what the living of daily asceticism can actually look like.
Catholics believe that everyone is called to holiness by the imitation of Christ in ways particular to each individual’s life. The common denominator in so infinitely complex a formula of holiness is self-gift for the sake of others. As Christ offers up his whole self to the Father on the Cross asking that we might be forgiven our sins, we too offer ourselves. That’s what asceticism (from the Greek askesis) means: to do a physical act in pursuit of a spiritual result. Here we discover the wide reach of personal holiness.
Sometimes we offer ourselves through very overt acts of self-denial… a woman pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming truck, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit for example. Other acts are more implicit: the man who silently gives up alcohol asking God to give graces to his family… Christ himself holds up fasting prayer and almsgiving as the three classical forms of self-gift in daily life. He also warns that we should be cheerful givers How does that work?? This is where love comes into the picture. When we love the other we’re serving, that’s when “denial” becomes “gift.” And what can be more joyous than giving someone a gift?!?!
Consider for a minute Shakespeare’s character Falstaff. An ale-swilling party animal, to be sure, but he loved everyone of his friends and offered himself to them completely…literally to the point of passing out! A little foolish? Sure. Falstaff lacked in discipline, but generations of readers have fallen in love with this amiable rogue because in his heart he was a giver. If we think of Falstaff as one extreme of self-gift, and say… Blessed Mother Theresa as the other (a woman of exceptional discipline and overt self-denial)… we see that there really is a huge range of holiness out there in which each of us can find our niche.
One saint, a saint of the city who was especially adept at helping others find their own joyous and beautiful asceticism is St. Philip Neri. I like to think of him as an “aesthetic ascetic.” Philip lived in sixteenth century Rome and preached a matrix of virtues. He loved city-folk; never leaving Rome after his arrival there. He taught that acts of obedience and perseverance in love yield joy… as joy consumes the soul it leads us to be truly free, which disposes us to contemplate God’s presence. Contemplating God’s presence is the definition of heaven… not a bad goal. Philip created an environment where this process could unfold and called it the Oratory. What does this have to do with Washington? Well, as it turns out an oratory is in formation at one of our downtown parishes, St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park. If you’re a denizen of DC and interested in seeking personal holiness, you might check it out and see how you’re being called to be a aesthetic ascetic for the 21st century.
An article caught my eye in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (WPM), “Layers: Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”. This new old form of body art is present in so many ways… in your face: another guy walks by at the gym with a full sleeve tattoo extending from an A-neck undershirt. Other times it’s more of a, “wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?” moment, as with the woman I passed in a restaurant recently, a butterfly delicately traced just below the hairline of her neck seemed to be her ever-present wink at the world. There’s the repressed tattoo-bearer: the man who, extending his arm to check his watch, shows some wild ink beneath an otherwise docile oxford shirt. Finally, there’s the less-frequent “all-consuming” tattoo wearer, so covered in symbols that the tattoo is actually known as a “full-body suit.”
It would seem that tattoos and the reasons behind them are as individual as the people who get them. Some common themes from the WPM’s interviews seem to be:
Conscious self-assertion, “Hey world, this is who I am.”
A reminder or augmentation of one’s beauty.
A personal reminder of one’s own biography, especially moments of suffering.
Spiritual statements about one’s origins, conflicts, and feelings about good and evil.
Tattoos as ongoing hobby, “I keep adding them and they eventually connect with each other.”
Tattoos as a statement of individuality or independence from the norm of society.
To be sure, I would NEVER get a tattoo and I don’t recommend them for others… I believe the teachings of Christ, handed down by the Church – succinctly: God made his creation and called it good… We are born beautiful not by virtue of our appearance but by our very being itself. If I were horribly disfigured by an accident, penniless and incapacitated, God my Father would still find me beautiful because he made me, he gave me being. My existence, whether comfortable or filled with suffering is capable of serving Him if I offer it to him… and in this I find my dignity… no need for additions.
All that said, the article above really moved me. The people interviewed struck on tremendously important human themes:
I don’t judge anyone who strives after such themes in peace and integrity of conscience. Such striving is beautiful… but rereading the article several times, I’m moved with pity more than anything. If I need to add something (i.e. a tattoo) to myself to achieve those human categories, isn’t that a sort of a crutch… which presupposes a disability? If I cannot be fulfilled apart from painting myself, is that a sort of self-slavery? Then again, where’s the line between one who wears tattoos and a woman putting on discreet shades of makeup before work? Is it a slippery slope from one to the other? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’d be very interested to discover more about what the thought/emotional process is in those who elect to get tattoos. In the meantime, the Washington Post Magazine’s editors certainly chose an apt title, “Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”
I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole. The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff. The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts. As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself. How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!
Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:
Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her. There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her. Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes. I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.
For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home. I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God. What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit? Mary loved Jesus. It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands. She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened. At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine. Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus. She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did. Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem. “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer. Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us. As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them. As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world? What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively? How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her. Visiting this exhibit was a great start.
Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban. I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets. Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written. Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?” It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it. I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.” Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.
Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?” It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades. St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places). The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997). More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005. Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject. All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.” My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.
“It is as a general rule a bad sign when a man has not a particular feeling of devotion on the chief feasts of the year.” -St. Philip Neri
I think I was ten before I realized that Christmas, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth, is December 25… Up to that point empirical evidence …of a sort… convinced my child mind that Christmas was December 24. “What was this evidence that warped time and space?” you might well ask. FOOD!
Growing up in an Italian-American household in New York, we did all our feasting on Christmas Eve. Seven kinds of fish, capped by pastries of every stripe… Warm hugs and kisses from relatives whose names one only vaguely remembered… Picture “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” dipped in tomato sauce and you get the idea. But that wasn’t all. We went to mass on Christmas Eve… and as I got older, we’d sometimes even open our gifts late at night on Christmas Eve… ‘heck, even the name (at least to a ten year-old) is tricky: CHRISTMAS Eve… After all, wasn’t Jesus born at night?
My kiddie confusion was a witness to the great power of culture. The cultural phenomenon of a feast translates the cosmic realities being feasted (in this case Christmas) in a three hundred sixty degree way… an all encompassing reality that becomes familiar, heartfelt over time, engraining those realities into one’s very being.
Feasts speak to us of truth, of goodness, of unity… but they speak to us THROUGH beauty, and ultimately find their power in her convincing ways. Every culture has feasts… They are a hallmark of vitality and endurance… and, best as I can recollect, feasts only survive the test of ages if they celebrate something positive (again: truth good integral and beautiful). Think about it, have you ever heard of a feast that celebrates evil?
The positive power of feasts (particularly religious feasts) is one reason why it’s so sad to hear about school districts around DC wrangling over their inclusion in the school calendar. My primary school education was in public schools in NY, where we learned about the festal traditions of all the kids in our class. Most of us were Christians, but no one batted an eye learning about Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other customs. To us, it was all fascinating… and at the very least a great chance to try someone else’s food. Come to think of it, I owe my love of all DC’s many ethnic foods to the experience of encountering many religious feasts as a child even if those feasts weren’t my own. Did experiencing all these traditions in a public school setting damage the integrity of my own religious sense? Apparently not, I ended up becoming a Catholic priest.
Tonight (and yes, even tomorrow, Dec. 25), let us feast. Eat, drink and be merry, something beautiful happened, “a child is born to us, a son given us,” Jesus the Savior. Merry Christmas Washington!
Can anyone think of an American city with more references to freedom and liberty than Washington? Monuments and friezes on buildings are just the beginning. Consider our living witnesses to liberty: Protests, visitors lobbying Congress, the role of our Courts ensuring “equal justice for all,” the free exchange of ideas in our many universities, the free and flourishing interactions of religious groups, the music of any and every type that resounds from our concert halls, pubs, coffee houses and conservatories. Even “K Street,” oligarchic as it can sometimes feel, is ultimately a testimony to the free exchange of words and ideas at the root of our civic pride.
Liberty, understood through eyes of faith, is something deeply sacred in Catholic teaching because it’s not just the heart of an artificial reality (the U.S.A., Washington DC, or some other man-made civil entity). Liberty is at the heart of our human reality. God made man and woman in his own image. Unlike any other creature under heaven, he gave humanity free will, and even more uniquely, the ability to consciously and rationally self-sacrifice for the good of another. This is the “freedom of the sons of God.” The lived experience of that freedom is expressed most fully in this beautiful quote from Rev. John Saward’s book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, “He who made us without us, will not save us without us.” The Father gave us freedom in the very beginning… and he is so faithful to that gift that even for the sake of our salvation, he will not “force” us to be saved. He respects us so much he allows us to make our own decision.
As a man, as a priest, I freely choose to follow the God who would love and respect me so much.
The objection I often hear goes something like this: “If you Catholics are so into liberty, what about the inquisition, or all your rules and catechisms?” It’s a good question. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of those living in the Christian world generally adhered to a common set of principles/ethics and desired to help each other live those out. Examples of these disciplines cover a huge range: abstaining from meet on Fridays, making a good confession EVERY Saturday, Giving to the poor, dressing modestly… and, yes, in the extreme, acknowledging that those who live radically outside the Christian norm with no desire to change ought not call themselves Christian (i.e. excommunication). To the post-modern eye, these might seem like restrictions on freedom, but they’re not all that different from civil laws. If I drive 110 mph on an empty road, and a hidden policeman pulls me over to ticket me, he does so to guard my freedom. Driving so fast, even on an empty road could result in my death. Disciplining me gives me the greater freedom to live. If I commit treason, if functionally speaking, I cease to be a citizen, is it really so irrational to be be exiled? The greater freedom of the rest of the people who do agree to live under a country’s laws depends on my no longer living in that community.
Culture has changed, many question whether a sense of “Christendom” still exists at all. I don’t know about that myself, but I love a phrase that (I think) comes from St. John Paul II: “The Church always proposes, she never imposes.” What we propose is a way of life characterized by the self-denial and giving that is the greatest expression of our God-given freedom. Others are “free” to take that or leave it, but I find it beautiful.
Did you know that the Washington metro area has one of the highest concentration of (semi)professional choruses in the country? It’s true, Washington is blessed with a huge number of choirs and other vocal groups.
I love choral music, as a person and particularly as a priest. That said, there are certain choral works with which I (and many priests) have a love/hate relationship. For example, the Ave Maria is a staple of Catholic life… loving the Ave is sort of a ‘must,’ like loving the poor, and embracing lepers; it’s not an option. The Ave, however, is performed at EVERY wedding and funeral… often regardless of the soloist’s ability to sing the music. Another such piece is Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Especially during Advent/Christmas, the choirs of the Metro region will perform Handel’s Alleluia in every way imaginable: the original setting, a rock setting, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra setting, the Ella Fitzgerald scat setting, and of course, the sing-along. If you only hear the piece once in a season, it’s no problem… but imagine how many times (and ways) I get to hear it. (Thus endeth my venting process)
All that said, the frequent performance of the Alleluia Chorus got me thinking, reexamining it through eyes (and ears) of faith.
Handel’s Messiah may be the most famous example of a great musical form: the Oratorio. Oratorios (probably better rendered, “oratorii”) are large musical settings with storylines, characters, soloists, choirs and instruments. Sounds like an opera, right? Wrong. Oratorios are concert pieces, never acted out on stage.
The oratorio began in 17th century Rome under the inspiration of St. Philip Neri. Philip was a major proponent of using the best parts of contemporary culture to spread the experience of Christ in daily life. Poetry readings, literary studies, talks, plays, and yes – concerts were all part of his schtick. Great idea, right? The only problem was that in 17th century Rome such activities were strictly forbidden in church buildings. So…Philip and his disciples built an annex onto their church (Santa Maria in Valicella a.k.a. Chiesa Nuova). The annex – a building used for prayer and evangelization, but not necessarily for mass – became known as an oratory, lending its name both to the musical pieces performed there and to Philip’s nascent religious community, the Oratorians.
In addition to being a performance, an oratorio is really a kind of prayer, uniquely suited to bringing God into daily life. Yes, you leave humming the tune. Yes, the music helps us to learn Gospel lessons in a mnemonic fashion… but there’s more. In ecclesiastical Latin, there are two categories of prayer: prex, and oratio. Prex is something I initiate… I am the primary actor. Oratio is my speaking the word’s of another (e.g. Jesus). The other works mystically through my voice and enters not only me but – through my voice – my world. Oratio is the category to which Mass belongs: Christ works through the voice of the priest pronouncing His words, and becomes present on the altar. An oratorio (like Handel’s Messiah) can be a non-sacramental parallel to such prayer.
A very short list of great oratorios includes: Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Haydn’s Creation. (all avail. on iTunes)
Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a memorable review of classic holiday pops music at Strathmore. They were accompanied by two fine singers (Debbie Gravitte and Ted Keegan), a host of tap-dancing Santas from the Baltimore School for the Arts, and acrobat Timber Brown. Listening to so many seasonal favorites stirred a swarm of happy scenes from childhood… which got me thinking…
Some of my favorite memories came back to me listening to last night’s concert… vague recollections of driving in dad’s station wagon down a snowy wooded street to get pie from “that” bakery (you know, the one everyone knows has the best pie, where you have to order it a week in advance)… Another memory, much clearer, was my great aunt and uncle’s yearly Christmas party with ALL the cousins (in an Italian family that’s a lot, believe me). I can still hear her voice teaching me how to sing “White Christmas.”
Whether we’re traveling over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house, or making a valiant effort to find the last quart of egg nog in town on December 24, or just trying to clear the driveway of snow in time for guests to arrive, the Christmas season can be such a rich trove of graced experiences. Music associated with the season instantly takes us back to those realities. It’s a cultural version of the religious experiences Catholics know as anamnesis.
Anamnesis is the memorial presentation of a reality… but it’s more than just digging up a fuzzy memory. It’s actually living the substance and reality of the thing remembered in the present. When at mass, praying over the bread and wine, a Catholic priest says the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, it’s as if we are all there with Jesus again. His Body and Blood become sacramentally present among us. Christmas songs aren’t quite the same, but experiencing them through eyes and ears of faith can be a good way to keep not only the memories, but the realities of the season ever new in our hearts, for our good and our neighbors’.
“Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and endowed with inexpressible new grace. …Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.”
St. Anselm’s words about today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception aptly describe not only the feast per se, but also the Catholic understanding of culture art and technology… all things on which this blog has reflected.
Catholics believe that when sin entered the human experience, it affected not only us rational beings, but all the rest of creation. Consequently, even our greatest attempts to use the stuff of creation [i.e. culture] would always be hobbled by corruption. The Incarnation of the Son, Christ, is (to use a modern metaphor) gene therapy for the whole of the cosmos… a treatment that (a) finds its origins in the Immaculate Conception of Mary when the Father prepared a worthy dwelling place for the Son in the Virgin’s womb, (b) reaches full force in the birth of Jesus, and (c) comes to completion in the Passion Death and Resurrection.
Mary, then, is the first Christian artist: she infuses our world with Christ so that the things of this world might receive a heavenly orientation, leading everyone and everything back to God. Today might be an ideal day for us to think about and/or pray for artists. In a secular vision they are those talented people who lift our hearts and minds to higher things… but when they work with eyes of faith, they can lift our very souls to God himself.
Walking along the street in DC this week, I noticed something I haven’t seen since I lived in Italy: an “It’s a girl!” bow… A big puffy bow proudly attached to the front door of a townhouse. Seeing those announcements always makes me smile. You know that the neighbors have all congratulated the family, that far-flung relatives will be coming for visits… An aura of joy seems to grace the house when that bow goes up. It made me think of one of this season’s great Biblical quotes,
“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5)
Every parent I’ve ever met agrees, childbirth is a miracle. The irony is that an infant is something so self-contained, so dependent, so knowable. Aren’t miracles all about the un-knowable? Yes and no.
Some people say that miracles (or anything to do with God, really) are unintelligible and so they question the existence of any object of faith. The birth of the Infant Christ gives us a clue to another way that we might consider things of faith. Father John Saward puts it this way in his book, “Cradle of Redeeming Love” :
“When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency, but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand.”
…kind of like holding a baby, be it the Infant Jesus or one’s own little sister. That child is understandable, but there is so much there, that our minds can’t possibly grasp it all at once. All the possibilities of a baby’s life, all the love he or she will experience and share… the feeling when an infant grips your finger with all his or her strength… the experience of being embraced by an baby with a combination of utter neediness but also clearly gratitude and love. It’s overwhelming. It’s miraculous.
The mysteries of God are like that, but multiplied by infinity: I can’t fully understand a baby’s embrace, but I don’t doubt the child exists. Maybe that’s one reason the Savior decided to come to us precisely as a child.