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.

A light that doesn’t die

Last week’s Sunday Gospel (Mt 5:13-16) spoke beautifully, warning us to keep our lights burning brightly before the world. It’s something of a theme taken up during the weekly Office of Readings in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Having left them to continue his missionary journeys, Paul hears that the Galatians have fallen back into a dependence on earthly laws of the Old Covenant rather than a focus on faith and the New Law of grace. Nearing the end of the letter, the Apostle asks a question that touched me deeply,

“…you know that it was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you and you did not show disdain or contempt because of the trial caused you by my physical condition, but rather you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. Where now is that blessedness of yours? Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

Despite his limitations, Paul’s first preaching must’ve been so full of life and hope. The zeal of his former days transformed into an evangelism that clearly shined for the Galatians. So excited were their souls that they would’ve torn out their own eyes; such a vivid, if macabre image. What happened to them? What happens to us that dims the zeal of beginnings hiding our light under a bushel basket?

Sometimes I notice it my own life. Ministry becomes routine. A dense fog of paperwork, politics and policy clog the air threatening to drown my excitement, my hope. Even those who first preached the Gospel to me seem far off, burdened perhaps by their own fog. And I hear Paul’s question, “Where now is that blessedness of yours?” Then… just as things seem darkest a new light…or rather a re-newed light sparks. It happens in my morning prayers each day. It doesn’t come from earthly preachers, nor any other secular circumstance but from the Truth and the Love that I have known; his name is Jesus. Whatever happened to the sower, the seed seed has sprouted and is now autonomous within me. My relationship with the Lord can be ever old and ever new… and no one can extinguish it.

The month of February was once explicitly dedicated to preparation for Lent, such was the wisdom of the old church calendar. There’s no reason for that not to be the case today. Pray! Pray during this month to prepare for the warfare of Lent. Renew your zeal. In winter’s coldest weeks pray for new warmth and light! So that we can enter into Lent with our lamps held aloft, guiding us all to new heights of holiness.

Tying it all together

One beautiful but challenging consequence of the reforms of Vatican II is that on a daily basis any member of the faithful can be totally immersed in Scripture. It’s not even 8am and already I’ve been exposed to: six psalms, an excerpt from Galatians, Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, and various commentaries on all of them… and that’s just from saying the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer and Mass. It’s a little overwhelming actually. How does one tie it all together?

Well, there’s no one rule on how to make connections between the readings. Certainly whatever links one makes have to be reasonable and coincide with Teaching. I couldn’t, for example, read the Bible and come to the conclusion that it’s ok to say… falsely accuse my brother… because that would contradict the Commandments. That caution aside, what is the average Catholic to Do?

I find it helpful to have a theme for whatever period of time I’m reading the Scriptures. During Christmas and the Epiphany-centered month of January my theme was “getting to know Jesus”. Everything I read or heard in church got channeled through that appropriately seasonal theme. Having been introduced to Jesus in January, February is my month for prayer…since prayer is the vehicle for my ongoing friendship with the Lord. As I figure it, on this year’s calendar anyway, that should set me up nicely for the start of Lent on March 1… and forty days’ meditation on salvific suffering. As you can tell, I like using the Church calendar to guide my prayer. Other guides might include the lives of the saints: “what would saint. (____) say about these readings?” The Holy Father’s preaching (daily masses Wednesday audiences and Sunday angelus) can also be a good guide.

What all these guides… any guide really… have in common is that they are an objective boundary to keep our subjective thoughts and meditations from going off in wild or unhealthy directions. Some local mega churches in the D.C. area have begun preaching a “prosperity Gospel” that teaches: God will reward good behavior with wealth. Any look at the actual objective words of Jesus reveals this to be nonsense… likewise the lived experiences of faithful Christians across the centuries. Guides are limiting, its true… they limit us to following the right path all the way to heaven. As we look with eyes of faith at the vast quantity of Scripture available to us today, seek out a good guide. You’ll be glad you did.

Catholicism: Just Do It

St. Bonaventure was a great poet, theologian, and really a second founder of the Franciscan Order.  He was the theologian who gave institutional staying power to the charismtic revolution begun by St. Francis himself.  So it’s appropriate that we should  look to him for very practical concrete advice about daily faith.  I found such yesterday in The Office of Readings:

We must come with pure faith to the Father of light and acknowledge him in our hearts.  We must ask him to give us through his Son, in the Holy Spirit a true knowledge of Jesus Christ,  and along with that knowledge a love of him.  Knowing and loving him in this way, confirmed in our faith and grounded in our love, we can know the length and breadth and depth and  height of sacred Scripture.

Lots of people tell me they want to learn more about the Bible.  It’s a beautiful thirst on their part.  But Before one can dive into Scripture study or any growth in the life of faith, really, we have to pray simply -as St. Bonaventure suggests- putting the whole enterprise in the hands of the Lord who is himself the origin of all faith.

It’s like a child learning to play the piano: he won’t be Beethoven overnight.  Even before the chords and arpeggios, there’s that most basic step of entrusting oneself to the guidance of the teacher…  and isn’t that where, so often, we miss a step? I know it is for me.

Just in the last month, living in a new parish with new challenges and very little staff support, I’ve had to carefully discipline myself to learn new processes, skills etc… The first step is always asking for help from a neighboring pastor, from the central office, from friends and professionals who’ve gone through it all before.  The hardest part is picking up the phone to make that call, but let me tell you it’s worth it.

Aquinas reminds us that virtue is not in the dreaming, in the intention “I want to be a Scripture scholar… I want to be Beethoven… I want to be a good parish priest…” but in the doing.  So I suppose my witness this morning would be this: all of Catholicism begins by getting on our knees and asking for help… “Just do it!” You’ll be grateful you did.

The artfulness of sledge hammers

Walking around the city today a very mundane sight caught my attention:  a building site on the 1700 block of M Street, NW… One building is in the process of being demolished between two others (see photo).


Do you notice what I noticed?  The adjacent building has hardly been scratched by the destruction!  It may not seem like much, but if you’ve ever worked with a sledge hammer you know it’s not exactly an instrument of finesse.

I marveled at the work crew’s achievement for a moment then walked on.  I’m sure the destruction will be matched eventually by equal feats of construction.  It’s all very impressive… but it pails in comparison to God’s achievements in nature.  Whether it’s me strolling the city or any of us being self-impressed, a dose of humility never hurts the avid humanist.  I was reminded as much when I sat down later with this verse from Bl. John Henry Newman:

Man goeth forth with reckless trust upon his wealth of mind, as if in self a thing of dust creative skill might find; he schemes and toils; stone wood and ore subject or weapon of his power.

By arch and spire, by tower-girt heights, he would his boast fulfill; by marble births, and mimic lights – yet lacks one secret still; where is the master hand shall give to breathe to move to speak to live?


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?

Calming the Stormy Waters

Earlier this week our school had a two hour delay because of some winter weather.  Children whose parents didn’t get the message came to our morning mass to get out of the cold, and -as they are wont to do- fell into chattering and giggling in the pews.  After mass, we had a little chat.

It’s hard for kids to understand the value of silence, the importance of calming the stormy sea.  In today’s Office of Readings, Paul gives his famous command to the Thessalonians (I Thess. 5:16), “Joy be with you always.  Never cease praying.”  But why?  As he alludes to throughout the rest of the Letter, this Christian life of ours, guided by prayer, opens us to a deeper wisdom, an ability to follow the Truth who is Jesus.  Bishop Diadochus of Photice puts it beautifully in his treatise, “On Spiritual Perfection,” also in today’s Office, “The light of true knowledge makes it possible to discern without error the difference between good and evil. … Therefore we must maintain great stillness of mind even in the midst of our struggles.” He goes on, “No fish can hide in a tranquil sea and escape the fisherman’s sight.  The stormy sea, however, becomes murky… the fisherman’s skills are useless.”  As much as anything else, prayer is us calming the seas of our heart so the Christ the fisherman can do his work.  As an aside, this reminds me of one title for my favorite saint, Philip Neri: “Piscator fluctuantiam,” Fisherman of the Wavering… such a great image.

In today’s Gospel (Mk. 6:1-6), Jesus returns to his native land but can do very little there because the people are so agitated by his words.  Their hearts were not calm and opened to the goodness directly in front of them. So today’s lesson isn’t just for kids… it’s for us adults too.  Indeed, in my community, I hear more and more each day about adults whose hearts, disturbed by the winds of the world simply can’t comprehend the goodness possible in the life of the Church.  They’re always on the defensive, worried about self-image, past sins, even the possibility of some person or circumstance irreparably harming them.  So we’re going to work to make our parish a haven, a safe place where their inner sea can find calm once again… so that Jesus the fisherman of souls can do his work.

“Joy be with you always.  Never cease praying.”

Being merely a breath

In today’s Morning Prayer we hear from Psalm 144:
“Lord what is man that you care for him,
mortal man that you keep him in mind;
man, who is merely a breath,
whose life fades like a passing shadow.”
Reading those words (which I’ve read thousands of times) my mind turns, not to the abstract sense of death, but rather to my day, yesterday.

Monday is “get the wheels moving day” in every parish I’ve ever served in. Voicemails from the weekend need to be processed, people begin calling the office with questions and issues that came up Sunday at parish meetings, or in the normal course of parish life.  Plus, of course, it’s Monday!  After the beauty of Sunday worship there’s always a come-down as mundane Monday strikes again.  Monday’s not “bad,” per se… it’s just work.  Yesterday seemed particularly disjointed.  I couldn’t really dig in at my desk.  Interruptions kept coming, as well as unexpected requests.  I really felt like my life was but a breath or a passing shadow.

It’s Tuesday and now, and with a good night’s sleep, some hind sight and the help of the Psalmist I’m thinking, “Maybe Monday wasn’t so bad.”  Jesus’ own life was like a breath… a passing shadow.  He only lived thirty three years.  Of those, only three comprised his public ministry, and those were tumultuous.  Nonetheless, God deigned to take on our passing shadow life… He embraced it, clutched it close to himself and brought forth from it new Resurrection life.  It doesn’t mean that human life is easy or that the tumult doesn’t sometimes exhaust… or even hurt us; Jesus himself cried out on the Cross.  But for those of us who look on this life with eyes of faith, there’s a happy ending in store.  Amen.

Epiphanies Big and Small and in Every Age



Today, the Church in the US marks Epiphany, that beautiful day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to adore the Infant Lord.  Libraries of books could (and have) been written expounding on the meaning of the event.  For myself, one dimension sticks out this year: Epiphany is a sign on earth that points us to the heavens.  ‘makes sense, really for isn’t that what the ministry of Jesus was all about?  He came as a man to conduct men to the heavens.  Such is also the meaning of each of the miracles.  In Gospel Greek, the “miracles,” were called “semeia,” “signs” in English… and a sign never points to itself, it points to a destination yet to be reached… The sign keeps us going on the way.  We’ve encountered a number of these signs in the readings lately.

Detail from the Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

Earlier in the week John the Baptist pointed Andrew to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andrew then leads Peter to Christ.  Together Andrew and Peter lead Nathaniel.  Each becomes a sign pointing to Jesus… and Jesus points us to the Father in Heaven.  Friday we read about the Baptism of the Lord, when the Father and the Spirit testified to the Son, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Saturday, Jesus testifies to himself by performing his first miracle at Cana.  So many signs, all telling us, “There is something more to this world than meets the eye.  Keep going.”

St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC

I’ve arrived at my new parish assignment, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Southeast DC.  The first three days have been VERY full, exhausting actually.  Priests have to move into wholly new surroundings, learn the lights, locks and locations of a new property all while shepherding the life of that new place forward without missing a step.  The devil tempted me to despair at several points.  Before arriving I found out that the music program had been cut.  The day I arrived I discovered that my 3-day-a-week volunteer secretary had decided to retire, the organ doesn’t turn on and… well, you get the idea.

Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

I prayed in chapel first for music.  The Church teaches that music is a constitutive part of the mass… it’s not really an option.  “Lord,” I said, “you want music at your mass.  Help me.”  and he did!  My friend Luca came forward and announced out of nowhere that he is a classically trained organist / pianist.  “Lord,” I said, “I need an electrician to make the organ work.” Sure enough, a parishioner came forward in conversation and revealed that his brother is an electrician!  He’ll be here Tuesday.  Finally, I asked the Lord for someone to answer the phones in the office, and sure enough, a woman presented herself to volunteer hours at the desk.  Finally, just today, I woke up without a voice… a developing sore throat turned into laryngitis just in time for my first Sunday mass.  kneeling before the altar, I begged the Lord to make mass happen… and wouldn’t you know it… I got to my chair, opened my mouth and found my voice again!  It promptly cut out again after the last mass.

Small signs, perhaps, but for me they’ve done the trick… they’ve kept me walking, sacrificing on the way to heaven.  Another thing about these Epiphany signposts is that they tell us “Jesus is here, not there”  In a unique way, Christ is fully present in the Catholic Church.  That’s a message worth sharing with others.  That’s truly Good News.  There are so many in my new parish who need the hope of that message, who need an epiphany.  So I’m inviting all of the parishioners to work toward that goal… to announce the Good News to everyone we know… but particularly to all the homes of our neighborhood.  How we do that will be a subject of discernment over the coming months, but the epiphanies I’ve received so far are enough to convince me that we can do it together in Christ.  Happy Epiphany!

Stained Glass Window of St. Jean Vianney, St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)