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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
As any middle school student can tell you, the scientific method is a bedrock of modern thought. It observes sensible data, compares it to known truths, and eventually arrives at reasonably certain conclusions. Applying this process to contemporary life, one can reasonably say, “Our society, our culture, is dying.” Consider just a very few bits of evidence,observed in the papers this last year:
-Hollywood, which generates so much of our popular cultural output, is dominated by sequels, re-makes and series-films that are themselves just screen versions of pre-existing literature. What’s happened to our imaginations?
-The number suicides in the military (traditionally a bastion of lively self-confidence) is up.
For the first time in recent memory, the population of the United States has actually contracted… meaning that even including immigration, we are not generating enough life to replace those who die.
-And, of course, among those who are conceived far too many are terminated by abortion before they even have a chance to breathe; their mothers told by the richest society in history, “we cannot find the resources to support you and your child in this hour of need.”
-All of this in the midst of a particularly acrimonious, utterly cynical election cycle wherein those standing for office on all sides promoted themselves as our “saviors.” Right…
We see evidence in the Church too: In most of the parishes in which I’ve served, children no longer know all the words to traditional Christmas carols, nor to patriotic hymns. Asked to sing, even at a school play or concert, they will stare at their feet in muted embarrassment. The number of baptisms and weddings continues to drop, even in places where vibrant efforts are made (and may be slowly succeeding) at growing the number of adult converts to the Faith. Most of my priesthood has been spent in the suburbs. There, another phenomenon – itself an attempt at life – speaks to the state of culture. How many of us have been to a predominantly white, “anglo” parish where the choir or more often the choir/liturgy “director” foists upon the rest of the congregation hymns from a gospel tradition or lively music in Spanish… despite the fact that neither of those cultural expressions has ever been a part of the parish in question. It comes from the best of intentions: seeing a moribund congregation, the worship leader tries to draw from what he/she perceives as a more lively culture… and yet, the mixture, well-intended though it may be, really doesn’t work. Culture can’t be forced.
We might well be tempted to despair, but for the power of history: We’ve been here before. The Roman world of the 1st century had a lot in common with us. As devotion to the Olympian cult waned, people became very cynical. Attempts were made to patch together a new religious observance from the corners of the empire, but patch-work religion rarely generates real life. Peoples crushed under the boot of the legions watched as their heritage was subsumed and repackaged to serve the needs of the imperial state. Husbands and wives were traded in transactional marriages the resembled the horrific slave markets of the time, and fathers had the right to execute children born with defects by exposing them to the elements. Into this scene entered the author of life and culture, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus’ birth began a re-birth for the human soul, and from that re-birth flowed a new life-giving Christian culture that spread, not by the sword but by the compelling force of life’s own attractive beauty. It all began in a stable at Bethlehem… and it ca begin there again. Let’s consider for a moment those who gathered at the foot of the Infant Lord.
His mother and foster-father – Mary and Joseph- found themselves in a very irregular situation. Betrothed but not yet fully married, Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child, traveling by donkey as her due date approached. Why was she traveling? Because the conqueror of her people demanded that her husband register to pay taxes in the town of his birth. How would the child be born? How would he be explained? Would this first-century carpenter and his wife be good parents in the midst of a village of wagging tongues? Impossible questions for any human being to answer alone, but at the foot of the manger embracing the newborn King, they found in his love the ability to rejoice and proceed forward in hope.
The Shepherds – rejected by the polite society of towns and cities, shepherds scratched out a living in the provinces. They were uneducated, crude, and given how they were usually treated we may well suppose them to have been among the more cynical/purely practical members of an oppressed society. And yet… at the foot of the manger – one of their own feed stalls, by the way – looking at new life in Christ, somehow they found the joy and renewal needed to go out and proclaim truly good news to their neighbors.
The Magi – As Pope Benedict points out in Spe Salvi, the Magi represent the rationalistic pagan establishment of the time. They had followed the natural signs in the sky to a supernatural end. Gazing at the child in the manger, they were converted from philosophers to theologians, finding in him a message of joy and hope to bring back to their neighbors in pagan lands.
I don’t know what the precise roadmap will look like to rebuilding our society and culture, but I know this isn’t the first time western civilization has found itself in this condition. Whatever a life-giving future looks like, we can be certain that it will begin at the foot of the manger where we are loved by the Infant, Incarnate Lord. Spend some time over the next weeks in prayer there. Visit your parish manger scene, or sit before the tabernacle to be loved by the Lord. Who knows what life-giving inspiration may come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.”
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.
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.
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
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.