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.
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.