May 18 – St. Philip’s Devotion

On this second day of St. Philip’s Novena we consider the concept of devotion.

Devotion, from the Latin, de- (“of/concerning”) and votum (vow / promise / prayer) is a singular focusing of attention.  The attention is more than just a matter of referencing something… it’s a life-giving, life-affirming love.

The singularity of devotion is precisely what gives this concept its power.  When you has a devoted friend, spouse, family member… you feel ennobled… you feel a sense of singular worth because another human being has consciously chosen to privilege you with his/her attention and care.  In this devotion can lift both the soul of the giver and receiver to a new, Godly place.

Another side of devotion, another source of its potency is its communal nature.  Like so many things, devotion finds its origin in God himself.  Within the loving communion of the Holy Trinity, God the Father is singularly devoted to God the Son and vice-versa, the Love shared between them in their mutual devotion is so strong it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  The devoted Love of the Trinity overflows its own self as the Son is sent into the world to bring a devoted love to the human race.

It was into this Trinitarian sense of devotion that St. Philip was drawn.  In a miraculous event, Philip’s heart was set afire and enlarged by a special gift of the Holy Spirit… so great was his love of God.  In the celebration of the sacraments, he would often be overwhelmed by his desire for God and fall into ecstasies to the point that he often had to celebrate mass by himself to avoid creating a spectacle.  And in his constant search for the face of his beloved [Jesus], St. Philip’s love sped forth from him as he lavished care on all those who crossed his path.

Questions for Reflection

To whom, to what am I devoted?  What is the relationship between my earthly devotions and my devotion to God himself?  How do I feel, what happens to me when I perceive myself to be the object of someone’s devotion?

Prayer

Philip, glorious patron, gain for me a portion of that gift which thou hadst so abundantly.  Alas! thy heart was burning with love; mine is all frozen towards God and alive only for created things.  I love the world, which can never make me happy; my highest desire is to be well off here below.  O my God, when shall I learn to love nothing else but Thee?  Gain for me, Philip, a pure love, a strong love, and an efficacious love, that, loving God here upon earth, I may enjoy the sight of Him together with thee and all the saints hereafter in heaven.  Amen.  -Bl. John Henry Newman

A Novena to A Saint Who Saw with Eyes of Faith

Today, May 17, marks the beginning of a novena to St. Philip Neri (feast day: May 26)  

Mentioned often on this blog, St. Philip is a great example to we Washingtonians.

•He was a master of purity, which is to say, he saw the world as God sees it… he saw through eyes of faith.

•He’s also a saint of the city.  Paralleling the experience of so many here in DC, St. Philip left his native of Florence arriving in Rome as a young adult.  There he would carry out God’s call.

•Philip experienced what many DC young adults do as the heady dreams of youth matured into a more stable routine marked by discipline, ultimately bearing great fruit.  On several occasions he tried to leave Rome to do the exciting work of evangelization and martyrdom in India.  Each time something stopped him until finally St. John the Baptist appeared to him and told him, “Rome will be your India.”  What seemed less exciting at first ultimately changed the face of the Church as Philip brought thousands to deeper conversion by his ministry.

• Philip was an artist using all the cultural resources of his time to connect with Chirst and to connect others with Christ.  His disciples often gathered for evenings of music, poetry, theater, and rhetoric.

In these and many other ways, St. Philip can be a guide to us as we navigate urban life.

On this first day of his novena, Bl. John Henry Newman recommends we meditate on Philip’s humility

To that end I offer up just two points for meditation based on St. Philip’s litany.  He is called, lux sanctae laetitiae (light of holy joy), and exemplar simplicitatis (example of simplicity).

Holy Joy – What kind of joy are we to have in the midst of humility?  A childlike joy.  Philip often appeared like a clown in order to shun the esteem of the Roman elites.  His acts of faith and penance, his unassuming dress, even the jokes he told kept him grounded, humble.  They also brought joy to all around him.  Eschewing the life of high society he loved to laugh over simple joys with friends… and often brought the nobility to renewed joy by inviting them into his circle of the common man.   “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3)

Simplicity – A great temptation in Washington is to become “big-picture obsessed.”  Problems seem complex.  The arc of a career may not seem to be going exactly where one hopes.  Relationships may not mature as we hope, making us question, “Will I ever find that right person?”  All of these are good questions/issues to wrestle with.  BUT, they should never halt our forward motion or lead us to despair!  Too often they do.  Holy simplicity draws its life from the little-picture of daily life.  Maybe my career isn’t where I’d like it to be… Fine, but I can still serve another today, here and now.  Maybe I haven’t found Mr./Ms. Right but that big picture issue doesn’t have to stop me from loving my neighbors, my friends today, here and now.  The big-picture issues do set our overall direction, but they don’t generally satisfy us day-to-day.  Drawing nourishment from the small-picture is something we can all do between then great decisions.  This becomes the bread and butter of daily existence, the building blocks of our heavenly home. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and HE will lift you up.” (Jas. 4:10)

Holiness, the end of our pilgrimage

Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert
Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert

Lent begins with the pleading of the Prophet Joel, “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole hear.” (JL 2:12-18)  echoed by St. Paul, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.  Behold now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor 5:20-6:2)  …two Beautiful calls to the actions of self-sacrifice commanded by Christ: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)

And these all correspond to the first in a progression of graces (II Pt 1:5-7) from St. Peter: faith and virtue.  Faith and virtue are actions taken in response to the love of God.  Faith is a lived response to God, virtue, a disposition to do the good and avoid the evil.  As we take on these actions, Christ commands his faithful to do so joyfully.  “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:1-6,16-18)  So right off the bat, Lent, which is a microcosm for the Christian life, is a period of joyful self-giving.  We need only look to our great saints as examples.  The early martyrs gave their lives as a response to God and did so while singing hymns in the arenas.  St. Philip Neri, an ascetic of the 16th century was never seen without a smile on his face… Bl. Teresa of Calcutta faced the most horrifying conditions known to man and did so with a smile because she was on pilgrimage to heaven with those for whom she cared.

From these actions of faith and virtue, first undertaken with a sense of pedagogy or instruction the faithful begin to find enlightenment, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”  (Rm 10:8-13)  We walk with God’s people through the deserts of self-giving and we learn how to relate to him an ongoing relationship/friendship develops (cf. Dt 26:4-10).  This is the same enlightenment Christ experiences in the desert.  He himself fasts and prays and by total dependence on the Father begins to realize – at the start of his public ministry – that rooted in the Father’s love, he can face any challenge.  And so he rejects the devil’s threefold appeals to human hunger, vanity and fear (Lk 4:1-13).  The light of the Father’s love shines brighter than the goods of this world.  Here our great example among the saints is Francis of Assisi.

Our faith and virtue grow through enlightenment from a matter of mere instructionalism to a self-propelling dynamic of growth… they become motivated from within as -like Christ- we rejoice in our new relationship with the Father.  And this is our next grace for a Lent: joy.  We need to pray for a joy… not an easy comfortable joy but a foundational joy that keeps us rolling through the hardest times.  It’s the joy of Abraham hearing from God… at the end of your journey I will make your descendants numerous…(Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18) …of Paul who proclaims “our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await the Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Phill. 3:20-4:1)   It’s the deep foundational joy of Peter a James and John who – terrified at the prospect of the crucifixion – were reassured by the Transfiguration on Tabor (Lk 9:28-36)… Each of these is a joy rooted in the future, rooted in the end of the pilgrimage, rooted ultimately in heavenly communion with God.   Such was the joy of St. Agnes.

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Rafael, “Transfiguration”

Joy gives us the oomph… the boost… as it were, to move on to a higher plane of holiness and pray for the grace of continence.  Spiritual continence is, to be colloquial, the right ordering of all our spiritual insides.  The proper balancing of our desires, our needs, obligations… when it’s a choice between good and evil… and harder still when we have to choose between multiple goods.  It’s living out the justification we receive by faith (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8).  Justification: being set in “right-relationship” with God.  Continence is perfected in endurance, living out our newfound integration over a lifetime.  This is often where comfort begins to fade and the hard gritty work of growth sets in.  As St. Paul tells us, “now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light,  for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-14).  It’s the movement of Moses from the early heady excitement of the burning bush, up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence.  It can be dark, the path can seem obscure… we may be afraid of losing ourselves but the balancing of continence is the only way forward.  Here our example is St. Pio of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)

Finally, we come at the end of Lent to the entry into the Promised Land… the Passion of the Christ as he enters his heavenly kingdom… we come to the grace of holiness.  Holiness is that quality which is most properly of God.  Our self-giving at first an act of simple obedience became and experience of enlightenment… filled with joy… prompting us to an enduring spiritual continence… now we reach our great goal of our striving.  Emptied of ourselves, we are filled with Christ, “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (Rm 8:8-11).  Here we take as our example a saint who canonized many saints, John Paul II.  John Paul picked up the invitation of the Second Vatican Council calling all men and women to holiness.  This Universal Call to Holiness, outlined in the epic teaching documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes reminded the Catholic world that entry into heaven is God’s desire for all people and that it cannot be achieved by riding on the coat tails of the vowed religious (priests, nuns, et al.)… The call to holiness must find its response in each Christian souls intentional discipleship (to use a contemporary term).  And this intentional discipleship requires intimate contemplative prayer with the Father, after the model of Jesus himself who raised Lazarus by prayer to the Father.

In closing, I hope this romp through the Lenten readings, as well as a series of saintly examples can dispel from our consciousness the culturally conditioned image of Lent as a time of blind misery.  It’s a pilgrimage… and pilgrimages are not easy, but even their challenges are couched in Gospel joy, the joy of being loved by the Father, inspired to self gift with the Son all offered up in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Love Divine All Loves Excelling

This week we complete our Pre-Lenten examination of the three stages of holiness according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (see posts below).  Having entered the cloud of God’s presence in the Second Stage, we now join Moses in a loving union with God.  Love is the Third Stage of Holiness. Some points for meditation as we go into this week, and Ash Wednesday:

Loving union with God is only completely achieved in Heaven itself.  So, in this world we have to settle for a dynamic of: to seek him is to love him.  Recall the words of Thomas Merton, “Lord I don’t know if I please you, but I think the desire to please you pleases you.”  Any expectation of achieving heaven on earth will, ultimately disappoint us.

Mature Loving union with God begins by HIS initiative, not ours.  St. John tells us, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have love him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn 4:10).  Furthermore, the only Love that is really capable of pleasing God is (shall we call it?) ‘God-Love’.  Our primary task is to empty ourselves.  We need to assume a posture of humble reception.  We need to be filled with the gratuitous delight of the Father, expressed in the sending of the Son.  Only then, filled with this ‘God-love’, will we be in any position to make a return to him.

Our humility will probably hurt at first.  We began to experience this in the cloud of the Second Stage.  This is the denial of the senses, the acknowledgement of our smallness, the purging of the self.  As we let our selves fall away, God fills us.  Questions naturally arises: “Am I a slave?”  “Doesn’t my ‘self’ matter to God?”  Of course God is not enslaving us… of course, our individuality is of value to him… but we have to recognize that to attain our ultimate goal we need to do the most self-possessed thing any human being can do: we must sacrifice ourselves so that His love can carry us to heaven.

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena

The nearest human experience to this is marriage.  In the third stage we enter a mystical marriage with God.  St. Catherine of Siena experienced this.  So did many of the early virgin martyrs.  In marriage there is a constant humbling of the self so that each spouse can help the other to true happiness and, ultimately, heaven.  No one would say that one spouse is a ‘slave’ to the other, but that each freely gives his/herself out of love.  Another human metaphor that comes to mind is hospitality.  When, in humble love of the guest, a host opens his/her home, sacrifices are made, the room is prepared, for the greater experience to come by welcoming in the guest… putting the guest (in some senses) in the driver’s seat in one’s own home.  This is not an experience of slavery or of devaluing the host.  It’s a beautiful gift, freely given.

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Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

How, concretely, do we go about this?  We pray.  We deny ourselves through fasting and almsgiving/care of the poor. We engage in the acts of mercy.  We celebrate the Eucharist well.  “Wait a minute, isn’t this the same stuff we started out with?  Isn’t this just the same old same old?”  NO.  In the Third Stage these same acts take on a whole new character because it’s no longer living but Christ living in us (cf Gal. 2:20).  I do this now regardless of material comfort or circumstance.  My consolations are no longer external, I am now sustained by my internal identity in and relationship with the Father.  I am completely liberated from this world… FREE to give myself on the Cross as Jesus does… out of Love for the Father, filled with the Love of the Father.

This is why the Eucharist is sooooo important!  Because every Sunday becomes a microcosm of the rest of the life of holiness.  We are humble ourselves before God (Kyrie – Lord have mercy).  We acknowledge his glory in a burning bush moment (Gloria – Glory to God in the highest) .  We receive knowledge of him and meditate on that (Verbum domini – This is the Word of the Lord).  Humbling ourselves (Domine non sum dingo – Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof) we receive him (Communio – Holy Communion)… and then we go forth, filled with his Love to do his work as his mystical body on earth, his bride, the Church (ite missa est – Go announce the Gospel of the Lord!).

In art we see this beautifully in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  He began walking, lost, on a wooded road.  His own self will no longer satisfied him.

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

Having passed through hell, purgatory and heaven, he is armed anew, filled with the God-love ready to return to the same world a changed man with new gifts to give to all those he meets.

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Gustave Dore, "The Empyrean" from Dante's Paradiso XXXIII
Gustave Dore, “The Empyrean” from Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII

The Cloud… not all that bad

So far this week, we’ve discussed the second stage of holiness: entering into the cloud of God’s presence.  We’ve focused on some disconcerting aspects of the cloud, and how we may prepare well for them.  We should never forget though, that the cloud is fundamentally a good thing… It is the sign of drawing closer to the presence, albeit mysterious, of GOD, Our Loving Father.  Blessed John Henry Newman once said that prayer is like being in a dark room with your beloved; you feel the presence of the beloved, the warmth of the beloved, though in a mysterious way.  The Cloud can be a place to confront our fears, yes, but always with an eye toward a deeper communion with the divine presence of our beloved.  Recalling Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel of God (Gen. 32:23-ff) a professor once reminded us, “If you have to be in a wrestling match, ‘best to be in one with God.  You’re in good hands!”

The second stage can be a time of beautiful solitude in the darkness… a time to give our senses a rest, to let the Lord do the driving… a time of trust (consider reading Caussade’s abandonment to divine providence)… It’s that special time in a relationship when all the conversations have been had.  You know your beloved’s tastes, his/her interests, how the day went etc… all that’s left is the comfortable silence of reading in the same room… walking wordlessly in the park…  Or as is perhaps more-often the case, the quiet relaxation of falling asleep on the couch watching tv together.  In monastic life, the second stage is marked by a real entry into “Grand Silence.”  (For more on this see the recent documentary of the same name).  If you’ve ever been to an active and healthy monastic community, you’ve experienced this silence when you enter the chapel.  It could be filled with people and you’ll hear a pin drop… the silence itself is life-giving, surrounding and nourishing us like fish in water.

So, it’s true… the cloud can be a little intimidating… but give it time.  You might be amazed at the mysterious relationship that blossoms in the silence when God approaches.

Preparing ourselves for life in the cloud

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The second stage of holiness, “the cloud” of God’s presence, is something most active Christians experience in one way or another during their lives.  Whether we think in terms of Moses on the mountain, or St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the senses, the fact is that being in the dark can be scary.  It can also be beautiful (more on that tomorrow).

How can we prepare ourselves for life in the cloud?  Well, as we’ve already said, when sensory comforts are removed all that is left to us is an invitation to deeper love; love understood as a decision to affirm the life of another even to the point of self-sacrifice.  In the cloud, this decision is an internal affair, since all external data has been cut off.  So, the tools we bring into the cloud must be internal tools… and this brings us to our task: study.

Christian intelectual formation is great training for life in the cloud because it arms us with a self-supporting internal structure for our being.  What should we study?  The short answer is, everything… but some particular helps will be:  The study of Scripture.  As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  We can also study, very fruitfully, the lives of the saints; those cheerful givers and happy warriors who went before us into the cloud.  They’re example teaches us how to proceed.  Consider for a moment St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was wounded in battle.  During his convalescence, cut off from his accustomed secular pleasures, the only thing he had to read was a Bible, and a collection of lives of the saints.  In the solitude of his hospital room (a sort of cloud), Ignatius discovered – through study – the mode in which God was calling him to love… and from that Love sprang the Society of Jesus (thats is, the Jesuits), which went on the change the face of the world!  Study of the official teachings of the Church (i.e. Catechism, preaching by the Pope, etc.) will also yield great benefits.  And if formal theology isn’t an option, the study of the arts: music, poetry, literature, sculpture… All of these can be helpful in discovering, implicitly, the truths conveyed explicitly by theology.

Studying doesn’t seem very “holy” or “spiritual.” Pop-spirituality has, over the last hundred  years, tended to create a distance between intellectual formation and what it means to most people to be “spiritual.”  The intellect is a thing of the person… perhaps it is the most personal thing we have.  But popular spirituality encourages us to seek something outside of us… an, “out of body experience,” or zen-like state of total self-abandonment that treats our humanity, essentially, a an encumbrance to holiness.  This is NOT Christian tradition.  Human intellect, reason, choice… these most uniquely human qualities are precisely what -out of all creatures- make us resemble God the most.  We must bring these tools into the cloud of God’s presence to help us keep moving closer to his likeness.

The Second Phase of Holiness: The Cloud

Cloud-of-Glory

This week we continue our journey with St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Three Ways of Holiness.  Last week we joined Moses before the burning bush as he was illumined, made aware of his identity in relationship with God.  Now, we ascend with him up the mountain into the cloud of God’s holy presence.  The cloud is a great place to be because we know we are with God… but it’s also hard.  The cloud is dark.  It obscures our sight.  We may become frightened, unsure of our footing.

Why this cloud?  St. John of the Cross called the cloud, “the dark night of the senses.” (Note: St. John also speaks of a dark night of the soul, which is slightly different and which we won’t be covering here.) Having entered God’s presence in phase one… and having begun to experience his goodness perhaps even as a matter of habit/second-nature something happens.  The world of sensory perception begins to go stale.  It’s not that the good and beautiful things, relationships, experiences that provided those burning bush moments are any less good, but we perceive their limits, and our hearts yearn for more.  They want the invisible God behind the visible signs.  The sensory world that relies so heavily on our mortal selves doesn’t satisfy the way it used to and this becomes a kind of darkness.

How do we go forward? To begin with, this Sunday we learn that we are not alone.  Christ himself had a deep relationship with the Father.  At the Baptism in the Jordan he heard the Father’s voice, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22).  Well, someone forgot to tell the people of Nazareth, because when Jesus gave them the Good News (as we hear this week) they tried to throw him off a cliff!  On his journey, Jesus too enters the cloud which obscures not only the way forward, but sometimes even our sensory perception of the Father’s love.  In the cloud we are tempted to say, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?!”  

How do we function in this cloud?  The first two readings give us a clue: we dive into those gifts of God which define our humanity:  We recall with our intellect that God, as Jeremiah reveals, made us and that we are wonderfully made!  With intellectual conviction springing from both our own history and his revelation we make an act of the will, “I will go on confident that God never abandons his creation!”  Intellect and Rational Will… the two things that distinguish us from all the other animals on earth allow us to persevere in the cloud.  Related to these is a particular act of the will – noted in the second reading – LOVE.

Love (a.k.a. charity – caritas), as enunciated by Josef Pieper, is a virtue by which we affirm the life of another through self-sacrifice.  Love/charity is a choice we make.  Trained in the ways of charity (cf. I Peter 1, esp. verse 22) we get better and better at forging forward in the cloud.  Love takes on a deeper form than it did in Phase I.  Before, it was desire, before it was affection… it was easily sustained by the senses.  Now, love takes on a new character as it becomes an act of rationally chosen suffering sacrifice.  It matures from the “mother’s milk” of St. Paul’s first preaching to solid food that requires a more mature effort (cf I Cor 3:2 and I Pt. 2:2).  This understanding of love as something rationally chosen even to the point of self-sacrifice helps us understand why Love is the most human thing anyone can do… and thus the best way to fulfill our God-given identity…and thus move closer to heaven.

Where does this darkness/obscurity come from?  Sometimes it’s an honest test from God who allows us to be challenged in order to strengthen our faith.  History is replete with examples, most especially Job. There is another reason for the obscurity of the cloud.  Just as the bright side of our humanity helps us move forward, the darker sides hinder us. The limits of sensory perception, and human understanding are both forms of darkness.  Sin, likewise, obscures our view of the way forward; sometimes our own sins, sometimes the effects of others’.  Even here though, by tenaciously holding on to Jeremiah’s truth about our origins… and by choosing love, we move forward… so that, with Christ, we can pass through the midst of troubles and continue on the path laid out for us by the Father.

When in doubt return to the sacraments

Just a quick Saturday note before we move on to the Second Phase of Holiness Sunday…

In the illuminative phase we’ve meditated a lot on different types of sensory perception that foster “burning bush” moments in which we perceive God’s love direction us:

Direct interventions by God (e.g. St. Paul o the Damascus Road)
Relationships (e.g. Sts. Timothy and Titus)
The power of art to foster the good.

There is one more very primordial sensory experience that is critical to the illuminative way: the Sacraments.  Radical experiences of revelation are infrequent.  Relationships, as we all know, can go well or badly, and art… well it’s in rare a supply nowadays.  These fonts are all too often unsure… but the sacraments are not.

When I prepare couples here on Captiol Hill for marriage one of the first homework assignments I give them is to secure their baptism certificates.  At first it seems like a hoop to jump through… a bit of ecclesiastical bureaucracy… but, as I remind the couples, the documentation gives us confidence.  It reminds us of an objective historical fact: “I was baptized”… and therefore “I am Christian.”  No matter how one may feel at a given moment… no matter how our friendships are going or how inspired we may be by art or the weather or anything else, when the water hit your head and the priest said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” you became a Christian.  That sensory experience establishes a cosmic truth… a rock you can stand on.  And if over the course of a lifetime we obscure that truth by making bad choices (i.e. committing sins), there is another sensory experience available to us, which restores us: Confession.  In that quiet space talking with our Father in Heaven we hear his words, “I absolve you of all your sins.  Go in peace!” It actually happened.  For more on the nature of the sacraments, consult the Catechism.

The point is this: when a sacrament is achieved it has a reality independent of us.  Our own insecurities don’t affect the fact that the sacrament has happened; God has touched us.  On that solid rock, we stand, assured that God is providing burning bush moments for us in the family of the Church giving all of us a chance at holiness!  So when in doubt turn to the Sacraments as a great starting point for your journey.

Art and the Illuminative Way

The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)
The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)

Thus far, meditating on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s First Phase of Holiness we’ve touched on some significant themes: 

  • That the first stage is illuminative, a burning bush moment when God reaches into our existence to lead us by a better more meaningful way.
  • That the first stage is ethical, inviting our humanity to grow and exercise itself for the sake of virtue
  • That the first stage is sensory, lived our preeminently through relationships of deep friendship (i.e. Sts. Paul, Timothy and Titus)

Today we consider another sensory dimension of the Illuminative Phase: ART

The reflection could not be more timely.  Just yesterday President Rouhani of Iran visited Rome.  Italians were shocked to find that their own Capitoline Museum had literally boxed off nude statues in deference to the Iranian president’s religious concerns during his tour.  Personal aside: As a lover of Roman/Art and a former resident of the Eternal City, I was deeply hurt by this decision on the part of the Italian authorities.  Perhaps if Italian President Mattarella ever visits Iran, the authorities their will consider our religious/cultural beliefs by unveiling their female citizens and serving a pork roast with a robust chianti for the state dinner.

Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) 
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Greek Bronze Bust currently on view at the NGA’s “Power and Pathos” Exhibit

Art has been an illuminative part of human history from the beginning.  Our earliest ancestors recorded… and in some ways extended… the reach of their lives in cave paintings (for example).  Classical Western civilization had a love affair with art, to be sure.  Evidence of this is currently on display at the National Gallery’s exquisite exhibit of Greek bronzes, “Power and Pathos”   And of course Christian civilization inherited and extended this appreciation for art as God became visible entering into his own Creation, the revealed, incarnate image of the Father.  Art illumines the way to God and can play a significant role in the first stage of holiness.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC

All that said, the relationship between the West and art has not been without its critics.  Recognizing arts power for good and for evil, Plato recommended banishing certain artists from his ideal Republic.  The Byzantine Empire once tried to destroy all Christian art, latching on to the idea that art was idolatrous.  This iconoclasm was ended by the Church, which, without denying that one could sin by making an idol out of art, discerned that the holy goods that art could inspire were well worth the risk.  Later, proponents of the protestant reformation banished art from many of their communities for similar reasons.

How can we concisely describe the incredible illuminative power of art?  Regarding ethics (again, part of the illuminative way): what is it’s relationship with art?  Donald Beebe, in an insightful exploration of Florentine aesthetics at the time of the reformation had this to say,

“Art functions properly when it leads the beholder to worship and to emulate correct behavior.  It functions inappropriately when it exists for its own sake, when its didactic message goes unheeded or is the occasion of heterodoxy or sin.”  Beebe goes on, “As God’s creation, nature is the artist’s teacher.  In the same way, a sudden learns to draw by copying drawings produced by the master’s intellect.  Little by little, the student learns the style of the master, as the master learned to cry creation that in turn originated by the ingenio of God.”
(-Beebe, Donald.  Savonarolan Aesthetics and their Implementation in the Graphic Arts.  In: In No
Strange Land
, By: Jonathan Robinson, CO.  Angelico Press, 2015. pg.115)

Whether or not one subscribes to such an ethically-oriented sense of art is another conversation, but for our purposes, exploring the illuminative way, I think Beebe’s words are a great guide.  Along those lines, as a very practical resource, I highly recommend reading The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization by Jem Sullivan, PhD.  A local DC luminary in her own right, Dr. Sullivan offers a great review of the role art can play in spirituality, especially in terms of using art as a source of meditation (lectio divina).  It’s a useful essay to have in mind as you walk the streets of DC admiring our public art and architecture, hopefully drawing from it an inspiration to holiness.

For further rumination on the role of art as it inspires ethics and illumination, consider two secular reflections:

PBS’ American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
and
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ”