The First Christian Artist

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“Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and endowed with inexpressible new grace. …Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.”

St. Anselm’s words about today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception aptly describe not only the feast per se, but also the Catholic understanding of culture art and technology… all things on which this blog has reflected.

Catholics believe that when sin entered the human experience, it affected not only us rational beings, but all the rest of creation.  Consequently, even our greatest attempts to use the stuff of creation [i.e. culture] would always be hobbled by corruption.  The Incarnation of the Son, Christ, is (to use a modern metaphor) gene therapy for the whole of the cosmos… a treatment that (a) finds its origins in the Immaculate Conception of Mary when the Father prepared a worthy dwelling  place for the Son in the Virgin’s womb, (b) reaches full force in the birth of Jesus, and (c) comes to completion in the Passion Death and Resurrection.

Mary, then, is the first Christian artist: she infuses our world with Christ so that the things of this world might receive a heavenly orientation, leading everyone and everything back to God.  Today might be an ideal day for us to think about and/or pray for artists.  In a secular vision they are those talented people who lift our hearts and minds to higher things… but when they work with eyes of faith, they can lift our very souls to God himself.

The Miracle of Child Birth

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Walking along the street in DC this week, I noticed something I haven’t seen since I lived in Italy: an “It’s a girl!” bow… A big puffy bow proudly attached to the front door of a townhouse.  Seeing those announcements always makes me smile.  You know that the neighbors have all congratulated the family, that far-flung relatives will be coming for visits… An aura of joy seems to grace the house when that bow goes up.  It made me think of one of this season’s great Biblical quotes,

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:5)

Every parent I’ve ever met agrees, childbirth is a miracle.  The irony is that an infant is something so self-contained, so dependent, so knowable.  Aren’t miracles all about the un-knowable?  Yes and no.

Some people say that miracles (or anything to do with God, really) are unintelligible and so they question the existence of any object of faith.  The birth of the Infant Christ gives us a clue to another way that we might consider things of faith.  Father John Saward puts it this way in his book, “Cradle of Redeeming Love” :

“When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency, but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand.”

…kind of like holding a baby, be it the Infant Jesus or one’s own little sister.  That child is understandable, but there is so much there, that our minds can’t possibly grasp it all at once.  All the possibilities of a baby’s life, all the love he or she will experience and share… the feeling when an infant grips your finger with all his or her strength… the experience of being embraced by an baby with a combination of utter neediness but also clearly gratitude and love.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s miraculous.

The mysteries of God are like that, but multiplied by infinity: I can’t fully understand a baby’s embrace, but I don’t doubt the child exists.  Maybe that’s one reason the Savior decided to come to us precisely as a child.

Travel: a voyage without and within

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Travel, one of life’s great experiences, opens us.  Exposing us to different palates of color, sound and taste, travel challenges us to navigate, not only across geography but across the contours of the self.  What does the place I’m visiting have in common with me and my life?  What differences seem to be of value?  Can I incorporate useful diversities into my own life and sense of self?  Washington is a traveler’s city, to be sure.  Not only is our home a destination, but from here our neighbors go to the four corners of the world for civil, military, humanitarian, or commercial purposes.  So travel seems a worthwhile subject for meditation when we look at DC through eyes of faith.

One way to engage in such meditation is a visit to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries.  To begin with both galleries are dedicated to Asian arts, subject matter that is foreign to most Americans’ experience… Beyond the art, the very design of the [Sackler] building is wholly different: the entire gallery is subterranean.  It’s a wonderfully wrenching way to open one’s mind, leaving not only the “West,” but even the surface of the earth to be immersed in a culture that is so “other” than one’s own.

Two exhibits, currently on view at Freer/Sackler focus specifically on the power of travel travel art: “The Traveller’s Eye,” and “Fine Impressions.”

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Unlike many exhibits of travel art, which look at other parts of the world through western eyes, The Traveller’s Eye shares travel art by Asian artists about voyages on their own continent.    Abstract East Asian miniatures, painted with single-hair brushes populate some incredible silk scrolls.  There’s also a collection of brilliantly colored photos by Indian photographer Raghubir Singh that, for the first time in my life, made me think, “Maybe I should visit India.”  To see these works is to be transported, to question all one’s own aesthetic assumptions, and, arrive at newer deeper understandings of them.  I visited the exhibit a week ago and I’m still chewing on how to incorporate what I saw into my own understanding.

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Fine Impressions is -for me- more familiar.  It’s James McNeill Whistler’s Venetian prints.  Having studied in Italy for five years, Venice is one of my favorite places in the world.  The curator’s praised the artists’s ability to capture light in black and white IMG_0306etchings.  For me though, examining Whistler’s prints, I was struck by how – with ink and paper -he could communicate the “creakiness” of the city.  I could hear the squeak of doors opening, the rustle of long-withered canopies in the breeze and the aged yawning of gondolas plying the canals.  Perhaps the greatest witness to Whistler’s ability is that these prints inspired Charles Lang Freer to begin his collection art from overseas, eventually expanding into Asian arts… and bequeath it to the nation as a gift for all citizens.  Behold the power of travel!

For more on The Freer and Sackler Galleries, visit their WEBSITE.  For more on American artists who studied/worked abroad, consider reading David McCullough’s excellent work: The Greater Journey.  For classic books that demonstrate the power of travel and travel art try: The Italian Voyages (by, Goethe), The Stones of Venice (by, Ruskin), The Voyage of the Innocents (by, Twain), likewise works by Frances Mayes, and Bill Bryson.

Our Deepest Yearning: The Love that moves the sun and stars

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

Recently, the Catholic community of Washington experienced a sad loss.  Our Auxiliary Bishop (bishop who assists the Cardinal), Leonard Olivier died.  At 91 he led a long, holy and truly gracious life.  Attending the vigil mass (mass celebrated the night before the actual funeral), I was struck by a line from the Book of Job, “my inmost being is consumed with longing.”  So far this week, we’re reflected on the longing for a better world, the pitfalls of ambition (another kind of longing)… Let’s muse just a little on the power of yearning…on why it is that longing can consume our whole being… shall we?

Job is one of the great characters of Biblical history.  In the midst of great suffering, he is consumed with longing for seeing his Vindicator/Redeemer.  St. Augustine said that prayer is “yearning for God…for our heavenly homeland.”  It’s an all-consuming yearning.  In his Confessions, Augustine affirms, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee [God].”

This is the “root” desire that fuels all our other wants/needs: to be enveloped in perfect love… to return to the original communion with God from whence we came.  Recall again, St. John Paul II’s great phrase: man has a “nostalgia for original beauty.”  For Catholics it makes sense that desire is such a big part of our lives… and lest anyone should think that I’m over-exalting desire, consider this: The very word “desire” is from the Latin “desidera,” “of the stars.”  Even Carl Sagan, a cynic about traditional conceptions of God, said that man is made from “star stuff.”  Desires, man’s reaching for the stars, are serious things that speak to our origins and our end… Desires merit a sacred reverence.

Dante Alighieri situates his entire Divine Comedy in terms of desire.  At the beginning of his epic pilgrimage through hell, purgatory and heaven, the author finds himself in a mid-life crisis, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found that I was in a dusky wood; for the right path, whence I had strayed was lost.”  His journey through the frustrated lesser desires of those in hell, and the noble yearning of those in purgatory culminates in the acceptance that what man truly longs for “with his inmost being” is nothing less than the Love of God: “by a lighting flash my mind was struck – and thus came the fulfillment of my wish.  My power now failed that phantasy sublime: My will and my desire were both revolved, as is a wheel in even motion driven, by Love, which moves the sun and other stars.”

What are my desires?  Do I have desires that consume my inmost being?  How are they connected with my own sense of identity?  Do my desires ultimately drive me toward the stars, toward something higher?  How are my desires connected with my sense of the divine?  All good questions to ask ourselves from time to time.