Taxi Cab Wisdom and the Search For Happiness

Taking a queue from my last post’s saint, Philip Neri, and a nice encounter two days ago,  I’m starting a multi-part reflection on joy in city life… I hope you’ll follow along:

It’s a basic tenet of nearly every school of human philosophy that happiness, true happiness is the universal goal of everyone… However one defines it, all of us seek to be “happy,” rather than, “sad.”  The Greeks called this eudaemonia – a happiness that is tied up with goodness and living out one’s divinely given purpose.  I’ve been praying about this search, and got input from an unexpected source this past week: my taxi driver.  Commenting on the dichotomy between DC’s beauty and the anxiety of its residents he remarked,

“What’s the good of having the good life if you don’t live it?  Seriously man, some people are never happy ’til they’re miserable.”

There’s something to the cabbie’s wisdom.  It’s not just the classic, “If only Americans would be more European; working to live rather than living to work.”  We take ourselves, our careers so seriously… as if they were eternal, galaxy-changing things.  In the midst we find ourselves sad.  Our dour demeanors might not be so bad if life promised  to respond with security for each of us, but that’s not the case is it?

 

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The most stone-faced pin-striped lawyer is just as likely to get caught in a smoke-filled metro tunnel as anyone else.  Plans thrown off, an important deal ruined as a result… Where did all his seriousness get him?  All of us know stories of friends who worked, planned, struggled for a promotion only to lose it, perhaps even a whole career, for reasons completely outside their control.  At the end of the day, such a person doesn’t even have happy memories to enjoy… only stories of struggle sadness and a tragic end.  Looking at the state of affairs through eyes of faith, what might we discern?

If gravity doesn’t necessarily get us happiness maybe a little foolishness, or at least some light-heartedness will?  Dont’ get me wrong, I’m not proposing anyone be foolhardy (which Thomas Aquinas defines as a vice)… this isn’t about ignoring real responsibilities in order to go on a round-the-world cruise… or going skydiving with a heart condition.  That’s just stupid.  But if we have a child-like trust in God our Father, our joys reman just as strong as ever while our stumbles don’t bruise us as they used to.  In tomorrow’s post we’ll consider some saintly examples of this lesson, but for now, consider praying about your own happiness… how’s it going?  Do you feel truly FREE to be happy in your life?

Tomorrow we’ll consider some examples of saints who discovered the wisdom of foolishness…

Holiness… a broader word than you might think

Universal Call to Holiness
“The Universal Call to Holiness” – National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

 

When we think of holiness we often think of great ascetics, men and women whose acts of self-denial may seem – at first blush – bizarre.  In a city as comfortable as our DC, is daily holiness possible?  Is great asceticism possible?  The answer is “yes.”  More surprising is what the living of daily asceticism can actually look like.

Catholics believe that everyone is called to holiness by the imitation of Christ in ways particular to each individual’s life.  The common denominator in so infinitely complex a formula of holiness is self-gift for the sake of others.  As Christ offers up his whole self to the Father on the Cross asking that we might be forgiven our sins, we too offer ourselves.  That’s what asceticism (from the Greek askesis) means: to do a physical act in pursuit of a spiritual result.  Here we discover the wide reach of personal holiness.

Sometimes we offer ourselves through very overt acts of self-denial… a woman pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming truck, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit for example.  Other acts are more implicit: the man who silently gives up alcohol asking God to give graces to his family…  Christ himself holds up fasting prayer and almsgiving as the three classical forms of self-gift in daily life.  He also warns that we should be cheerful givers  How does that work??  This is where love comes into the picture.  When we love the other we’re serving, that’s when “denial” becomes “gift.”  And what can be more joyous than giving someone a gift?!?!

Consider for a minute Shakespeare’s character Falstaff.  An ale-swilling party animal, to be sure, but he loved everyone of his friends and offered himself to them completely…literally to the point of passing out!  A little foolish?  Sure.  Falstaff lacked in discipline, but generations of readers have fallen in love with this amiable rogue because in his heart he was a giver.  If we think of Falstaff as one extreme of self-gift, and say… Blessed Mother Theresa as the other (a woman of exceptional discipline and overt self-denial)… we see that there really is a huge range of holiness out there in which each of us can find our niche.

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One saint, a saint of the city who was especially adept at helping others find their own joyous and beautiful asceticism is St. Philip Neri.  I like to think of him as an “aesthetic ascetic.”  Philip lived in sixteenth century Rome and preached a matrix of virtues.  He loved city-folk; never leaving Rome after his arrival there.  He taught that acts of obedience and perseverance in love yield joy… as joy consumes the soul it leads us to be truly free, which disposes us to contemplate God’s presence.  Contemplating God’s presence is the definition of heaven… not a bad goal.  Philip created an environment where this process could unfold and called it the Oratory.  What does this have to do with Washington?  Well, as it turns out an oratory is in formation at one of our downtown parishes, St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park.  If you’re a denizen of DC and interested in seeking personal holiness, you might check it out and see how you’re being called to be a aesthetic ascetic for the 21st century.

Tattoos, seen through eyes of faith

An article caught my eye in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (WPM), “Layers: Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”.  This new old form of body art is present in so many ways… in your face: another guy walks by at the gym with a full sleeve tattoo extending from an A-neck undershirt.  Other times it’s more of a, “wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?” moment, as with the woman I passed in a restaurant recently, a butterfly delicately traced just below the hairline of her neck seemed to be her ever-present wink at the world.  There’s the repressed tattoo-bearer: the man who, extending his arm to check his watch, shows some wild ink beneath an otherwise docile oxford shirt.  Finally, there’s the less-frequent “all-consuming” tattoo wearer, so covered in symbols that the tattoo is actually known as a “full-body suit.”

It would seem that tattoos and the reasons behind them are as individual as the people who get them.  Some common themes from the WPM’s interviews seem to be:

  • Conscious self-assertion, “Hey world, this is who I am.”
  • A reminder or augmentation of one’s beauty.
  • A personal reminder of one’s own biography, especially moments of suffering.
  • Spiritual statements about one’s origins, conflicts, and feelings about good and evil.
  • Tattoos as ongoing hobby, “I keep adding them and they eventually connect with each other.”
  • Tattoos as a statement of individuality or independence from the norm of society.

To be sure, I would NEVER get a tattoo and I don’t recommend them for others… I believe the teachings of Christ, handed down by the Church – succinctly: God made his creation and called it good… We are born beautiful not by virtue of our appearance but by our very being itself.  If I were horribly disfigured by an accident, penniless and incapacitated, God my Father would still find me beautiful because he made me, he gave me being.  My existence, whether comfortable or filled with suffering is capable of serving Him if I offer it to him… and in this I find my dignity… no need for additions.

All that said, the article above really moved me.  The people interviewed struck on tremendously important human themes:

  • identity
  • memory
  • beauty
  • spirituality

 

I don’t judge anyone who strives after such themes in peace and integrity of conscience.  Such striving is beautiful… but rereading the article several times, I’m moved with pity more than anything.  If I need to add something (i.e. a tattoo) to myself to achieve those human categories, isn’t that a sort of a crutch… which presupposes a disability?  If I cannot be fulfilled apart from painting myself, is that a sort of self-slavery?  Then again, where’s the line between one who wears tattoos and a woman putting on discreet shades of makeup before work?  Is it a slippery slope from one to the other?  These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’d be very interested to discover more about what the thought/emotional process is in those who elect to get tattoos.  In the meantime, the Washington Post Magazine’s editors certainly chose an apt title, “Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”

Picturing Mary on her Feast Day

Caccia, "St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio" (ca. 1625)
Caccia, “St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio” (ca. 1625)

Today, January 1, 2015, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God… what a perfect day to consider the National Museum of Women in the Arts’  (NMWA) big hit exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”.

I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole.  The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff.  The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts.  As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself.  How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!

Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:

Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her.  There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her.  Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes.  I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church.  Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.

For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home.  I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God.  What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit?  Mary loved Jesus.  It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands.  She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened.  At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine.  Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus.  She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did.  Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem.  “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer.  Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us.  As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them.  As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world?  What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively?  How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her.  Visiting this exhibit was a great start.

Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban.  I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets.  Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written.  Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?”  It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it.  I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.”  Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.

Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?”  It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades.  St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places)The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals,   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997).  More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005.  Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject.  All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.”  My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.

Visions of the city, Part 2: Investigating Where We Live

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Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next (IWWL):
It would be hard to find more contrast between two exhibits than between yesterday’s “The Architectural Image” and the subject of today’s reflection, Investigating Where We Live.  A well conceived and beautifully executed project, IWWL asked thirty teens from around DC to explore set sections of our city using their smartphones/social media to photograph, share, and ask others about what they think characterizes Washington today, and what might define the city in the future.  The results were an optimistic, energetic assessment that I can only describe as “contagious.”

Whereas yesterday’s exhibit was all about the buildings, the creations, students in the IWWL program were much more focused on the dynamic realities of their city: it’s living breathing people, the services that aide those people, the cultures that express their personalities.  Words that keep popping up include: culture, diversity, politics, neighborhoods, history, crowding.  If the youth involved in this project are any indication, we can reasonably ask if a shift has occurred from a 20th century focus on technology, efficiency and structures, to a 21st century focus on persons, and their well-being.

Results of interviews by the IWWL students
Results of interviews by the IWWL students

Photography at the exhibit was encouraged… so I’ll let the students speak for themselves.  Below are a series of photos by the exhibit students, as well as some of their reflections that struck me as most profound.

"Rights for All" Photo by Kennedy Jackson, age 12
“Rights for All” Photo by Kennedy Jackson, age 12

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Visions of the City: Part I “The Architectural Image”

National Building Museum Atrium
National Building Museum Atrium

 

Optics are so important… those lenses through which we see objective realities.  Do I see life through rose-colored glasses?  Do I see principally through eyes of revolution and discontinuity (i.e. Marx)?  Do I see through a lens of deconstruction, as might a physicist? or through a transcendent holistic lenses as might an impressionist painter?  Two exhibits currently on view at the National Building Museum (NBM) offer starkly contrasting lenses for viewing city life.  Both are powerful, and very much worth a visit.  Today we’ll cover The Architectural Image 1920-1950.  Tomorrow I’ll offer reflections on the second exhibit Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next.

Howard Cook - "Harbor Skyline"
Howard Cook – “Harbor Skyline”

The Architectural Image 1920-1950 – gives us an impressive array of cityscapes that show the King Kong-like mark made by the rise of the International Style in architecture.  The prints, mostly black and white, represent several twentieth century evolutions:  The artistic medium of etching (see an earlier post on J.M. Whistler’s 19th century contributions to this same art form), the growth new architectural and engineering techniques which birthed the skyscrapers that characterize most of these works, and finally (perhaps most intriguing of all) an evolving urban vocabulary.

Turner - "The Fighting Temeraire" an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat
Turner – “The Fighting Temeraire” an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat

The NBM’s prints represent a cap on an exhibit I saw in London ten years ago. In the summer of 2005, the Tate Britain mounted a beautiful historical retrospective.  Paintings of the UK from the 17th through the 20th century were presented, showing the evolution of the island.  Predominantly pastoral scenes from the agricultural era gave way to the development of 18th and 19th century technology.  At first, the shift was benign, almost romantic: a blacksmith teaching his son the trade amid bucolic splendor.  Benign gave way to intriguing ingenuity as railroads and lone steamboat cut across later landscapes.  Eventually the full flowering of industry replaced the lilies of the field  and smoke stacks from Dickensian workhouses rose where forests once stood.

Turzak - "Palm Olive Building"
Turzak – “Palm Olive Building”

At the NBM, characteristic human words like “pastoral,” “romantic,” or even, “inventive,” are wholly blotted out in the displays of Howard Cook, Louis Lozowick, Leon Gilmour and Carles Turzak.  They’ve been replaced by  more modern descriptors: “Hard,” “Indomitable,” “Mechanical,” characteristic of Gotham.  Sky scrapers dwarf citizens, trees, even earlier technological innovations (automobiles, elevated trains etc.)… The buildings have become the new citizens, the new focus of the city.  Also interesting, the role of light in these prints.  So many of them are set at night when spot lights struggle to illumine the mammoth proportions of the sky scrapers.  Consider that for a moment… when even light itself struggles to encompass something you know that thing is BIG.  Note also that both sun and moon have been replaced by man-made spotlights.  Note most of all… that man is nowhere represented among these man-made things.

Gilmour - "The Cement Finishers" Are they more men or machines?
Gilmour – “The Cement Finishers” Are they more men or machines?

The Architectural Image reveals a disturbing reality of the twentieth century: that in our engineering genius, our creations have perhaps overcome us.  Mensch and ubermensch have been dominated by “uberskyscraper.”   In some ways it makes sense.  These prints were being developed at exactly the same time as the atomic bomb… No other technology has so threatened to overcome its creators.  St. John Paul II addresses such concerns in his Encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” on the dignity of human labor.  There, he reminds us that ultimately, man is the subject of labor… he is its originator, and his good is its ultimate goal.

I know next to nothing about the artists who made these powerful architectural images.  Today’s reflections should in no way suggest that Cook, Lozowick et al. were intentionally promoting man’s subjugation to his creations.  But as the holiday season comes to a close and we return to the daily routines that we sometimes describe as the “rat race” “daily grind” or even “hamster wheel” the images at the NBM might be a timely reminder to reflect on our priorities and ask, “Is my labor working for me… or am I working for it?”  See this exhibit.  It’ll make you think.

Behold the Power of Feasts

“It is as a general rule a bad sign when a man has not a particular feeling of devotion on the chief feasts of the year.” -St. Philip Neri


I think I was ten before I realized that Christmas, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth, is December 25… Up to that point empirical evidence …of a sort… convinced my child mind that Christmas was December 24.  “What was this evidence that warped time and space?” you might well ask.  FOOD!

Growing up in an Italian-American household in New York, we did all our feasting on Christmas Eve.  Seven kinds of fish, capped by pastries of every stripe… Warm hugs and kisses from relatives whose names one only vaguely remembered… Picture “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” dipped in tomato sauce and you get the idea.  But that wasn’t all.  We went to mass on Christmas Eve… and as I got older, we’d sometimes even open our gifts late at night on Christmas Eve… ‘heck, even the name (at least to a ten year-old) is tricky: CHRISTMAS Eve… After all, wasn’t Jesus born at night?

My kiddie confusion was a witness to the great power of culture.  The cultural phenomenon of a feast translates the cosmic realities being feasted (in this case Christmas) in a three hundred sixty degree way… an all encompassing reality that becomes familiar, heartfelt over time, engraining those realities into one’s very being.

Feasts speak to us of truth, of goodness, of unity… but they speak to us THROUGH beauty, and ultimately find their power in her convincing ways.  Every culture has feasts… They are a hallmark of vitality and endurance… and, best as I can recollect, feasts only survive the test of ages if they celebrate something positive (again: truth good integral and beautiful).  Think about it, have you ever heard of a feast that celebrates evil?

The positive power of feasts (particularly religious feasts) is one reason why it’s so sad to hear about school districts around DC wrangling over their inclusion in the school calendar.  My primary school education was in public schools in NY, where we learned about the festal traditions of all the kids in our class.  Most of us were Christians, but no one batted an eye learning about Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other customs.  To us, it was all fascinating…  and at the very least a great chance to try someone else’s food.  Come to think of it, I owe my love of all DC’s many ethnic foods to the experience of encountering many religious feasts as a child even if those feasts weren’t my own.  Did experiencing all these traditions in a public school setting damage the integrity of my own religious sense?  Apparently not, I ended up becoming a Catholic priest.

Tonight (and yes, even tomorrow, Dec. 25), let us feast.  Eat, drink and be merry, something beautiful happened, “a child is born to us, a son given us,” Jesus the Savior.  Merry Christmas Washington!

Magnifying God’s image in our greatest work of art, ourselves

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“Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created and, in magnifying the image of God, the soul has a share in its greatness and is exalted.”            -St. Ambrose

“Art expresses mystery in matter.  Our first and greatest work of art is sculpted from the clay of our very selves, expressing the mystery of our divine origin and end.”          -Me… (with a nod to St. JPII)

 

Music from the not so dark ages

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Bronze of Shakespeare in the Folger’s Great Hall

 

At the risk of sounding like a cliched art critic, last night was a revelation.  I joined two parishioners for a concert at the Folger Shakespeare Theater by the Folger Consort.  This exceptionally talented musicians are dedicated to preserving and presenting early music (pre-1600) performed on period instruments.  Last night’s concert of Christmas music from Italy and Flanders set all my cultural grey cells humming.  First, there’s the Folger Theater itself: a small copy of Shakespeare’s Globe housed within the Folger Library on Capitol Hill.  Music filled the space transporting listeners back to olde Europe.  It was also a treat to see the period instruments: sackbut, harp, viola di gamba, and flutes of every sort… just amazing.

I could go on, but let’s get to our central question, “What was the experience, seen through eyes of faith?”  The answer is one word, “Hope.”

As Washingtonians experiencing the renaissance of our city, the benefits of [seemingly] unbounded technology, and the sense of possibility that inherently attends our city’s increasingly young-adult population, we have every reason to be a hopeful people, right?  And yet… Depression and anxiety are our most common psychological challenges.  Anecdotally: I recently visited my dentist.  Having just passed a birthday, age on my mind, I asked him what the best thing I could do for my teeth, longterm, could be.  His answer surprised me.  He warned, “Don’t ever start grinding your teeth.  The most common problem we deal with in middle to older aged folks in DC is cracked teeth from years of stress-grinding.”  So much for hope in the comforts of modern living.  Could our renaissance forbearers have something to offer?

Consider these verses from last night’s concert,

“[Mary] thou art the supernal queen of glory, and the true  medicine of an anxious mind.”

“Let’s now praise the Lord, with songs and musical sounds, for this day is salvation come to this house.”

“In you, Lord, I have put my hope to find lasting mercy: But I was in a sad and dark hell, and struggled in vain, but in you Lord I have put my hope.”

Do these sound like the words of an oppressed feudal people from the “dark” ages?  Last night’s music was anything but dark.  It was audible light… not a bright shining sunlight, as Palestrina or Bach, but rather a warm hearth glow, comforting as much as inspiring.  Hearth language fits in other ways too: much of renaissance music originated from “dance bands,” that is groups of minstrels who would roam from village to village playing for dances by fire light at pubs, inns, etc.  As those dancers of old gathered, they’d swap stories, recipes, tales of homelands, but also experiences of faith.  Long after the dances ended, after the wine was drained… after plague or war or even death, the faith behind the lyrics remained, woven into hearts by the mellifluous melody.  Whether they lived or died, these people had hope.  I wonder if they ground their teeth like us.