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.

The Heights and Pitfalls of Ambition

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It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.”  Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building.  It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor.  It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome.  But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career.  Both of these desires typify life in our city.  The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise.  To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people.  Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith.  For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.”  Not so bad, really.  In fact it has a ring of justice to it.  If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized.  That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics.  And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that.  Why?  Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love).  As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition.  It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.

It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us.  St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear.  It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it?  In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen.  One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.

DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs.  Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas.  Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.

Peace on Earth and in DC

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I was doing one of my favorite DC things… waiting in line for coffee and a croissant.  As my scarf slipped, a university student noticed my collar.  He asked if I was a priest from Georgetown.  The mistake was understandable, but as a proud graduate of GWU and it’s Newman Center, his words fell hard on my ears.  There’s not much love lost between DC’s two big schools of international affairs.  …but, I digress.  The student and I had a pleasant conversation waiting for our lattes.  He said that he was studying journalism, but had a real passion for the new Social Justice major at GU, and was considering a related graduate degree.

How wonderful this young man’s ambition to help others, to improve our world.  How quintessentially Washington!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.” -President Kennedy

It was also apropos of the season of “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  A cynic might ask… “Is a better world really possible?”

A partial answer lies proof of the existence of God “from desire.”  (Here, I’m drawing not only from the proof itself, but from Father Robert Barron’s 11/19/14 reflection on it).  In a nutshell: An innate or natural desire indicates the reality of the thing desired.  We get hungry because food exists and we need it.  The argument hinges on our desire being innate, not psychologically contrived.  I cannot have an innate hunger for dinosaur meat since I have no experience of dinosaurs… I can contrive that it might be interesting to taste T-Rex but that’s all it is, a contrivance.  Likewise I can suppose that Zambian food might be interesting, but never having experienced it, I can’t say that I desire it.

All people, especially the most in need among us, desire a better life.  We’ve experienced hints and inklings of it.  From time to time, history has even proven it possible.  St. John Paul II called it “a nostalgia for original beauty.”  The desire and reality of a better life is so real that it drives some to crime, others to cross deserts on foot in search of a better life.  It drives us to work hard to give our kids a better life than we had.  At its height the desire and reality of a better world can drive men to total self-gift (think Abe Lincoln or Gandhi).

Any student majoring in social justice… anyone with a concern for neighbor really, has a long hard fight in front of him.  It’s important to keep an inner place where we can regularly recollect the reality of the good we’re fighting for.  Pop-psychology calls this a “happy place.”  Origen said, “There should be in us a kind of spiritual paradise where God can walk and be our sole ruler with his Christ.”  I call it my inner cathedral.  Insofar as innate desires testify to the reality of the good we seek, we can hold on to those desires and keep them as part of that inner place, where we’re recharged to fight the good fight ahead.  One more way of seeing desire through eyes of faith.

Coming Soon: Holiday Season Series!

Sometimes you see things that just make you think.
Sometimes you see things that just make you think.

Entering the Thanksgiving – Christmas season (known to Catholics as “Advent” because we await the “advent” or “coming” of Christ) I’ve had a number of inspiring experienes:  (A) sitting on the Mall admiring the Capitol… yes, even with all the scaffolding on it  (B) attending the wake of a Bishop who just died (C) meeting a student from Georgetown who’s majoring in “Social Justice.”   Very diverse encounters to be sure, but they got me thinking about a major theme for this season and this town: desire.  Over the next few days I’ll be posting on some different dimensions of desire in our life as Washingtonians:

  • “On Ambition”
  • The Desire for “Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men”
  • “The Deepest Roots and Highest Aspirations of our Yearnings: ‘The Love that Moves the Stars’ ”

I hope you’ll find these musings both edifying and useful.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Highways Byways and Hospitality

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The beginning of conversation at just about any DC get together: “So what do you do?  Where are you from?  Where’d ya go to school?”  We’re all from somewhere else; a fact very much on everyone’s mind as Thanksgiving travel looms.  This past weekend I spent a bunch of time in airports myself, traveling to/from a college friend’s wedding.  The experience of strange airports, and hotels took me back to the start of my life in DC.  Then (1999), Washington was a shiny new airport called “National.”  It was hotel lobbies and university tours.  It was coffees at “XandO Cafe” and “Kramer Books”… and it was infinite excitement at even the possibility of an [unpaid] internship that would spread democracy (somehow) through my best efforts… on a copy machine.

I’d be willing to bet that many of us can recall some variation on this theme in our own DC story.  It’s an important part of DC’s identity and culture: So many of us are from somewhere else.  So many of us arrived in this place in need of hospitality, vulnerable to one extent or another.  On the flip side, the shared experience of moving to DC disposes our fellow citizens to give hospitality to visitors and new arrivals.

…All good stuff to think on as we travel the highways and byways later this week… and even more so as all roads lead back to Washington after the holiday.

For further reading, consider ethicist Leon Kass’ excellent book, “The Hungry Soul.”  In it, Dr. Kass maintains that all the best dimensions of our humanity (including the vulnerability/hospitality dynamic above) play out in the experience of dining… which is another wonderfully Washingtonian experience!  Happy Thanksgiving DC!

Hidden treasure!

DC's Very Own Spanish Steps, seriously.  Have you been to them?
DC’s Very Own Spanish Steps, seriously. Have you been to them?

DC has so many hidden gems… This is one of my favorites for Strolling on a nice day! (22nd St NW above Mass. Ave.) What are your favorite hidden treasures in our city?

El Greco? El Great-o!

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Ask anyone if they know who Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was, you’ll get a blank stare.  Ask anyone who El Greco was, you might get a few less blank stares.  Ask anyone who’s been to the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll get a stare, but it won’t be blank, it’ll be filled with awe.  El Greco was a Greek painter (from Crete) whose talent with the brush led him to begin an artistic career in Renaissance Rome before leaving the Eternal City for an artistic career in Spain.  Combining oriental piety, with stylistic trends from the Venetian and Roman schools, El Greco’s achievements in Spain are a credit to his name Theotokopoulos (“God Bearer”).

Libraries have been written about El Greco’s work.  What most interested me about the NGA’s exhibit was his synthesis of Greek Italian and Spanish influences into style all his own.  Looking at the eternal truths of Christ’s life through this artist’s singular lens made me think about them in new ways… And isn’t that what sacred art does at its best?  In the words of St. John Paul II,

“Art renders visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and traveling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” (JPII, Letter to Artists)

When it comes to El Greco’s style, it was all his own, but was it perhaps something more: a gift… could something that is both so unique and so true be a gift from God?

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desires and is able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the bridegroom [Christ] who has smitten them with this longing.” (Nicolas Cabasilas, Life of Christ, II.15 )

So there are two forces in play: eternal truth and seeing eternal truth in a new way that nevertheless preserves that truth.  From a Catholic point of view, this is the essence of what Vatican II tried to do… and what new evangelization is trying so desperately to do.  Whether you’re Catholic or not, the concept of presenting transcendent truths for the respectful consideration of ones neighbor is never a bad idea.  In this regard, maybe all of us could take a lesson from Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

PS: Also of note in El Greco’s work: the influence of Toledo, Spain – his adopted home.  A number his works include the architecture of Toledo in the background… a testament to the enduring power of good public architecture.

Note: I found the exhibit much more rewarding after seeing the 30min video in the conference room on the lower level of the Gallery.