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) 
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
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ” 


The Illuminative Way In Detail: God Holds Our Hand

Sts. Paul Timothy and Titus
Sts. Paul Timothy and Titus

This first week of our “retreat in daily life” is dedicated to the first phase of holiness according to St. Gregory of Nyssa (see post below).  On Sunday we heard about three burning bush moments outlined in the readings (see Sunday homily).  Monday and Tuesday have, providentially, given us a holy trio ideal to this week’s meditation: Paul, Timothy and Titus.

On Monday Paul experiences his own burning bush moment when the Lord knocks him over with a blinding flash of light.  Paul’s spiritual blindness is manifest in his now physical blindness before the light… and yet “In your light we see light.” (cf Ps. 36:9).  Speaking with Jesus, Paul realizes the error of his way and accepts Christ as Messiah and Lord.  Baptized at Damascus, Paul’s conversion is complete and his sight is restored.  As we know, he goes on to a life of tremendous graces which allow him to undergo great trials even to the point of martyrdom.

The illuminative phase is a sensory thing.  Jesus reaches into our experiences and touches us.  Speaking to us through the human senses, it’s very comfortable… what Paul himself refers to as the “mother’s milk” of spirituality (I Cor. 3:2).  This is also why it’s associated with the pursuit of the virtues: things we can see and do, at first by following clear instructions then as a matter of habit.  One gets a sense of Paul passing this phase of holiness on to his disciples,  Timothy and Titus… Listen to these context phrases from the readings for their feast (today):

I yearn to see you again, recalling your tears,
so that I may be filled with joy, 
as I recall your sincere faith
that first lived in your grandmother Lois
and in your mother Eunice
and that I am confident lives also in you.
For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. (cf. II Timothy 1:1-8)


…to Titus, my true child in our common faith:
grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our savior.
For this reason I left you in Crete
so that you might set right what remains to be done
and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you. (cf. Titus 1:1-5)

There’s a clear bond of trust… a familial connection even to Timothy’s mother and grandmother… These men met and knew Paul as students and eventually close co-workers, ordained by the apostle (“the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” and “appoint presbyters”).  They were led by the hand of Paul their mentor who revealed to them all he himself had discovered in that first blinding flash of light.  Taught by the master, they went on to become saints themselves.

A reasonable comparison in our time might be college students in campus ministry.  When faith is (re)awakened during college it’s an exciting time.  Everything seems joyous.  There’s friends everywhere you look and easy opportunities to learn about prayer and service from college chaplains and their co-workers.  It’s a burning bush moment familiar to many here in DC.

A question for the day: Who has been a burning bush in my life?  How has that encounter encouraged/enticed me to pursue virtue?

Preview: Tomorrow we’ll visit another sensory dimension of the first phase: ART, it’s privileges and perils!


Macbeth and the Oxymoron of Christian Tragedy


Later today, as part of my day off, I’m going to see one of my favorite Shakespearean plays take life on the big screen: Macbeth.  It’s playing at one of DC’s “artsy” theaters, the Landmark E Street Cinema.  Macbeth… sometimes known in the theater as, “the Scottish Play,” due to a myth that the play is cursed… is the story of a man who wanted too much.  At the instigation of his own appetites, egged on by his iconic wife -the infamous Lady Macbeth- the main character seizes the throne of Scotland, only to be overthrown by his fellow nobles.  In the end everyone dies, completing one Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedies.  That’s one mark of a tragedy, everyone dies.  Another is that you’re usually rooting for the (anti)hero by the end of the play, opera, film, what have you.  Villainous as he is, you almost want Macbeth to win, if only because he’s worked so hard for it.  Likewise, my favorite movie trilogy of all time, The Godfather.  In Mario Puzo’s legendary drama, Michael Corleone strives mightily to protect his family, albeit by criminal means.  The tragic irony is that in the end his crimeskill the very family he so wanted to save.

Why is tragedy an enduring and appealing part of the western tradition?  I think, because of empathy.  To various degrees all of us have seen our best efforts come to failure, our brightest intentions soiled in the execution.  Our hearts are moved with pity for those characters in whom we see something of ourselves… even if the thing we see is the sad working of our fallen nature.  Christ’s heart was likewise, “moved with pity,” as he saw us as “sheep without a shepherd.” (cf Mt. 9:36).  In his humanity, Jesus is totally able to empathize with us, just as we do with our favorite literary characters.  In his divinity, Christ does what we can never do; he saves us.  We’ll come back to this…

Also appealing about tragedy is this: in the end, the slates are wiped totally clean; everybody dies… except one or two lesser characters who remain to tell the tale and [hopefully] learn from it (think Fortinbras in Hamlet, Henry Richmond in Richard III).  While this leaves us sad, it is also – in a sense – symmetrical… the totality of destruction means a new beginning.

This raises an interesting question: Is there such a thing as Christian tragedy?  Or is it an oxymoron? In tragedy, everyone dies and the slate is wiped clean… but in Christian understanding Christ can save a justified soul, even in death.  Everyone can die, and yet, not die.  Consider Jean Anouilh’s play, Becket (famously brought to life in the 1964 film of the same title).  Thomas Becket, virtuous archbishop of Canterbury is martyred by his once-friend, King Henry II who, though he remains king has damned himself.  But thanks to Christ, Becket becomes a martyr-saint… and Henry has a chance to do penance to redeem himself.  Christ snatches triumph from tragedy… there’s a new slate, but it’s filled with life not death.  So, is there such a thing as Christian tragedy?

Insofar as refusing the mercy of God is the only unforgivable sin (cf. Mk 3:29), I suppose so, but for the most part that’s it… an author has to divorce his/her characters from all substantial contact with God in order to guarantee real tragedy.  Again, think of our friend Michael Corleone: In the much maligned Godfather III he goes to confession but refuses to change… and just to hammer the point home, the archbishop says, “your sins could be forgiven, but I know you don’t believe this.”  The only way for the saga to end in real tragedy is for him to overtly deny the possibility of his own salvation in Christ.

It makes sense, really… not just Biblically, but from a literary point of view.  Tragedy comes to us from the pagan Greeks.  It is renewed in the western canon by renaissance authors who – though Christian – were conscientiously resuscitating Greco-Roman culture.  The only way to really kill EVERYONE is to distance them from Christian thought.

What’s the upshot of all of this?  In this  year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis, we see the absolute beauty of the Church’s Christian faith… that as long as we hold on to Christ, real tragedy is banished by him who conquers death for us.  Look at tragedy through eyes of faith and you’ll realize the magnitude of the gift Christ gives his faithful each and every day.

What I saw on the metro inspired me

Often times friends will tweet about how Metro disappoints them.  Admittedly, delays, track work and lack of funding are… problematic… but I’ve always tried to look at the Metro through eyes of faith!  It’s a fascinating petri dish of human interactions where one can see so much human drama and divine inspiration at work.  Three things I saw on the Blue Line this weekend inspired me:

1) A young man, perhaps an intern boarded the train.  Shirt tails untucked, hair bedraggled, his backpack clung for dear life to the crushed shoulder of his blue blazer.  This young man was DONE for the day.  At the next stop, two women, one of them pregnant boarded.  They were laughing, carrying on about something in the way colleagues do after work… the exact opposite of our disheveled intern.  And yet… in the midst of the crowd, this young fellow got up and sacrificed his seat for the pregnant woman.  He stood clinging to the overhead bar (another type of petri dish characteristic of Metro) for another five stops!  Young sir, I salute you.  (PS: this was at the other end of the car from me or I would’ve offered my own seat, of course)

2) A gentleman boarded the same train… seemingly coming from his workout routine.  Now, had this been me, I probably would’ve passed out drooling then and there, but not this man.  He sat down and pulled a book from his back pack.  It wasn’t a soft cover novel.  It was clearly something heavy… study for work or graduate courses maybe.  The man dove into his work with gusto making margin notes as he read… and whenever he looked up his eyes were curious, clearly scanning the faces of his fellow commuters.  Catholic author Matthew Kelly says he can tell if a business will succeed if he sees employees constantly taking notes, developing ideas they get on the fly… I saw something of that in this gentleman’s discipline and constant engagement with his surroundings.  Most inspiring.

3) Last and best of all, a family of tourists boarded the train at the Smithsonian stop: a mother, father and their toddler.  The little girl begged for and received a piece of fruit.  Before gnashing on her snack, she pulled a quality control sticker from the skin of her apple.  Her father explained that the sticker mean the fruit was “approved” for eating… at which point the girl pushed the sticker on her dad’s forehead, hugged him and said, “I approve YOU.”  Cute as this was, my inspiration came from the father, who dutifully left the sticker on his brow while his daughter ate her apple.  He never flinched, continued conversing with his wife and smiling benevolently at his littler girl.  Love doesn’t care about appearances… Love parses out the meaning of real dignity from superficial honor.  Bravo sir!

Just three things I saw on metro.

Faith Love and Black Ice


The last few weeks have turned DC into – alternately – a snowy, muddy, icy mess.  And while I’d never event try to compare our situation to what my brother has experienced in Boston this winter, those of us accustomed to winters of warm(ish) southern comfort have been given pause over the last few weeks.  Last night in particular, I didn’t walk so much as skate down one of the streets.  It got me thinking…

One of the most common aspects of life for we Washingtonians, indeed city-dwellers everywhere, is our stoops.  You know, the stairs leading from the sidewalk up to our houses, apartment buildings etc. Stoops can be wonderful places.  In spring they’re points for congregation: impromptu barbecues on spring nights after work… cold beers and a neighbor’s guitar make for a great stoop-sitting conversation.  And who doesn’t love sitting out with friends after a summer day’s heat solving all the problems of the world before bed?  Right now, on the other hand, stoops are places of fear and trembling!  Ice and wrought iron… ice and granite… really, ice and anything turn a stoop from the glorious forum of summer life into a deadly precipice inviting catastrophe at every step.  I’m thinking in particular of the stoop we had at the GWU Newman Center on F Street.  It was high, steep and painted with thick, slick nautical paint to protect against the elements.  Every step was a risk in the winter.

What’s the point of all this?  As winter gives its last icy gasps, we might consider our stoops through eyes of faith.  Each day we try to do good loving acts in the world.  Whether we work for Congress, the Executive, an NGO or whoever, we in DC try to build a better country, a better world.  Even if we’re not overtly engaged in that project, our work supports our families, our social circles and so fosters life.  The prerequisite to all this is leaving our front door, which -in winter as we’ve seen- is a trickier proposition than one might think.  It takes a degree of faith to believe you’ll make it to the sidewalk alive.  Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once preached that faith is needed before acts of true love can occur.  Might we see something of this in our ice-clad front steps?  Even when the weather gets warmer, might we consider saying a prayer, making an internal act of faith, committing our day and our acts of love to the protection of God trusting that he will bring them to happy fulfillment?  Just a thought.

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.


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.

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


“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)


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.

Peace on Earth and in DC


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.