“With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty, – we are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a Divine meaning in every event, and a super-human tendency.”
-Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
Last Wednesday, a beautiful reading came up in the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s an excerpt from the writings of St. Theophilus of Antioch. In it, the saint exhorts us to do whatever we must to “open the eyes of our mind and heart.” He’s talking, of course, about seeing through eyes of faith.
First, an important realization – It’s not an automatic thing; seeing through eyes of faith. It takes work. Some argue that anything that isn’t automatically inbred in ourselves ends up being just smoke and mirrors, a sort of self-deception imposed by hostile outside forces (in this case, a Judeo-Christian society). Proponents of such a position will suggest that the most natural thing is just to let our eyes roam, assigning equally good value to everything. Such ocular non-discrimination is the most natural thing in the world, we’re told.
I’m not quite sure about such a position. After all, some of our greatest assets are learned… for example: speech, writing, art. None of these are automatic at birth but by disciplining ourselves, directing our innate talents, we flourish through our words and our artistic creations. The way we use our eyes is no different. Indeed, as St. Theophilus suggests, the greatest good we can possibly imagine (contact with God) comes through disciplining the senses:
[The senses] distinguish light and darkness, …proportion and lack of proportion, elegance and inelegance, excess and defect… So it is with the eyes of our mind in their capacity to see God.
God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open.
How, concretely, can we keep our eyes open to see God, particularly as we approach Easter?
Again, St. Theophilus offers a suggestion:
A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light. If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it. In the same way, no one who has sin in him can see God.
Two practical suggestions from a DC Faith and Culture point of view:
- If you’re Catholic, go to Confession, have a direct encounter with the divine physician speaking to you through the words of his priest, “I absolve you of all of your sins. Go, you are free!” All throughout the Washington area, in the weeks leading up to Easter, Confession is readily available at all our parish churches, especially in downtown. Check out this link to the central website: http://thelightison.org It’ll offer lots of tips, schedules and guides to confession throughout our area.
If you’re not Catholic, you’re warmly invited into any of our churches to sit, and talk with God according to where you’re at in your journey with him. Ask him to cleanse you of whatever needs cleansing and to make you ever-more ready to engage him in a relationship whose goal is heaven itself! You might be interested in this recent effort by the Church in downtown DC, “Light the City,” opening our doors to anyone who wants to come and pray. Check out the video on youtube: https://youtu.be/5mr_g-8SOzw
- For everyone in DC: LOOK UP… our city is so phenomenally beautiful. The turrets on our row houses, cornices, small artistic highlights, the edifices of our federal buildings, the ingenious creativity of our modern architecture… All of it is soaked in the very best of the creative spirit God shares with the human race. So often, our city-eyes are downcast avoiding puddles, loose paving stones and the like… and now thanks to our cellphones, we are all too often absorbed in a digital world that – while dazzling – can be so inhuman. If you want to see through eyes of faith, LOOK UP… see God’s creativity at work in man’s city and then keep looking up to the heavens that he desires us to possess one day.
Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth. No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica. Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters. In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery. We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence. Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school. Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque. I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.
Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO. Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore. The orchestra presented excited listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic. Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.
Three levels of light pervaded the day. Most superficially, the sun itself. DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light. In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too. Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed. It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary. Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi. I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.
So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal. Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves. Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within. Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?
Where do I find light in my life? To what degree is that light satisfying? How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?
“The spiritual man who has been thus illumined does not limp or leave the path, but bears all things. Glimpsing our true country from afar, he puts up with advertises; he is not saddened by the things of time, but finds his strength in God. He lowers his pride and endures possessing patience through humility. That true light which enlightens every man who comes into the world bestows itself on those who reverence it, shining where it wills, on whom it wills and revealing itself according to the will of God the Son.” -John the Serene, Bishop
There’s been significant chatter lately about “pop-ups” in DC; townhouses that have been expanded upward to increase square footage available for rent/sale. Opinions about these outgrowths of contemporary architecture are divided. Of course they raise an ever present question in our fair metropolis: what to do about the height restrictions?
Compared to most major American cities, Washington is relatively low-rise. This limits the number of people who can live, work …and pay taxes… in the city. Popular legend tells us that no building may be higher than the statue of Freedom over the Capitol Dome. That’s not entirely true. Most buildings in Washington are actually limited by a ratio between their height and the width of the street on which they’re built. Consequently, broad avenues have taller structures than more narrow side streets. The goal of the restrictions: “Let there be light!”
I love DC’s short stature. Structures exist on a human scale. Residents can enjoy the clear light of day shining in blue skies. …and if the humility of our local buildings exalts the dignity of our national Capitol, well that’s not such a bad thing either.
As someone who’s lived in both New York and Washington, I can tell you that having access to natural light and the blue sky in DC has a significant effect on my day. It does more than lift my spirits. It contextualizes my city experience. In New York, sky scraper canyons dominate and contain citizens. In Washington, the presence of light and greenery integrally woven into our street-experience connects the city to a wider world that serves man rather than oppressing him.
Light forms a huge part of Catholic spirituality. Jesus is himself described as the light of the human race (Jn. 1:4-ff). Likewise, Catholics are called on to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14). Cities should be places of light; the light of art, music, learning and bright smiles exchanged between citizens. It’s a complex thing to increase that light, but a good place to begin might be the presence of the sun gracing SHORT buildings, filling our streets and daily experiences.
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.
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:
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
“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)