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.

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.

Beauty Poverty and the Public Good

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about the planned Eisenhower Memorial in the heart of DC. Among many hotly debated questions about Washington’s newest memorial, my friend pointed out one sure thing: it will be expensive… not by the standards of the whole federal budget, but when you think of how many meals could be bought for the poor, houses that could be built for the homeless, medicines provided to say… Eisenhower’s surviving veterans.

It’s a classic debate: Beauty vs. “Utility” and an important one, one we should have frequently to keep us true.  True to what?  The balance of corporal and spiritual goods.  Caring for our fellow man is a moral imperative, to be sure… but so is the spiritual reality of reminding ourselves where we come from and what kind of world our fathers (including God our Father) wanted for us.  “Walking around” inside our father’s dreams for us guides us.  It also helps our self-understanding to transcend the limited life-span and circumstances we inhabit.

Last night’s PBS News Hour offered up a great example of this in Detroit.  Our neighbors to the north have struck a “grand bargain” to move their city out of bankruptcy.  As part of it, a consortium of non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, are donating money to secure public pensions AND to safeguard the Detroit Institute of the Arts.  Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation expounded beautifully that saving the Art Institute for future citizens of Detroit is not a luxury it’s a NEED for the soul of the city.  I would highlight the stunning premise here: that a community of citizens does indeed have a soul!

Jesus strikes this same balance in his ministry.  On the one hand he gives us an absolute command to serve the bodily good of our brothers and sisters in need.  But in John 12 he also blesses Mary of Bethany for pouring a year’s worth of aromatic ointment over his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.  Extravagant?  Certainly… but Jesus blesses this extravagance.  I guess we could say that if the human body needs sober regulated nourishment for it’s health, the human soul needs extravagant love for its best good.  If our monuments, houses of worship and other public spaces serve that good, it’s well worth it.

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For more, consider listening to Fr. Saward’s marvelous talk (10/11/14) to The Catholic Arts Society

Praying with Music

‘just got back from hearing the BSO play Brahms at Strathmore… What a joy!  I was also challenged and surprised by how much I enjoyed a much more modern pice: Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1.  Think about the following exercise for your ride home in the car / metro or even while jogging on the treadmill.


 

It’s hard to get away from the noise of our world.  Hectic lives, car horns, the sound of the metro passing underground, smartphone alerts, push notifications… Even if none of these existed, you  can easily hear five languages at any given moment walking down a street or sitting at a cafe in DC.  Silence is golden… and ultimately the ideal setting for discernment of what’s going on inside each of us at any moment.  But coming from our noisy world, many find real meditative silence intimidating.  

Consider this… consider turning a weakness (distracting noise) into a strength (music for meditation). Some of what follows is drawn from St. Ignatius’ Loyola’s techniques for the discernment of spirits.  Other parts may sound like contemporary trends in “mindfulness.”  I’ve read significantly on both, and both influence my own prayer life, but what follows are ultimately just my own musings.

The Goal – A greater degree of self-understanding.

What you’ll need – music to listen to, some time by yourself, a pen and paper… and an open mind.

I find purely instrumental music (classical, jazz etc.) best for this.  Listening to lyrics can break my train of thought, but if you have the discipline to do so, you can use sung music as well.

Step 1: Listen to your music track once just to hear it.

Step 2: Listen again to get to know it better

Step 3: Listen a third time and begin taking notes.

What are you noting?  It depends on what you notice the most… maybe it’s the pace of the music… maybe a particular instrument stands out…maybe thoughts of an individual come to mind… or something you did …or forgot to do during the day.  Note your emotions too.

Don’t Judge Your Notes!  There’s no right or wrong here… You’re just collecting data to establish “This is where I’m at today.”  So you’re not “wrong” to notice a flute in the middle of a cello concerto.  Realizing you forgot your dry cleaning isn’t necessarily a foolish distraction in this exercise.  It’s just data.  Finally, the feelings you experience in the music make you neither vicious nor virtuous… they’re just data to be considered.  Analysis comes next.

Once you’ve journaled your experience of the music, begin asking the questions like “Why?”  or, “What was behind [fill in the blank]?  Some of the answers may mean nothing.  Some generate more questions.  Others may be self-illuminating.  Others may inspire prayer: “God, thank you for [fill in the blank].” or, “Lord help me to [fill in the blank].”  Still others may need unpacking over time.

Finally, consider that the more deeply we explore the mystery of our own self, the more we begin to know the mystery of Christ who is our origin and end… all of which can only be helpful as we venture out into the noisy world all over again tomorrow.

Stay Tuned! Coming Soon: Music and Inner Life

JohannesBrahms
Johannes Brahms

This Thursday at The Music Center at Strathmore I’ll be listening to Brahms’ Second Symphony… one of my favorites… but it got me thinking: music is an amazing entry into inner realities… including one’s relationship with God.  Stay tuned for reflection on how to use any kind of music, from Bryan Adams to Brahms to learn more about the interior life!

Espressi and Aspirations

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Often-times on a day off, with no particular plans, I’ll take an “urban trek,” to explore some part of the city I’ve never really paid much attention to.  It’s a great way to open my eyes to new sights smells and sounds… AND… it doesn’t cost much more than metro fare.  Last week I was on such a trek in Logan circle, when midway I stopped for a coffee.

Better said, I grabbed a “cafe.”  Five years of seminary in Rome fostered a number of religious devotions in me, including my love of espresso.  It’s a great pick-me-up in the morning or midday.  And yes, it can be a religious experience.  Making one requires a certain degree of liturgy whether it’s ritual dialog with your favorite barista or respectfully engaging your own espresso pot/machine to confect the perfect demitasse.  The results can be wonderful.  Psychologically, I break out of whatever rut I was in.  Physically, I get to sit and compose myself before the caffeine sets me up to face the world again.  The whole process doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.  OK, spiritually speaking it’s not exactly a retreat at Mt. Athos, but one could well call an espresso break the culinary equivalent of an “aspiration.”

Aspirations are small spontaneous prayers we offer up throughout the day.  They’re literally “breaths” sent up to God.  An aspiration can be an act of thanks, faith, intercession of pleading for help.  Aspirations are [hopefully] responded to by in-spirations… “breathing-ins” from God that answer our deepest needs.   As an exercise, consider offering up a short series of aspirations every time you make a coffee break during the day… It may help you to see your day through eyes of faith.

Back to the urban trek… rejuvenated by my stop at Peregrine Espresso, I continued my exploration of the neighborhood… new houses, new restaurants, new everything inspiring me with new reflections and aspirations… and somewhere in all that newness, the distinct flavor of hope (mixed with coffee, of course.)

“I often think that when we come to adore Our Lord, we should obtain all we wish, if we would ask it with very lively faith, and a pure heart.” -St. John Vianney, On Prayer