Thursday, October 22, 2015

St. John Paul II's Letter to Artists

Yesterday was the feast day of the recently canonized St. John Paul II, and I couldn't let the day go by without posting an excerpt from this man's beautifully written Letter to Artists.

 Let me begin by saying that, among popes, John Paul II was unique even in the eyes of the pagan and the agnostic, as evidenced by the following observation from gay icon, Quentin Crisp:

 "Surely, though, the perfect example of someone who found a job to match his style is Pope John Paul II. Like Pope John XXIII, the only other pope in living memory to have style, he brought to the papacy the humility and charm to carry out his pastoral duties as the gentle shepherd of a giant flock, and at the same time the sense of uncompromising strength and authority to be His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff, the doctrinally infallible successor of St. Peter. When God created the job, He must have had Karol Wojtyla in mind." -- Quentin Crisp, Doing It With Style. 1981.


I was given the blessing of seeing St. John Paul in person at a very young age.  I was thirteen and I was standing in the circle of St. Peter's Square with my dad and sister for the Beatification Mass of Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was truly an amazing experience to be able to stand in his presence and to witness the honoring of Bl. Teresa, a woman whom John Paul himself deeply cherished. Although he was quite frail by then, it was precisely this frailty that was so moving to me. His refusal to hide away in spite of his weakness, to allow the world to see his suffering and his vulnerability is as remarkable to me now as it was then, for it is a choice that I know that I and most people would not be inclined to make.

Fast forward eight years to me as a sacred music major sitting in a medieval Carthusian monastery in the middle of the Alps in Austria. I was a junior in college studying abroad for a semester in a little town called Gaming, taking an art appreciation course in which I was required to read this man's Letter to Artists. Although I knew that the John Paul had been a poet and an actor as well as a theologian and a philosopher, I was not familiar with the letter and so, naturally, I savored every word! Someday, if I ever teach a sacred music/art appreciation course of any sort to high school/middle school/college students, this is one of the first things we are reading! I close with one of my favorite excerpts from the letter.

"Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is 'the art of education'. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know, too, that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a 'spirituality' of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that 'beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up'."

-- St. John Paul II's Letter to Artists, April 4, 1999.

Happy Feast Day!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I See Dead People

When I was studying abroad in Austria, a couple of my friends and I got together one night to watch the 1999 Night Shyamalan film The Sixth Sense. The film tells the story of a successful child psychiatrist named Malcolm Crowe who takes on the task of helping a traumatized little boy named Cole who appears to be plagued by visions of ghosts. However, as Malcolm's relationship with the boy develops, he realizes that the boy's fantasies are far more disturbing than he imagined.

It is a highly suspenseful and rather gritty film, and one of the key moments in the story goes like this: (SPOILER ALERT)

Cole: "I see dead people."
Malcolm: "In your dreams?"
[Cole shakes his head no]
Malcolm: "While you're awake?"
[Cole nods]
Malcolm: "Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?"
Cole: "Walking around like regular people. They don't see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead."
Malcolm: "How often do you see them?"
Cole: "All the time. They're everywhere."

Later on, a theology professor at my undergraduate school used this scene to help us come to grips with the reality of those who live without the sacraments -- that is, without the life of grace -- either through ignorance, or worse, neglect and/or mortal sin. Whether they know it or not, these people have killed the spiritual life within them and they have become, in a manner of speaking, walking dead people. What's worse is that, more often than not, "They don't know that they're dead."

Problem: Dead people who don't realize that they're dead.

Solution? First of all, how do you make them realize they're dead? Secondly, how do you awaken them, or more accurately, how do you resurrect them? The second question is not so complicated, as that is the purpose of the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick -- sacraments of healing. But first you must make them realize they are dead. You have to move them to want to awaken.

Let's turn to another rather disturbing story, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find. The story follows an unfortunate encounter between a family and a band of criminals who are lead by a man known as the Misfit. The main character is a grandmother, a self-proclaimed "lady" who appears to be a religious woman. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that she is not only weak but deeply flawed. However, towards the end of the story, the Misfit experiences a moment of vulnerability and, moved with compassion, the grandmother suddenly cries, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"  Although she is being held at gunpoint, she foregoes the moral high ground she's staunchly kept and embraces her and the Misfit’s common humanity. The Misfit later realizes her change of heart and observes, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." He recognizes that it is in facing death that the grandmother realizes her capacity to be a good woman. If she had lived her whole life at gunpoint, the grandmother might have gained the self-awareness and compassion which she lacked.

In other words, the grandmother was spiritually dead without knowing it until she witnessed the Misfit's moment of vulnerability and she was awakened by recognition of the beauty of the human person.

Beauty. (You knew it was going to be my favorite B-word). Beauty has the capacity to awaken the dead. I'm sure most of us have experienced this at least once in our lives: an unexpected moment in which your breath is taken away by something like the view of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the lush colors of a forest in autumn, walking into a gothic cathedral, holding a baby in your arms, witnessing/receiving an act of kindness. It's a feeling of awe, yearning, vulnerability, as if one has been the recipient of an immense unexpected gift. It's a feeling that inspires one person to say, "I have to ask her to marry me," and another person to say, "I have to beg your forgiveness."

Sunrise over the Alps in Gaming, Austria.
Now we know of plenty of amazing vistas around the world through which the Creator's unmediated voice speaks to us: Niagara Falls, the Alps, the Cliffs of Moher, autumn in Vermont, the Grand Tetons, etc. However, there are plenty of us (myself included) who don't live next door to these natural wonders. How can we give them this sense of the beautiful?

Art. (On to my second favorite, the A-word...) As people become less connected to the unmediated Creator (a.k.a. natural wonders which present the majesty and beauty of the Creator without us having to do anything except stand there and experience it), they are going to need to encounter art that gives them the sense of the beautiful.

We need art that awakens -- not violates, but awakens.

We need art that shoots people every day of their life.
And it is our responsibility as believers to create this kind of art.

But that begs the question, how is this kind of art created? What makes art so beautiful that, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in her poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, it compels them to change their life?

Most of the smart guys (Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine to name a few) seemed to agree that beauty consists of three things: wholeness + harmony + radiance (and you don't have to take my word for it).

These three factors automatically cancel out qualities such as cute, pretty, facile, puerile, and banal. In other words, if it's easy/cheap, it's not beautiful.  Beauty takes effort, blood, sweat,  tears, money, and generous benefactors. Artists pour themselves into their work and they deserve to be paid for what they create.

If art has an agenda -- political, egalitarian or other -- it's not beautiful. Beauty does not bash people over the head. It simply presents the truth in the hope that people's hearts will respond. Exhibit A, B, C:
Altarpiece of Veit Stoss, St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland.
An Easter Liturgy at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Remsen, Iowa

"Like Great Drops of Blood" by Mary Sullivan
I see dead people... and it's time we helped them wake up.