Monday, November 30, 2009

On Art and Beauty

Last Sunday after Mass, one of the other ladies in the choir suggested I consider going to art school.  I can only imagine three observations that might have served as basis for this advice: 1) I sing in the choir 2) at a parish that is particularly attentive to the Sacred Liturgy and its beautiful celebration, and 3) my style of dress.  Despite her extraordinarily brief knowledge of me, she was quite insistent that she could see the artist in me (and she would know, she clarified, since both her parents were artists), and I really should consider being an artist, because I clearly had that sort of gift…

I always take people who discern my vocation for me with a grain of salt.  But as I read through our holy father's recent address to artists, I found my thoughts swimming in a familiar stream: art as a means to beauty.

I’ve long felt like I’m on the fence as to whether I am an artist.  Certainly I am a person with artistic gifts, as evidenced by my lifelong love for (and talent for) things like music and writing.  I do look at the world with an artist's eyes, ever alert for beauty, and as time has gone on, I’ve been able to unlock understanding of graphic design, art, fashion, and architecture, thereby deepening my ability to dialog with beauty at all times.  Despite these artistic understandings, I have never felt drawn to a career as an artist, and my artistic gifts are much more subtle than those ordinarily associated with visual arts (I have little skill at drawing or painting, taking photographs, decorating a home, designing clothes, or any other typically “artsy” skills).  The only artist's career I'd ever considered was that of a writer, but even so I never seemed to find my niche.

So: an artsy person but not an artist?  Even the label "artsy" seems a stretch, for it suggests a particular social scene with which I have little commerce.

In the aforementioned address, Pope Benedict hailed artists as custodians of beauty.  That sounds just lovely.  But what is beauty?  According to the Thomistic tradition, beauty requires three elements: integritas, consonantia, and claritas (often translated wholeness, proportionality, and clarity, respectively).  That is to say, a thing that is beautiful is not lacking in any way, is perfectly proportioned (and balanced), and reveals its inner reality through its outward form.  It is this last one, claritas, that interests me the most.  A thing is beautiful insofar as it reveals what it truly is.

I was very surprised to learn in high school that fact was not always sufficient to express truth.  I can't recall the name of the book, but it was about being at war, and some of the stories the author told were not factual, but they nonetheless represented the life of the soldier in that war (one of the yucky more modern ones - perhaps Vietnam?).  Truth is more than facts.

"Decoration is a poetic expression of structure, one which gives knowledge of things beyond the mere facts of engineering by beautifully revealing the forces of nature that would otherwise be invisible."  I had long known that merely being inside a beautiful building raises my heart to higher things, but never had I considered architecture as poetry before reading about it last week in Denis's new book.  Decoration in architecture is based upon a building's structural necessities, but reflects this in a more abstract manner, in a more poetic manner - so a column can be decorative, but a steel i-beam, not so much.

Truth is more than facts.  Beauty is a revelation of a truth.

"This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair," said Pope Paul VI, as quoted by Benedict in the speech above.  "Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration.

So my pursuit of beauty as an end in itself is not so much laudable as perfectly natural.  The more one understands beauty and the Mystery it makes present, the more impossible it becomes not to manifest that beauty in every aspect of life.

If being an artist simply means expressing beauty, as the words of our holy father's address might suggest, then most certainly I am an artist, even if art is never my career.  I do live by the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, for His beauty has captured my heart, and I can live my life no other way.
Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.
-Dostoyevsky, as quoted by Pope Benedict, Address to Artists, 11/21/09

Full Disclosure: Though an occasional duty of my work-study has been to help with promoting Denis R. McNamara's new book, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, its mention here has nothing to do with the job (as my casual tone might suggest).  I merely mention it because I think it's excellent, and because if you like my theological posts and the idea of a book about architectural theology intrigues you, I am quite certain that you will like this book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On Symbolism, or the Church as She

Does it scandalize you to learn that the Fathers called the Eucharist a symbol?

If you understand symbolism the way contemporary man does, then that should upset you.  In response, you might consider looking to a more ancient theological understanding of symbolism.  A symbol, then, is not a mere sign pointing to what it signifies; rather, it reveals what it signifies in such a way that it actually contains it without limiting the thing signified to the revelation in the symbol.

That is to say: A stop sign is not a symbol, nor are those arrows that label this button the one that fast forwards.  Consider instead the human body.  Human beings are ensouled bodies; our souls cannot  communicate with each other without the use of our bodies (whether that's to act or even just to speak or write).  In this way, our bodies symbolize our souls, without reducing our souls to only that which is communicable via the body.

This view of symbolism is parallel to one of iconography, wherein Jesus Christ is the icon of the Father, because He communicates Him to humanity in a way we can understand.  (He is, after all, the image of the invisible God.)  In this vein, theological tradition calls Him the primordial sacrament.

The Church, then, is called the fundamental sacrament, for as Christ made present to us on earth the Father in heaven, so does His Church make Him present to those of us who have not seen Him in His glorious humanity, yet still believe.

A sacrament, even in this broad sense, is a particularly efficacious symbol that communicates the grace it signifies; the grace presented in the sacrament is actually present within the sacramental symbols.  It is through this lens that we look at Holy Mother Church.

Yes, the Church is an institution, a group of fallible human beings who screw things up.  But she is also the Bride of Christ, guided always by the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus Christ is God and man, and as every human being is body and soul, so is Holy Church divinely guided, though she is led by mere humans.

And there is my point:  "she is led".  By referring to the Church as she, one immediately evokes her many images: Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, Our Lady, even the moon (who shines brightly with a light not her own).  By referring to the Church as she, one linguistically gives credence and support to the Bride of Christ, who is docile to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In such a day and age as ours, when Holy Mother Church is seen as just another corrupt institution with too much bureaucracy and too little relevance, referring to her with love is one of the best (and simplest) ways a faithful Catholic can work to restores faith in her as a reflection of Christ, thus containing His authority and power (among so many other things).

One of the most remarkable things about Holy Mother Church is that this personification of her is not inaccurate.  One can enjoy her beauty, delight in her treasures, and trust in her guidance.  Some lucky few (a blessed few, really) even have the privilege of marrying her.

This may all sound romantic, but it's simply realistic.  Before Our Lord gave up His spirit on the cross, he entrusted St John to his dear mother; likewise, He has entrusted each of us to His Church.  Let us always love her with His love, and may we in return receive from her His great blessings.  If you place your trust in Holy Mother Church, you will never be far from our dearest Lord.

Accept and bless these gifts [. . .] which we offer you first of all for your holy catholic Church.  Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world...
-Roman Canon, newly approved translation (p16)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Hunger

My car is in Illinois.  I am in Jersey.  Cars are required to get places in Jersey, and I have been going places.  This is more or less convenient, because Dad works in the city, and so long as he gets to his bus stop in the morning, he has no problem with me using his car.

I'm working at my old job again.  I used to work 9-5, which gave me plenty of time to attend 8am Mass at a nearby church (unbeknownst to them).  But since they asked me to come back for 8:30-4:30, and this allows me to drop Dad off at his bus stop (rather than forcing Mom to get up early and do so), I decided to forego my preference of attending daily Mass (for I know that this is not a requirement for a good, holy Christian life) during the time when I'm home, and to focus instead on singing the Divine Office and asking Our Lord to come to me in spiritual communion.

And it has been wonderful to focus on the prayer of the whole people of God, singing psalms and spiritual canticles.  As someone who is not canonically bound to its recitation, imposing this discipline upon myself has been a great blessing indeed.

But I've also noticed that these past few days have been filled with more longing for romance than had the weeks previous.  And I can't help but wonder how much that is connected to the sacramental distance I've had from my divine Beloved.

O God, you are my God, for you I long...

Monday, November 9, 2009

On Provocative Language in Everyday Use

As I believe I've alluded to before, this campus is over 90% male. This means that at nearly every meal I eat, I am the only woman present at the table. It's an interesting dynamic; I am the honored guest as often as I'm the fly on the wall.

There have been moments like when those generous men gave up (or at least delayed) their sports talk time and asked me about my local sports teams, diverting the center of attention to me, because they'd noticed I had nothing to contribute to the sports talk. On the other hand, there have been a number of moments when unflappable Claire was a just little bit surprised that they really just said /that/ so unabashedly, with a woman sitting right next to them.

The men here (the seminarians, the priests, and the few who are neither) are very conscientious to bid adieu to "Gentlemen" and to "Claire". If they refer to a group of which I am part as "guys", they are always quick to apologize and restate with a more gender-neutral term.

On the other hand, when vulgar language is used, there is almost never an apology nodded to me, the woman who has to sit through this (even my secular office accorded me that courtesy).

I am an educated woman, with a background in foreign languages and in Catholic tradition. I understand that a mixed group is referred to by the masculine plural. As a personal stylistic choice, I actually prefer "brethren"!

I have no opposition to vulgar language, especially when used appropriately. But I like to think of myself as a lady. I intentionally refrain from using such words for propriety's sake.

It's not that I'm upset or offended. And it's not everyone here who does this; these are just general trends I've noticed at random meals. But it does make me wonder:

When did feminist egalitarianism replace common decency as the most important sensibility to avoid offending at all costs? And what can I do to help switch it back again?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On My Changing Relationship to Theology

Grad school is pretty different from undergrad.  Perhaps this seems obvious to you, but I suppose I'd just figured it'd be more of the same, except with more difficult electives in your field of study, as opposed to core curriculum or random nonsense electives.  The skills I learned in undergrad are essential here, don't get me wrong, but the differences between the two sometimes seem to outnumber the similarities.

The first obvious difference is in the content of the classes: at this level, theology is almost necessarily speculative.  One can hardly avoid questioning whether decisions made in recent decades are truly in light of the tradition, or wondering where the prevailing contemporary scholarship went wrong.  For example: In undergrad, I was reminded that the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders place an indelible mark ("character") on the soul and are thus unrepeatable.  During the paper I handed in tonight, I grappled with questions that had simply never occurred to me before: What does this "character" actually mean? Are different characters imprinted with the different sacraments, or is it the same character, simply deepened?  What's the purpose of confirmation and why is it a separate sacrament from baptism?  Is the character imprinted at each stage of the sacrament of orders, or just once? (And those are only the questions I can throw out there without having to explain the background!)  There's not a right or wrong answer to any of these, because Holy Mother Church has really not defined very much; she's left a lot to her theologians.  "I feel like I'm always in danger of being a heretic!" I commiserated to Phillip yesterday.  Laughing, he agreed: "You pretty much are."  (Not me personally; that "you" refers to theologians in general... oh, shush. You know what I mean.)

I've mentioned to some of you how glad I am that I took that year off between degrees and spent it at home working.  Now that school is not the only thing I've ever done, now that I'm back here by choice, now that I'm studying rather than working a 9-5 job, I am able to truly appreciate the leisure aspect of higher education.  How many people do I know who long for the ability to earn a degree like mine!  And yet it can;t be in the plans; their calling in life is elsewhere, and this sort of education is not a reasonable option for them.  It is a great luxury to be living a student's lifestyle on this beautiful campus, and a great privilege to be studying the sacred liturgy among such brilliant minds from such diverse backgrounds, and I know it.  I live in awe of this gift Our Lord has given me every day (I pray that awe never fades, for this is truly a marvelous place).

Time to connect the dots!  When I was simply an undergraduate with opinions, or a layperson living in the world, thinking about the family I will someday raise, I could think whatever I wanted (to a certain extent, at least).  My responsibilities were to God, my family, myself, my friends...  But now I am here, in Mundelein, studying something so essential to the life of the Church yet which too few have the opportunity to study in much detail, and I see that my perspective is not being spoken throughout the Church.  What I have to say would be a unique contribution to the discussion of theologians the world over, and they might actually listen to me!

While this is exhilarating, it's also sobering (please don't make me actually quote that line from Spiderman 3.  I know you're all thinking it): My responsibility is now to the whole Church.  Whereas before I was perfectly content to spend the rest of my days at an Institute parish (unless God threw me a real curveball on the husband thing), drawing people to Christ slowly, one by one: it's not so simple anymore.  Now I find myself grappling with the principles of the Liturgical Movement and the Postconciliar Reform, and the actualization of both.  I must face what is deficient in each of the two forms of the Roman Rite, not what is missing in the Ordinary Form alone.  It is no longer good enough that I pray much more effectively (and easily) when invited to join silently in corporate interior prayer than when I am asked to say and do exactly the same as what others are saying and doing in a group ritual in my own language: Now I must evaluate the goods of each method in light of what is best for the whole Church.

Navel-gazing though academia can be, I really think that the Church at large can benefit from my perspective (and they'll have ample opportunity to do so in coming years, God willing).  My thoughts, my engagement with the issues, are essential to God's work today in His Church throughout the world.

How humbling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at the same time.  Deo gratias!
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