We explore “Art and the mystery of the Word made flesh” in section 5 of this letter. Let’s take half today and the rest tomorrow.
5. The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of “graven or molten image” (Dt 27:15), because God transcends every material representation: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son born of woman” (Gal 4:4). God became man in Jesus Christ, who thus becomes “the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself”.(Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998), 80)
The Christian tradition is rooted in Judaism, which declines to “illustrate” God simply because God cannot be captured in any image. Does the incarnation change this equation for Christians? In history, this has been a troublesome point for some believers who seek to keep faith with those who have gone before us, and avoid any flirtation with idolatry. Is there a middle ground between iconoclasm and idolatry? For most Christians, the answer to this has been in the affirmative.
This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming (human), the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.
Artists have a role to play to ensure that human imagination is widened and inspired. But yet we do not wish to make the true and the good a trap for others.
What do you think? Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.
For Evangelii Gaudium 98-101, Pope Francis urges believers to say “No to warring among ourselves.”
98. How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighborhoods and in the workplace, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among Christians! Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an “inner circle”. Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special.
It strikes me this can be taken several ways. The “special” group might be a layer within the Church: bishops, clergy, or lay ministers. It might be religious life or a particular brand of spirituality within a particular community. It could be geographical. (“My parish is better than yours.”) It could be cultural and/or ethnic. It could be ideological. It could be one of the many special communities that have sprung up in the past century. It could extend across denominational lines.
To be sure, identifying with a group and having a sense of self-esteem is not, in itself, wrong. It is when such self-identifications are at the root of exclusion, alienation, or even an antigospel attitude.
Anticipating I wasn’t going to be happy about shoveling out in below-zero temps this morning, I cleared the home driveway and walks last night after church. Sure enough, my car thought twice before igniting. Minus-nine Fahrenheit. It was another f-word cold.
It was also blue sky above and on the ground, rather nice drifts of light snow. Most of the rabbit tracks were submerged. I threw some old vegetables out on the back deck last night and this morning, there were furrows in the snow.
A handful of the morning’s liturgical ministers didn’t show for the early Mass. No problem, as many people come to me before liturgy and ask if I have openings.
Before my arrival, my predecessor and the pastor had “idiot-proofed” Communion ministry, training people to count the number of ministers and come forward if the count was below eleven. For a few reasons, I strongly disagreed with that proposal. And since I value the face time with parishioners before Mass, I knew we could develop better habits (finding subs, preparing for a Communion ministry assignment, etc.) by doing away with the count-to-eleven rule.
After four years, I think we’ve come to a better place on this. I feel better about the clearing up of expectations and assignments. Last weekend, one of the ministers approached me with gratefulness she no longer is worried about counting and going up at the same time three other people advance for the one empty spot.
The artist and the common good: is this how artists view their place in culture? Is this how non-artists view the situation?
Pope John Paul makes the point that we very much need artists–this is not a throwaway profession or an indulgence to the gifted:
4. 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 favor of the common good.
In seeking the common good, artists blend three strains, as I read JP2. First, that art is naturally hard work. This effort merges into a responsibility. This duty includes the truth of the artistic form, something not cheapened by the various aspects of celebrity fandom. And certainly there is an aspect of spirituality, a sense that creating and sharing art is more than the tools, the product, the time, the sweat, and the enrichment of culture.
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 labor 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”.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.
Pope Francis concerned about pastoral workers, people from bishops to lay volunteers who exercise some leadership, who are bothered by those who want to think beyond their own concerns. Read Evangelii Gaudium for more on this half chapter (EG 76-109) addressing our “temptations.”
97. Those who have fallen into this worldliness look on from above and afar, they reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters, they discredit those who raise questions, they constantly point out the mistakes of others and they are obsessed by appearances. Their hearts are open only to the limited horizon of their own immanence and interests, and as a consequence they neither learn from their sins nor are they genuinely open to forgiveness. This is a tremendous corruption disguised as a good.
The Holy Father doesn’t mince words on this, does he? He captures a “corruption” that has marginalized prophets, abused saints, and hamstrung the Church’s best hopes and efforts for evangelization.
So sad and ironic that those most concerned about the sins and offenses of others are so often blinded to their own. But of course, this is Gospel–the very experience of the Lord himself. It’s a sure sign things are out of alignment spiritually and morally, be it found in a bishop or the parish volunteer. And truth be told, we’ve all experienced it, either as a target or as a perpetrator.
There is a way out:
We need to avoid it by making the Church constantly go out from herself, keeping her mission focused on Jesus Christ, and her commitment to the poor. God save us from a worldly Church with superficial spiritual and pastoral trappings! This stifling worldliness can only be healed by breathing in the pure air of the Holy Spirit who frees us from self-centeredness cloaked in an outward religiosity bereft of God. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the Gospel!
We escape this temptation by committing ourselves to the mission of Christ. Not the derivations of it that have such allure. And to be sure, while he didn’t use the metaphor, those who are so willing to attack sisters and brothers from within the Church are most definitely wolves among us wrapped in wool.
Artists produce for a greater good, not just for themselves, and not just from themselves. It is something of God:
It is in living and acting that (people) establish (their) relationship with being, with the truth and with the good. The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed … by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30).
If a “talent” is of God, from God, then there exists a duty to share, to serve others through this gift. A very Christian point. I wonder how modern non-believers in the artistic community feel about their gift. Certainly some have that sense of a greater purpose. But there are also Christian artists–Christian by belief perhaps and not practice, who are more self-centered.
Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.
Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.
Pope Francis delivers some military imagery, though I was thinking more of Dante with the challenge to those who might prefer to lead a lost cause than serve in a lowly spot in a good one:
96. This way of thinking also feeds the vainglory of those who are content to have a modicum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals! But this is to deny our history as a Church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifice, of hopes and daily struggles, of lives spent in service and fidelity to work, tiring as it may be, for all work is “the sweat of our brow”.
This imagery of serving as a solider for Christ was one of Ignatius of Loyola’s–not surprising considering his secular career as a soldier.
Instead, we waste time talking about “what needs to be done” – in Spanish we call this the sin of “habriaqueísmo” – like spiritual masters and pastoral experts who give instructions from on high. We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people.
Evangelii Gaudium criticizes plans just for their own sake, and challenges church leaders to reconsider their situation in this long sub-chapter devoted to those who serve, or who should be serving.