Aesthetic Witnesses: Using Beauty to Build the Kingdom

Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

The quote above is taken from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” published on Easter Sunday in 1999. I’ve been reflecting on that letter in terms of the saint’s call, beginning in the late 1970s, for a new evangelization, and also in the context of young Karol Wojtyla’s cultural resistance efforts with the Rhapsodic Theater during the period of Nazi control of Poland. The more I reflect, the more convinced I become that the arts—visual, literary, theatrical, and musical—as well as beauty defined more broadly, are ideal tools both of evangelization and of Catholic resistance and encouragement today.

Beauty in evangelization

Beginning with the artist as an image of God the Creator, St. John Paul II makes a strong case for the special vocation of the artist in service to the true, the good, and the beautiful; their ideal role as revealers of the Incarnation and the Good News; and the necessity of art to the Church and vice versa. Continue reading

Able-Bodied

good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what He asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable. Continue reading

Book Break: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures

CatCoCI don’t remember exactly when I picked up Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures — or why — but it was on my nightstand, unread, for many months until Brendan came home from UMary and mentioned it was one of the good books he read in his Catholic Studies classes this year. Essentially a lecture delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) circa 2005, the book highlights the ways in which Europe’s widespread Christianity served as a foundation for many of the great advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which have paradoxically led to a severing of the Christian roots that made them possible and a grave imbalance between technology and morality, between what we can do and what we should.  Yet even as we stand on the brink of cultural collapse, Cardinal Ratzinger proposes an approach that could restore the moral foundations of Western societies and lead people back to God.

It is a short (115 pages of well-spaced text), but heady, read — unflinching yet hopeful in its outlook, recalling that all things are possible through Christ. Two major ideas touched on in the book stand out to me this morning, each of which I will paraphrase and tackle in somewhat of my own way so as not to spoil the lecture itself.

The first is that we live each day by faith, which is never blind but always rooted in authority of those who have firsthand knowledge of the subject at hand. An example a friend of mine shared some months ago: how many of us know our birth mother? How do we know? None of us can possibly recall the moment of our birth, and few if any of us have incontrovertible photographic evidence of that moment, with faces in focus and the umbilical tether uncut. We could have been adopted or inadvertently switched. But we have faith based on authority: the signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and in most cases the presence and loving care of our mothers themselves.

Most of us aren’t engineers, yet we trust another’s deep understanding of engineering to get us to and from work safely each day and to perform our work functions. Most of us no longer raise the majority of our food, yet we trust that it is safe to eat. In the same way, while many of us do not claim to have firsthand knowledge of God in person, our faith is based on the authority of those who did (or do): signed documents, the witness of family members and friends, and the loving care of the Creator Himself.

Indeed, without this foundation of so-called irrational faith — this fundamental belief and trust in things outside our own personal experience — everything else, including the science and technology we cling to as “rational,” breaks down.

The second idea worth highlighting is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it, “It is an obvious fact that the rational character of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational!” If the origins of the universe, the world, and humanity are random, how then can we rely on them to unfold in a rational way and be understandable? If our brains are merely chemicals and electrical impulses particularly suited to our survival, what are reason and choice, and why do they matter?

Cardinal Ratzinger puts forth a compelling picture of the modern culture and offers advice for believers and non-believers alike to rebuild the crumbling foundations of Europe and the West. Brendan found this little book worthwhile, and so did I.

A New Mission

By now it’s pretty well gotten around that I’ll be leaving the role of faith formation director at the end of June. A number of you have said, “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be doing next,” to which I reply, “Me, too!”  On the other hand, we have taken great leaps forward in the past three years, and I have never felt unappreciated or under-compensated working for the parish. It’s good work—it’s just not my work.

 I’ve made a discovery this past year: I have an evangelist’s heart.

I am competent at many things, and even skilled at some of them. I can be an administrator, a catechist, a communicator, an administrative assistant, and a laborer. I can do all sorts of things when needed. But I have an evangelist’s heart.

And, thanks be to God, I can write. I’ve known this for some time, and every staff or personal retreat I’ve been on for the past decade or more has resulted in me saying to my bride, “Whatever happens from here forward, I need to write.” I’ve been told the same thing countless times, by family and friends, acquaintances and total strangers. I’ve never made a successful go of writing on my own, however—I think primarily because, until now, I’ve tried to do it on my own. I’ve never really asked what God wanted me to write and waited for an answer.

I have always been the least rational and most emotional of all my male friends. I blunder through the world heart-first, find beauty in strange places, share too much, talk too much, and cry more than my bride. It’s embarrassing. I’m not good at casual friendships: most of the time I either go deep, or I can’t link a name to a face.  Any given week I love humanity and hate it, sometimes at the same time.

But when I share from the heart, when I speak or write about things I care about—faith, marriage, family—it moves people. When I talk about my own journey from part-time Catholic kid to an Ivy-educated agnostic with a porn problem to a faithful husband and father, it touches people. And I want to do that.

What’s more: God wants me to do that. (I finally asked.) No more pretending these gifts are weaknesses or wishing He made me differently. I am what He made me, and I’m only as free as I am obedient to His will.

It’s exciting: I feel like an apostle being called by Jesus to follow. And it’s terrifying: I don’t like reaching out to new people, because loving those people involves time, effort, and usually pain. Plus I can’t see my way forward. Peter and Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets and left their boats behind. Matthew left his post, his money, his whole former life. I have a primary vocation as husband and father. I can see no way to do what God is asking of me in my free time, and no simple way to make a living. I can’t see a logical next step.

So for the first time in my life, I find no solution other than utter abandon, to give everything to the Lord and let Him sort it out.

Dive in. Heart-first.

It’s the Little Things

I often worry about what my wife and children, family and friends, and even those of you I don’t know, think of me. Am I doing good work? Setting a good example? Who sees me at the grocery store—and what do they see? Who walks down my street and hears me thundering away at my poor children? Am I letting them down? Am I letting youdown?

You know the old song: You’re so vain/you probably think this song is about you/you’re so vain. Yeah. I tend to think the song is about me. Like all of you don’t have better things to do than watch for me to stumble. I used to think, At least I’m not prideful—I’m worried I’m going to let people down!But now I see what twisted pride convinces a guy that everyone is looking at, paying attention to, and judging him.

I bring this up because Lent is on the horizon. In Fr. Mike Schmitz’s video reflection, Preparing for Lent, he cites three common mistakes people make in their approach to Lenten sacrifice:
  • Take on a very easy sacrifice that will have no spiritual impact whatsoever
  • Take on a very hard sacrifice just to see if they can do it
  • Take on a two-fer–use Lent as a reason to fix a broken resolution or to do something you should have been doing all along

I have done made all three of these mistakes over the years: trying to break old habits during Lent, but for myself, not for God, or piling on the sacrifices and prayer practices until I couldn’t help failing, then cutting back and simplifying to the point that I became an unprofitable servant, only giving to God the minimum due. And all the while, I’ve wondered: Who’s watching? Who’s judging

Who cares? The point of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving Lent is to draw nearer to God and to detach from things that keep us bound to our earthly lives. We should ask, What in this world is keeping me from Christ? What can I do to more closely follow Him? —and listen to the answer.

Jodi and I used to tell our youth group in Michigan that if they thought of a sacrifice and had a sinking feeling in their hearts because they didn’t want to give that up, it might be the right thing. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. In fact, once I started thinking in terms of the little things, I realized that this is where the real work is. I’m no longer a slave to those big, serious, mortal sins that used to weigh me down, but I have countless little attachments and anxieties that crowd God out of my life.

Do you, too? Pick one, and let it go this Lent. Replace it with a simply prayer practice (maybe genuflecting more slowly and reverently before the tabernacle or monstrance, as though the King of the Universe is present—because He is!) and self-giving (how about a loving compliment to each person we interact with?).

Uh, oh. I’ve got that sinking feeling…

Note: Lent begins on Wednesday, March 1, with Ash Wednesday. Watch Fr. Mike Schmitz “Preparing for Lentand collect bonus points for watching “4 Reasons for Fasting“…