The Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

An icon of the Tree of Life. (Source)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

One of the better meditations on the meaning of the Christmas tree. (Source)

Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.

First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.

The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.

Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.

What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?

For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:

The Ven. Seraphina (Source)

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

-Ven. Seraphina di Dio

Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:

St. John of Karpathos (Source)

Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and ex­treme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

-St. John of Karpathos

One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,

St. Paul of the Cross, arguably the greatest Catholic mystic of the 18th century. (Source)

“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”

-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153

When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.

So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?

The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.

We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*

In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.

I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.

These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.

An icon of Holy Wisdom (Source)

It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.

*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.

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5 Ideas for Advent Spiritual Reading

 The Adoration of the Shepherds, Charles le Brun, 1689. (Source)

I confess, I had meant to get this post out earlier. The end of term was hectic and the start of vacation distracting. So here I am, offering my thoughts on Advent reading when the season is already here and nearly halfway done. Still, we can begin to read true and edifying things on any day, especially in the a holy time set apart by the Church for reflection and contemplation of Our Lord in one of His cardinal mysteries. So I offer here a few reading ideas for those looking for a spiritual boost this winter.

1. In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer

The cover of In Sinu Jesu (Source)

This meditative book is the sort of thing you’ll want to take to Adoration. Written by an anonymous Benedictine monk, it is jam-packed with consoling thoughts and inspiring messages. The author relates the various locutions from Our Lord and, occasionally, the Virgin and Saints, received in the inward ear of the heart in the course of profound prayer. Over the course of several years’ worth of journal entries, we read of the author’s deep vocation to reparation and adoration for the sanctification of priests. I would recommend this volume to any men considering a vocation of any kind. Its rhythmic, prayerful passages breathe and bristle with a sense of holiness rare among contemporary spiritual authors. The voice of Our Lord sings through it all, not as a trumpet or thunderclap, but as “a whistling of a gentle air” (1 Kings 19:12 DRA). Speaking only as a layman, I can say that this book completely revolutionized my spiritual life. I wonder where I should be now if it had not come into my hands a little over two years ago.

2. Bethlehem or 3. All For Jesus

The cover of Bethlehem, by Fr. Frederick William Faber. (Source)

This list wouldn’t really be an Amish Catholic post about spiritual authors without some reference to Fr. Faber. The Apostle of London wrote many books about special devotions, graces, and mysteries of Our Lord’s life. His last volume, Bethlehem, is devoted to the birth and infancy of Jesus, making it especially suited for perusal at this season.

Like many of his other texts, Bethlehem is more devotional that practical. It is intended to inspire love for Our Lord under the particular mystery of his Incarnation. While this may be just what you need this Advent (and Christmas), you may desire something a bit more practical. How to grow in the practice of the love of Jesus? How to keep on in the unflagging task of Christian charity at a time so full of worldly distractions and weariness? How do we live out the Incarnation in our own lives?

Cover of All For Jesus, by Fr. Faber (Source)

If this is the sort of thing you’d prefer in your Advent reading, then perhaps turn to Fr. Faber’s first great devotional work, All For Jesus, or the Easy Ways of Divine Love.

In this great volume, it is Fr. Faber’s task to kindle the zeal of his readers by demonstrating the sheer ease of love. He points to concrete, simple practices by which to further what he calls “the Interests of Jesus,” to save other souls, and to sanctify our own.

All For Jesus is my main spiritual reading this Advent, and I have already found it working marvels. If you would love God with warmer enthusiasm and brighter joy, then read Fr. Faber!

4. “A Short Tale About the Antichrist.”

You can find Boris Jakim’s translation of “A Short Tale About the Antichrist” in the collection Sophia, God, & A Short Tale About the Antichrist. (Source). 

This short story by Vladimir Solovyov, the “Russian Newman,” may seem like an odd choice for Advent. Yet Advent is the apocalyptic season par excellence. The liturgy turns our ears to the voices of the prophets and our  eyes towards the visions of the Last Day. And so it can be helpful to think creatively about what the end will be like.

I don’t believe Solovyov envisioned his (in some ways, rather prescient) tale of the future to be a literal prediction of what would happen. The man was not a fundamentalist, and this is not Left Behind. But he did see it as his spiritual last will and testament. The story is a powerful meditation on the nature of real evil, real Christian love, and what Christians will have to stand for in their last and terrible hour.

An edifying read, for sure.

5. The Book of Revelation

An illustration of Rev. 4-5. (Source)

If you like your apocalypse unalloyed, then open your Bible, sit down, and read the entire Book of Revelation in one or two sittings. That may seem like a lot, but it brings lots of rewards. We often lose sight of the unity of the Bible’s individual books when we just pick at passages here and there. Reading the text fully through can help restore our vision of each book as what it is – an integral whole. With a book as symbol-laden as Revelation, that reclamation becomes even more important.

It is a holy and pious thing to meditate on the Second Coming of Our Lord in Advent. Reading the Apocalypse nourishes the soul’s sense of expectation and, indeed, her desire for the final judgment. The pious soul who seeks to be immersed in the text’s sapiential logic will gain many fruits. Those who go into it with only a narrow literalism will find nothing but an arid maze. This truth applies to all of Scripture, but most especially to its apocalyptic passages.

So, those are just five options for Advent reading. There are probably hundreds of other texts I could have chosen; thus we come one example of the great diversity that characterizes the true mind of the Church.

“They Shall Not Bind Thy Wounds With Oil and Wine”

Occasionally I like to present obscure poetry here, especially by unusual figures. My readers will no doubt be well aware of my love of the bizarre and morbid. Here are two extremely rare poems from that equally strange poet, Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, an Anglo-Baltic aristocrat who dabbled in just about every religion known to man, kept a menagerie of wild animals at his Estonian palace, and carried a doll he called “le Petit Comte” that he always insisted was his son.

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Count Stenbock. A more like Huysmans’s Des Esseintes has never walked the earth. (Source)

Original collections of his Decadent verse fetch tens of thousands on the open market. I was privileged enough to view two of them at the Bodleian last year, my source for these two poems. The first dates from 1893, the second from 1883. I chose these two from several others because of the rather striking thematic contrast they afford.

Sonnet VI

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte: Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.”

All suffer, but thou shalt suffer inordinately.
All weep, but thy tears shall be tears of blood.
I will destroy the blossom in the blood,
Nathless, I will not slay thee utterly
Nay, thou shalt live—I will implant in thee
Strange lusts and dark desires, lest any should,
In passing, look on thee in piteous mood,
For from the first I have my mark on thee.

So shalt thou suffer without sympathy,
And should’st thou stand within the street and say:
“Look on me, ye that wander by the way,
If there be any sorrow like to mine.”
They shall not bind thy wounds with oil and wine,
But with strange eyes downcast, shall turn from thee.

Sonnet I – Composed in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg

On waves of music borne it seems to float
So tender sweet, so fraught with inner pain,
And far too exquisite to hear again
Above the quivering clouds that single note,
The tremendous fires of the lamp-light gloat
On the exceeding sweetness of that strain—
Though mightest spend a lifetime all in vain
In striving to recall it, yet recall it not.

Therein are mingled mercy, pity, peace,
Tears wiped away and sorrow comforted,
Bearing sweet solace and a short relief
To those, that are acquainted well with grief,
Reviving for a time joys long since dead,
And granting to the fettered soul release.

The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

Elsewhere: Mother Mectilde de Bar and the Prayer of Devekut

One of the great works of Vultus Christi has been the exposure of many English-speaking Catholics to the spiritual treasures of the continental Benedictine tradition, especially the life and work of Mother Mectilde de Bar. The good nun was a profound mystic of the Eucharist and a spiritual heir to the French School. Anyone with any interest in Benedictine life, Catholicism in early modern France, or spirituality generally should take note.

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Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. (Source)

I am very happy to refer my readers to an excellent translation of one of Mother Mectilde’s letters of spiritual direction. The translator, an Oblate of Silverstream, has rendered the 17th century French into elegant and very readable English. A job well done!

Here’s a particularly potent excerpt:

The whole of Christian perfection consists in continual attention to Jesus Christ, and a constant adherence or submission to His good pleasure. These two points contain everything, and their faithful practice will lead you to the highest degree of perfection. Blessed is the soul who observes them.

The first point consists in seeing Jesus Christ in everything; in all events and in all our dealings; in such way that this divine sight removes from us the sight of creatures, ourselves, and our interests, in order to see nothing except Jesus Christ. In a word, it is to have the presence of God continually.

The second point consists in being constantly submissive to His holy will; in being so much subject to His good pleasure that we no longer have any return, at least voluntarily, by which we can withdraw from this respectful obedience.

I am reminded, in reading this passage, of a concept in Jewish mysticism called devekut. To practice devekut is to cleave to God constantly, even in the midst of everyday, profane activities. The Rabbis who founded and nurtured Hasidism in the 18th century made it a central feature of their mystical praxis, though the idea has roots in the Temple traditions of the Old Testament (vide Barker 2004, 37). Dr. Margaret Barker notes that, according to the older, priestly understanding of the word “cleaving” in Hebrew, “to cleave” meant quite literally to join. However, this sense was displaced when the Moses-focused Deuteronomist tradition came to ascendance. The new meaning of “cleaving” was, instead, obedience (Ibid. 37). Mother Mectilde has here joined both meanings in a salutary way.

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An icon of the Holy Eucharist, showing Christ the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. (Source)

However, I think she places a bit more emphasis on the first, as the primary and indispensable basis of the second. She goes on to write,

Have Jesus Christ imprinted and carved on the center of your soul. Have him in all the faculties of your mind. May your heart be able to think of and long for nothing except Jesus Christ.  May your whole inclination be to please Him. Attach all your fortunes and your happiness to knowing and loving Jesus Christ.[1] May nothing on earth, however great it seems, prevail in you against the constant union you should have with Jesus Christ. May neither heaven, nor earth, nor hell, nor any power, ever separate you from Him.[2]

She continues on and apostraphizes Divine Love, writing

O Jesus all powerful and all love, work in us these two effects of mercy: attract us by your omnipotence and transform us by your love into Yourself.

O love, O love divine, may you burn in us, and that you may consume in us everything that is contrary to you and opposed to your workings.

O life that is not animated by love, how can you be called life? You are a hideous death, and most terrible.

O pure and holy love of Jesus Christ, do not allow a single moment of my life to be spent without love; make me die and throw me into hell a thousand times rather than not to love Jesus Christ.

The first line here is the key; this is the loving and even conjugal language of devekut, not simple obedience. But obedience is implied as the sustaining force and natural result of such attentive love.

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A hesychast at prayer. (Source)

It seems appropriate to me that Mother Mectilde, a Benedictine, should advocate for this kind of “cleaving” prayer, vigilant love in every moment. It has always been the task of the monastic throughout history to preserve this kind of remembrance of God that is itself a form of His presence in the heart. Precisely this “cleaving” constitutes the positive good underlying hesychasm in the East, but it can also be found in many monastic writers of both East and West. Mother Mectilde is not speaking alone. Indeed, she expresses the perennial Wisdom that has always infused the monastic life and made it fruitful.

Read the whole thing over at Vultus Christi.

Springtime Sophiology from St. Nicodemus

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Gate on Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford. Photo by author.

Now there are of course those who do not use the senses and the subsequent meditation on creation and Holy Scripture to rise through them to the knowledge and love of God, who both spoke the Scriptures and created the world. On the contrary, such people use this sense perception simply for human aggrandizement, for the marvel and mere pleasure of the corruptible beauty in creatures, and for other bodily purposes. Or, at least, they simply remain on the level of the limited purposes of the creatures and of the Scriptures. They thus neglect to proceed further, to rise to the catholic and comprehensive view of things, to God’s wisdom through which all things are known and in which all the reasons for each creature are to be found, according to St. Maximos. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth…When he established the heavens, I was there” (Prv. 3:19, 27). St. Basil the Great too had something to say on this point: “There are indeed certain reasons why the primordial wisdom of God was laid as a foundation to nature at the time of creation.” Now, those who do not rise – through the reason endowed in nature and in the Holy Scriptures – to the hypostatic Logos of God, those who do not love Him “through whom all things were made” (Jn 1:3), as most of the worldly philosophers do not, all of these people act contrary to the Creator’s purpose in nature and in Holy Scripture. And according to the wise and most insightful Kallistos, the thought of such people has lost its natural tendency and has become unnatural. This has occurred because they use the means as ends in themselves, and the causes as results, and they love the gifts more than the Giver and the creatures more than the Creator, as St. Augustine has said. Since creation was not created for itself, but for the vision and glory of its Creator, it is not proper that it should be seen and admired for its own sake, but rather for the sake of its Creator. It is the same with the mirror which one does not look at for its own sake, but for the sake of the one reflected in it.

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St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Source)

We may add, finally, that the secondary goal and purpose for the creation of the senses is so that the material body may be able to enjoy through them material nourishment, growth, and life. Truly, I do not know what to marvel at most: the “palace” that is so intricately constructed or the “king” who dwells therein. But of these two, I must certainly marvel most at the master artist and the Creator who with infinite wisdom not only created both of them, but also united the mind and body in such perfect harmony.

Quoted from Chapter One of A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel by Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Trans. Peter A. Chamberas, Paulist Press, 1989, pages 73 and 74. 

The Threefold Maternity of Mary

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Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. Photo by Lawrence Lew O.P. (Source)

God seems very fond of doing things in a Trinitarian way. Everywhere we look, in nature, in our lives, in the life of the Church, it seems that we constantly come upon things that speak of threeness-in-oneness. So it is with God’s finest creation, Our Lady. Or rather, with her maternity. She has but one singular motherhood – her highest title, Theotokos, means “Mother of God.” Nothing can surpass this supreme gift. Nothing greater can be said of the Lord’s chosen. Nothing can reveal more about Our Lady’s life and mission. Yet we detect a certain triune quality to this one eminent dignity. We can speak of the threefold maternity of Mary.

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Our Lady of the Annunciation (Source)

First, we encounter Mary’s basic, physical motherhood of Jesus at the Annunciation. In welcoming the will of God into her life, she becomes the mother of the Most High, God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost, her divine spouse, conceives the Son in her womb. Her mystical partner and guardian in this parentage is St. Joseph. And in the joy of that maternity, we see Mary and Joseph as two models of chastity. Everything in those joyful mysteries becomes a parable of purity. The sanctity of the Holy Family consists in no small part in the innocence that pervades the hearts of each member. For that innocence is an opening to charity.

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Our Lady of Sorrows (Source)

Then, after the three and thirty years, Mary stands mournful beneath the cross. It was there that she became Mother of the Eucharistic Christ. For, offering up the sorrow of her own Immaculate Heart in union with her son’s High Priestly sacrifice, she bound herself to all the altars of the world as first adorer and co-redemptrix. Gone is St. Joseph; in his stead we find St. John, the figure of all priests under Christ. He would share the Eucharistic life with Mary forever after, entrusted with her care. Here, the great virtue uniting both of the hearts below the Cross is obedience. Our Lady obeys the paramount Providence of God in consenting to the sacrifice of her son, and St. John obeys the words of Our Lord in taking responsibility for the Sorrowful Mother.

But it is today’s feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle that points to the full and final extension of these two prior forms of motherhood. It falls on a most interesting point in the calendar, Saturday in the Octave of the Ascension. It is as if we are standing in the middle of a bridge between two shining cities, and can hear the mingled music of both. This liminal quality is important. For the feast we celebrate today has a double meaning. Two feasts of different but equal importance and dignity seem to unite in this celebration.

We have just left Christ in his Ascension. The Ascension is a memorial of Christ’s High Priesthood. It is like the prayers at the foot of the altar in the Cosmic Liturgy. Pentecost is a glorious theophany, the arrival of the Holy Ghost. We are thus mid-way between a mystery of veiling, and mystery of unveiling. And who do we turn to, but Mary, she who both hid and manifested God in her person?

When we celebrate Our Lady of the Cenacle, we commemorate her vigil of silent prayer with the Apostles in the upper room in those intense days following Our Lord’s Ascension. But we also remember the descent of the Holy Ghost into her own Immaculate Heart and into those of her companions. At the deepest level of reality, these constitute a single event in the History of Salvation. And they give us a sense of Mary’s deepening, widening maternity.

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Our Lady of the Cenacle (Source)

Wherever Mary communes with her divine spouse, the Holy Ghost, there is conceived the Body of Christ. First, that meant the physically Incarnate Word. Then it was the Eucharist extended throughout all time. And finally, as a consequence of these two forms of motherhood, we come to Mary’s maternity of the Church. This maternity is the crown of the other two, for it has never ended. The Holy Spirit came to that silver throne, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and has never left. In all the rest of Mary’s earthly life and eternal existence in beatitude, she has never been deprived of that intimate union begun in Pentecost. And so the Church remains. Mary’s union with the Holy Ghost is at the very heart of the Church’s being. That union brought forth Christ once. It brings forth the Eucharist at every Mass. And now, at Pentecost, it brings forth the Eucharistic community, Christ in His members.

Yet in what does this exalted maternity consist? Prayer, offered perfectly in the Immaculate Heart united to the Holy Ghost. Contemplation, adoration, reparation, intercession – in all its forms, prayer rises from Mary’s heart like huge storms of incense blowing across a desert plain, raining down graces to make it fertile. Yet one form of prayer does not. Mary cannot be contrite. She has never sinned. But we turn to her mystic partner in this maternity, and find a pillar of penance. Who else shares in the life of the Spirit in such a fiery way, but St. John the Baptist? Such is the heavenly reality expressed by the Deisis icon. It shows the Blessed Virgin Mary, paragon of prayer, and St. John the Baptist, archetype of penance, adoring Christ the Lord. Both Our Lady and St. John represent the twin realities of the Ecclesial life – prayer and penance – ordered to Christ – the Sacraments. We might thus speak of Mary’s motherhood of the Church as her Sophianic Maternity, for it is entirely drawn from and oriented to the Divine Wisdom.

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A typical deisis. (Source)

The feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle is thus a profoundly maternal day in the Church’s liturgy. Let us join her in prayer. Perhaps we shall taste something of that everlasting life granted to her in the Cenacle.

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Monstra Te Esse Matrem (Source)

The Music of the Holy Ghost

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A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Clips from Tarkovsky’s films are often incorporated into the Rev Army’s music videos. (Source)

Not long ago, I came across a new band. What a singular group it is. Their music crosses and confuses genres. They produce content at a far scarcer rate than other musical acts. Even their name, taken from a Buñuel film, sets them apart from most of the offerings one comes across today.

Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a cult gem. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus has been on the scene for quite a while. Almost thirty years ago, they released their first album, The Gift of Tears (1987). Since then, they have only come out with sporadic releases, such as 1990’s Mirror and 2015’s Beauty Will Save the World. The long hiatus has well earned them the title of “One of music’s most elusive and enigmatic acts,” as we can read on their BandCamp site.

Tim Cooper has a great review of their work over at The Quietus:

…the attention-averse trio, who regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band, make wildly eclectic music rooted in liturgical texts and ecclesiastical iconography, contrasting ethereal beauty with stark brutalism. Celestial choirs rub their cassocked shoulders with squalls of industrial noise, political speeches are interwoven with celluloid dialogue, instrumentation ranges from sombre neo-classical piano to pounding dance beats by way of folk, free-form jazz and experimental psychedelia.

They draw together a variety of spiritual and cultural influences: folk Catholicism, peasant mysticism, Russian Orthodoxy, the experience of post-Soviet Europe, Simone Weil, Welsh poetry. Their work can, I think, be described as sophianic, but it is a sophanicity carefully drawn through the harried cracks of the fallen world. The truth that the Rev Army grips and holds up to the light gleams all the more for being refracted in the shards of our earthly mirror.

Here are some favorite songs with their proper music videos, many of which are just as important for the meaning of the piece as the score itself.

Come Holy Spirit” – the very first Rev Army song I discovered. A bit too much flute and too many drums for me, but it was different enough from anything I had ever heard that it caught my attention.

Bright Field” – the first one that captivated me. The upward lift of the music combined with R.S. Thomas’s stirring paraphrase of the Gospel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s silken, dreamlike visuals, all together inspire something like wonder. Whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of a poem by Rilke.

After the End” – a simple and haunting French ditty set to the grainy images of villagers at prayer. They seem to be visionaries.

Psalm” – a few women chant in English against an increasingly dissonant shower of quasi-industrial background noise. The juxtaposition strikes me as an artistic model of transcendence through persistent prayer.

Repentance” – the most Flannery O’Connor thing you will ever see or hear. I’ll just leave it at that.

Théme de l’homme qui n’a pas cru en lui méme” – a Latin-flavored and occasionally jazzy piece featuring footage from a (staged?) Spanish Lenten procession. In case you hadn’t already noticed, the band is extremely Catholic.

Joy of the Cross” – another Lenten procession, but this time with a soft-edged folk music that makes me think of Fleet Foxes.

Before the Ending of the Day” – the Compline hymn surrounded and supported by an airy yet pulsing larger song. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev provides the meditative visuals. Note that one of the commenters on YouTube wrote, “Please keep making more of these. This helped still my soul.”

Something epicletic moves through their music. But one can find that quality in lots of other work. What sets the Rev Army apart isn’t just their obsession with the Holy Ghost, nor their stylistic eclecticism. It’s their powerful sense of mystery. They never shy away from the divine darkness with which the Holy Ghost enshrouds His manifold works of grace. How refreshing, in an age of “Spirit of the Council” muzak and shallow “praise and worship,” to find music that is overtly Christian and even mystical without ever becoming preachy, dated, or emotivist. They treat their subject, the perennial and universal longing of the human heart for God, with a rare artistic and spiritual sophistication.

Caught up in marvel at the saving mystery of the Holy Ghost, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the real Catholic charismatic revival.

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An icon of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. (Source)

Elsewhere: Michael Martin on Heresy

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Haublin’s portrait of Jacob Boehme. (Source)

I have just finished a rather interesting piece by Michael Martin, perhaps the leading Catholic sophiologist, on the subject of heresy. Martin argues that we even ostensible heretics have something to offer orthodox Christians. It helps that he grounds his points more in lived experience than any kind of normative Christian discourse. I quote at length:

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without encountering the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

I differ with Martin on some important points. I am much more sanguine towards the Dubia and the Correctio than he is (I see them as necessary for the preservation of orthopraxis as well as a helpful move away from ultramontane ecclesiology; both movements vindicate Cardinal Newman). Likewise, when Martin writes later that…

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable.

…he may be putting just a bit too fine a point on it. Dogma matters. One could cite any number of perfectly respectable theologians who write of how desperately we need dogma (once again, I think of Newman in the Apologia), but I’d rather not belabor the matter. The problem lies not with dogma, but with dogmatism, a tendency to regard far more as settled than actually is. Moreover, Martin makes much of the fact that he has “learned much about Jesus from heretics.”

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Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), the Magus of the North. A Lutheran whose idiosyncrasies could certainly earn him the label of heretic. (Source)

Here, I am in a somewhat qualified agreement with Martin. First, because I, too, have been deeply influenced by figures whom some would consider heretical, from George Herbert to Johann Georg Hamann to Jacob Boehme to Ernst Fuchs to William Blake. I came to the faith in part because my imagination was prepared by that deeply heretical musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my closest mentors in college was an Armenian Orthodox theologian and ethicist —technically, a miaphysite. I have something approaching a devotion to Charles I, King and Martyr, even though he was not reconciled to Rome at the time of his death. Thomists at least would frown upon my fondness for St. Gregory Palamas and his mystical theology. A number of Jewish authors have helped me find my theological bearings—particularly Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and the authors of the Zohar. Various authors of the Frankfurt School made a tremendous impact on me in college. Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” still resonate deeply with me, and force me to reckon with the complications of my own tradition. If you want to be really strict about what constitutes heresy, even someone as ostensibly Marian and Ecclesial as T.S. Eliot, a poet who has shaped my thought in more ways than I know, would nevertheless be heretical for his high Anglicanism as well as his unsound views on birth control. And need I mention that far more egregious heretic, Herman Melville? Moby Dick was like a revelation for me when I first read it last year.

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Origen of Alexandria. Church Father and something of a heretic. (Source)

There are more thinkers I could cite who are problematic in the face of formal orthodoxy. The Catechism tells us,

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” CCC 2089

I would wager that most if not all of the authors I mentioned could be charged with at least one of these sins. So what? I don’t regret the wisdom they have shared with me. To the contrary, I am a better person for my contact with their lives and works.

The fact is, most of us are probably indebted to heretics of some kind in some way or other. We arrive at this state, not through any deliberate, insidious intent, but merely by a thorough education. And what is education if not learning how to find diamonds amidst coal? A well-read man will inevitably encounter writers whose view of the world is imperfect (as his own is). But that encounter can be very beneficial if wedded to discretion and wisdom. Surely this maxim is just as true for the theologian as for any other scholar. The perfection of his discipline consists not in the purity of his intellectual lineage, but in attaining the vision of God. At a certain point, systemic rigor breaks down in the face of the absolute and ineffable mystery.

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The Philosophers, Mikhail Nesterov, 1917. Here we see both Fr. Pavel Florensky and (soon to be) Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov, two of the great Russian Sophiologists. While technically condemned as heretics by the Soviet Patriarch, their profound insights into the mysteries of Divine Wisdom remain seminal in contemporary Orthodox and Catholic theology. And that’s a good thing. (Source)

Let me add a brief theological note. Like Martin, I think sophiology is a terribly important idea. The sophiology of Bulgakov et al. was (sort of) condemned by a (compromised) Moscow Patriarchate in 1935. The Orthodox remain deeply divided over its actual status as a heresy. Nevertheless, its intellectual legacy lingers in both East and West, and it is still proving to be a fertile source of theological discussion. I pray that it will continue to develop in the 21st century.

Thirdly, as an historian, I have to admit that Martin’s conclusion isn’t all that unusual. Scholars have increasingly recognized since the 1930’s that, as a matter of historical fact, the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy have been notably porous over the centuries. The case of Origen alone would suffice to illustrate the issue, though more could be cited. What may seem perfectly orthodox in one era could turn out to be declared heretical as doctrine develops and clarifies over the course of the ages. Or quite the opposite; we lay faithful can now receive the Blessed Sacrament in both kinds. Previously, Utraquism was condemned along with all the rest of Jan Hus’s errors (though personally, I dislike this liturgical practice and rarely receive in both kinds myself).

There are practical concerns at play, too. Theologians must retain a certain level of intellectual freedom if any kind of development is to happen at all. How are we to approach that freedom? How to canalize the vast and manifold energies of the spirit, so often diffused in an erratic array of chattering and solipsistic spurts of “dialogue” online? The free “Republic of Letters” spoken of by the Humanists and their early modern descendants is, I think, a much better model for our own theological era than the mechanistic logic and endless citation of authorities seen among the classical Scholastics. I’ll add that the increasingly important field of visual theology poses other important questions. The encryption and interpretation of meaning through art, emblems, ritual, and other aesthetic media opens itself to all manner of views. Some are orthodox, others heterodox. This very heterogeneity requires a certain degree of freedom for discussion and discernment. There is an irony in Martin’s rejection of the Dubia and the Correctio. Both documents rely upon and exemplify the very academic freedom that his piece latently extols.

Don’t get me wrong. Heresy is and always has been a sin, and a mortal one at that. We should oppose it; the proper authorities should correct it through the proper channels, and in the case of open and public heresy, the laity can and should do so as well. But Martin is right to note that the individual ideas of heretics can be fruitful for deepening properly orthodox meditations. More importantly, God can make whatever use of them He wishes. I doubt that Martin is or will be the only one who has “learned much about Jesus” from those deemed heretics.

When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

 

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)