Hilary Term Update

I haven’t posted in about a month and a half, so thanks for your patience. The reason? Hilary Term.

Hilary Term is the middle term of the University of Oxford’s academic year. I finished up the second half of the Patristics paper, and also had the Old Testament paper. No Greek this term, but it was a busier term than Michaelmas because I was also helping out at the University Chaplaincy more often. Over the Easter break, I have two essays to write, one to re-write, and two sets of collections for when I get back.

Next term, I’ll be taking the medieval paper, i.e. the History and Theology of the Western Church 1050-1350. The history bit will be with Dr Lesley Smith, a historian from my College, and the theology bit will be with Fr Simon Gaine OP, a Dominican theologian who just ended his term of service as the prior of our local community of friars. I’m excited to be able to study under him, having met him and heard him lecture a few times, and also having heard good things. I like the guy.

Best of all, I was accepted into his Aquinas class next Michaelmas, which almost got dropped from the schedule since only 3 people (including me) picked Aquinas as their first choice for the special theologian requirement. (All undergraduates reading Theology are required to choose a track, either Track 1 – Biblical Studies, Track 2 – History and Doctrine, or Track 3 – Religious Studies. Track 2, the track I’m on, requires students to choose a theologian to focus especially on for a term.) The other two students are from Regents Park, the Baptist PPH, and Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical Anglican PPH. And then there’s me, a new Catholic convert from Presbyterianism based at the historically Unitarian former PPH. Of course, my friend who studies at Regents Park says that the student from there is likely either an agnostic or an atheist, but that the Wycliffe student is probably an evangelical. So it’s either two Protestants and a Protestant-turned-Catholic, or an agnostic/atheist, Protestant, and Protestant-turned-Catholic, all studying one of the greatest Catholic theologians under a friar-theologian who lives, eats, breathes, and prays the same life Aquinas lived. He’s one of the Angelic Doctor’s confreres. And I get this guy two terms in a row! It’s gonna be an awesome two months.

What else is coming up on the academic front?

My supervising tutor has accepted my topic and choice of supervisor for my BA thesis. Topic: “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Artist.” Supervisor: Michael Ward, author of the acclaimed recent work of Lewis scholarship Planet Narnia, which I am currently reading, by the way. The guy’s erudite, writes extremely well (with the same dry wit that is characteristic of his conversation), and really does have the “encyclopedic knowledge” of Lewis’ works that a cover blurb praises. What’s more, though I was at first highly skeptical, his argument is slowly convincing me. Now, I just need to write my full thesis proposal, due in mid-May, and get it approved by the Board of the Faculty of Theology. Hopefully they’ll think it’s academic enough. I’ve been told Theology and the Arts is becoming a more hip subject among the Faculty, and they’re keen to support it.

On the religion front, as I said, I’ve been helping out more often at the Chaplaincy this term. I helped with the Monday lunches each week for the first few weeks of term, until they went on hiatus for Lent. More importantly, the chaplains asked me to serve as a sacristan for the weekday Masses, since I attend them almost every day anyway. I was deeply honored to be asked, and I love being able to serve my priests in this way. I’m glad I can help take their mind off physically prepping before Mass, so they can have a few more moments to spiritually prep. I’ve also been asked to be an altar server on Sundays once I’ve been received, and I’m looking forward to serving in that capacity as well.

I will be received into the Church on Ascension Sunday, May 16th, at the 5:45 p.m. Mass at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Say a prayer, if you would, for all of us who will be baptized, confirmed, or received on that day. I can’t wait.

Thoughts on a Religious Theatre Community

So first of all, I have decided to run the series on a theatre company run according to the Rule of St Benedict. I may follow it up by looking at some of the other Rules of religious life as well, such as the Rule of St Augustine which the Augustinians and Dominicans use.

One of the major reasons why I’m doing this is that I am interested in the idea of a religious community whose main apostolate is theatre. I’ve run across religious communities that do theatre (like the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, and the couple Dominican priests who operated an off-Broadway theatre in the 20th century under the aegis of their province), and also arts-makers who live in a semi-communal monasticism-influenced environment (the Art Monastery in Italy, an arts incubator and collective based in a medieval monastery). But I’ve not run across a religious community that does theatre (or arts in general) as its main apostolate. There are many religious congregations, societies of apostolic life, and association of the faithful that focus on missionary work, education, health care, promoting devotions, and other worthy activities. These might use the arts in their work, but I have not run across a single one of these organizations whose charism is to create art to God’s glory. I think this is a lack that should be supplied, and as I am at the beginning of a long-term period of vocational discernment, supplying that missing charism is an option I am considering strongly.

I’ve got to thank the Prof, Scott Walters, for planting the seed of this idea with his vision statement for theatre tribes, though I’m taking it in a bit of a different direction. Nevertheless, imagine this:

A troupe of theatre professionals devoted to creating theatre to the greater glory of God, and also to deepening their relationships with God, with each other, and with their communities by reflecting the servant role of an artist and Christian through a life of radical self-giving and prayer. They take the evangelical counsels, vowing poverty (not hard for an artist), chastity (a bit harder), and obedience (by far the hardest). (Since the model I am considering is intended to grow into a religious congregation, it is Catholic, but I am sure this model could be adjusted accordingly for members of other faith traditions.) The grounds include a chapel (the spiritual heart of the community, reserved for prayer, worship, and reflection – not to be used as extra rehearsal or performance space). There are also living quarters for the community, with extra rooms for visiting artists. There’s a refectory (area where meals can be taken in common), common room (where community members, resident visiting artists, and staff can relax), meeting room (for community and production meetings), and library with study space (the concept of the artist-scholar is an important tenet of the community).

The heart of the community’s work, however, is the theatre. Ideally there would be a larger proscenium-style space (though flexible and not limited to proscenium usage) as well as a smaller black box/studio theatre, accompanied by rehearsal studios of various sizes and equippage (as many as we can manage and practically use, at least one with a piano, one with a sprung dance floor, one with video equipment, etc.) There would also be scenery, prop, and costume shops, as well as materials and item storage. (It would be great to have enough space to offer storage space and materials to the community, with a low rental fee, to encourage reuse of materials. The “greening” of the build-use-destroy process would save other theatres money while bringing in a modest income to the community.) There would of course be a comfortable green room, and a community room where, for example, the theatre could host events, or provide space for gatherings of the greater local community. Programming would not only include shows that the resident troupe puts on, but also involvement by people from the local region. The theatre would be a place for them to create and produce their own art as well. (It could eventually grow into a full arts community, not just theatre.)

Troupe members would teach in schools and at the theatre. Multiple roles in the community (like acting, playwriting, marketing, and painting sets) would not only be encouraged but expected, though of course with a focus on one’s strengths and passions. (If you can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a paintbrush, no one’s going to suggest you take the role of chief scenic artist, but if there are a dozen set pieces that need to be painted, all available hands will be expected to help out.) This community would also share its resources communally, so any salary earned from teaching or independent bookings (or from ticket sales or donations) goes directly into the community pool, which also provides for the community members’ needs, as well as a modest monthly allowance per person. The community would be run on a democratic model similarly to the way the Dominicans run their priories, with members elected to leadership posts like general manager, bursar, artistic director, with term limits (though a person can be re-elected if they’re doing a good job and both they and the community would like them to continue). There would be shared worship on Sundays, among the community members and the local community. Communal prayer would happen in the chapel at least twice daily (morning and evening prayer). Best of all, it would be theatre artists living together, sharing a common life of artistic creation and prayer. Religious life with a theatre apostolate.

Now I’m just throwing ideas out there at the moment. Religious life places certain limitations on the flexibility of a theatre (and, to be honest, on its artistic content). But a life of not only shared artistic creation, but also shared prayer between a community of residential Christian artists is very attractive to me, even if it doesn’t go so far as vowed religious life. (I’ve just brought that aspect in because it’s something I’ve thought about very seriously recently.)

Does any of the above sound attractive to anyone else? Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, critiques? Let’s hash it out. How might something like this work? Keeping in mind I’m discussing at the moment a residential theatre company with communal living that has a religious component. Has anyone heard or thought of anything like this? If it’s an idea that interests you, how might you go about it?

7 Goals

As 2009 winds down and 2010 begins, I’m reflecting on how where I am now (studying Theology at Oxford while living in C.S. Lewis’ house) is so very different from where I thought I would be 3 years ago (finishing up a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology while writing a dissertation on religious OCD), which is very different from where I thought I would be 3 years before that (making a living as a freelance actor in either NYC or LA).

Where would I like to be 3 years from today? Working on my D.Phil. in Theology and the Arts while applying to join a religious order (either as a first-order or third-order member) or some other form of consecrated life.

As I seek to clarify where I go from here, listed below (in no particular order) are seven goals I have for my life:

1) Get a D.Phil. in Theology and the Arts

2) Graduate with a First from Oxford

3) Join a religious order/enter consecrated life

4) Teach at a Catholic (or “merely Christian”) college

5) Start a professional theatre company aimed at exploring spiritual themes in a way that is both Catholic (consistent with our understanding of good vs. evil in the context of a divine redemptive purpose for humanity) and catholic (examined in a way that is accessible to all Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no religious belief)

6) Publish a book on the moral responsibility of the Christian artist

7) Become a saint

By the last I don’t mean “become canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.” I mean that I hope and pray that, by the grace of God, I live my life in such a way that I allow God to make of me the saint He wishes to make. We are all of us – every human being – called to be saints in the end. Nothing less.

What are your goals for 2010, for your life, or even just for today? And how can we help each other reach them? Feel free to comment below if you’d like to share your thoughts.

Blessings to you, dear reader, in the New Year.

My desk at the Kilns

Today’s Papal Address to Artists

Today Pope Benedict XVI addressed over 250 artists convened in the Sistine Chapel (as mentioned in this post). Here is the text of his address, via Psalm 46:11:

Dear Cardinals,
Brother Bishops and Priests,
Distinguished Artists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

With great joy I welcome you to this solemn place, so rich in art and in history. I cordially greet each and every one of you and I thank you for accepting my invitation. At this gathering I wish to express and renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art, a friendship that has been strengthened over time; indeed Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation. This friendship must be continually promoted and supported so that it may be authentic and fruitful, adapted to different historical periods and attentive to social and cultural variations. Indeed, this is the reason for our meeting here today. I am deeply grateful to Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church, and likewise to his officials, for promoting and organizing this meeting, and I thank him for the words he has just addressed to me. I greet the Cardinals, the Bishops, the priests and the various distinguished personalities present. I also thank the Sistine Chapel Choir for their contribution to this gathering. Today’s event is focused on you, dear and illustrious artists, from different countries, cultures and religions, some of you perhaps remote from the practice of religion, but interested nevertheless in maintaining communication with the Catholic Church, in not reducing the horizons of existence to mere material realities, to a reductive and trivializing vision. You represent the varied world of the arts and so, through you, I would like to convey to all artists my invitation to friendship, dialogue and cooperation.

Some significant anniversaries occur around this time. It is ten years since the Letter to Artists by my venerable Predecessor, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II. For the first time, on the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Pope, who was an artist himself, wrote a Letter to artists, combining the solemnity of a pontifical document with the friendly tone of a conversation among all who, as we read in the initial salutation, “are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty”. Twenty-five years ago the same Pope proclaimed Blessed Fra Angelico the patron of artists, presenting him as a model of perfect harmony between faith and art. I also recall how on 7 May 1964, forty-five years ago, in this very place, an historic event took place, at the express wish of Pope Paul VI, to confirm the friendship between the Church and the arts. The words that he spoke on that occasion resound once more today under the vault of the Sistine Chapel and touch our hearts and our minds. “We need you,” he said. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself. And in this activity … you are masters. It is your task, your mission, and your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colours, forms – making them accessible.” So great was Paul VI’s esteem for artists that he was moved to use daring expressions. “And if we were deprived of your assistance,” he added, “our ministry would become faltering and uncertain, and a special effort would be needed, one might say, to make it artistic, even prophetic. In order to scale the heights of lyrical expression of intuitive beauty, priesthood would have to coincide with art.” On that occasion Paul VI made a commitment to “re-establish the friendship between the Church and artists”, and he invited artists to make a similar, shared commitment, analyzing seriously and objectively the factors that disturbed this relationship, and assuming individual responsibility, courageously and passionately, for a newer and deeper journey in mutual acquaintance and dialogue in order to arrive at an authentic “renaissance” of art in the context of a new humanism.

That historic encounter, as I mentioned, took place here in this sanctuary of faith and human creativity. So it is not by chance that we come together in this place, esteemed for its architecture and its symbolism, and above all for the frescoes that make it unique, from the masterpieces of Perugino and Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and others, to the Genesis scenes and the Last Judgement of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who has given us here one of the most extraordinary creations in the entire history of art. The universal language of music has often been heard here, thanks to the genius of great musicians who have placed their art at the service of the liturgy, assisting the spirit in its ascent towards God. At the same time, the Sistine Chapel is remarkably vibrant with history, since it is the solemn and austere setting of events that mark the history of the Church and of mankind. Here as you know, the College of Cardinals elects the Pope; here it was that I myself, with trepidation but also with absolute trust in the Lord, experienced the privileged moment of my election as Successor of the Apostle Peter.

Dear friends, let us allow these frescoes to speak to us today, drawing us towards the ultimate goal of human history. The Last Judgement, which you see behind me, reminds us that human history is movement and ascent, a continuing tension towards fullness, towards human happiness, towards a horizon that always transcends the present moment even as the two coincide. Yet the dramatic scene portrayed in this fresco also places before our eyes the risk of man’s definitive fall, a risk that threatens to engulf him whenever he allows himself to be led astray by the forces of evil. So the fresco issues a strong prophetic cry against evil, against every form of injustice. For believers, though, the Risen Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For his faithful followers, he is the Door through which we are brought to that “face-to-face” vision of God from which limitless, full and definitive happiness flows. Thus Michelangelo presents to our gaze the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of history, and he invites us to walk the path of life with joy, courage and hope. The dramatic beauty of Michelangelo’s painting, its colours and forms, becomes a proclamation of hope, an invitation to raise our gaze to the ultimate horizon. The profound bond between beauty and hope was the essential content of the evocative Message that Paul VI addressed to artists at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on 8 December 1965: “To all of you,” he proclaimed solemnly, “the Church of the Council declares through our lips: if you are friends of true art, you are our friends!” And he added: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands . . . Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.”

Unfortunately, the present time is marked, not only by negative elements in the social and economic sphere, but also by a weakening of hope, by a certain lack of confidence in human relationships, which gives rise to increasing signs of resignation, aggression and despair. The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation – if not beauty? Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy “shock”, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.” Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life. The quest for beauty that I am describing here is clearly not about escaping into the irrational or into mere aestheticism.

Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, quotes the following verse from a Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid: “Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up” (no. 3). And later he adds: “In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, the artist gives voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (no. 10). And in conclusion he states: “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence” (no. 16).

These ideas impel us to take a further step in our reflection. Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality. This close proximity, this harmony between the journey of faith and the artist’s path is attested by countless artworks that are based upon the personalities, the stories, the symbols of that immense deposit of “figures” – in the broad sense – namely the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures. The great biblical narratives, themes, images and parables have inspired innumerable masterpieces in every sector of the arts, just as they have spoken to the hearts of believers in every generation through the works of craftsmanship and folk art, that are no less eloquent and evocative.

In this regard, one may speak of a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar begins his great work entitled The Glory of the Lord – a Theological Aesthetics with these telling observations: “Beauty is the word with which we shall begin. Beauty is the last word that the thinking intellect dares to speak, because it simply forms a halo, an untouchable crown around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.” He then adds: “Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. It is no longer loved or fostered even by religion.” And he concludes: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity. Simone Weil wrote in this regard: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.” Hermann Hesse makes the point even more graphically: “Art means: revealing God in everything that exists.” Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II restated the Church’s desire to renew dialogue and cooperation with artists: “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art” (no. 12); but he immediately went on to ask: “Does art need the Church?” – thereby inviting artists to rediscover a source of fresh and well-founded inspiration in religious experience, in Christian revelation and in the “great codex” that is the Bible.

Dear artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to make a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal to you, as did my Predecessor. You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.

Saint Augustine, who fell in love with beauty and sang its praises, wrote these words as he reflected on man’s ultimate destiny, commenting almost ante litteram on the Judgement scene before your eyes today: “Therefore we are to see a certain vision, my brethren, that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, whether it be that of gold and silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, or stars and angels. The reason is this: it is the source of all other beauty” (In 1 Ioannis, 4:5). My wish for all of you, dear artists, is that you may carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, and in your heart, that it may bring you joy and continue to inspire your fine works. From my heart I bless you and, like Paul VI, I greet you with a single word: arrivederci!

Je suis heureux de saluer tous les artistes présents. Chers amis, je vous encourage à découvrir et à exprimer toujours mieux, à travers la beauté de vos œuvres, le mystère de Dieu et le mystère de l’homme. Que Dieu vous bénisse!

Dear friends, thank you for your presence here today. Let the beauty that you express by your God-given talents always direct the hearts of others to glorify the Creator, the source of all that is good. God’s blessings upon you all!

Your Holiness, I accept your invitation.

So, who else wants to get excited and make things?

Can the Church Win Over the Art World?

That’s the question the Catholic Herald asked 11 Catholic artists this past week in this excellent article. The Pope has asked 262 artists to meet with him in the Sistine Chapel later this month, and the article gives short responses from several artists to the question of the Church’s relationship to today’s art world. I’ll only quote one below, but be sure to look at all of them – I promise it won’t take too much of your time, and the responses provide a microcosm of the reasons we as Christian (and Catholic) artists make art. Below is the response of fr Lawrence Lew, OP, one of the Dominican students at Blackfriars Hall here at Oxford.


The fine arts point to and participate in beauty, which, as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, is most properly appropriated to Christ. Sadly, modern art is seldom orientated towards beauty, which is an objective truth extrinsic to oneself, but is rather directed inwards as a kind of subjective self-expression.

This rift can be healed by a contemplation of beauty, and ultimately of truth, revealed by the light of faith. For without faith one remains blind to God, and therefore one’s art can only reflect oneself, which does have a natural goodness but it is not opened to the infinite truth, goodness and beauty of the Divine.

I find that the art of photography requires us to seek and contemplate the beauty of God’s work in creation, and to share that beauty with others using the photographer’s talent and skill. So, photography can be put to the service of the Church, to lead others to a contemplation of beauty, which is the noble and proper end of the arts.

Brother Lawrence Lew OP is a photographer based at Blackfriars, Oxford

Now, I picked Br Lawrence’s quote not only because he’s a fellow Oxford student, but because I think he hits it dead-on when he talks about art now being seen as primarily “subjective self-expression,” not an exploration of objective beauty. Art has become about the artist, not about love or truth or goodness or the human story.

This is not the case at all times, or in all media equally. For example, I regularly watch movies in the cinema, and find myself overwhelmed (in a wonderful way) by story. But I rarely see modern theatre anymore, and you’d almost have to drag me kicking and screaming to go see a one-person show. Why? Because most of the modern theatre I’ve seen presents a bleak, amoral (or morally relativist) world that I just don’t believe is true. And the one-person shows I’ve experienced? They’re largely about the artist sharing his or her own foibles, fears, embarrassing stories, and most ferociously-held opinions with the audience, without offering the audience much of anything in return. It feels like I’m paying to be the performer’s therapist. I will never again pay $20 only to have a performer simulate masturbation 20 feet away from me in a dark space that suddenly feels much too intimate. If that was the experience I wanted, I could have gotten much more of it (and much cheaper) at a cinema downtown under the flashing red lights.

Yet this kind of theatre is what we’re teaching our young actors that they should be creating. Why? So that they can throw off the oppressive yoke of conformity, “traditional values,” and physical and moral inhibition in the name of that great goddess Art, who is sought for Her Own Sake.

Art helps us see the magic of the world anew. She feeds us with strengthening bread, meat, and wine (and milk when gentler treatment is needed) for the journey ahead. And She inspires our hearts with hope, and joy, and (if all goes well) love for our fellow beings (human and otherwise) with whom we share the planet. We cannot live without Art.

Let me say that again: We cannot live without Art.

We cannot live without that vision of the Divine that we receive through story, image, and sound. Imagine what life would be like if everything artistic were removed from the world. No bedtime stories, much less Shakespeare. No music on the iPod, not even any songs to sing in the shower. Only utilitarian architecture – no flying buttresses, rose windows, or even little garden statuary (not even yard gnomes). And don’t forget – no Bible or other religious books, either, unless you include bare moral platitudes artlessly arranged in pamphlets in Times New Roman print, without any stories of heroism and sacrificial love to make them stick. (Though I doubt we’d get that far – typography and book-binding are arts in themselves.)

No human being could survive in such a world. Maybe a brute animal could, but not a person. We’d all shrivel up and die, or shoot ourselves or each other in despair. Just as infants can die if not held and touched, we need to be in touch with a Source of life and beauty and meaning beyond ourselves, and we drink this in through Art. (That’s not to say someone’s less than human because they don’t like going to the theatre or to the art museum. Art is broader than just the traditional Fine Arts, and especially broader than just experiencing them as a passive recipient.)

Notice I say we need a source “beyond ourselves.” If we make art solely about our own individual selves, our art shrivels up and dies. Art needs to be connected to something universal, to the Good. Art as a personification is a servant, consecrated to supporting and encouraging the human race, not a goddess demanding blood sacrifice. If we want to treat Art as a Holy Grail, the be-all and end-all of our existence, we must then ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?”

This is why I don’t think the Church needs to focus on trying to “win over the art world.” We’re already here, serving. Most of us are more or less prodigal, it is true, but never fear. Insofar as our work is connected to what is Good, it can be used, participated in, and supported by the Church. If it is a branch that has been broken off from the Good, it will wither and die, because it has no root in meaning, and no life in itself. But there are those of us supporting life, and beauty, and goodness, and truth, and hope and joy and love in art. If the Church would like to provide reinforcements and supplies for fighting the good fight against an artistic culture of death, we would be glad of the help. It can be a lonely fight sometimes.

For, dear beloved Church, we are not the enemy that needs to be won over. We artists are a mixed bag, but Art knows She is ever the cup-bearer, never the Cup. If you would like to teach her how she can better serve, support the things she does well, and encourage her to participate more. Take an active role in training others to help her. And give her a full place at the table, not as a rebellious stepchild, but as a full Daughter, worthy of all honor, respect, and inclusion.

But it is up to us who wear her livery to remember that the glory of Art that we bear, and that we work as our medium, is only a reflection of that dazzling glory emanating from the Source of all Beauty, and Truth, and Goodness, the One Whom Art herself serves.

ETA: Here’s a quote I just read from Michael Hallman, an Augustinian seminarian whose blog I follow:

…[T]he Church, among other things, is supposed to represent beauty as she reflects the beauty of God and the beauty of creation. And we [the Catholic Church] are a Church with a sacramental worldview, meaning that we understand that outward signs not only point to inward realities, but also that the outward form often has the ability to direct our gaze to deeper spiritual truths.

This is why the Church and art are inseparable.

Catholic Blog Round-Up

Since so many of the Google searches that lead readers to my blog appear to be from new Catholics or people discerning Catholicism, I thought I would post a few of the Catholic blogs that are in my RSS reader. I hope they can be a valuable resource to others in my position.

Catholicism LiveJournal community – OK, so it’s not in my RSS reader, and it’s not technically a blog (though you could argue it’s a group blog), but this LJ comm taught me a lot about Catholicism when I was seeking to learn more about it (though it’s no substitute for speaking with a priest and getting a copy of the Catechism). And the discussion is much more civil and charitable than your average LJ comm. (Maybe it’s the people?) You’ll have to become a free member of LiveJournal to join.

A Minor Friar – Brother Charles is a Roman Catholic religious of the Order of Friars Minor (i.e. Franciscans). Good for an always insightful look into the life of a mendicant religious with grace and humor.

Be Thou My Vision – Matt is a postulant with the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin of the Province of Saint Mary (northeast U.S.). Good for learning about one young man’s entrance into religious life (also with a good dose of humor).

Becoming Catholic: The (re)formation of a Protestant mind – Deanna is a recent Catholic convert (as of Easter 2009) from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the same denomination from which I’m converting. The blog’s not updated terribly often, but what I’ve read I’ve liked. If you enjoy conversion stories, and especially if you’re converting from Protestantism, I think you’ll enjoy it.

De cura animarum – Father Jeffrey Steel is another new convert to Catholicism, along with his family, this time from the Anglican Church, in which he served as a priest. Always thoughtful posts from a follower in Newman‘s footsteps.

Godzdogz – The blog of the English Dominican Studentate (mainly housed at Blackfriars here in Oxford, I believe). There are four main topics of posts: Preaching, Prayer/Liturgy, Study, and Community Life. They’re currently doing a series on the life of virtue that I’m enjoying. (Why are young Dominicans calling themselves “Godzdogz”? Go here for the answer.)

Oblate Blog – John is a Benedictine oblate, and his website Oblate Spring is the best resource site about Benedictine oblates I’ve found. John posts about life as an oblate and resources for oblates and those seeking to learn more about the Benedictine way of life.

Psalm 46:11 – A Journey to Truth – Michael Hallman is a Catholic seminarian in the pre-novitiate with the Order of St Augustine. He returned to the Church four years ago after being away for 10 years. I started reading about his journey online when he was applying to the Order and posting about the process in the Catholicism LJ community. I’ve since followed him onto his blog as he has started on the path to becoming an Augustinian priest. Michael’s posts are always full of heart and love for his Order and the Church.

Roman Catholic Vocations – News about vocations and resources for those discerning a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, consecrated life, or marriage (and I would add the single life). Often, during a journey across the Tiber, a person is met by challenges to the vocations they thought were open to them, and comes across new ones they hadn’t thought about. It’s worth exploring the different vocations to know what is open to you, and to think about where you might be called. If you do feel a call toward the priesthood, diaconate, or religious life, be prepared to spend a couple of years as a practicing Catholic first, to allow the initial “honeymoon” period of conversion to cool off, and ensure that you will be discerning that vocation with a cool mind.

Standing on My Head – Father Dwight Longenecker, like Father Jeffrey Steel, is a married former Anglican clergyman (raised Evangelical) turned Catholic convert. Fr Longenecker has been ordained to serve as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church (through a special Vatican dispensation for married former Anglican clergymen), and currently serves as a chaplain to a Catholic school in South Carolina. He is also a prolific author and fan of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. He also studied theology at Oxford, so you can see why he’s on my blogroll. A highlight of Fr Longenecker’s blog is his fictional “guest bloggers,” including MSM correspondent Todd Unctuous, 8-year-old Caitlin O’Rourke, and Salamanca University alum (in Ecclesiastical Haberdashery) Mantilla the Hon, among others. Father’s blog provides a nice soupçon of dry wit.

The Deacon’s Bench – Permanent deacon Greg Kandra serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, and “ponders the world” from his new digs at Beliefnet.com. Deacon Greg is liable to write about most any topic related to Catholicism, and his posts are always good for a smile and a laugh. (Can you tell I like my bloggers to make me laugh?)

So there’s my Catholic blog round-up, in no particular order but the one in which my RSS reader lists ’em (except for the LJ comm). Go forth and read!

ETA: Dane Falkner asked me to mention his creation DivineOffice.org. It features a podcast (available on the website or on iTunes) of the day’s Invitatory Psalm and Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. There are also tabs for the Office of Readings and Daytime Prayer, but don’t count on finding material there most days. It’s not a blog, but it is a valuable resource if you would like help praying the Divine Office, especially on-the-go. They also offer a Liturgy of the Hours app for the iPhone. I personally prefer using Universalis when home and my bound breviary when traveling, because they include all the Hours and because I prefer to read the psalms and prayers aloud myself and not join in with a recording. However, I do enjoy being able to listen to a choir sing the hymn (this evening’s is “God So Loved the World” sung by the Glasgow Phoenix Choir), and if I were a more auditory/communal-type person I would probably use this instead, at least for the major Hours. They’re doing a good work, and I offer it here in case it’s of benefit to you.

In Oxford!

I arrived in Oxford last week, and have been busy reviewing my Greek and reading my primary texts (i.e. the New Testament) and secondary texts (i.e. books on patristics and Biblical background, such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church – which I highly recommend for even non-academic types – and Rogerson and Davies’ The Old Testament World). I’ve also been working on setting up my bank account, getting a cell phone and bus pass, and generally getting sorted.

I realized that one of the reasons I haven’t been posting lately is because I’ve developed the personal expectation that each post should be lengthy and insightful, and posting is feeling more and more like a chore. Therefore, I’ve decided to do smaller posts, that may or may not be particularly in depth, but will hopefully come more often.

I’m living in the room at the Kilns in which C.S. Lewis collapsed and died, which means it holds a particular reverence for me, and I feel I need to treat it with respect. Thankfully, I’m relaxing into it (as I’m sure Lewis would want me to do), but it is a useful external discipline to have to clean my room and make my bed every other day, so that it looks tidy for the tours of the house that are giving to visiting groups on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays. (To learn more about touring the Kilns, click here.)

I’ve found a few good food-serving pubs, including the Mitre (in town) and the Six Bells (in Headington, the neighborhood that includes the Kilns). I’ve also made contact with the Jesuits at the Chaplaincy. They’ve signed me up for the Rite of Christian Initiation class that begins in November, and the newest chaplain, a young Jesuit named Father Simon, has agreed to meet me periodically for spiritual direction. I picked up a copy of the Divine Office at Blackwells Bookshop, and have found praying all seven of the Hours to be like refreshing oneself with clean and cool spring water, thick, rich bread, and hearty red meat several times a day, and at perfectly allotted portions. What’s best (though difficult for structure-loving me) is that, when a word or phrase speaks to you, you can stop and just meditate on it for a bit. (Incidentally, if any of you are interested in praying any of the Hours, I found an excellent website called Universalis. It takes you step-by-step through each day’s readings and prayers. It eliminates the confusion that comes from jumping around from section to section and using half a dozen ribbons in one’s breviary.)

I’m thinking of getting an iPhone, but in any case the phone I get will have a camera, so I’ll be able to upload pictures, perhaps directly from my phone. Let me know if there’s anything y’all would like me to post about, and I’ll try to do it. Thanks for everyone’s support during this next stage of my life!

ETA: Completely forgot the quote I read that prompted me to post. Gakked from the blog The Deacon’s Bench, who himself gakked it from The Anchoress:

“You know, the church is the one who dreams, the church is the one who constantly has the vision, the church is the one that’s constantly saying ‘Yes!’ to everything that life and love and sexuality and marriage and belief and freedom and human dignity—everything that that stands for, the church is giving one big resounding ‘Yes!’ The church founded the universities, the church was the patron of the arts, the scientists were all committed Catholics. And that’s what we have to recapture: the kind of exhilarating, freeing aspect. I mean, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who brought down the Berlin Wall. It was Karol Wojtyła. I didn’t make that up: Mikhail Gorbachev said that…I guess one of the things that frustrates me pastorally is that there’s this caricature of the church—of being this oppressive, patriarchal, medieval, out-of-touch naysayer—where the opposite is true.”
— Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in this profile in New York Magazine.