Help Wanted: Consecrated Artists for Christ

I am looking for Catholic and other Christian artists (of any type – visual artists, performing artists, musical artists, etc.) who are interested in exploring the idea of an institute of consecrated life dedicated to artistic creation and ministry to artists. This proposed institute would have both a residential community (probably located in either New York City or Los Angeles to start) and the ability for members to live individually. In addition, it would include both vowed members (professing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity in celibacy, and obedience) and non-vowed (or alternately-vowed) associate members, who can be either married or single, Catholic or non-Catholic Christian.

Visit the links on this post for more information about the vision of the institute. Fill out the contact form below if you would like more information, including a more recent draft document describing the proposed charism of and rationale for the institute.

I look forward to hearing from you. Prayers for discernment appreciated.

St John Paul the Great and St Genesius, pray for us.

Yours in Christ,

Cole

Some Thoughts on Art from John the Baptist

When all the people asked John, ‘What must we do?’ he answered, ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.’ There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to him, ‘Master, what must we do?’ He said to them, ‘Exact no more than your rate.’ Some soldiers asked him in their turn, ‘What about us? What must we do?’ He said to them, ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’ – Luke 3:10-14

I was praying over today’s Gospel, and focused on the part written above. I was using Ignatian contemplation, in which you enter into the scene, and become part of it, possibly having conversations with the other characters in the scene.

After listening to John the Baptist tell the people that those who have extra clothing and food must share with those who have none, I listened to both the tax collectors and the soldiers in turn ask John what specifically they must do.

It struck me that both of these groups could be considered collaborators with the Roman occupation. The tax collectors certainly were – they took taxes from their fellow Jews for Rome, and the only way they made a living was by taking more than they were told to take. They worked on commission, as it were – ‘Rome must have its tax, but take an extra 10% for your troubles’. In telling the tax collectors to take no more than their rate – that is, to take no more than Rome’s tax – he is effectively asking them to work for zero salary, and become penniless.

However, he has just told the Jewish crowd as a whole that they are to provide for those without means. So therefore, in a way, he is saying to the non-tax-collectors in the crowd, ‘I am asking the tax collectors to become penniless, so that they may walk justly with their God as your brothers in the nation of Israel. Therefore, you must take care of them. If Rome requires that you give her men to take her taxes, then you must take care of these men so that they do not fall into unrighteousness. It is your fault if these men feel pressured to cheat in order to survive, and are tempted to cut themselves off from the community. You must make an effort to keep them still your brothers’.

He’s easier on the soldiers. He allows them to keep their jobs – and I’m assuming here that these are soldiers who work for Rome, not temple guards – but it’s also about money. He tells them not to rob or accuse others unjustly (so they can either blackmail them or take their property once they are unjustly convicted), and to be content with the pay they receive for a job that does do a service for the community, in terms of keeping the peace in the nation. They are allowed to be soldiers, but they must be satisfied with the small reward they receive for this service.

So if one thinks about the Roman context of this conversation, it is all about the community’s duty to help their brothers and sisters stay righteous, to stay in relationship with God and the community. To ease the pressures to fall into sin, and help each other on the road to salvation.

Keeping this Roman context in mind, I turned to the original question I had wanted to ask the Baptist at the beginning of the exercise: ‘What about us artists? What must we do?’

Here was the answer I got back: ‘You may make anything for which you are commissioned, except idols. [Idols here representing anything that violates God’s Law.] Let your honouring of God be showing in the excellence of your work. As for that which you make without any commission, of your own volition – let it be your praise. Let your art be a praise to God, your sacrifice of praise. Let it be your prayer of praise.

‘And for every piece of gold that is melted down to be beaten into a beautiful image to praise God – whether for a vessel or sculpture for the Temple, or for any other thing – that piece of gold must feed more people as a sculpture, by raising their minds, hearts, and spirits to God, than it would have fed if it were spent to buy food for people’s bodies. Only if it feeds more people as a sculpture than as bread is that piece of gold justified to be used for art.’

I offer these brief reflections for whatever value they may have. I’m not a historian, and these thoughts may have no grounding in actual history, but I hope they may still have some value in spiritual understanding, of how we should live as the community of Christians, and especially as Christian artists.

To Share the Fruits of Contemplation

I recently listened to a wonderful 25-minute podcast on In Otherhood, a blog which explores secular, interfaith, and art monasticisms. It is written by Nathan Rosquist, one of the artmonks of the Art Monastery in Italy, who is starting his own Art Monastery in San Francisco. The podcast was an interview with Christine Valters Paintner, Abbess of the Abbey of the Arts, an online community of artists interested in living and creating contemplatively. She herself is a Benedictine oblate, and recently wrote a book called The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. I recommend checking out both Nathan‘s and Christine‘s websites, if you’re interested in art and monasticism. (And if you’re within travelling distance of St Andrews, Scotland, and interested in joining a monthly discussion group about art and monasticism, please contact me.)

As a response to that podcast, I thought I would share with you some of the fruits of my recent contemplation. A few months ago, I went on a silent retreat at an Ignatian retreat centre in England, shortly after having finished my BA module on Christian Spirituality at Oxford. One of the mottoes of the Dominican Order is Contemplare et Contemplata aliis Tradere – ‘to contemplate and to share with others the fruits of contemplation’. In that spirit, here are two of the fruits of my Ignatian contemplation, which I share with you as I listen to Maurice Duruflé’s ‘Ubi Caritas‘, one of the most beautiful choral pieces I have ever heard.

***

‘For John of the Cross’

Lord, let me love You
with the flame of ten thousand fires.

Let me love You
with a flame that dries and crackles,

burns and blackens the crust of my soul,
hides deep down in the heart of things,

to warm and beat,
flickering forth with tongues of fire

to burst through the shell of my cindered soul,
and leap to dance as love again.

Lord, make me all flame.

***

‘For Lady Julian’

Lord, teach me to love my weaknesses
as Lady Julian loved hers,
seeing that the soiled, torn stain of our sins
blackening the white cloth of our humanity
was such a little nothing
because that cloth was worn by Christ,
who picked us up out of the Pit
and sat us next to Him at table,
with His Father and His Spirit,
all of us dazzling white,
with the wounds we ripped into our flesh
shining scars praising God’s glory,
His merciful meaning: ‘Love’.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – The Reception

This coming Sunday, I will be received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

I’ve written about this journey before, but I haven’t yet wrapped it up. Of course, I won’t ever be able to wrap it up, because our journey with God thankfully never ends until we reach our final destination of full union with Him. However, it seems like now is as good a time as any to officially wrap up this particular blog series, especially since in my last post I had not yet even begun the official Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) class.

RCIA class started at my University Catholic Chaplaincy in November. We’ve been meeting Thursday evenings during term time, so after this week’s last meeting, we’ll have met about 16 times. There are 9 of us – 3 being received after baptism in a non-Catholic Christian faith community (like myself – I was baptized on the day of my confirmation in the PC(USA)), 3 being confirmed after being baptized Catholic but never confirmed as teenagers, and 3 being baptized as new followers of Christ.

I’ve been catechized by Jesuits, so if you find me ignorant of any vital aspect of Catholic life or practice, you know who to blame. Or so my Jesuit RCIA director says. I, for one, could not be more grateful to the Jesuits. It was through my short time at a Jesuit college that I realized I needed to learn more about Catholicism if I wanted to be an educated Christian. The Jesuits also run our University Chaplaincy, and have given me a spiritual home in this new country. The Chaplaincy will also be my physical home next year, as I have been accepted into one of their student rooms for my second and final year at Oxford. The daily Masses, community meals, and regular spiritual direction have given me a community of brothers and sisters in faith and a grounding in prayer. Plus, St Ignatius is a knight after my own heart. The chapel is also named after St Thomas More, the saint whose name I’ll be taking as my confirmation name, and the main assembly hall is the Newman Room, named after the convert who will be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the U.K. in September. It’s all very auspicious.

I’m also very grateful to the Dominicans. There’s one Dominican friar in particular, a member of our Chaplaincy team who’s on a one-year pastoral placement before his ordination as a priest in the fall, to whom I’m especially grateful. He’s just been ordained a deacon, and will be serving at the Mass at which I’ll be received next week, which makes me happy. He’s been a good friend and mentor who, like my father, appears to be able to read my mind, and say the exact words I need to hear. It’s uncanny. I’ve gotten to know a few other of the friars as well, and they’re all good men it’s a pleasure to be around.

We also have Benedictines in Oxford who have given of their time to advise and encourage me, and there’s a doctoral student at my College who has the heart of a Franciscan whom I enjoy speaking with about matters theological and spiritual. (There is also a Franciscan friar whose blog I read regularly, and who recently answered my request for guidance on spiritual direction with a whole post on the subject. Read it, then subscribe to his blog. I’ve read the entire archives.)

Religious life is the jewel of the Catholic Church; it throws off the light of Christ in a splendour of different colours. Each order’s gifts bring out the others’, and I hope I can one day find the one whose charism and mission I can live out, if God wills. But for the next couple years, my job is just to strive to be a good Catholic. I’ll re-enter the vocational discernment process once the honeymoon period is over.

But I am enjoying this honeymoon, this period of exploring and mining the riches of the Catholic Faith. I can’t think of a better place to be in. Oxford is one of the most Catholic towns in England. Just down the street from my College is a spot where Catholic martyrs were hanged. The University was founded by Catholics to teach theology, and here I am, a student of theology about to enter a new life as a Catholic. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I’ll end this series with one of my favourite prayers, by St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits:

Teach us, Good Lord,
To serve Thee as Thou deservest;
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To labor and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Please pray for all of us who are entering the Church at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, that we may experience the peace and joy of Christ, live to do His will, and rest in His love at the end.

God bless you all, and thank you for your support during this journey.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – C.S. Lewis & the Catholic Church

During the Ignatian Silent Retreat I attended in January 2007, I found a book called C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, by Joseph Pearce. An excellent book, it takes a look at the similarities between Lewis’ theology and Roman Catholic theology. Pearce also examines possible reasons why Lewis never became a Catholic, as J.R.R. Tolkien (a devout Catholic) hoped he would.  The two primary reasons he points out are leftover unconscious prejudice from his childhood in Belfast – where he had “been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist” (Surprised by Joy) – and actual theological differences, for example about the importance of Mary.

Now, I had noticed that Lewis used expressions that we never used in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I hadn’t really thought of them as Catholic before. For example, in the essay “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis says,

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

We Presbyterians, for whom the Lord’s Supper is a memorial rather than the mystical Real Presence, don’t use the phrase “Blessed Sacrament,” and I would never have considered pieces of food as holier than my fellow human being.

Lewis also referred to the Mother of God as the “Blessed Virgin,” a title which you will not hear at many Protestant churches. The most glorious title I’d ever heard for her growing up was “the Virgin Mary,” which was more a term of distinction (“Which Mary?” “The Virgin Mary”) than a term of honor.

I also remember a letter that Lewis wrote to “Inkling-by-association” (i.e. not an official Inkling, but a like-minded friend) Dorothy Sayers on the subject of the ordination of women, in which he argued against female ordination because it

wd. cut us off so sharply from all the rest of Christendom, and…wd. be the very triumph of what they call ‘practical’ and ‘enlightened’ principles over the far deeper need that the Priest at the Altar must represent the Bridegroom to whom we are all, in a sense, feminine.

Sayers replied

If I were cornered, and asked point-blank whether Christ Himself is the representative of male humanity or all humanity, I should be obliged to answer ‘of all humanity’

but that

It would be a pity to fly in the face of all the Apostolic Church, especially just now when we are at last seeing some prospect of understanding with the Eastern Church – and so on…

You can find the full part of Lewis’ side of the conversation, and more of Sayers’ side, in the second volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper.

The reasoning both Lewis and Sayers used – that a church should take into account “the rest of Christendom,” throughout time and space, when making decisions about its ecclesiology – was unfamiliar to me. As a Protestant, I had not been raised to temper my interpretation of Scripture according to the great body of Church teaching over the past 2,000 years, or to feel hesitant to separate myself from other denominations when they were united in a particular (opposing) view. (Besides, in the world in which I grew up, I thought Protestantism was the prevailing view.) My church was not arrogant enough to teach that one’s own interpretation of Scripture, if one felt it to be Spirit-filled, was always right. However, the Tradition of the Church was just not emphasized, much less explicitly offered as a corrective to too much solitary Bible reading and interpretation. It may have been so among the older, wiser, or more educated in my denomination, but as a young person growing up in Protestantism I felt that “the Tradition of the Church” was seen as a set of out-dated beliefs and practices that we were slowly starting to outgrow and “make relevant to today’s world.” (Needless to say, as a child raised on King Arthur and C.S. Lewis at home, I didn’t necessarily see Tradition as a bad thing.)

The sense of the sacramental; the use of seemingly archaic terms of reverence and devotion; the willingness to humble oneself before the Authority of Christ’s Church – all these were new experiences that I found in Lewis, and later came to find in the Catholic Church. They awakened me to the old desire for Camelot, the sehnsucht of my childhood – similar to the longings for “the North” that Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy. And as in Arthur’s court long ago the knights briefly gazed upon what they most desired, turning towards Rome I glimpsed the Grail.

Next up: Charles Williams, Taliessin, and the Grail.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series on my journey to the Catholic Church.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – Jesuits & C.S. Lewis

After graduating with a B.F.A. in Theatre and Psychology from New York University, I moved to Baltimore to enter a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Loyola College in Maryland. As evidenced by the name, Loyola is a Jesuit college (soon to become a university). During orientation, we were introduced to the concepts of cura personalis (care of the whole person) and Ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God), two of the mottoes of Jesuit education.

Loyola was the first Christian school I had attended. I had been accepted to Wheaton College in Illinois outside of Chicago for undergraduate work, which is where my father, grandfather, and a number of cousins had attended college. I had loved Wheaton, and had been in awe of its existence as an intentional Christian community of scholars “for Christ and His Kingdom,” as Wheaton’s motto goes. However, I also wanted to study to become a professional actor, and Wheaton did not have a theatre major, much less a professional training program. As a matter of fact, there did not seem to exist a Christian college of Wheaton’s faithfulness and academic caliber that also provided professional arts training. (This gap is one I hope the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s C.S. Lewis College can fill.) The other school to which I had been accepted was NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which has one of the top undergraduate theatre programs in the country. I asked my dad, who I knew was pleased that I had fallen in love with his alma mater, for his advice. He said:

“What do you want to do?”

“Become an actor.”

“Then go where they do that best. In this case, that’s not Wheaton.”

So, I went to NYU, filled with great excitement at having been chosen for a spot, but part of my heart still belonging to Wheaton. I don’t regret that decision, because I received an excellent practical education and gained friends who are very close to my heart, but many times I wish I had not been exposed to the profane and lascivious content that made up a significant amount of the curriculum.

The dirt and filth that ran thickly through the veins of NYU’s artistic culture sullied my spirit enough that I gladly welcomed the refuge of a small Christian college, with grey stone statues of saints lining the walkways of the grassy quad. On the south end of the lawn stood the large stone chapel, with a cross rising on a pinnacle above its main door. I attended a couple services in that chapel, but while I always felt welcome, I always felt separated, and a little embarrassed, because I knew I was a Protestant worshiping as a guest within Catholic space. (I had applied to the Psy.D. program at Wheaton, but, though interviewed, was not accepted. I’m glad now of it, because I think that I would no longer be comfortable in an Evangelical Protestant atmosphere. That, and I would not have wanted to disappoint Wheaton by possibly leaving clinical psychology partway through the first year, as I did at Loyola.)

However much I felt out of place as a Protestant, though, I always felt part of the mission of Loyola as a Christian. I loved being in an academic environment in which I could trust that the faculty and staff, and the majority of my fellow students, shared the same basic worldview as I did – which was definitely not the case at NYU, in which the religious worldview, much less the Christian, was in the minority among the faculty, and became less prevalent among the students in my program as the semesters went by. It was nice to have allies again.

Sadly, though, I left Loyola after only a semester. I loved the school and the faculty, but I realized that the practice of clinical psychology was not for me. I loathed doing psychological testing, and didn’t trust it, but it was about half the curriculum for the first two years. I decided that I was not willing to put up with it for that long, partly because my conscience rebelled against it, and I took a leave of absence to decide whether I would transfer to the pastoral counseling program, or another program at Loyola or elsewhere. In the meantime, I went back to acting, and that became my career after I withdrew from Loyola and did further career discernment, which has lasted for two years (and which you could say is still going on).

When I decided to take a leave of absence, I signed up for an Ignatian silent retreat held in January at the Loyola Jesuits’ retreat center in southern Maryland, on the banks of the Potomac River. I hoped to spend the week in discernment about my future academic path, hopefully with a decision made by the end of the retreat (hah!).

Well, I ended up failing miserably at the silence requirement, to the (charitably unexpressed) annoyance of my spiritual director and some of the other retreatants, but I learned three very important things from that retreat:

1) My prayer life was that of an absolute beginner, and I was not nearly so advanced in the spiritual life as I had thought myself.

2) I was chockful of pride, and rebelled against obedience to spiritual authority. Every time my spiritual director gave me suggestions on how I should spend my time at the retreat, I bristled, gave him reasons why they wouldn’t work (and inwardly thought, “He just doesn’t understand me and how deep my thought really is,”), and did what I wanted anyway.

3) C.S. Lewis’ theology was a lot more Catholic than I realized.

Next up: C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.

Read part 1 of my multi-part series on my journey to the Catholic Church here.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – The Beginning

On Monday, May 11th, 2009, I decided to become a Roman Catholic.

The pin-pointing of a particular date and “conversion moment” may sound a little Protestant (even evangelical) of me, but it was far from a road to Damascus experience. It was more like the road to the Whipsnade Zoo. If I may be permitted to reference the conversion story of our beloved C.S. Lewis:

I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

Surprised by Joy

Like Lewis, I was on a relatively unimportant car trip, mine from home to my job as an actor with a touring children’s theatre company. It was about 7:00 in the morning, and I was just at the start of my 20-minute drive. Rolling down a gentle, forest-shaded road near my Baltimore apartment, I was thinking about states in life, vocations, and what I could and could not do if I joined the Church. I had the thought, “Well, I’ll just wait and see what I decide about joining the Church. Option A is open to me if I determine the Church has the authority it claims to have, and Option B is open to me if I determine the Church doesn’t have that authority.” My next thought was, “Wait. I already believe it has that authority.” It was at that moment that I realized that my spirit had already submitted to the claim of the Church upon me some time ago, and was simply waiting for the rest of my mind and heart to catch up.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination. I was baptized around my 14th birthday, at the same time I was confirmed, because the church we attended in Texas when I was a child practiced adult baptism only (I don’t remember its denomination). In confirmation class, I remember learning about total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (the five points of Calvinism, i.e. TULIP). The idea of limited atonement (that Christ died only for the elect, not for everyone) didn’t seem quite fair to me, but my pastor gave me what I now know is an Arminian understanding of atonement and of predestination. (He basically said that God is like a parent who knows that, given a choice between peas and carrots, you will choose peas, because he knows that you hate carrots. He doesn’t make you choose the peas, he just knows that you will.)

I love my church (especially the bagpipes on Heritage Sunday!), but it always bothered me a little that the Presbyterian Church and other Protestant churches came out of schism. I respect the reformers for taking a stand on conscience, but there were also reformers who stayed in the Church and worked from within, and since the Body of Christ is meant to be whole, it always made a little sad. But I had never even thought of leaving my church until I came to Loyola College, a Jesuit institution, as a doctoral student in clinical psychology.

This is Part 1 in a multi-part series of my journey into the Catholic Church. Next up: Jesuits and C.S. Lewis.