The Art Monastery

First of all, sorry I’ve been delinquent for a couple of weeks. Life has been very busy, with major events happening at the first day job, and the second day job finishing up the season. (Strike for our last show is tomorrow!) Plus I’ve been without Internet access for much of the weekend hours, as I’ve been squiring for the Joust at the Virginia Renaissance Faire.

Second of all, as I announced on Twitter, I’ve decided to join the Roman Catholic Church. I plan to begin the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults this September when I arrive in Oxford, possibly at the Oxford Oratory Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga, although I haven’t yet decided between that church and the two parish churches of Headington (where the Kilns is located) – Corpus Christi (which contains Stations of the Cross carved by Faith Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s daughter-in-law) and St Anthony of Padua (where J.R.R. Tolkien worshipped). RCIA will hopefully result in my reception into the Church at the Easter Vigil next spring.

I am preparing a lengthy (probably multi-part) blog post on my reasons for converting from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. I have discussed my conversion with my parents and with my pastors, all of whom are supportive. I’ll be happy to answer any and all questions. I’ve also enjoyed reading the conversion announcement this past Sunday of an Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr. Jeffrey Steel, who has also decided to join the Church, along with his wife and six children. Check it out at his blog, De Cura Animarum. His reasons are similar to mine, including the desire for communion with a Church that can claim a direct line of authority back to Christ through St. Peter.

In the meantime, though, after having just attended the recent TCG Conference held here in Baltimore this past weekend, I’m afire with thoughts for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, where I currently work, and my future planned theatre company. I did a Google search this evening for “artistic monastic communities,” which didn’t come up with much, but then I search for “artist monks,” and found the Art Monastery Project.

This group has turned a medieval Italian monastery into an intentional artistic community and arts incubator influenced by monastic tradition and ritual, including communal life, meals, and daily sung compline. They will be having their first arts festival this coming summer. I’ve joined their list and their online artists’ network. They’re doing work that’s pretty close to what I would like to do, and I hope to learn much from them, and hopefully visit them next summer. (Anyone up for a joint researching trip to Italy?)

Check them out and let me know what you think. Does this strike a chord with anybody else? Does anyone know of any other monastic arts communities, especially those that are explicitly Christian and/or part of a religious order?

We Are All of Us Called to Be Heroes

I’m appearing as William Roper, St. Thomas More‘s Lutheran son-in-law, in a production of A Man for All Seasons, presented by the Pasadena Theatre Company at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Maryland. Our show closes this weekend (though we’re doing a school show next Tuesday morning, tomorrow a week). This is one of my favorite plays, and was made into one of my favorite movies.

To me, one of the major benefits of this play is the challenge it makes to us, as audience members, to think about how far we would go to maintain our integrity. In our modern Western society, we think of saints as something anachronistic, a relic from a by-gone era. And as I pointed out at the talkback after yesterday’s matinee, when we study the saints, especially those who were major figures in society, we tend to discount any religious motivations for their behavior, and instead focus on political or social motivations. We discussed the motivation of King Henry VIII in pursuing More, whom he could very well have left quiet in retirement, in which case we wouldn’t remember Sir Thomas. Our talkback guest, a history professor from a local university, pointed out that Henry was a significant theologian, and a man who experienced scruples of conscience (for instance, when he mercifully commuted More’s sentence from drawing and quartering to beheading). If you take the view that Henry (and More, and the Pope, and all the other religious political leaders of the time) acted only out of political and selfish motivations, you miss a rich layer of human experience and historical study.

But back to saints. One argument that’s often made about saints, and other heroes, in drama is that they’re “too good,” and therefore the audience can’t identify with them, which means they need to be “humanized.” For example, I remember when I took a course in Arthurian legend at NYU. The professor asked us which of Arthur’s knights we would choose to be if we could. The vast majority of the class chose Lancelot, a handful chose Gawain, and I chose Galahad, because he was the only one who remained sinless and pure enough to wholly achieve the Quest of the Grail. The other students felt Galahad was “too good,” and therefore a character with whom they couldn’t identify. Lancelot and Gawain were “human,” because they made mistakes. It’s not that I could identify with Galahad’s goodness – I’m not even on Lancelot’s level – but if I were to aim to be like any of the knights, why would I stop with Lancelot? Why is Galahad seen as “not human” because he is good, rather than the most fully human of them all?

To me, this idea of heroes and saints being “too good” and therefore not “human” sets up a dangerous dichotomy between the quest for spiritual perfection and “being human.” We are all called to be saints. All of us will either allow ourselves to be made perfect, or will fall to the depths of lowest depravity. There is no just “being human.” Part of being human is the call to sainthood. Now, as humans, touched by original sin, we will all fail in the quest for perfection, but thankfully we have grace, which, if we allow it, will mold us in the end into shining beings even more glorious and good than even the saints were here on earth.

One thing that interests me about actors is the common claim that playing villains is more interesting, because their motivation is more complex, and that playing the good guy is boring. IMHO, the good guy is the more interesting one, because he is the character who does not allow himself to give into the temptations that villains allow themselves to fall into, or he is the one who is redeemed from previous sins by making the hard choice to do good instead. Make no mistake, acting morally and doing good is a lot harder than living for oneself and watching out for “Number One.” I’d rather play a character who has the courage to make that tough choice than play one who’s slick, cool, and morally cowardly. And if it’s the writers who are making villains three-dimensional and making heroes two-dimensional? Then I think that’s a symptom of our fallen nature, which finds it easier to imagine evil than imagine good. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, in order to write (and play) villains, all we have to do is look inside ourselves to find the necessary anger, lust, and pride, whereas in order to write (and play) heroes, we must imagine the inner mental and spiritual state of people better than ourselves. (If someone can find me the exact quote, I’ll add it. I’m blanking on it at the moment.)

All this is to say that we are each of us called to be Thomas Mores, and therefore to read or watch the play A Man for All Seasons should not solely be an exercise in understanding the political, social, and religious decisions that led St. Thomas to his martyrdom, but should also be a lesson in how each of us should act should we (God forbid) be placed in a similar situation. And people are still martyred, and made to suffer, today, for their faith, and for their consciences. The whistle-blower who loses his job and financial security because he will not keep silent about wrongdoing; the student who loses a friend because he will not lie about the friend’s cheating on a test; and the soldier who is mocked and threatened because he exposes inhuman and illegal behavior toward the enemy – all of these share in some small way the honor of those like St. Thomas who treasured their conscience more than their life. Not to mention the thousands of people each year who are actually murdered for their religious beliefs. It still happens today, and will continue to happen, which is why saints and martyrs like St. Thomas must not be thought of as anachronisms, but as living examples on which to model our own behavior today.

“We are all of us called to be heroes.” – Adam, The World Over (Keith Bunin)

He is Risen!

In honor of our Risen Lord, here is St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon, from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, from which today’s Easter litany at my church was taken:

The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom

Pastor of Constantinople (~400 AD)

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!


Vocation

No time for a long post this week, as I have three shows at two different schools on the Eastern Shore tomorrow, and have a 6 am call. I should have hit the hay half an hour ago. I do children’s theatre with Children’s Theater Association, and tomorrow is Maryland, My Maryland, our show about Maryland history.

I finished Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain today. I absolutely loved it. It got me thinking about the topic of vocation. A vocation, or “calling,” is part of the life we are each given to lead. It’s similar to the idea of one’s purpose in life. But in secular American culture, when we think about our purpose, we generally think of something we have chosen ourselves, the one thing we want to do above all else – “following our dream,” “following our bliss.”

But the idea of vocation presented in Merton’s book is not a purpose we have claimed for ourselves. It is a purpose that has been chosen for us, by Another. The only way to find “bliss” in this life is to die to our own ideas of what we want our vocation to be, and instead submit totally to the vocation to which God calls us. There may be significant overlap; there may be no overlap.

Merton at first wanted to be a writer, and wrote to satisfy his own ambitions. Who knows anything much about those writings? Later, he wanted to be a contemplative, and writes in the final pages of the book about how Merton the writer, like a “Judas,” shadows and betrays Merton the monk, who wanted nothing so much as to retreat completely from the world. “And the worst of it is,” he writes, “he has my superiors on his side.” I thank his superiors for encouraging Merton the writer, who could only come to full fruition and redemption after Merton the monk had died to his own desires. And now we are able to know Thomas Merton, Frater Louis, the writer-monk whose books and life have borne much fruit. God only knows how fruitful his prayers have been.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve e-mailed the priest who recommended it to me to see when we can meet to talk about it. I’m sure the subject of vocation will come up. I’ve been thinking (and worrying, I admit) the last couple years, ever since I left grad school and for the first time did not have a clear path laid out for my life, about what I want to do with my life. Merton’s book has reminded me that that’s not the proper question.

The proper question is: Who is God calling me to be in this life? And how does He want me to serve Him today?

That’s the hardest question for any Christian, because we have to give up everything we want to find that out.

“A Zoo of Lusts”

I’ve fallen behind in my reading plans for Oxford, but that’s okay, because none of them are required. I’ve finished re-reading the Gospels, and will move on to re-reading the rest of the New Testament. I haven’t read any new theology books on my list, but next up is Davies’ and Rogerson’s The Old Testament World. I plan to start in on my Greek textbook exercises this week. Chapter 1 is learning the Greek alphabet.

My current reading is not academic, but rather spiritual. On the suggestion of a priest I talked to last week, I’m reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I fell in love immediately. As a friend of the author writes in the Introduction, Merton is a born writer. I’m at the point now where he is at Columbia College and becoming a Communist. His descriptions of his soul, looking back at himself, remind me of one of Lewis’ statements in his own spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis writes:

For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.

Merton, too, speaks of examining himself after leaving Cambridge, and finding “the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called ‘the world,’ in every age, in every class.” But he didn’t yet recognize these festering abcesses in his soul as such, and blamed his flaws on his upbringing in a relatively well-off socioeconomic class and in a capitalist society. It was only later that he was to recognize them as spiritual failings, and submit himself to God for their remedy.

At church the other week, we were discussing how every time we feel as if we have finally conquered some sinful inclination, God allows us little to no time to revel in the victory before revealing to us another deeper and harder battle yet to be fought within our own souls. If we take the time to examine ourselves truly and fully, asking for the grace to see with God’s sight into the depths of our hearts, what zoo of lusts will we find there? I know I’m terrified to make a full inventory of my particular menagerie. Spiritual autobiographies like those of Lewis and Merton are comforting, I think, because we realize that, alone as we feel in our sins, there are others who have been just as terribly ashamed – and yet how completely were they redeemed when they gave themselves up to God, for Him to do as He would with them!

We will never know what good we gave up each time we sinned, but thankfully, God can make each sin a felix peccatum that is the occasion for grace, and that can be used for both our good and for the good of our neighbor. Merton says that the selfish rebellion into which he descended as a youth ended up being good for him, because God let him see what a mess he made of his life when left to his own devices. It enabled him to see how much he needed God. And Lewis’ atheism helped him immensely as a Christian apologist. Besides giving him credibility with many outside Christianity, it also enabled him to understand how someone could not believe in God, and how to speak to that person. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been better for Merton, Lewis, and us if they and we had never sinned, but since they and we have, the only remedy is to let God use the sin for good. And that means submitting to His will for our lives, and living with the consequences of the sin. And that, I think, is the most difficult part. I know it is for me.

I really didn’t mean to write a sermon when I started, I promise! I meant to write a paragraph or two on Merton’s book. But as you can see, The Seven Storey Mountain inspires spiritual self-examination, which I’ve only touched on at a shallow level. I’m going to sign off so I can get back to reading it.

Btw, I’ve linked to a few books in this post. If you’re interested in purchasing them, especially Surprised by Joy, please consider doing so through the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s online bookstore, run through Amazon.com. That way, a percentage of your purchase will go to support the Foundation’s activities.

Also, Diana Pavlac Glyer, whom I mentioned in a previous post, has now written her own post about her two-week sabbatical at the Kilns. Read it here! You can also get her book, The Company They Keep, at the Foundation’s bookstore. It examines the Inklings (especially focusing on Lewis and Tolkien) as “writers in community,” and the different kinds of influence they had on each other as members of a writing group. I read it last year, and highly recommend it, especially if you’re a writer, or are interested in the Inklings’ creative process.