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Art, Holiness, Joy, Renewal

I spent a wonderful afternoon on the front porch with an old friend, a Catholic priest who came to town to say hello. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. Both of us have gone through a lot in that time, and it was good to get caught up.

It was so encouraging to hear him talk about how the Catholic Church has started to heal itself from the terrible sickness within it. He said that that bad generation of bishops and priests is passing into history, and the men who are replacing them are a lot more sane and solid — and the young men coming into seminary now are of much stronger stock. It’s going to take a while, he said, and the Church will never be perfect, but things really are looking better. Given that the last time we were in touch with each other, we were both pretty angry and despairing over the state of the Church, this was fantastic to hear. This priest is very far from a happy-clappy padre, so I believe him.

We talked about the things we’d both learned over the last decade about ourselves and the Christian life. We’re both orthodox guys (and I’m big-O Orthodox), but I think it fair to say that we’ve both mellowed somewhat, and come to accept the frailty of others because we’ve had to confront frailty within ourselves. I told him how the experience of my sister’s suffering and death, and now with the publication of her story (and mine), I have come to a different understanding of what draws people to faith, and what sustains them.

“Cardinal Ratzinger once said that the two best arguments the Christian faith has going for it are the art and the saints it has produced,” I said (here’s that essay [1], which I found later). “The older I get, the more true I find that to be. Arguments are important, but people don’t need arguments as much as they need examples like my sister, and like my Uncle Jimmy.”

I told my priest friend that no argument actually moved me to action as much as the contemplation of the Chartres cathedral did, or as much as the contemplation of Ruthie Leming’s life [2], and, in the past few days, James Fletcher’s life [3], has done.

My priest friend said that he observes the joy within people — or the absence of joy — is a pretty good indication of the power of the ideas by which they live. He’s theologically conservative, but said that his experience with some of the militantly joyless people on the more rightward precincts of Catholicism has made him think hard about their approach to the faith, and how it will not endure, because no one wants to be around such grimness. True.

Here, by the way, is the essay [1] from which that Cardinal Ratzinger observation came. Well worth your time. Here’s the key quote:

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

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12 Comments To "Art, Holiness, Joy, Renewal"

#1 Comment By Judith On April 28, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

“he observes the joy within people — or the absence of joy — is a pretty good indication of the power of the ideas by which they live.”

Perfect. Thank you.

#2 Comment By k On April 28, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

Aw, I just have to say a word in defense of the joyless and the grim. Is there no place for acceptance of natural dispositions? The cold and the melancholy, the harsh and the strict? Knowing oneself crushed nearly to death in the fist of a deadly serious God, and that this is the only thing that will get someone like you safely to Heaven? Every single generation will continue to have their presence, and it is just a fact that beauty and joy are not what attract and hold every single person in faith. Some like to spend their lives in mourning now, in hope and belief of the better things to come. In all the pains and sufferings that are the formation of many people’s lives, some do not know how, and never learn, what it really is to relax and eat up joyful pleasures. Where there’s not place and acceptance for these ones too, I would question the truth of the church or faith itself. Joyful emotion and beautiful pleasures in their subjectivity and abuse can be as deceitful and lead astray as efficiently as anything else.

#3 Comment By Bernie On April 28, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

Rod,

As you quote Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI):
“In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

The things in life that most reflect beauty – art, music, poetry, nature, holiness, etc. – have the most power to transform us. It is not apologetics, history, philosophy, or theological debates, all of which are vitally important, that have the greatest power to attract us to the beauty of holiness. It is the lives of the saints, the saints of every religion. They are the great lovers, and the happiest of all humanity. If we want our children to fall in love with God, I think nothing helps assure that result more than their knowing the lives of the saints.

#4 Comment By Anon On April 29, 2013 @ 12:07 am

“And I’m not big-O Orthodox.” Rod, could you explain what you mean by this?

I think you underestimate the differences between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I recommend the excellent book by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.” It’s not bigoted, but he writes with great clarity on those differences. It’s the best Orthodox introduction to the subject.

[Note from Rod: Sorry, I completely botched that; I meant to say that I *am* big-O Orthodox. The term “orthodox” is used ecumenically to mean Christians — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — who, despite our differences, hold to a certain core Biblical orthodoxy. This, versus modernist Christians, who believe that it can all be rewritten and reconceived to fit our felt contemporary needs. In this sense, my priest friend and I are both small-o orthodox, though unlike him, I am also big-o Orthodox, meaning a communicant of the Orthodox Church. — RD]

#5 Comment By Anon On April 29, 2013 @ 12:08 am

I forgot to include the link:

[4]

#6 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 29, 2013 @ 12:50 am

There is a place for the cold and melancholy, the harsh and the strict–on the other side of the planet.

(Sorry, it just begged to be said.)

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 29, 2013 @ 1:53 am

The term “orthodox” is used ecumenically to mean Christians — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — who, despite our differences, hold to a certain core Biblical orthodoxy.

I’m curious–in your view, what is this “core Biblical orthodoxy”? Many Christian writers have suggested that the proper dividing line between little-o orthodox Christianity and the heterodox variety is the Nicene Creed–and there are certainly many sects who self-identify as Christians but do not follow the Council of Nicaea. Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and certain Pentacostals, for example.

This, versus modernist Christians, who believe that it can all be rewritten and reconceived to fit our felt contemporary needs.

Which is not, I would think, an apt description of the faiths I mentioned. (Modern Unitarians get frequently derided in terms of cafeteria Christianity or “MTD”; however, their ancestors were frequently persecuted as heretics by trinitarian Christians in centuries past. Few doubt the seriousness of the other three groups, even if one has ecclesiastic differences with them).

Or do you have another dividing line in mind between orthodoxy and heterodoxy among Christians?

#8 Comment By T.S.Gay On April 29, 2013 @ 7:36 am

G.K.Chesterton has a book called Orthodoxy which is well worth reading.

#9 Comment By k On April 29, 2013 @ 8:02 am

Without the curmudgeons and the fanatics, I wouldn’t know how much fun I am having.

#10 Comment By Joe Magarac On April 29, 2013 @ 9:16 am

Re: your quote from Ratzinger, I think he said the same thing in a better way in “The Ratzinger Report,” a book-length interview from the 1980s. Here’s the key quote from that:

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the Saints the Church has produced and the Art which has grown in Her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can She dispense with beauty in Her liturgies, the beauty which is so closely linked with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their into a place where beauty – and hence Truth – is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.”

#11 Comment By Noah172 On April 29, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

EngineerScotty wrote:

Many Christian writers have suggested that the proper dividing line between little-o orthodox Christianity and the heterodox variety is the Nicene Creed–and there are certainly many sects who self-identify as Christians but do not follow the Council of Nicaea. Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and certain Pentacostals, for example.

It is more than Christian writers who have drawn that line — church bodies (i.e., denominations) have drawn that. (Side-note: small-o orthodox Christianity also uses the Apostles’ Creed, older than the Nicene and equivalent in content, as another demarcator.) These ancient creeds were written for the very purpose of demarcation of orthodoxy from heresy/apostasy.

Someone correct me if I am wrong: Unitarian Universalists, as their name implies, are not a self-identified Christian group so much as a sort of para-religion, which began as heterodox Protestant Christianity during the Enlightenment but has long since attempted a synthesis of the “good” elements of all religions (ostensibly filtering out the “bad”). John Adams, for instance, was an old-style Unitarian but not a modern UU.

Those other groups that you mentioned do identify themselves as Christians — indeed, LDS and JWs each consider themselves the only true church — but their inclusion within the fold is AFAIK unanimously rejected by every mainstream Christian body. This situation is analogous to the position of so-called Messianic Jews: their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, they are generally not considered Members of the Tribe, as the other MoTs (an otherwise famously disputatious and fractious bunch) have been unanimous and emphatic for two millenia that rejection of the messianic claims of Jesus of Nazareth falls within — and may even be the entirety of — the irreducible core of Jewish identity, without which there is nothing left to distinguish oneself from goyim.

#12 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 29, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

Noah, speaking solely from my personal membership in a Unitarian (prior to the formation of UUA) congregation, and remembering vividly the relevant conversations of my elders, Unitarians are not cafeteria religionists (to borrow a phrase). Their tradition (as opposed to what you might find in an individual congregation) is similar to that of the Quakers. They come as individual worshippers of the immanence of the divine to contribute to and participate in community. There is certainly a debate to be had there — religion creates community, or community facilitates religion — but Unitarians quietly choose the latter as their first value.

Their explicit predecessors were the congregationalists. They embraced deism without giving it precedence per se. They acknowledge religion as a human truth without demanding that there be One Truth. I grew up with many Christians (ex-Catholics) and quite a few Jews in that congregation, and their beliefs were both welcomed and never denigrated. The “joke” was that the Unitarian church was the largest non-religion in America. I personally believed that their general response would be, “Yes. That’s the point.” 😀