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BY Barbara Nicolosi
Catholicism is not a democracy. This works out splendidly well when we have the equivalent of Plato's “philosopher kings” in our chanceries and rectories — maybe not so well when we have Alexander III's — but, regardless, it's one of the things that define our community.
This means that the aesthetic life of the Church is first and foremost in the hands of our pastors. Even if a priest delegates liturgical coordination to a committee and the hymnody to a music director and the flower arranging to Doris and Sylvia, it is still the pastor's artistic sensibilities that are the final arbiter of evaluating blueprints, musical and vocal skill, and decorating ability.
Priestly pastoral duties also require a mastery of the aesthetics of oratory for the one artistic skill they won't be able to delegate: preaching. So, ultimately, providing training in aesthetics to seminarians makes good practical sense for all of us who will be subject to their otherwise uninformed artistic whims in our parishes every Sunday.
But there is another, more important reason to train future priests in aesthetics and the elements of beauty: It will help them be holier. Ultimately, a holy priest is the most inspiring and beautiful “decoration” for the liturgical life of a parish.
In my convent days, I was exposed to much more beauty than any average lay Catholic ever gets to see. In the motherhouse, all 96 of us were in the choir, and we would rehearse several nights a week for whatever the next feast was on the liturgical calendar.
Besides living in a house where there was some kind of sacred art in every room, being a nun meant chanting psalm tones, going on lots of retreats in beautiful places and making pilgrimages to every notable church and shrine. Religious life is living Catholic experience and culture at the highest level.
I understood this special privilege as being part of the hundred-fold that is the other side of having bargained away many of the other goods of a normal human life. But it is more than that. Religious life and priesthood require more renunciation than lay life. Holy perseverance amidst these renunciations will be possible only for those who have been bolstered by many personal encounters with God. The experience of beauty can foster a sense of the divine touching the individual in an incomparable way.
This is the reason why agnosticism really is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.
The agnostic says, “I believe there is a God. I just don't believe he cares about me.” In every experience in which one could come to know there is a God, there is the accompanying sense of having been chosen to receive the revelation. This is why beauty is always humbling. We sense that it is outside of us and that it has no need of us — that it was before us and will continue after us. And that it is being shared with us. The experience of beauty always brings the conviction of the Divine Personal. One of the 20th century's great philosophers, Josef Pieper, expressed it as follows in his Problems of Modern Faith:
When we see beauty “in the midst of our workaday cares, we raise our heads and unexpectedly gaze into a face turned towards us, and in that instant, we see: everything which is good, worthy of love, and loved by God … The world is not out of joint after all; everything is moving toward its appointed end; despite everything there is peace, wholeness and splendor in the depths of things; God holds in His hands the beginning, the middle and the end of all things.”
We need to give our seminarians and priests more beauty, because more will be required of them. Particularly in their years of formation, they will need heightened liturgical life as a way of “storing up” intimate encounters with God. They will need to bank these moments for a cold, gray Tuesday morning in the future, when they will need to propel themselves out of bed and into a dark church to say a beautiful Mass for a handful of quarrelsome old ladies.
A commitment to beauty in priestly formation will start in figuring out the kinds of things that seminarians can learn in a classroom and the kinds of things that must be learned elsewhere.
When I was in college, I used to go around saying, “The truth can change people. If you just expose them to the truth, they will cleave to it.” This is a naïve view. The sense of “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” is the sense of knowing in which the Scriptures also speak of sexual intimacy, “Adam knew Eve.”
So, it's the cleaving to the truth that makes you free, not having it blare out at you from speakers in a classroom or in black words on a white page. The “making people cleave” to things inwardly — things like compassion, mercy, nobility, self-donation, heroism — this is the province of the arts.
You can discover reasons for conviction and certitude on the pages of a textbook, but if you want compassion that will motivate someone to sacrifice, you can find it much more quickly in a movie like Shine. Ethics can tell me about the disordered attractions of my own soul, but Madame Bovary will sting me to the heart and have me understand on the deepest level St. Paul's cry, “Why do I do what I hate? Who can free me from this body of death?”
Artistic narratives — that is, stories — whether in cinema, theater or novels, have a crucial contribution to make to priestly formation.
Pope John Paul II notes in his 1999 “Letter to Artists” that we owe deep consideration to even purely secular works of art, for “they can show us in a profound way what the world without God looks like.” I knew one seminarian, for example, who was deeply impacted by the film Requiem for a Dream. A dark and disturbing story of loneliness that leads into the hell of drug addiction, this well-crafted film incited a wave of pastoral urgency in this future priest that has helped him bring the Gospel into many definitely scary places. With real passion in his voice, he said to me after seeing the movie several times, “No human being should ever feel completely alone.”
Exposing future priests to the artistic stories of “what the world without God looks like” can also balance out the elitist disconnect which is the potential dark side of having lots of beauty in formation years. Always, the goal in formation must be two-fold: to make present both the reality of God and the reality of poor humanity.
Another incalculable gift of bringing arts into the work of formation is that it will bond the group of seminarians in a holy way. The arts offer a more transcendent bonding than what can be achieved by going to a ballgame together.
When I first saw the film Romero, I actually experienced the healing of a relationship. I was sitting uneasily next to one of my fellow sisters in the theater. We didn't get along. As the film's story of terrible inhumanity to man progressed, we somehow ended up holding hands in the darkness. We became friends that night.
There is a holy exhilaration that comes from experiencing beauty together.
I remember having my otherwise adolescent angst drowned out in the harmonies of our high- school choir. As we sang together the Ave Verum or the alleluia, I felt intense surges of love for my fellow students. In his book Community and Growth, philosopher Jean Vanier notes that making beauty together is both the sign of a healthy community and a way of renewing it. He writes, “Celebration is the song of joy and thanksgiving flowing from a sense of unity, but also creating and deepening it…Nourishment comes in those moments when the whole community becomes aware of the current of life which flows through it.”
This is the third of a three-part series on beauty and the Church.
Reach Barbara Nicolosi at email@example.com.