An Artistic Reflection on St. John Paul II's ‘Letter to Artists’

Those of us have felt that artistic “spark” brimming within us — those of us that love to write, to create, to paint, draw and sing — would do well to heed the call upon our souls that this Letter speaks of.

Andrey Mironov, “The Apostle Luke”, 2015
Andrey Mironov, “The Apostle Luke”, 2015 (photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

“To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies”
of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may
offer these as gifts to the world.” —A Letter to Artists

Today, I was rummaging through the post cards of some of the world's famous works of art that my children use for school. Many were genuinely beautiful and clearly required admirable mastery to create. But, frankly, some were not. Some of the paintings depicted looked like the remnants of a crash of fluorescent semi-trucks, at best, or maybe a crooked aerial photo of a San Francisco junkyard. The last time I visited a cutting edge modern art museum was probably when I was in the Netherlands, my father's homeland. One of the exhibits was of a broken-down ladder-looking thing, covered with dead fish that stunk to high heaven. Another escapade to a modern art museum (in New York City proper, I believe) left me gawking at works of “art” that would be highly indecent to describe to the public (much less ask a ridiculous fee to view).

In the “good ol' days,” the masses used to turn to artists for inspiration, hope, and – fantastically – to satisfy their soul's thirst for the living God. They would turn to prophets and writers in order to tame their restless hearts and claim that conversion they had been longing for. But, sadly, that was then, and this is now. It's a little harder to turn to American artists and writers nowadays, when they are so often aiming the mission of their work in the wrong direction – at self, at humankind, at false ideologies, even at forwarding the agenda of the Prince of Darkness. I propose that a majority of them have lost sight of what it even means to have a mission when one creates, because they have lost sight of the Creator. For the most part, 20th century literature, art and the like have become vehicles to release angst, craft a misshapen identity of oneself, and snag some sort of flagging personal glory. They've even been commonly used to curse God and ridicule Christian morals.

As a writer, I am painfully aware of this reality, and yet, I have hope in my heart – a burning hope. I know that the Church is radiantly alive and bringing forth a harvest of artists who, as humble servants, want the glorification of the Eternal King to be the end of their work. They want God to be known, and that's why they blister-up their fingers, get paid little, and take the path less trodden, often remaining known only to a clandestine sort of catacomb Christian society.

I am filled with hope because the Church is looking out for artists and fighting to keep them on the shores of God's light, amidst the devouring tide of this culture of darkness. In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II wrote “A Letter to Artists.” It is a jewel that has been tucked away in the pocket treasury of papal writings, but it is high time it gains some attention. In it he describes:

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

Being a phenomenal artist himself (just check out his poetry!), St. John Paul II understood an artist's profound inner craving to create, to share, to spread wonder and splendor freely to the world around them. And being a saint and a pope in today's world, he comprehended the ever-looming battle that awaits artists. Often overwhelmed by their intuitive grasp of the “deeper things” in life, and being passionate creatures by nature, the only way they can keep their peace is by being, above all, persons of contemplative prayer. They must maintain an intimate union with the Creator, or, ultimately what they create will become meaningless, as “chaff in the wind.”

For the artist who also longs to be a disciple of Christ, St. John Paul has some words of wisdom:

That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their ‘gift’, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission. And by drawing ever near to the good, the true and the beautiful, they will also draw closer to the finality of their vocation.

“The artist has a special relationship to beauty,” he writes. “In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of ‘artistic talent.’ And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents (cf. Mt 25:14-30).”

In God's eyes, being an authentic artist means being selfless. It means being increasingly surrendered and remaining at the service of the Master, the giver of all talents.

Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation — as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole... Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favor of the common good.

Those of us have felt that artistic “spark” brimming within us — those of us that love to write, to create, to paint, draw and sing — would do well to heed the call upon our souls that this Letter speaks of. 

This spark is something divine – let us keep it that way. It is something God has endowed us with, and whether we always acknowledge it or not, it still belongs to him. Let us keep it sacred and use it to set the world on fire for Christ.

This article originally appeared May 9, 2017, at the Register.