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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
ART AND THE FORMATION OF PRIESTS

I just got back from a quick trip to Chicago for a presentation to an assembly of people who work in the formation of seminarians. Here are notes of the talk I gave. The notes are sometimes succinct, sometimes verbose - it's all I have. I can't imagine ever being asked to give this talk again, so I am putting the notes here for posterity...

THE ARTISTHOOD OF THE PRIEST

I. Intro –
a) Thank you for having me. I very much appreciate the “vision” required to invite Hollywood screenwriter to speak to your assembly. I feel sure I am the only one of the invited presenters whose last published work was a bold attack on Director Sam Rami for failing to significantly advance the theme of Spiderman II from the franchise precursor.
b) My credentials – an artist, an entertainer (that is storyteller), a former formee (nine years of religious life); not a theologian, but a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary
c) I am the Founding Ringmaster of a community of faith-centered artists primarily in Hollywood, who have come together for so many reasons:
- to find all the goods of Christian community: accountability, fellowship, friendship, mentorship;
- to try and bring some community to the heart of the industry and to the arts which are everything but communities;
- to spur one another on to creating and producing a brand of entertainment that would combine mastery of craft with responsibility in content;
- to have a fundamental option for the audience as poor at the table in the corporate, creative and marketing dominated world of entertainment;
- to identify, mentor, nurture and place the next generation of faith-centered artists;
We spend a tremendous amount of time brooding over what we call “the priesthood of the artist” and how to form the kind of artists that the world needs and will need more as mechanization and globalization continue to obfuscate the details of life wherein meaning lies.
d) I have no business talking to you about how to form priests – but I can speak about some of what we have come to in trying to form artists and in the same way that we are trying to realize the priesthood of the artist, perhaps you can begin to brood over the artisthood of the priest?

I am hoping this will be much more of a reflection or a musing on the power of the arts – and specifically what the arts bring to priestly formation. I am going to make a slight distinction between the arts and entertainment. I am going to discuss the arts for the formation of the priest himself, and I am going to spend a bit of time on the central work of art that will be of concern to the pastor of souls, that is the liturgy. Finally, I am going to speak about the role of future pastors in facilitating artistic beauty to the people of God, and even the secular world.

[CLIP from The Mission: Gabriel begins to evangelize the Guarani through playing his oboe] – How did that make you feel? Who do you want to be in this clip? Why? What kind of a pastor is Gabriel? Why does Gabriel start his ministry with the oboe? There is a work that needs to be done in the people, before he starts to use words. He is telling them who he is through his music. He is also telling them who he thinks they are by introducing himself via music.

In our context, I suggest that the young people who are in our care are the Guarani – coming as they are from a climate in which they have lost faith in everything institutional, they are looking at us askance, with more than a touch of suspicion. The arts can get around their barriers and begin to establish the filial relationship necessary for formation.

II. Why We Need the Arts in General

We need the arts because there are truths that cannot be put into words. There are spiritual journeys that are too big for our reason to process and our language to describe.

Of course, the arts are also inadequate. People told me that the movie The Passion of the Christ was too much for them. Without getting into a discussion of the artistic merit of the film, it is still worth saying that, as bad as all the violence was in the film, it still doesn’t even come near to representing with any accuracy, the horror of one venial sin. (Which seems to subvert my point today very nicely…maybe I should leave?) But I guess the point is, if the arts are inadequate at pointing to reality through symbols, parables and metaphors, how much more is theological language?

The Pope notes in his Letter to Artists, “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must translate into meaningful terms that which in itself is ineffable…[in so doing] it nourishes the intuition of those who look and listen.”

He goes on to make the pretty radical statement - particularly in this moment of ecclesial and artistic “disengagement” - that art is not just an object that proceeds from theological brooding, but is actually a source of theology.

That is, if you don’t reference the arts when you are studying the Annunciation, for example, in theology, you are missing other layers of meaning. You need to listen to the movements in Bach’s Gesu, Word of God to more completely “get” the Incarnation. I love this. It points to the fact that the sacred artists is as much a vehicle of divine inspiration as are theologians.

a) Entertainment as ‘the work between the work’ – to provide calisthenics for the soul. To stretch them so they don’t have to sin. Because Frodo lost his hand at Mordor, you won’t have to.

b) Have to say a word or two about beauty. The understanding of beauty, as with everything else in our post-modern confusion has become one more flag to wave in the strange and wonderful world of Church polarization. I was born in the mid 60’s amidst the impulse in which the Church seemed to be purging herself of dross. I grew up as a Gen Xer, mystified by the missionary zeal with which the Baby Boomers in the Church were stripping every vestige of the rituals, symbols and traditions from our faith.

“The Church that marries the spirit of the age is a widow in the next generation.” (Dean William Inge)

(We need to remember that even the immensely climactic moment of the reforms of Vatican II, are still just a moment in ecclesial history. In watching the backlash against the changes of the last forty years, I can’t help wonder with a little exhausted breathlessness, exactly what will survive. There has been so much damn suffering, I hope something makes it.)

I remember once back in 1990 as a junior professed, it was a big feast day for our community – Solemnity of St. Paul, and I was stationed for the first time away from the Motherhouse. We were celebrating the Feast day at a local parish for the friends of our community…My fellow junior and I wanted to make it as cool and beautiful as possible, and so we set out the nicest vestments and did the flowers, blah blah blah. When father came in, we asked him if he would be okay using incense and he suddenly got inappropriately irate exclaiming, ‘It took us twenty-five years to get rid of all that nonsense, and now you people want to bring it all back?!”

I didn’t know what “people” he was talking about. I wanted to use incense because it is cool and holy, and because I loved the symbol from the psalms of our prayers rising like incense. The priest was reacting against something of which I had had no experience, and associating it to incense. Incense is not the problem. The problem was formalism. More about that later.

Anyway, I think in some ways, it is easier to train artists than priests, because we have a way to tell very clearly if they are in the wrong vocation. If they don’t have talent, we gently encourage them to become a supporter of artists. The Divine Economy seems very unfair at times, but ‘if the Lord doesn’t build the artists, in vain do the gurus nurture.’ (It would be an interesting question as to whether there is a comparable “God-given sign” of vocation in the priesthood….what would mastery of craft look like in a pastor of souls?)

Here are some principles about beauty that have become part of the presuppositions of the Act One program:

1. Beauty makes us homesick for heaven. It is a “holy sadness”.

Some great quotes:

“I have always – at least, ever since I can remember – had a kind of longing for death.”

“Ah Psyche,” I said, “have I made you so little happy as that?”

“No, no, no,” she said. “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on the happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine…where we couldn’t see the village or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, ‘Psyche, come!’”
(from Till We Have Faces, CS Lewis)

“[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 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.”
(Josef Pieper, Problems of Modern Faith, 1985)

2. Beauty is not necessarily pretty.

“Heaven is revealed upon the earth both in Michelangelo’s David, and in the cup of cold water which is given to the poor.”
(from Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art; Gerardus van der Leeuw

3. Beauty is expensive to produce: time, details, talent, money. The little things like getting the lighting just right, having the flowers arranged, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. You are going to have to pay your artists to practice and produce. (My sister is a professional opera singer. She used to get $100 a week to cantor at the local Episcopalian church which has an endowed chair for a mezzo soprano. At our parish church, they want to pay her $40 a week, and as she has said to me wth a shrug, “And they want me to sing crap.”

It has to be said. Much of the art we are making as a Church is ugly and painful. It has the opposite effect that it should. There is a problem when the Church is singing music that would be better suited to an episode of Barney, and Nora Jones is singing music that stings people to the heart.

“To put it bluntly, God is not adequately praised and adored with the showy, the pompous, the self-serving, the mawkish, the cleverly casual or the thoughtlessly comfortable forms of art.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

I teach RCIA to people in the entertainment industry. These are incredibly talented people. It is most often embarrassing to take them to Church and have them come to the realization that what they do every day professionally is much superior to the artistic expression they find in the Church that is supposed to be a gift of God inspired by the Holy Spirit.

[God accepts whatever humble offering his children make]…”But the lowliness of the origins of the music or art offered cannot be made into a rule against continuing to find forms that best serve to articulate the deeper mysteries of God and the human condition.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

4. Beauty is exclusive: it is the harmonious selection of details. There is an elitist aspect about beauty which I know from your homogeneity of age group (Baby Boomers all!) is surely disconcerting to many of you. Take a breath. The principal should be that we strive to produce the best forms to express the liturgical realities. Beauty is not an option. It is not an extra. We have to change the way we think about it.

5. Beauty is not necessarily old, but many old things are beautiful. Best notion is from the Scriptures, “Blessed is he who can bring forth from his storehouse, both the old and the new.

I want to stop and ask you to recall a powerful beautiful arts moment from your past, and what it meant to you. When Fr. Rohr said that healthy celibates NEED a moment of genuine connection with God, it is very often arts moments in which these can be found. I tell you mine, and then I want you to think of yours.

We used to have the custom of saying the rosary from May to October… We would chant the litany of Mary. I used to love it best in the Latin (I had studied Latin for two years so it was more than just the texture and the sounds, it was the meanings too.) I can still remember the power of those evening moments: the coolness of the summer evenings, the colorful flowers in the garden out of which rose the lifesize marble statue of the Madonna; the voices of the sisters, some of them always adding spontaneous harmony. I used to feel my heart swelling with the psalms, “How good it is for us to be here!”

I imagine that if it was photographed, that image of the group of us, all looking the same would remind some people of the horrible loss of individuality. But I didn’t find that ritual diminishing. I found it comforting. There was something so steadying in the knowledge that for fifty years, our sisters had been singing like this together, on a hil outside of Boston, calling down God’s love and mercy on all the hoards of people of the city and of the world.

I used to feel this way at the chanting of vespers. Singing the Salve Regina.

Remember your moment and if you come away with nothing else, recommit yourself to recreating those moments for your seminarians.

III. Seminarians Need Arts and Entertainment for Their Own Spiritual Growth
a) They need more beauty because more renunciation will be required of them. Arts can achieve a “storing up” of intimate encounters with God. They will need to bank these moments for the future. Since leaving the nuns, it has seemed to me at times ruthlessly unfair how beautiful the liturgies were in the Motherhouse…It made the real world outside seem like a vast desert of liturgical ugliness. Sometimes, I look around at the other lay sheep in church and wonder, “Why are you people coming here?” But I think it is as “unfair” as the fact the apostles had three lovely, intimate years with Jesus – tromping around fields and villages, sitting by late-night fires, sharing untold meals and prayers, before they had to all go live and die for Him.
b) Again, we have to know the kinds of things the seminarian can learn in a classroom, and the kinds of things that are learned elsewhere. When I was younger – 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. You can lead a chicken to a hen house but you can’t make him brood. 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 the speakers in a classroom or in black words on a white page. 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 quicker 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. “The heart has reasons of which reason nothing knows.”

The making people cleave to things inwardly – beyond the province of language - is the terrain of the arts. Compunction, sorrow, sympathy, joy, horror, wonder – and communion besides are the powers here.

With our artists, btw, we are moving more and more out of the classroom and into small groups headed by a master or guru. The classroom is just a rite of initiation into technique. Great art doesn’t come from classrooms, anymore than do holy priests.

c) Will provide them a more profound sense of “what the world without God looks like” which should heighten pastoral urgency. A seminarian I know was deeply impacted by the film Requiem for a Dream…
d) Arts can bond the group. Experience a work of great art together can be an intimate, powerful experience that connects you to another human being in a way as unrepeatable as the moment.

“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.”
(from Community and Growth, Jean Vanier)

[CLIP from The English Patient OR Babette’s Feast]

e) The seminarians need to be given a formation to discern healthy entertainment from unhealthy. Again, this should be a common sense discussion, but it has been hijacked by the polarization of the times. So, people on the Right think anything with any sex, language and violence is bad. I spoke to a group at Steubenville and I said to them, “We never want to get to a point in which we would keep our children from looking at Michealangelo’s David. Right?” There was a dead silence in the crowd. Many weren’t too sure… Traditionalists too often over simplify by saying anything old is good. And correspondingly, anything new is bad.

The movie In the Bedroom a couple of years ago made a profound statement about forgiveness, and that we forgive not so much as a mercy for the one who wounded us, but because if we don’t forgive, we will end in doing worse things than they did to us. Yet, most of my religious friends didn’t support the film because there was a subplot of out of wedlock sex, and because in the end, the couple gets away with committing a crime…. “Yeah, but they were insane!”

On the left, people sneer at the suggestion that anything in media is really harmful. These are people who generally get the idea that eating junk food can be physically toxic, but who posture that making careful selections in media is somehow a fascist attempt to thwart the First Amendment. There’s a leftist leaning nun I know who is always getting seduced by flashy looking Hollywwod movies. Several of them have been damnably subversive in their storytelling technique. But she doesn’t see that, because I think she thinks she is immune or something.

It’s absolutely absurd.

The way through all this is to resist oversimplifying what is essentially a complex problem of modern life. We need to help our young people to live in this age in which they live moderately, prudently and pastorally. Priests need to watch media not as fans, but rather as people trying to stay alert to ‘the signs of the times.’ It would be a good thing to have some mandatory courses for pastors to be in cinema as it is the art form of our time. To demystify the screen storytelling process and techniques would serve your men well. First and foremost, it would help them get away from just seeing movies in terms of their story content.

III. Seminarians Need a Formation in Aesthetics and Entertainment for the Rest of Us
a) Once they are ordained, your seminarians will need to enter into dialogue with media-saturated sheep. They need to absorb as a strategy that they should not compete with the arts, but should instead work with them. Especially with young people. It is a pastoral necessity today to be able to talk about what the matrix means, who Joan of Arcadia is talking to and the relative odds that love found with The Batchelor won’t be unconditional and life-long. I would say, you are functionally irrelevant as a pastor in this particular moment if you cannot complete the sentence, “With great power comes…_______?”
b) They will need to minister to and with artists in their future parishes.
c) They will be the ones to commission works of art – Renaissance comes from pastors…
d) They will need to harnass the power of the arts for the Gospel
1. Definitely need musical training.
2. Absolutely they need training in Oratory – Sorry, but that is their art form – Maybe they won’t be Fulton Sheen, but they can be rendered competent. Studies in craft can lead to competence if not genius. They need to learn what it means to “speak with authority,” and what are the principles of good parables.
A. Parable principles:
-The story is enough;
- Story/Metaphor must always be Clearer than the Truth your are trying to explicate
- You say it in a story because you can’t say it in a sentence
- A good story needs Pathos, Logos, Ethos (something for the heart, something for the mind, something magical/memorable)
- A good story has a clear beginning, middle and end which all develop a central point. It ends when it is done. It doesn’t wind down agonizingly in search of a reason to exist…
- Best parables are the ones from their own lives (it will give the preaching passion because there is nothing we would rather do than talk about ourselves)
B. What is it to speak “With authority”?
- Two cardinal rules of Hollywood – and should be for every preacher: Don’t bore me. Don’t waste my time. You bore me when you tell me something that is obvious. (In order not to tell me something obvious, you have to prepare and do research). You waste my time when you tell me something irrelevant. Things that are irrelevant may be fine in themselves, it’s just not the question that is meaningful to me right now. Hence it is irrelevant. It means you need to know your audience. (Can’t speak to every age group out there. Hollywood would never do that. Speak to the adults. Let them translate down.) We tell our screenwriters, “Commerciality is in the intersection of the passion of your heart, with a cry of the world.”
- You take risks. You put what you believe out there without equivocation. I write magazine articles. After I write an article, I always go back and then cross out all the phrases like: “in my opinion”; “I think,” or the corollaries, “I feel” or “I believe”; “it might be said”; “perhaps”;

Removing these phrases gives power to speech. It also enrages people who disagree, but that’s between them and God…
- You are speaking Macro themes that have been derived from your own micro stories. “This I know to be true.”

V. Liturgy as the Priest’s Primary Art Form

“Liturgy is the common art of the People of God in which the community brings the depth of emotion of our lives to the ethos of God. In these acts, we discover who we are, but primarily, we discover who God is in this art.”
(from Worship and Theology, Don E. Saliers)

a) The liturgy doesn’t use art. It is Art. The art of worship includes formation in theology, liturgy and aesthetics.
b) Aesthetic experience is not the purpose of worship. The point is to make the ethos of God at the center with the pathos of human beings
c) We are NOT trying to create an artificial formalism that substitutes propriety for genuine encounter with the living God.
d) Liturgy as an art requires all that art requires: form, material, discipline, imagination and pain
e) The liturgy is symbolic, parabolic, metaphoric
f) It isn’t a performance around the people: The people are the players. We have to rouse them to their best creation: reverence + compunction
g) Again, ecclesial polarization is messing everything up here. On the Right, the focus in liturgy is exclusively about beauty and reverence and solemnity. On the Left, it is exclusiely about community and particularly celebration. The fact is, genuine liturgy must be both and more. It must be a meeting of the truth about God – making the holy present, with the truth about us. The awareness of God leads to awe and wonder. The awareness of our reality leads to humility, anger, sorrow, openness.

[The Liturgy in which God is not experienced] “is a spectacle and a sin.”
(Gerardus van der Leeuw)

III. End
The knowledge conferred by faith is the preeminent knowledge. Yet, it too can be enriched by artistic intuition and the sense of wonder stirred by the beautiful. In his closing of his Letter to Artists the Pope describes a progression that moves a person from beauty to wonder to enthusiasm:

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the critical challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, every time it loses its way, humanity will be able to lift itself up again and set out on the right path. In this sense, it has been said with profound insight, that “beauty will save the world.”