Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nicola Colhoun, "Creche"

If you celebrate Christmas in this part of the world, you probably have boxes. They spend most of the year in the basement or the attic or the cupboard, waiting for their annual re-birth in anticipation of the Holy Birth. Lights (a few burnt out), tree ornaments (do we really have to put that one up again this year?), stockings, Christmas stories, leftover napkins, and decorations are all delivered into the cool light of December.

We have these boxes in our home, of course. But one box is special. One I open only when alone, and free of small helping hands. One I open with trepidation. For it contains the crèche, the Nativity set. And this Nativity set was molded out of ceramic and carefully painted by my in-laws before I was even born. For some reason the task of unpacking it falls to me, and I perform this annual work fully aware of the ramifications of any potential accident.

The Nativity set is a product of its time. The figures are large, ten or twelve inches high. They would not be out of place accompanied by a painting on velvet, with perhaps a hanging spider plant to suggest greenery.

They are beautiful though, and they are certainly treasures. There are the shepherds, draped in drab colours with sheep tucked around them. The wise men are resplendent in ceramic robes of iridescent scarlets and purples, carrying metallic-painted gifts. By tradition, Caspar is African. By accident, he is missing a thumb. The camels of the wise men are truly magnificent, large and haughty beasts with tasseled saddles. There is a stable, made of wood with a straw roof. A cow and a soft-looking gray donkey curl up in a corner. Two small white doves balance in the hay loft. Joseph is too tall to fit inside, and so I place him beside the stable, arm outstretched to show off the new arrival to his visitors. Mary kneels, adoring, behind the manger, in her pale blue robe, looking understandably tired. A disconcertingly blonde and feminine angel can be strung overhead on clear thread, but I usually stick her in the back of the stable to keep her quiet.

And then there is Jesus. He is jubilantly naked, a chubby pink sausage of an infant, and anatomically correct at that. I have considered giving him a blanket, not so much for decency as for warmth, but have thus far refrained.

One year I lost Jesus. I had unpacked all the other figures and lined them up carefully on the mantel. Jesus was missing. I hunted about, edging rapidly toward panic. After twenty minutes or so I unpacked all the tissue paper out of the box again. And there he was, wrapped in bit of old paper. I had literally lost Jesus in the wrapping paper. It was so distressingly obvious, a real live cliché of a metaphor.

Every year I unpack this unlikely cast of characters and place them in awe and certain fear onto the stage of our mantelpiece. It is a spiritual discipline. It is the beginning of the opening of the book of Advent. With the shepherds I creep in trembling wonder around the edges of the darkened stable, smelling the damp straw. The donkey’s fur is rough, and the cow grunts as it dozes. The light of the star overhead pierces gaps where the walls meet the ceiling. The wise men arrive, eager but suddenly awkward before this very human-looking miracle. Mary lifts Jesus out of the manger and lies carefully down with him, and Joseph tries to pile the straw behind them. Mary and Joseph’s dreams are coming true, but it’s not at all like what they had imagined. Jesus is tiny and tired. He takes comfort from his mother, and sleeps, shutting out the overwhelming world. Peace swells and engulfs the stable. The angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the parents, the creatures and I settle down quietly to watch the sleeping baby, wondering what he will do next.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tim Anderson, "Re: Loneliness Can Be Contagious"

Loneliness can be contagious
Study finds solitary feeling affects friends, family
Rob Stein, Canwest News Service | Vancouver Sun, December 2, 2009

Loneliness is like a disease – and what's worse, it's contagious.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, loneliness can spread from one person to another, according to research released Tuesday that underscores the power of one person's emotions to affect friends, family and neighbours.

The federally funded analysis of data collected from more than 4,000 people over 10 years found that lonely people increase the chances that someone they know will start to feel alone, and that the solitary feeling can spread one more degree of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate.

The new analysis, involving 4,793 people who were interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001, showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 per cent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed.

"No man is an island," said Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct the research. "Something so personal as a person's emotions can have a collective existence and affect the vast fabric of humanity." Previous studies by Christakis concluded that obesity, the likelihood of quitting smoking, and even happiness could spread from one person to another.


Dear Newspaper Editor,

I read with interest your recent article "Loneliness Can Be Contagious," an article especially important to understand as we move into the holiday season.

It really is illogical that our cities are full of lonely people. One person in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean ought to feel lonely. But to have lonely people cheek to jowl on the bus, morosely staring past each other, stacked up like cordwood in apartment buildings yet not knowing each other's names - it's just weird.

But the notion that loneliness is a virus, that it is transmitted, that misery radiates out and grows within - that's brilliant. And it occurs to me then that we ought to name a Patient Zero - the first transmitter of the feeling. My epidemiology on this is perhaps not scientifically airtight (hey, I'm busy) but my nominee is the founder of cities himself, and first documented murderer, Cain. You see, after Cain murdered his brother and best friend Abel, he wandered the deserts of loneliness and needed a project to get his mind off his troubled family history, existential emptiness and bad tattoo (thanks, God!), and most especially the bad blood that stained his hands. So he invented cities, where he stayed up late working under artificial light, brushed by strangers brusquely on his way to the coffee shop, got into bar fights. Loved by no one, weighed down, sleepless and fever-sick, a man without rest, surely he was the original Mr. Lonely.

It's been spreading in cities since then, that amalgam of anonymity and painful self-awareness we call loneliness. It's a virus that sweeps the land, re-infecting masses year after year, peaking at Christmas. And we know it - the Christmas news broadcasts always lead with the feeding of the lonely, bringing them in from the cold.

And that is the double irony, the Christmas angle. You see, I've always assumed that people got more lonely at Christmas because of the contrast between their dingy little interior worlds and the brown-sugar-love of the happy people all aglow with light from the cuddly Baby Jesus. But if loneliness is in the blood, if it shakes the soul with the chills of a fever, then there is something else going on - some kind of antibody reaction.

Against this realization I lay the notion that has been working on me for a while, that Jesus himself was not a cuddly flannel-graph character, but another sort of Mr. Lonely. Not sure? Let's review: His life starts as a bad hotel experience. His dad isn't really his dad. After being stalked by astronomy nerds, the spreading news of his birth and resulting threat of death requires his family to head back down into Egypt. Yes, Egypt, that campground of oppression that had already cost the family hundreds of years! Then, like a lot of bright kids, he's misunderstood by his parents, even to the point that as an adult that want to lock him up for insanity. His friends never really get it. Later, at his supposed moment of triumph when the crowds are all cheering him on his entry to the Big City (nota bene!) what does he feel? His only words are muttered through tears, that no one really understands what he is about, that he wanted to be close to them, but they wouldn't let him. Then, as you remember, on the outskirts of the city, late at night, when it is all weighing down and he's sick with it, sweating blood, his friends would rather sleep than understand. He can hardly bear it. Then things get even worse.

It seems to me that Jesus, the "reason for the season," really had loneliness in his blood, and when all the people in that ancient city took out the pain of their emptiness on him, they closed that long circle of loneliness. It was the love-starved offspring of Cain getting back at God for the legacy of isolation and guilt. But when I read the story all the way through, it turns out God is a pretty forgiving guy, with powers to raise the dead, cure the sick, to even touch the Mr. Lonely in you and me.

Maybe we should stop thinking of loneliness at Christmas as some kind of personal failure. It's the illness that's plagued the ages, and the cure is for someone to get it, to beat it, to provide the antibody we all need.

If we believe that, then old words like God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen are about more than cinnamon and candlelight. If we believe that, maybe we'll look at our city in a new light, start to catch hope.

Rory Holland, "Nativity"

Over the years our family has developed quite a collection of Nativity Scenes – out of wood, wire, ceramic, and even palm leaves – all depicting that same frozen moment of time of just after the birth of Jesus. Around this time the boxes are brought up from the basement, the pieces unwrapped and then each put in their place on the mantel or the shelves around our home.

What strikes me is the wide range of expressions of that event. The Guatemalan Jesus is swaddled in bright fabric, the Ugandan Jesus has distinct African features, while the Italian Jesus looks like a very small adult with arms commandingly outstretched. In each case the reality has been shaped by the perceptions of the artist.

We all want Jesus to be a certain way, and oddly the Bible seems to provide enough latitude for that to be so – otherwise how would we end up with such a wide variety of denominations across the spectrum all claiming to worship ‘the same’ Jesus.
There are a couple of occasions in the stories about Jesus’ life where the question actually comes up. Once, after he calmed the waters his friends asked “who is this man?, or later on even Jesus asks them “who do you say I am?”

I am honestly not sure who Jesus is, or who he was supposed to be when he was born. Sure, I read the definitive statements in the Bible, but those don’t actually come from Him, they come from people trying to figure out Him. Jesus allowed others to define him, but he didn’t spend much time on it himself.

You have to assume, as I look at one of the little scenes in my living room with the shepherds and the wise men, and even Mary and Joseph, at the time they were asking that same question – Who is this little guy?

from "An Examined Life" | December 2 2009

Rory Holland, "Frail Humanity"

I am not all that clear on the history of the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago, but I am going to take a wild guess that it was pretty patriarchal. I am sure it was a Man’s world.

This Advent story then seems somewhat curious. There are the cousins, Elizabeth and Mary – carrying John (who’s handle in the future would include “the Baptist”) and Jesus ( who’d later just be known as “the Lord”) respectively. Then there’s their significant others: Joseph and Zachariah.

Zach loses his ability (or maybe his right) to speak when he questions the pregnancy, and Joseph has to deal with the fact that his soon-to-be-wife got knocked up by someone other than himself. I wouldn’t count on either of these guys getting much love from the boys down at the local Narazene bar for the way they handled their situations in such un-guy like fashions.

But, that’s the way the story goes. You have at the centre a woman’s right to choose, and their men standing, mostly silent, alongside them. Sounds almost post-modern.

To think the Advent story was passed word of mouth for a few years before it got written down – and this how it was shaped?

However, maybe that whole issue was overshadowed by the bigger idea that the God of the Universe had made his grand entrance in our world through the vagina of a young unwed girl out back of a Hotel in some little backwater town a few miles from Jerusalem.

I am not sure it’s all that easy to buy any of this stuff on the merit’s of it’s believability. What keeps me coming back is not the factual truth, but rather the story’s frail humanity – that has endured in a world that places less than no value on such a thing.

from "An Examined Life" | December 1 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Paul Flucke, The Secret of the Gifts

The story has been told for centuries now. The story of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar and the gifts they brought to the newborn king. And of how they saw the star and followed it for weeks, across mountain and valley and desert. In stately procession on their swaying beasts, they came and place their treasures at the feet of the infant Savior.

And what were their gifts? Ah, you say, everyone knows that. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So, since the earliest days, the story has been told.

But there you are wrong. The story is incomplete. You see, the story was told by those who had seen the wise men on their journey. And by those who stood by in wonderment as the wise men dismounted from their weary camels and strode to the door of the rude stable. They watched as the wise men held their jeweled caskets high before them. That much the world saw. And so the story has been told.

But that is not the whole story. And if you listen very carefully and very quietly, you shall hear the rest of it. You shall hear what happened when the wise men entered the stable. And you shall learn the secret of the gifts.


The first of the three visitors to approach the stable was Gaspar. His cloak was of the finest velvet, trimmed with flawless fur. At his waist and throat were clusters of gems, for Gaspar was a wealthy man.

Those who watched saw only that he paused at the stable door. "He prays," they whispered to one another as they saw Gaspar's lips move. But they were mistaken. They could not see that it was the Angel Gabriel, guarding the holy place, before whom Gaspar stopped.

"And who are you?" The voice of the angel was firm but not unkind.

"I am Gaspar, and I come to worship the king."

"All who enter here must bring a gift. * Have you a gift?"

"Indeed I have." He held aloft a finely wrought box. It was small, yet so heavy that his arms could hardly raise it. "I have brought bars of the purest gold."

"Your gift must be the essence of yourself. It must be something precious to your soul."

"Such have I brought." Gaspar spoke confidently, the hint of a smile upon his lips.

"So shall it be." And he, too, smiled as he held the door for Gaspar to enter.

And there, before the rough board wall of the stable, lay the king he had traveled so far to see. The light of the lamp fell across the tiny face and glinted back from the dark, bright eyes. In the shadows sat the parents, motionless and silent. And beyond them, Gaspar sensed the presence of the sheep and oxen who stood their reverent watch. Gaspar advanced a step, and then another. He was just about to kneel and lay his gold before the child when he stopped and stood erect.

There in his outstretched hands lay not gold but a hammer. Its scarred and blackened head was larger than a man's fist. And its handle was of sinewy wood as long as a man's forearm. "But, but "

"So shall it be, and so it is. You have brought the essence of yourself."

"A hammer? What foul magic is this?"

"None but the magic of truth," the angel said. "What you hold in your hands is the hammer of your greed. You have used it to pound wealth from those who labour so that you may live in luxury. You have used it to build a mansion for yourself while others dwell in hovels. You have raised it against friends and made them into enemies and against enemies to destroy them."

And suddenly Gaspar knew the truth. Bowed with shame, he turned toward the door to leave.

But the angel blocked his way. "No. You have not offered your gift."

"Give this? I cannot give this to a king!"

"But you must. That is why you came. And you cannot take it back with you. It is too heavy. You have carried it for many years and even now your arms ache with its weight. You must leave it here or it will destroy you."

And once again, Gaspar knew that the angel spoke the truth. But still he protested. "The hammer is too heavy. Why, the child cannot lift it."

"He is the only one who can."

"But it is dangerous. He might bruise his hands or feet."

"That worry you must leave to heaven. The hammer shall find its place."

Slowly Gaspar turned to where the Christ child lay. And slowly he placed the ugly hammer at the baby's feet. Then he rose and turned to the door, pausing only for an instant to look back at the tiny Savior before he rushed outside.

The waiting world saw only the smile that wreathed Gaspar's face as he emerged from the stable. His hands were raised, as though the wings of angels graced his fingers. That much the world saw, and so the story is told.


Next to step to the door of the stable was Melchior, the learned Melchior. He was not so resplendent as Gaspar. He wore the darker robes of the scholar. But the length of his beard and the furrows in his brow bespoke one who had lived long with the wisdom of the ages.

A hush fell over the onlookers as he, too, paused before the door. But only Melchior could see the angel who stood guard. Only Melchior could hear him speak.

"What have you brought?"

"I bring frankincense, the fragrance of hidden lands and bygone days."

"Your gift must be something precious to your soul."

"Of course it is."

"Then enter, and we shall see." And Gabriel opened the door.

Melchior stood breathless before the scene within. In all his many years of searching for elusive Truth, he had never sensed such a presence as this. He knelt reverently. And from beneath his robe he withdrew the silver flask of precious ointment.

But then he drew back and stared.

The vessel was not silver at all. It was common clay, rough and grained as might be found in the humblest cupboard. Aghast, he pulled the stopper from its mouth and sniffed the contents. Then he leapt to his feet, only to face the angel at the door.

"I have been tricked. This is not the frankincense I brought!"

"What is it then?"

"It is vinegar!"

"So shall it be, and so it is. You have brought what you are made of."

"You are an angel of fools."

"You bring the bitterness of your heart, the soured wine of a life turned grim with jealousy and hate. You have carried within you too long the memory of old hurts. You have hoarded your resentments and breathed on sparks of anger until they have become as embers smoldering within you. You have sought for knowledge. But you have filled your life with poison."

As he heard these words, Melchior's shoulders drooped. He turned his face away from Gabriel and fumbled with his robe, as though to hide the earthen jar. Silently he sidled toward the door.

"Wait. You must leave your gift."

"How I wish I could! How long have I yearned to emty my soul of its bitterness. You have spoken the truth, my friend. But I cannot leave it here! Not here, at the feet of love and innocence."

"But you can. And you must, if you would be clean. This is the only place you can leave it."

"But this vile and bitter stuff. What if the child should touch it to his lips?"

"You must leave that worry to heaven. There is a use even for vinegar."

So Melchior placed his gift before the Savior.

And they say that when he came out of the stable, his eyes shone with the clearest light of heaven's truth. His skin was as smooth as a youth's as he lifted his face to gaze on horizons he had never seen before. And in that, at least, the story is correct.


There was yet one more visitor to make his offering. He strode forward now, his back as straight as a tree, shoulders firm as an oaken beam. He walked as one born to command. This was Balthasar, leader of many legions, scourge of walled cities. Before him, as he grasped it by its handle of polished ebony, he carried a brass bound box.

A murmur ran through those who watched as they saw him hesitate before the door. "Look," they whispered, "even the great Balthasar does obeisance before the king who waits within."

But we know that it was Gabriel who caused the warrior to pause. And we know, too, the question that he put.

"Have you a gift?"

"Of course. I bring a gift of myrrh, the most precious booty of my boldest conquest. Many have fought and died for centuries for such as this. It is the essence of the rarest herb."

"But is it the essence of yourself?"

"It is."

"Then come, and we shall see."

Even the fearless Balthasar was not prepared for the wave of awe that struck him as he entered the holy place of the Christ child. He felt a weakness in his knees such as he had never known before. Closing his eyes, he knelt and shuffled forward through the straw in reverence. Then, bowing until his face was near the ground, he slowly released his grip upon the handle of the box.

Balthasar raised his head and opened his eyes. What lay before him at the baby's feet was his own spear. Its smooth round staff still glistened where the sweat of his palms had moistened it. And the razor edges of its steely tip caught the flickering light of the lamp. "It cannot be! Some enemy has cast a spell!"

"That is more true than you know. A thousand enemies have cast their spell on you and turned your soul into a spear."

"Do you think I like to kill? You angels know nothing of this world. I am the defender of my people. Were it not for my spear leading them in battle, we should have been destroyed long ago."

The angel paused before he spoke. "Living only to conquer, you have been conquered."

For a moment, Balthasar hesitated. Then, taking control of himself, he reached down and grasped his spear, and turned toward the door.

"I cannot leave this here. My people need it. We cannot afford to give it up."

"Are you sure that you can afford to keep it?"

A long moment passed. Finally Balthasar loosed his grip, and the spear drooped toward the floor. "But here? Is it safe to leave it here?"

"This is the only safe place to leave it."

"But he is a child, and the spear is sharp. It could pierce his flesh."

"That fear you must leave to heaven."

And they say that Balthasar went calmly from the stable, his arms hanging gently at his sides. They say that he walked first to Gaspar and Melchior, where they waited, and embraced them as brothers. Then, turning to the others who watched, he went first to one and then to the next, enfolding each in his outstretched arms as one greeting beloved friends whom he has not seen for a very long time.


And now you know the whole of it: the truth of the tale as it has always been told, and the deeper truths of the tale as it actually happened so long ago. But what of their gifts, you ask. What of the hammer, and the vinegar, and the spear? Strange gifts to give a child, strange offerings to lay before a king. Well, there is another story about them and how they were seen once more. But the hour is late, and our stories have been many, so perhaps that is a tale which must be told another time.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Benedict XVI, "Custodians of Beauty"

"Dear Artists, You Are the Custodians of Beauty"
by Benedict XVI

The complete text of the pope's speech given on November 21, 2009, in the Sistine Chapel, to representatives of all the arts: painters, sculptors, architects, novelists, poets, musicians, singers, men of the cinema, theater, dance, photography

Dear Cardinals,
Brother Bishops and Priests,
Distinguished Artists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

With great joy I welcome you to this solemn place, so rich in art and in history. I cordially greet each and every one of you and I thank you for accepting my invitation. At this gathering I wish to express and renew the Church’s friendship with the world of art, a friendship that has been strengthened over time; indeed Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation. This friendship must be continually promoted and supported so that it may be authentic and fruitful, adapted to different historical periods and attentive to social and cultural variations. Indeed, this is the reason for our meeting here today. I am deeply grateful to Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture and of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church, and likewise to his officials, for promoting and organizing this meeting, and I thank him for the words he has just addressed to me. I greet the Cardinals, the Bishops, the priests and the various distinguished personalities present. I also thank the Sistine Chapel Choir for their contribution to this gathering. Today’s event is focused on you, dear and illustrious artists, from different countries, cultures and religions, some of you perhaps remote from the practice of religion, but interested nevertheless in maintaining communication with the Catholic Church, in not reducing the horizons of existence to mere material realities, to a reductive and trivializing vision. You represent the varied world of the arts and so, through you, I would like to convey to all artists my invitation to friendship, dialogue and cooperation.

Some significant anniversaries occur around this time. It is ten years since the Letter to Artists by my venerable Predecessor, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II. For the first time, on the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Pope, who was an artist himself, wrote a Letter to artists, combining the solemnity of a pontifical document with the friendly tone of a conversation among all who, as we read in the initial salutation, "are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty". Twenty-five years ago the same Pope proclaimed Blessed Fra Angelico the patron of artists, presenting him as a model of perfect harmony between faith and art. I also recall how on 7 May 1964, forty-five years ago, in this very place, an historic event took place, at the express wish of Pope Paul VI, to confirm the friendship between the Church and the arts. The words that he spoke on that occasion resound once more today under the vault of the Sistine Chapel and touch our hearts and our minds. "We need you," he said. "We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself. And in this activity … you are masters. It is your task, your mission, and your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colours, forms – making them accessible." So great was Paul VI’s esteem for artists that he was moved to use daring expressions. "And if we were deprived of your assistance," he added, "our ministry would become faltering and uncertain, and a special effort would be needed, one might say, to make it artistic, even prophetic. In order to scale the heights of lyrical expression of intuitive beauty, priesthood would have to coincide with art." On that occasion Paul VI made a commitment to "re-establish the friendship between the Church and artists", and he invited artists to make a similar, shared commitment, analyzing seriously and objectively the factors that disturbed this relationship, and assuming individual responsibility, courageously and passionately, for a newer and deeper journey in mutual acquaintance and dialogue in order to arrive at an authentic "renaissance" of art in the context of a new humanism.

That historic encounter, as I mentioned, took place here in this sanctuary of faith and human creativity. So it is not by chance that we come together in this place, esteemed for its architecture and its symbolism, and above all for the frescoes that make it unique, from the masterpieces of Perugino and Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and others, to the Genesis scenes and the Last Judgement of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who has given us here one of the most extraordinary creations in the entire history of art. The universal language of music has often been heard here, thanks to the genius of great musicians who have placed their art at the service of the liturgy, assisting the spirit in its ascent towards God. At the same time, the Sistine Chapel is remarkably vibrant with history, since it is the solemn and austere setting of events that mark the history of the Church and of mankind. Here as you know, the College of Cardinals elects the Pope; here it was that I myself, with trepidation but also with absolute trust in the Lord, experienced the privileged moment of my election as Successor of the Apostle Peter.

Dear friends, let us allow these frescoes to speak to us today, drawing us towards the ultimate goal of human history. The Last Judgement, which you see behind me, reminds us that human history is movement and ascent, a continuing tension towards fullness, towards human happiness, towards a horizon that always transcends the present moment even as the two coincide. Yet the dramatic scene portrayed in this fresco also places before our eyes the risk of man’s definitive fall, a risk that threatens to engulf him whenever he allows himself to be led astray by the forces of evil. So the fresco issues a strong prophetic cry against evil, against every form of injustice. For believers, though, the Risen Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For his faithful followers, he is the Door through which we are brought to that "face-to-face" vision of God from which limitless, full and definitive happiness flows. Thus Michelangelo presents to our gaze the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of history, and he invites us to walk the path of life with joy, courage and hope. The dramatic beauty of Michelangelo’s painting, its colours and forms, becomes a proclamation of hope, an invitation to raise our gaze to the ultimate horizon. The profound bond between beauty and hope was the essential content of the evocative Message that Paul VI addressed to artists at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on 8 December 1965: "To all of you," he proclaimed solemnly, "the Church of the Council declares through our lips: if you are friends of true art, you are our friends!" And he added: "This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world."

Unfortunately, the present time is marked, not only by negative elements in the social and economic sphere, but also by a weakening of hope, by a certain lack of confidence in human relationships, which gives rise to increasing signs of resignation, aggression and despair. The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation – if not beauty? Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.

Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy "shock", it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it "reawakens" him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: "Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here." The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: "Art is meant to disturb, science reassures." Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life. The quest for beauty that I am describing here is clearly not about escaping into the irrational or into mere aestheticism.

Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, quotes the following verse from a Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid: "Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up" (no. 3). And later he adds: "In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, the artist gives voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption" (no. 10). And in conclusion he states: "Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence" (no. 16).

These ideas impel us to take a further step in our reflection. Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality. This close proximity, this harmony between the journey of faith and the artist’s path is attested by countless artworks that are based upon the personalities, the stories, the symbols of that immense deposit of "figures" – in the broad sense – namely the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures. The great biblical narratives, themes, images and parables have inspired innumerable masterpieces in every sector of the arts, just as they have spoken to the hearts of believers in every generation through the works of craftsmanship and folk art, that are no less eloquent and evocative.

In this regard, one may speak of a "via pulchritudinis," a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar begins his great work entitled "The Glory of the Lord – a Theological Aesthetics" with these telling observations: "Beauty is the word with which we shall begin. Beauty is the last word that the thinking intellect dares to speak, because it simply forms a halo, an untouchable crown around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another." He then adds: "Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. It is no longer loved or fostered even by religion." And he concludes: "We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love." The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity. Simone Weil wrote in this regard: "In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious." Hermann Hesse makes the point even more graphically: "Art means: revealing God in everything that exists." Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II restated the Church’s desire to renew dialogue and cooperation with artists: "In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art" (no. 12); but he immediately went on to ask: "Does art need the Church?" – thereby inviting artists to rediscover a source of fresh and well-founded inspiration in religious experience, in Christian revelation and in the "great codex" that is the Bible.

Dear artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to make a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal to you, as did my Predecessor. You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.

Saint Augustine, who fell in love with beauty and sang its praises, wrote these words as he reflected on man’s ultimate destiny, commenting almost "ante litteram" on the Judgement scene before your eyes today: "Therefore we are to see a certain vision, my brethren, that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, whether it be that of gold and silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, or stars and angels. The reason is this: it is the source of all other beauty" (In 1 Ioannis, 4:5). My wish for all of you, dear artists, is that you may carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, and in your heart, that it may bring you joy and continue to inspire your fine works. From my heart I bless you and, like Paul VI, I greet you with a single word: arrivederci!


See also...

Paul VI’s homily to artists on May 7, 1964, in the Sistine Chapel

John Paul II’s letter to artists, April 4, 1999

All the articles from www.chiesa on this topic