Everything I have posted has ended with a challenge to my readers. I always hope my work does something more than get me a few likes on Facebook or distract a few people from whatever they don’t want to be doing for 2000 words or less. I always hope that something I write will spark a thought or action in someone that will ultimately bring them closer to Christ. But this post also comes with a more specific invitation to a more selective audience. This post is especially addressed to and dedicated to the visual artists I hope are reading.
I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re out there. You must be out there because the Holy Spirit has lovingly and fearfully constructed his body with all the diversity of gifts we could ever need. Today I want to share with you a reflection on sacred artists. It’s not a new topic for the ACNM. Sacred art has been apologized twice in the last several months. I agree with what both of the posters had to say, but I think they concentrated on the object, the artistic creation itself, a little too much.
The object isn’t the sacred. What is truly sacred must be concerned above all with God and the human person. The true beauty of sacred art is precisely a conversation between God and the human person. It is this upon this conversation that I want to reflect – the sacred person and the sacred process, not the sacred object.
I am a geek. On some level every geek is an art critic. That statement might surprise you, but if you think about that it’s pretty obvious. Isn’t illustration an art form? Isn’t screen writing an art form? Isn’t character design another yet art form? So if you’re a geek, if you’re into movies or comics or video games,then you’re going to wind up being an amateur art critic. The lucky geeks actually end up attending what amount to artistic conventions. And the truly blessed (of which I am one) even become friends with their share of artists.
When I think about Sacred Art, I have a particular friend who always comes to mind. Rather than give her real name or official alias, I will simply call her The Singing Bird. The Singing Bird always stands out to me because her chosen medium of art. The Singing Bird’s specialty was stained glass. Stained glass, of course, has a long standing tradition in Catholic houses of worship. But The Singing Bird was not Christian. She was in fact a very devout pagan.
Most of The Singing Bird’s clientele were Christian, most of The Singing Bird’s Art was filled with easily recognizable Christian symbolism (crosses, fish, burning bushes). It was always intriguing to me to watch The Singing Bird sell her work. If her customer was Christian, she would dutifully point to each symbol and explain. This lamb symbolizes the disciples. This water symbolizes baptism. This color symbolizes the sacred feminine, while this color symbolizes the sacred masculine. Here, they join in these circles that symbolize the sacred Trinity.
If her customer was a pagan or just knew the The Singing Bird a little better, she would point to the work and explain. This lamb symbolizes innocence. This water symbolizes the sacred life force and renewal. This color symbolizes the sacred feminine, while this color symbolizes the sacred masculine. Here, they join in these circles that symbolize perfect wholeness.
The Singing Bird’s work was impressive. In those days, it was a little out of my price range. But I saw a lot of Christians take home her work and proudly display it from window sills. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of her work has or will one day adorn a Catholic chapel. If you’re expecting me to say The Singing Birds work wasn’t really sacred because she was misleading her customers and lacked a sacred intent, you couldn’t be more wrong.
I think anyone who looks through The Singing Bird’s glass with a discerning heart will get a glimpse of God. No one can see with The Singing Birds eyes so there’s no point in measuring her work by what she saw. In fact no one can see God through mortal eyes. So, if we are trying to measure sacredness, our “eyes” just don’t cut it. We can only know the sacred by what the Spirit writes upon our hearts. The Spirit can hide these truths in symbols all around us if we are looking for them. It is not beyond the Spirits means to use any object to give us a glimpse of Heaven. If our hearts are pure, we will always be surrounded by sacred art.
I believe The Singing Bird had an honest and sacred intent behind every work she produced. Think what you will of The Singing Bird’s religion. I will testify she was a deeply spiritual person. She tried very hard to find the sacred in her life. And she worked very hard to find the sacred in her work. It’s true she took a different path; a much longer and rockier path. But by her path, she was seeking after the same truths that we all are. I haven’t yet found my way to perfect truth so why should I expect that of another.
I believe in little glimpses along the way the Holy Spirit spoke to The Singing Bird. I believe as she was struggled to find meaning in her life the Holy Spirit spoke through The Singing Bird. I believe an artist creates a sacred conversation that is open to anyone who will receive it.
First, the artists cries out for inspiration. Then, the artists listens for the will of the Spirit. Then the Spirit writes her will onto our hearts. Soon the Artist adds a new creation to God’s ever growing gallery. Soon the audience comes along to view the creation. Sometimes the audience asks, “Well, what did the artist intend here?” But that is the wrong question. The right question in this sacred dialogue is “What is the meaning of the work?” The answer is what the Spirit writes upon our hearts.
I like to write. On a good day writing is like art. That is why over time I have developed a purpose statement for my writing.
Bad writing belongs to the Author. He can’t give it away because no one else will get it.
Good writing belongs to the Reader. Only in their hearts is the work ever complete.
Great writing belongs to God. Only truth can speak to the hearts of man. Truth has only one Author.
I aim to be a plagiarist. Let me find God’s words and steal them. Let me share them with the world that needs them.
I think the church needs to do more to support this sacred dialogue. Artists like my friend The Singing Bird could go further if they received direct encouragement from other members of the body. I think their paths would be easier if the church was proactively guiding them. There are ministries in almost every parish that bring together and encourage musical artists. We are lucky to have the ACNM here in Austin that brings together and encourages inspired writers, although, we could use a better venue for sacred fiction and sacred poetry. There are even a number of ministries that go out of their way to highlight pro-life and Catholic friendly films here in Austin.
But what do we do to encourage visual artists? I think the Church has become a little too comfortable with the idea that their role is simply as a monetary patron. Our Parishes are certainly well decorated but most of these decorations we purchased after the fact. I think simply purchasing art falls radically short of the ideal in two ways.
First, it often leads to a controversy of competing interests. Parishes end up debating and arguing about weather money should be spent decorating the church or say caring for the poor in their community. I will always be an advocate for spending money to care for the poor, but these two goals don’t necessarily need to be opposed. The fact is many of the poor in Austin have great artistic abilities and their dignity demands a meaningful employment just as much as the factory workers. Wisely distributed money could easily serve both ends.
Second, we are missing a great opportunity for pastoral ministry. I hope I have convinced you that with art comes an internal search for meaning. This search will go on with or without the churches interference. But the church can have a powerful role in assisting that search. Working to enable Christian artists would not only have the potential of catechizing parishioners and saving souls, but it can potentially evangelize our entire culture. Too many Catholic bloggers waste their time wagging fingers and criticizing every offensive song and film. Will this ever accomplish Catholic enculturation? I think if we want to achieve the kind of cultural ends Pope Francis has talked about, clearly we need to be proactive not critical.
I would like to see visual artist ministries in every parish in Austin. I believe this should be the primary means of decorating our parishes. But in the short term I would like to use my influence with the ACNM to have a little experiment. Let repeat a comment I have made before. The future of art is Digital. With that in mind I would like to invite anyone out there who feels they are so called to send me some of their art [email@example.com] . If it has a Catholic theme and is not copy written I will try to feature it in future posts. I repeat, NOT copy written [don’t get the ACNM in trouble]. If I get a larger response than I can handle, I will discern some other way to feature it.
At the end of the day, the art is just the object. Only the Holy Spirit can make it sacred. My challenge to you this post is to open your heart to this eternal dialogue between man and the sacred.