October 24, 2017

The Genius of an Art Full of Spiritual Vitality

Monday Merton Musings, Nov 7, 2011
The Genius of an Art Full of Spiritual Vitality

All quotes are from The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

One turning point in Thomas Merton’s life came at age 18, when he visited Rome. In The Seven Storey Mountain, he tells how he began touring churches throughout the city. He was not attending services, but found himself attracted by the art in the churches. It began speaking to him and awakening an interest in Christ.

His words are eloquent testimony to the power of beauty to point people toward the sacred.

Mosaic in St. Cosmas and Damian, Rome

Things were going on as they usually did with me. But after about a week — I don’t know how it began — I found myself looking into churches rather than into ruined temples. Perhaps it was the frescoes on the wall of an old chapel — ruined too — at the foot of Palatine, at the edge of the Forum, that first aroused my interest in another and far different Rome. From there it was an easy step to Sts. Cosmas and Damian, across the Forum, with a great mosaic, in the apse, of Christ coming in judgement in a dark blue sky, with a suggestion of fire in the small clouds beneath His feet. The effect of this discovery was tremendous. After all the vapid, boring, semi-pornographic statuary of the Empire, what a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power — an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity — and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud.

I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim….

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of Who this Person was that men called Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there that I first found Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and Who owns and rules my life.

Santa Sabina Church, Rome

As a result of what he was seeing, Merton bought a Latin Vulgate Bible and began reading the New Testament. “…I read more and more of the Gospels and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day. Soon I was no longer visiting them merely for the art. There was something else that attracted me: a kind of interior peace. I loved to be in these holy places. I had a kind of deep and strong conviction that I belonged there: that my rational nature was filled with profound desires and needs that could only find satisfaction in churches of God.”

At the climactic point of Merton’s awakening spiritual interest during that visit to Rome, the young man walked into the Dominican church of Santa Sabina, anointed himself with holy water, walked forward to the altar rail, knelt and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

A significant step in Thomas Merton’s journey of faith had been prompted by “the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality.”

Comments

  1. Glenn A Bolas says:

    Here’s a form of evangelism that church growth specialists and altar-calling preachers simply don’t get. Like the eighth-century iconoclasts before them.

    Clearly, I need to read more Merton. This is a beautiful and profound reflection. Thanks, Chaplain Mike.

    • Agreed, Glenn. I became interested in historical Christianity after seeing the beauty of Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Macedonia, where every wall tells a story. I love that quote from Merton…”I read more and more of the Gospels and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day. Soon I was no longer visiting them merely for the art. There was something else that attracted me: a kind of interior peace. I loved to be in these holy places. I had a kind of deep and strong conviction that I belonged there: that my rational nature was filled with profound desires and needs that could only find satisfaction in churches of God.”

      Exactly the same thing I experienced in the ancient churches of Eastern Europe…I think I could stay inside their walls forever…

  2. Jack Heron says:

    If you’re ever wandering around Rome in search of beautiful churches, I really recommend Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s absolutely breathtaking, the more so because it preserves pieces and remnants of several different periods of decoration. The air itself is practically gold.

    • Quixotequest says:

      My fond memory was on our Saturday in Rome we headed over to dinner, but were a bit early for the trattoria being open. We wandered to the piazza at Santa Maria and thought we’d check out the church. It was Saturday night mass at the time and ere warmly invited to sit in the back. The Byzantine mosaics were aglow with the setting sun coursing in through the windows. We appreciated the welcoming atmosphere even though we weren’t Catholic. (I was a professing Deist then.) That trip to Italy in 2007 awakened my heart for the Godly humanity in Jesus. I think I know how Merton felt.

  3. From Pope Benedict XVI’s homily when he dedicated the Basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona in 2010:

    “What do we do when we dedicate this church? In the heart of the world, placed before God and mankind, with a humble and joyful act of faith, we raise up this massive material structure, fruit of nature and an immense achievement of human intelligence which gave birth to this work of art. It stands as a visible sign of the invisible God, to whose glory these spires rise like arrows pointing towards absolute light and to the One who is Light, Height and Beauty itself.

    In this place, Gaudí desired to unify that inspiration which came to him from the three books which nourished him as a man, as a believer and as an architect: the book of nature, the book of sacred Scripture and the book of the liturgy. In this way he brought together the reality of the world and the history of salvation, as recounted in the Bible and made present in the liturgy. He made stones, trees and human life part of the church so that all creation might come together in praise of God, but at the same time he brought the sacred images outside so as to place before people the mystery of God revealed in the birth, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this way, he brilliantly helped to build our human consciousness, anchored in the world yet open to God, enlightened and sanctified by Christ. In this he accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty. Antoni Gaudí did this not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points. Indeed, beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.”

  4. It is interesting that Merton had this experience. I have a friend (not code for myself) who was a practicing Catholic… until he visited Rome. The riches of the Vatican completely turned him off the church. He wondered why the money used to construct the grandeur hadn’t gone to the poor instead.

    Why is this important. Some see the beautiful art and finely crafted citadels, and hear the beautiful choirs and it helps them appreciated God’s glory and majesty. My wife certainly falls into this camp. Other’s like my friend see and hear the same things, and think of it as horrible excess. I fall somewhere inbetween the two camps.

    Both extremes, however tend to fall into the trap of believing that their way of understanding what they are experiencing is the correct way to interpret said experiences.

    • Nicely put, This is a good balancing sentiment to keep in mind when attracted to either extreme.

    • Interesting. I know a lot more people like Merton than your friend.
      Reminds me of somebody in the Gospels who said something should be sold and given to the poor.
      I think the inspiration is supposed to be giving our very best for God.

      • “I know a lot more people like Merton than your friend.”

        I probably know more people like Merton too. In fact the vast number of writers and commenters on this site, probably fall into the Merton category. I posted this to remind us that the other extreme is out there too.

        As per your comment that this “Reminds me of somebody in the Gospels”, The Gospel of John tells us that Judas had ulterior motives:

        John 12:4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

        • I would also add that beauty does not need to be costly or ornate. One of the most beautiful churches I know is a little Catholic church in Kentucky that has windows from floor to ceiling behind the altar, where God’s artistry is on display.

          • Perhaps, therein, is an appropriate compromise!

          • Speaking of the instinct for beauty, here is a link to the Italian chapel on Orkney – built by Italian prisoners of war out of scrap materials between 1943-1945.

            You would have thought that being prisoners of war, far from home, on a cold, wet Scottish island, they would have more pressing concerns about than decorating a Nissan hut as a chapel. But man does not live by bread alone.

          • That’s incredible, Martha! The German prisoners of war sent to Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, just planted their reforestation project in a giant swastika shape. You can still see it there, on a mountain slope in the Tien Shan.

            People should also look at what the Polish salt miners created in their underground mines. I’m going to risk censure and post a link.
            http://stoneartblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/daniowicz-shaft-mikoaj-kopernik-chamber.html

          • Margaret Catherine says:

            For a prayer chapel, that would be lovely and an ideal. For a church, the setting for Mass, it is (for me) oddly distracting. Stepping into a church is to step out of the world; having that world, however lovely, visible through plain glass distracts from the reality of what takes place in church.

            Not to say that churches need be ornate. One of the loveliest churches I know is the Crypt Chapel of St Francis in Assisi. Underground, so no windows of any kind, nor other decoraions; just the utter simplicity of rough-hewn rock walls and the tombs of Francis and his early companions. Mass at the back altar of St. Peter’s Basiica in the morning, with chant and bells and incense curling up towards the Holy Spirit window, then Assisi in the afternoon, for prayer in essentially a cave – and both places of equal beauty.

          • Margaret Catherine says:

            (re: the church Chaplain Mike mentions.)

    • Michael, I’ve heard the same sentiments from Evangelical pastors over the years. I think that the difference is we spend our collected dollars on less visible excesses…pastor’s salaries, housing allowances, cell phone bills, etc. I think it’s very interesting to read documents like Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and The Didache, and note that collections were made to care for the poor, widows, and orphans, but not a mention is made of paying the pastor’s salary, or any building funds.

      That being said…I’m a proponent of beauty in church architecture. Cathedrals are costly, indeed, and there are some that have taken literally hundreds of years to complete. I will agree with Anne who stated, “I think the inspiration is supposed to be giving our very best for God.” When I view these buildings, either big or small, I can’t help but think of the craftsmanship and painstaking attention to detail that went into them. I think of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitath at St. Paul’s Cathedral…”Reader, if you see his monument, look around you.”

      It hurts me sometimes to think that the best we will offer God from an architectual standpoint in our generation will be strip malls and butler buildings. I’m not saying great ministry can’t be done from these settings, just as it can be done from a mud hut or a street corner…but it is a nice thing to see something beautiful and sacred done to honor God. I’ve been inside churches that probably couldn’t hold more than twenty people, standing up, but contained some of the most beautiful iconography and frescoes I’ve ever seen.

      I drove by a Baptist church in Athens, GA just yesterday, older, but with some nice qualities about it…pretty stained glass, a large, well-put together sanctuary, impressive steeple. I couldn’t help but remember it’s founding pastor, Cecil Eberhart, who was a brick mason, and was a part of the construction crew that built a church that has endured for over 50 years now. Not many of that church’s members would remember Mr. Eberhart, but his monument is all around them…a labor of love. Not that unique, nor the biggest, but well done, for the glory of God.

      Perhaps church leadership that built our ancient cathedrals could have used money in better ways. It is awe-inspiring, though, to see the life’s work of craftsman, dedicated to the glory of God, displayed so brilliantly. I’ve never been to the Vatican, but have visited Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, as well as cathedrals in Bulgaria and Macedonia. I could easily make a lifetime of pilgrimages, if I had the means.

    • Or, Michael, we could keep the money to spend on the likes of this instead of donating it for beautiful art 🙂

      The modern ugly churches and ugly art cost just as much as building in the older style, so I don’t know why they do it. Something about relevance, or contemporary, or whatever. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, about the only thing artistic I approve of in the L.A. cathedral are the tapestries of the Communion of Saints.

      Were I archbishop (a fate God will spare the church), the first thing I’d do is slap a coat of plaster on the walls, get the place painted, put in communion rails and get the biggest, most ornate reredos I could lay my hands on for the back wall. Then we’d have a huge sanctuary lamp, a proper tabernacle, altar frontals, statues (and not in the style of the Our Lady of the Sulky Teenage Years they have up in the front)… you get my drift.

      But the tapestries could stay 🙂

      • It’s sad that a young Catholic did not know that the Catholic Church worldwide does more for the poor of every kind than anyone else in every generation. The patrimony of art and architecture are held in trust for the whole world and they do teach people to lift hearts and minds to God.
        I’ve also been in some simple, country churches in the US, Latin America, and some of the poorer areas of Europe and I’ve noticed that even in very poor areas people bring their best to dedicate to God. That’s why you often see offerings of flowers, not just on the altar but before statues and icons in some churches.
        Martha, as for the OLA Cathedral. No Kidding! I love the tapestries. They also have a 15th century reredo that is beautiful, salvaged from somewhere in Latin America or Spain that was undergoing anti-clericalism.
        The architecture looks more like a parking garage. Thanks, Cardinal Mahoney. Some patrimony.

    • I am reminded here of St. John Chrysostom. There is a saying of his (I am paraphrasing here)- “Take care of the poor, and then put gold on the altar.”

      He wasn’t advocating that churches be empty. But nor was he arguing that the poor should be neglected. If someone donates the funds for a beautiful church, then so be it, to the glory of God! However, the Church needs to remember to take of the poor.

      Is there a place for the beautification of parishes and cathedrals? Most definitely. The key is in finding the balance. And this means learning how the deal with perhaps the same situation in a different circumstance, which therein lies the rub. For example- in medieval times, cathedrals were built, and quite extravagantly too. The project, however, allowed for many jobs, which decreased the amount of those who were poor. And even if not all got jobs, the money that was poured into the coffers was then poured back out to the poor. Balance.

      How this would work today, I do not know. But I’m sure we can figure it out.

  5. O me miserum! The typos that I make. Important needs a question mark. “Other’s” need to drop the apostrophe.

  6. Found some Merton in a thrift store yesterday. I’ll be bumping him up my reading priority list now. I just can’t do Roman Catholic theology, but some of their writers make orthodoxy sound so beautiful and mysterious. In my neck of the woods, too often a “right view of God and church” is presented with cold logic and detached analysis.

    I was just at St. Patricks Cathedral in NYC a few weeks back. I’ve always been attracted to the environment of majestic architecture like these cathedrals. Now that I’m becoming an organist and work with a traditional choir, the interest is only heightened.

    For all our technological marvels and innovative cultural advancements in audio and visual media, we still cannot compete with the aural and visual feast that these large churches continue. It seems to me that when the church embraces and wholeheartedly endorses popular culture, it becomes the enemy of education. This causes more refined beauty to become far less accessible to the average joe. I fear the consequences this may have on our understanding of God and experience of His peace.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      In my neck of the woods, too often a “right view of God and church” is presented with cold logic and detached analysis.

      i.e. a Theoretical Intellectual Exercise. (The funhouse-mirror reflection of Pentecostal emotional frenzy and Pietitsm’s “Don’t Think! Just Be-Leeeeve!”) Reminds me of nothing so much as Marxist Ideologists.

      • Well, I certainly prefer the Intellectual Exercise over the other two, simply because I’m wired as a thinker. Would you suggest a middle way sort of compromise, or completely different approach?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          A middle way. Acknowledge both intellect and emotions, thinking and feeling.

          It’s a spectrum, not either/or.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Miguel I very happy to learn of you becoming an organist. Not long ago I heard an essay on the lack of people now learning the organ and the difficulties of finding organists to play in the churches. You are in the path of true and classic beauty. I hope all goes well with you.

    • “For all our technological marvels and innovative cultural advancements in audio and visual media, we still cannot compete with the aural and visual feast that these large churches continue. It seems to me that when the church embraces and wholeheartedly endorses popular culture, it becomes the enemy of education. This causes more refined beauty to become far less accessible to the average joe. I fear the consequences this may have on our understanding of God and experience of His peace.”

      Our job isn’t to full-scale reject these technological marvels, but to ascertain the proper place for them, and to then refine and use them.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    This fits in beautifully with “Surprise! God Does Art!” in the archives for 1 July 2010.

    And compares & contrasts with its “Evangelical Emperor Has No Clothes” opposite number “Selling Jesus by the Pound”, also 1 July 2010.

  8. On the issue of architecture and stewardship, there’s a reason Evangelicals don’t endorse or have them: They don’t have bishops! (Mostly) The idea of a cathedral, I believe, is tied in with Episcopal polity. While it would certainly be overkill for every congregation to worship in a Gothic structure, it is somewhat less of a stretch to have one in every diocese. That being said, I don’t think the parish church ought to be a simplistic box with a door and two windows,, but their architectural budget is significantly more limited.

  9. There is nothing like art to stir the heart and lead us toward transcendence. My favorite places in the whole wide world (other than the woods)….are old, gothic cathedrals complete with garishly painted saint statues and smelling of old incense and burning votives. There is nothing better in my mind! The departure from this kind of art and architecture was the single calamity of the Vatican II Council. Churches constructed since then, in my opinion are sterile, boring, blah. Bring on the garish artwork!

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries
    http://yourspiritualtruth.com