“Those who give up everything for God have always been the most powerful proof for the truth of Christ as a personal presence. But there is also a corollary to this. In a time when Christianity does not attract so strongly, must it be that souls giving their lives sacrificially to God are far fewer in number or perhaps simply more isolated, less visible, less able to influence? It is love alone in generous self-giving that consistently draws others to the truth of Jesus Christ.”
— Father Donald Haggerty, priest of the Archdiocese of New York, from “Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God.”
That could be the credo for today’s Catholic artist.
Here’s an example: After almost thirty years of following my vocation as a writer, twelve published books, and a weekly arts and culture column that has garnered multiple awards, I was recently asked to write a 2400-word feature for a Catholic publication. The “stipend”?: $150.
That would work out to about 8 bucks an hour.
I don’t want to do anything besides write. I’m not fit to do anything but write. My point is that to be a Catholic artist in today’s world is a radical act of self-giving, fidelity and love.
Yes, we’re incarnate beings who live in the “real world.” Yes, we have to figure out how to pay our rent, buy groceries, get decent health insurance. But let’s use our heads! Let’s get creative here. We’ll find a way to get by. We can do without if we need to do without. We’ll also seek out the people who will help us to avoid falling into self-deprivation, to follow our deepest desires, and to earn a humane living.
One of my favorite books on the creative vocation is Brenda Ueland’s classic If You Want to Write (1938). She notes: “If you read the letters of the painter Vincent van Gogh you will see what his creative impulse was. It was just this: he loved something—the sky, say. He loved human beings. He wanted to show human beings how beautiful the sky was. So he painted it for them. And that was all there was to it.”
“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people,” van Gogh summed up the creative life.
Edith Stein—now St.Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—additionally observed: “All genuine art is revelation, and all artistic creation is sacred service.”
So let’s not ever think that be pursuing our artistic vocations we are neglecting our obligation as citizens, failing to “do the work,” or selfishly following our own fatuous whims. In fact, the deeper our desire, the more intense the focus, the more naturally we will order our lives to will the one thing: Kierkegaard’s definition of a saint.
Writing, composing, sculpting, painting, photography, and all the other arts are works of mercy. We will be able to offer them upon arriving at the gate where the sheep are separated from the goats.
A few thoughts for aspiring writers:
Start where you are. Be the person upon whom nothing is lost.
Say your major, overriding thought is: I’m just old now and think it’s too late and I’m afraid of dying: write about that!
My family is so dysfunctional I don’t have time for anything but worrying: write about that!
All I do is wash dishes, feed the birds, talk a walk through my neighborhood and resent 90% of the people I see: write about that!
Keep a journal, take a daily walk, carry a notebook. Look, smell, listen, touch, feel.
“If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”
–Anton Chekhov, the Russian master playwright and short story writer
What is keeping us in bondage to resentment, fear, guilt, and shame, in other words? What interior obstacles are preventing us from writing freely or truthfully or compellingly?
Let’s engage in an ongoing examination of conscience. Let’s participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
What is a story? What is my story?
Contemporary novelist and short story writer George Saunders notes: “What makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever…Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation.
Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (1921) is another splendid read.
Don’t Sugarcoat: Shine A Light On The Human Condition.
Don’t Deliver A Message: Write About “The Unchanging Things That Concern Us When We Are Alone” (a quote from fiber artist Anni Albers’ highly-acclaimed text On Weaving).
Do develop your own personal Communion of artist and writer Saints.
And above all, as William Faulkner advised:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”