As St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, “All prayer arises from incompetence. Otherwise there is no need for it.”
Self-obsessed, easily distracted, full of petty judgments and irrational fears, I should know.
Thoughts on the development of my own “inner life.”
“The world will be saved by beauty.”
Dame Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991), prima ballerina, danced her whole career for the Royal Ballet. Like most of us, she also had a weakness. “She had very bad judgment about people,” noted former assistant Colette Clark.
In 1937 Fonteyn fell madly in love with Panamanian playboy Roberto “Tito” Arias. They were married in 1955.
Fonteyn helped Tito smuggle guns (for which she was once arrested and briefly jailed), and overlooked his incessant philandering.
In 1964, Tito was shot and paralyzed, reputedly by the jealous husband of a lover. Fonteyn nursed him for the next 25 years, dancing well into her sixties to pay his debts and support his family.
The day he died, another of his mistresses committed suicide by drinking swimming-pool chlorine.
Soon after, Fonteyn was diagnosed with cancer. She converted to Catholicism on her deathbed in order to be buried with him.
Our culture pathologizes such fidelity, labeling it co-dependency or love addiction. But Fonteyn never violated her duty to her vocation. She gave her all to Tito while also giving all to the dance — and thus to us.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats [Matthew 25:31-46], Christ says we will be judged on whether we ministered to “the least of these.”
Did we visit the prisoner, give a drink of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked?
Matthew 25 reminds us that we will not be judged on our ability to evaluate character, nor on our powerlessness to heal our own attachments and addictions.
We will be judged on our capacity for mercy. We will be judged on how much we tried to give in spite of our pain.
We will be judged on love.
WE’RE HUMAN BEINGS, NOT BRANDS
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
—Matthew 6: 19-21
Those of us who make beauty through art have a special mission to hold the tension between the light and the dark. In order to make our way in the world, we’re increasingly urged to have a platform, a brand, an advertising hook.
But we don’t need to become commodities in order to make a humane living or spread the Gospel.
We don’t need to reduce our glorious humanity to an algorithm.
We’re not brands because Christ isn’t a brand. Christ is not reducible to a ten-point bullet program. Love has never claimed to be effective, clean, orderly, cost-efficient, or formulaic.
Father Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P. (1863-1948, the French Catholic philosopher and spiritual writer, wrote:
“How did the Savior proceed in his preaching? He offers no text, no system, and nothing organized or presented according to any order whatsoever. He presents himself, and it is he who is the doctrine and the truth. He permits himself to be seen, and that is already teaching; he acts, and that is teaching; he speaks, and the teaching becomes more precise, but without being fitted into the adapted framework of a system.
His message exposes itself to the apparent chance of circumstances, and it is the ordinary environment of Jewish life that will be that of his apostolate.”
If Christ dared to move through the world without a “system,” a “platform,” a “brand,” confident that his teachings would spread, surely we can dare to as well. The cross is not marketable—and by the way, we all know how Christ felt about marketers in the temple. The cross blows apart every effort at commodifying, selling, promoting. Who would want to buy it?
You can only want to embrace it for free.
Our whole culture, including Catholic culture, is based on a worldly model of marketing, numbers, approval, attention, and acclaim. So it is really the hero’s quest to go our own way, in Christ, while simultaneously trying to lay down our lives for the people in a world that doesn’t understand or usually even see us.
That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make a living. It does mean we sell our work: not an ideology; not a political affiliation or stance; not a movement; not a pose. The laborer is worthy of his hire. We deserve to be paid and paid well. Whether we are or not is a different matter, but to know we deserve it is to be in right relationship to God.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis invites us to “recover the original freshness of the Gospel”, finding “new avenues” and “new paths of creativity”, without confining Jesus to our “dull categories.”
When we shed the dull political, religious, and cultural categories, we begin to see God everywhere. Our eyes are on the hands of a different master than the cultural gods of money, property, power, prestige. We transcend limiting political labels of right and left.
We begin to devote our lives to interesting useful pursuits like studying beetles, mason-wasps and praying mantises (Jean-Henri Fabré), building the Watts Towers (Simon Rodia), or writing a gorgeous, fully human book about an airport slum in India (Katherine Boo; Behind the Beautiful Forevers).
Wherever we are, and whatever our station, we pay attention to the people and things that are right in front of us. The late photographer Saul Leiter took most of his photos within a two-block radius of his Manhattan apartment, the streets of which he walked for decades.
Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist from Brooklyn, gave up a promising concert career to teach. In the documentary Seymour: An Introduction (2014), he discusses his passion for music and his philosophy of life.
They guy’s 86. He lives like a monk. He’s been practicing the piano for hours every day for decades. “If you know euphoria,” he says at one point, “you can’t be sold a bill of goods.”
Prayer gives us the increasingly ability to discriminate between the true and the false, the authentic and the fake, the excellent and the mediocre, the vital and the inert.
Once we know that joy, we can’t be sold a bill of goods.
PLAY FROM YOUR HEART
“Your inmost being must be renewed: you must put on the new man.”
One of my heroes is the late comic Bill Hicks. My favorite clip is a jeremiad against market-driven conformity in which he scorns the squeaky clean band New Kids on the Block, and asks: “Since when did we do our kids a favor by teaching them mediocrity?” Then he falls to his knees and pleads, “Play from your heart. Play from your f-ing heart.”
One form of mediocrity is the “happy ending.” Happy endings sell. And the happy ending, by which I mean art in which the primary goal is to impart a “positive message,” is a form of a lie.
The Crucifixion is not a happy ending; it’s a surprise ending. The Resurrection is the biggest surprise of all. But the Resurrection is not a happy ending, in the pleasure-based, self-based way that we define happiness in our culture.
Being in the world but not of it means that in one way we’re always “happy, and in another, we’re always suffering.
As Fr. Damian says: “If you’re lucky, you’ll give up all hope of ever being happy in the way you thought you were going to be happy.”
Thomas Merton, in a rare burst of dry humor, observed: “The man of solitude is happy, but he never has a good time.”
And Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), the Russian film-maker whose works include Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker, wrote a wonderful book on art: Sculpting in Time.
In it, he observed: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
That’s the kind of “positive message” we can trust.