I first met with Tidings editor-in-chief J.D. Long-Garcia over lunch several weeks ago. “We’d like to invite you to write a weekly column on arts and culture,” he said. “Books, theater, music…”
My heart stopped. “Gardens?” I inquired, my mind racing. “Outsider art? Bee-keeping? Urban square-dancing?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It has to appeal to Catholics. But it doesn’t have to be Catholic.”
I hardly slept for the next three days. It doesn’t have to be Catholic. That this widened the field to the 20th degree is a fact that should give us all pause.
I’m a convert with an almost ridiculous loyalty to the Church. But how did it come to be that Catholic art and Catholic culture have such depressingly narrow definitions? How did so much of our literature, music and architecture get to be so bad?
The poet Robert Frost said, “A poem begins with a homesickness, a lovesickness, a lump in the throat.”
That homesickness, lovesickness, is another way of describing our holy longing. Maybe the first thing we need to acknowledge is that holy longing is no tame, homogenized phenomenon.
“My fight for sculpture uses up all of my time and strength, and even then I lose,” railed Rodin. “In heaven, I shall hear,” wept Beethoven, who, increasingly deaf, could not fully hear his own late quartets, some of the most sublime music ever composed. “Find what you love and let it kill you,” advised Southern California’s outsider poet laureate Charles Bukowski — and isn’t that just what Christ did?
I came to the Church through art. Through a long run with alcoholism, the books I read — Dostoevsky, Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson — helped keep me alive. In sobriety, Henryk Górecki, Robert Bresson and Gerard Manley Hopkins helped open my heart to God. The call to quit my job as a lawyer and begin writing myself, the poetry of the Gospels, and the hushed beauty of the sanctuary at a noon Mass at St. Basil’s led me to Christ.
“[M]iddle-class respectability…is perhaps the very least suitable vehicle for the coming of the Holy Spirit,” observed Father Alfred Delp (1907-1945) from a Nazi prison. Middle-class respectability worships, as the Nazis did, order, efficiency, results. But the opposite of middle-class respectability is neither chaos nor mediocrity. The opposite, or rather the antidote, to middle-class respectability is a heart on fire with love.
Only a heart on fire with love will be open to drink the chalice, as Father Delp did, to the last drop. Only a heart “insane for the light,” as Goethe put it, will live life at its highest pitch. Only the artist crazed for the truth will generate works of the highest complexity, authenticity, excellence, tragicomedy and depth.
The link between art and faith is sure. In “Contemplative Provocations,” Father Donald Haggerty writes: “Both the artist and one who loves the poor have eyes that see more…. Such persons respond to clues, hints, small details that can otherwise pass unnoticed…. For a person who loves the poor, an encounter with distress or pain beneath outward features can draw the soul to the immediacy of a stark beauty exposed in the misery of a particular face.”
Christianity, unlike the world, has never been much concerned with efficiency, results, high numbers. Christianity is based on the “particular face,” the one lost sheep, the individual human being so loved that the very hairs on his head are counted. Christ established for all time that a single human heart, infused with the capacity to suffer and an incandescent desire to express itself, can transform the world.
As Dostoevsky observed: “They always say that art has to reflect life and all that. But it’s nonsense: the writer (poet) himself creates life such as it has never quite been before him.”
Dostoevsky also observed, “The world will be saved by beauty.” Of course, beauty costs. Beauty requires the willingness to be a bridge, and perhaps to be trampled and broken in the process.
Still, a column on arts and culture! What an incredible opportunity to speak to people — in and out of L.A. — about ways of seeing, connecting, communicating, transcending. Ways of asking the questions. Ways of bearing the tension of the questions never quite being answered.
I hope to converse, among others, with composers, documentarians, poets, teachers, bloggers, painters, sculptors, musicians, videographers, choreographers, landscape designers, architects, opera singers, puppeteers, ultra marathon runners, web designers, orchid growers, ballet dancers, urban square dancers and pool skaters.
As a reminder to us believers, I quote Christ: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do” (Mark 2: 17). Homesick people. Lovesick people.
To the anti-God brigade I say: That fairy-tale God you don’t believe in? I don’t believe in that God, either. The God I believe in laid down his life for all that is paradoxical, beautiful, mysterious, human and true. The God I believe in is the God to whom the novelist Flannery O’Connor referred when she said, “The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery; that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.”
I have a foot in both worlds, and my heart burns to bring everyone to the table.
As French poet Charles Péguy wrote: “We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?"
Heather King is the author of “Parched: A Memoir,” “Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God,” and “Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux.” She lives in Los Angeles.