Life after Epiphany


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Sonnet of Self-Dedication

Otherwise entitled: “Prayer of a Postulant.” This was written during my Postulant year – but the themes hold true even out here in lay life. Perhaps even more than at the time of writing.

– – – – –

King of the deep, Lord of the storm
Command mine raging heart be still
To ponder Your Incarnate form
To contemplate Your holy will.

Now stir me up with zeal for souls
and send me out to push the plough
To run t’ward the Eternal Goal
Then live the Everlasting Now.

Yet in my weakness, Lord, I fall
Please help me humbly stand again
Would that for love of You, my all
Be in Your service wholly spent.

Saviour, King, Beloved, Friend:
Totus Tuus, till my life’s end.

– – – – –

(A dusty sketch from October 2011)


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tears

2468946This past week in Australia has seen public outcry at the fact that the newly announced cabinet includes only one woman. Whilst I will plainly state my opinion that this is a cosmetic and transparently partisan complaint of little substance, given that our leadership should entirely be selected on capability and merit rather than meaningless gender quotas, I do not want to get stuck on this point. Rather, I would like to acknowledge that the vocation of woman is different to the vocation of man, and I would like to explore one aspect of this vocation of woman.

Now before the radical feminists of the world get all up in arms let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that there is not a role for women to play in leadership or government in this day and age. Absolutely not. There is overlap between the roles of women and men, but there are also characteristics of serving the Lord and building up the Church that tend to be unique to femininity and masculinity. I would envisage women as leaders to fall within the overlap, but perhaps a woman’s style of leadership might then veer into the area of what is unique to femininity.

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Fr. Gerald Vann OP, in a book that is a personal favourite of mine, Heart of Compassion: The Vocation of Woman Today, appeals to the teaching of St. Paul in the Mystical Body of Christ and its composition comprising many different parts with different roles (1 Cor 12:21). He tells us that we will not achieve the freedom and dignity of woman by trying to make her a man – and then goes on to examine some of the ways in which the differences are complimentary. His underlying thesis appears to be that the woman’s contribution is ESSENTIAL to the success of the masculine vocation, and that the masculine vocation helps to give meaning or context to the feminine vocation.

After an examination on a generic level, Fr. Vann moves to a detailed exploration of the ‘Vocation of Tears’ that I found very striking… and moving. It is of course fitting that he establishes the Blessed Mother as the exemplar of a feminine vocation well-lived… she who kept all things and pondered them in her heart.

stMarysCathedralMAR2013 021What a precious gift, that the woman is, by nature, receptive and contemplative! Pondering deeply will almost always entail some kind of personal response, and often this is one of compassion. Maternity, whether biological or spiritual, requires compassion, and the Mother of Sorrow, depicted in the pieta holding her precious Son, teaches us trust during despair and courage in the face of suffering.

“We cannot think adequately of woman’s vocation within the Mystical Body of Christ without thinking of the mystery of vicarious suffering and expiation”

~ Fr. Gerald Vann OP (p70, Heart of Compassion)

Fr. Vann further illustrates with a look at St. Monica, quiet and patient over many years weeping and crying out to the Lord on behalf of her son, St. Augustine. He tells us that St. Monica would take part in the philosophical discussions that were involved in St. Augustine’s catechetical preparation for Baptism, but emphasised that the conversion came much earlier, a movement of the Spirit in St. Augustine’s life, an answer to prayer… the fruit of tears, not words.

“We are concerned with the tears that express a deep feeling of responsibility in the sight of God, that are themselves a prayer and a sacrifice to God, and that are part of the vocation of Christian motherhood because the love of the son who causes them is in itself an aspect of the love of God. It is tears such as these that can be the channel of saving grace; it is the children of tears such as these who cannot perish.”

~ Fr. Gerald Vann OP (p72, Heart of Compassion)

Fr. Vann exhorts women to learn to pray the De Profundis, i.e. Psalm 129 (130), on behalf of humankind, and in so doing, to unite our very prayer life with the one efficacious sacrifice made by Jesus on the Cross. If we look around us, we see so many reasons to despair, so many reasons to weep. Our tears, though, are not tears of despair. Our tears are fundamentally an expression of hope, hope in the love and mercy of the Father who keeps His promise to His children.


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The telos of beauty

Beauty – that transcendental, objective reality – should raise the mind to the Author of beauty. We should find His vestige in all things beautiful, and we should offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. 

This imprint of the Creator in all things beautiful – this is a form of self-gift. This is just another way in which God gives Himself to us. When we allow ourselves to be moved – when we allow our minds and our attention to be elevated and directed to Him – THIS is the manner in which we give ourselves back to Him. This mutual self-gift, rather like a marriage, gives birth. The fruit born of this marriage is thanksgiving, and the act of thanksgiving shapes our capacity to further behold beauty – thus the cycle of giving starts again. What is the telos of beauty? It is this – the wedding of humanity to God through the contemplation of His gratuitous love for us. We could call it communion – the answer to the prayer of Jesus during the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel where He prayed that all might be one in Him. The telos of beauty is indeed beautiful in its own right!

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Art was once the bastion of beauty, the stronghold of the sublime. Now, the castle has been stormed and the vestige of the Creator that exists in the work of our hands has become obscured and difficult to distinguish.

All this at the hands of a defeatist phenomenon existing in the world today known as the cult of ugliness – a movement in active pursuit of the subversion of beauty.

Defeatist seems an odd descriptor, you say?

I stand by it. I propose that the cult of ugliness is a defeatist movement because I believe that it is born of a sense of inadequacy surrounding one’s ability to truly uplift, to contribute to the further generation of beautiful works and artefacts. In such a mindset, the only way to make a name for oneself in the world of art is to move the goal posts, to set a different benchmark of greatness. To be successful in art whilst working within the transcendental reality of beauty, one is required to be truly excellent, truly unique. One must have more than just a sense of the aesthetic, more than a yearning for self-expression. One must actually have elite artistic ability with one’s chosen medium and one must be able to unite this talent with both desire and capacity for expression. Taking it a step further, this unity of talent and articulation must be wedded to some participation in the otherworldly for the resultant artwork to truly move its beholder, to truly uplift an audience.

Our natural human desire to create is itself a vestige of our Creator. We know that unlike Him, we cannot create ex nihilo and so it is perhaps more appropriate rather to suggest that in art, we innovate. Whether our art is music composition or performance, whether it is sculpture or painting or calligraphy or architecture or any other form – we draw together in a unique combination of things that already exist – that which we have already seen, that which we know; then we add a little of ourselves to present in turn something different, something new. We work with established techniques and paradigms and we add our experience and worldview.

In the cult of ugliness, the ‘artist’ is defeated by this task before he begins. He is intimidated by the beauty he has perceived and his own inadequacy as an artist alongside another’s greatness. His response is to innovate through shock and he knows that to shock he must maim. He torments beauty, he teases it and turns it on its head. He produces something that runs away from beauty in much the same way as an angst-affected adolescent runs away from parental constraint, moving out of home before he is truly ready. Thus ’emancipated’ he spirals downward as he experiments with forms and subjects that are not objectively good. Perhaps short-term satisfaction is achieved, but ultimately good is not served because the sense of final direction, of purpose, is lost in a sea of endless possibilities. Such an artist thinks himself free; rather, he is imprisoned by the self-lie of his inadequacy.

This very cult of ugliness has infiltrated the realms of Sacred music, Sacred art and Church architecture. It can’t be questioned – one glance at Parramatta’s award-winning Cathedral “restoration” will confirm my claim. The case can be strengthened by one visit to the average youth Mass where one hears music in which the compositional priority is to comply with the constraints of a certain sub-culture; it almost seems that glorifying the Lord with the music is just an incidental thing.cathedralinside

This cult of ugliness has penetrated our defences – but the most devastating result of this is NOT the absence of beauty that COULD and SHOULD be present. That alone is a loss to the community, but the real travesty is the DIVISION that this has caused.

tabernacleopenparraI still attend Mass at the Parramatta Cathedral, because Our Lord resides there in the Tabernacle, even if the Tabernacle DOES look like Calel’s escape shuttle from Superman IV. I still attend Masses with sub-standard music when something more preferable isn’t available and I will sing along with a wholehearted intent to praise the Lord. I would rather sing the Ave Verum than One Bread, One Body but I will sing the latter when that is being sung because even when it DOESN’T feel like it, the reality of the Mass is that it is a participation in the Heavenly Wedding Banquet.

A few thoughts, then, on how we can assess whether art is suited to a Sacred purpose:

Sacred art should make the heart skip a beat for the original Artistan.

Sacred art should draw us closer to the Sacred Heart.

Sacred art should NOT be divisive.

Sacred art should NOT massacre the notion of beauty.

Our response to Sacred art, and our cultivation of it, should be ordered toward an authentic Communion with God AND His Church – a participation in the Divine Marriage to which we are all called.

Only thus will the telos of beauty be realised.