Recognizing that Joyous Anarchy is too small a window through which to meaningfully take in and confront the veracity of the Christian worldview, and being in no way inclined to add to the de rigueur mockery of religion so prevalent amongst the rationalistic ‘enlightened’, I begin this month’s column from the position that a phenomenon as considered and as potentially virtuous as Catholicism deserves, at the very least, to be treated tactfully and with an abundance of circumspection, regardless of what one thinks about the truth-status of its mythological layer.
I have lived under many Gods, and if I have learned anything from these religious encounters, it’s that religion’s depth of sway and virtuous potential entitle it to serious reflection. ‘Virtuous potential’ most of all, for through all the chatter, celebratory altruism (of the kind that is feted in almost all the major world religions, including Catholicism) is the most wondrous subversive pursuit still available to independent thinkers the Good finds its way to the abyss and to open ground and furthermore, is urgently required in this occasional vale of tears that we so gracelessly inhabit.*
That said, the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich and the recent beatification of Antonio Gaudi and Karl Wilhelm I raise serious questions that reach far beyond the realm of the aesthetic and into the comic realm of heaven itself.
The man who supervised my master’s thesis, a Catholic priest (now sadly, and I hope unconnectedly, deceased), by the name of Father G-, often told me that “truth is a symphony”. He did this to reinforce the idea that non-Catholic religious perspectives, particularly those of the Gnostics of late antiquity (the dominant subject-matter of that meisterwerke; my thesis that is, not late antiquity) whilst possibly containing some aspect of truth, did not resonate with the full musicality of the Word. The limited range of their theo-musical instruments produced a fragmented and somewhat solipsistic sound.
In the case of the Gnostics for example, their fixation on the evil aspects of existence led them to believe that everything created, including themselves, was necessarily shot through with evil forces. This negative perspective caused them to play everything in a minor key and the mood set by that key made it impossible for them to find anything worldly worth celebrating. (Imagine the Sex Pistols playing Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) and you might hear what he meant.)
Father G- would explain that by virtue of the fact that it can accommodate the totality of existence without fixating itself on single strands, Catholicism generates a truly symphonic response to creation, one that resounds with reality’s full musical range.
‘Accommodation’ has an exact theological meaning, as the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
By accommodation is understood the adaptation of words or sentences from Sacred Scripture to signify ideas different from those expressed by the sacred author.
But employing the concept in a broader and more fundamental sense (that invoked by Kierkegaard in “The Sickness Unto Death”), it can indicate the process by which the fullness of God is made thinkable to us and sayable by us. It implies a reduction and a squeezing, a teasing into place and therefore a degree of inevitable falsification.
Despite their sustained activity, perhaps because of their sustained activity, the fact that every attempt to represent God in art or language involves a degree of falsification is one not lost on the theologians (particularly, we should note, on the discreet and limit-recognizing theologians of Judaism, who won’t even try to represent God’s name in full).
If one accepts correspondence theories of knowledge preferred within Catholic epistemology (in which to think something truthfully is to have a conception of the thing that corresponds with the thing itself), then to truthfully think an infinite God is to think the infinite. Church history testifies that this is a rare and mystic business (at least within the confines of Catholicism).
The upshot of all this is that we cannot think, let alone talk, write, and make art about God, without reducing an infinite concept to our finite terms and capabilities. Like all landlords, when we put God up in our temple, we expect Him to behave a certain way.
You hardly need me to tell you that the Pope is no Philistine.
According to the mainstream biographical sources, his first love was the theatre and he combined his early theological studies with some serious acting and playwrighting. In fact, it was an artist Saint Albert Chmielowski (1845-1916), the gifted Polish painter who abandoned painting to pursue a career in the employ of God, serving Krakow’s poor who inspired the current Pope to abandon his acting ambitions for professional Catholicism. The Pope wrote a play about Saint Albert in 1949, called ‘Brother of Our God’, which was adapted and made into a film by Polish Director Krzysztof Zanussi just last year. The Pope maintained a public and professional interest in the arts until at least 1999, when he dedicated his ‘Letter… to Artists’ to ‘all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world’.In this context, the recent beatification of cantankerous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi should not surprise us. What might surprise us however, is the fact that, if he is eventually canonized, Gaudi will be the first professional artist to have been declared a saint.
Despite recent confluences the Catholic Church’s more customary disdain for the aesthetic has deep foundations going right back its neo-Platonic reinvention in late antiquity. In Plato’s hierarchy of the mental faculties, imagination occupies the bottom place. Above it belief, then thought, and finally, the ivory tower of understanding. In the Platonic worldview, art is conceived as a craft, and the artist as a craftsman. Consequently, the Platonic artist must do through skill what the postartist does by nature, which is to leave his personality at the studio door.
‘Platonic art’ then, if such a thing could exist, is a craft practiced in the service of the intellect and the Good a role surely befitting its given role as the shabby mimesis of the living world. Within Catholicism however, Platonic art became art in the service of God.
This excerpt from the catechism explains:
Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God - the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who "reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature," in whom "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily."297 This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.
So, why is the church suddenly appropriating the aesthetic after millennia of official disdain? As we have seen, the Pope was greatly influenced by the arts, Saint Chmielowski in particular, but why now? Why Gaudi? Is the Catholic Church attempting to capture the zeitgeist to appropriate the postmodern aesthetic? Is the Church so hungry for admirers that it is reduced to exalting that which it traditionally dismissed as poor succor? Has it too succumbed to the allure of the secular spectacle? If so, this is a sign that the Catholic Church is in terminal epistemological decline that is, that it has lost sight of its ideological center (and consequently, that our descendents will not feel able to believe in it all). Is the beatification of Gaudi a desperate attempt to connect with the aesthetic side of humanity? If so, it comes too late.
And what of the beatification of Emperor Karl Wilhelm I? The last reigning Hapsburg in Austria, Emperor Karl abdicated at the end of World War I, but not before forces under his command had used some of their considerable stock of poison gas on ‘ze enemy’. Chillingly, the Pope spoke of “[his] hope that Emperor Karl will serve as an example, especially for those with political responsibilities in Europe today.”
Expect a gas attack in Rome any day soon. **
Diane Duyser, Florida resident, eBay seller, and witness to the divine, really needs to get her teeth done. When I last saw her charming visage (on a television screen), I couldn’t help but notice a considerable gap at the front of her bottom row of teeth, a gaping chasm through which the wind surely whistles, an absence of tooth so terrible that it clearly requires the intervention of a dentist’s toolset. Or something stronger.
Experts in the religion of pop culture will know that Diane Duyser is the entrepreneurial Christian who recently used Ebay to sell a toasted cheese sandwich on which, she attests, there remain traces of an appearance of the Virgin Mary. Like a polished advertising executive groomed in the coffin-offices of Manhattan and environs, Duyser spent a considerable time describing the miraculous qualities of her product before selling it at an inflated price. Apparently she won a lottery prize as a result of its intervention and the sandwich has not gone moldy even though she made it 10 years ago, which is more than can be said for her teeth.
Unless it has taken to using the GoldenPalace online casino as a front for the covert movement of religious relics (something not outside the bounds of possibility, but nevertheless highly unlikely), the Catholic Church did not, to my knowledge, place a bid for this piece of postart. This leads me to conclude that the Catholic church considers Duyer’s Snack to be neither conclusive evidence of a miraculous apparition nor a work of religious art. In fact, the Church’s disdainful silence indicates that the entire Dusyer Snack affair has very little to do with Catholicism, but was instead an inspired gesture on the part of a small-time entrepreneur, which was hijacked by GoldenPalace so that they could serve up an ironic and over-priced spectacle of mockery at the expense of religion.
As far as mainstream Catholicism is concerned, responsibility for establishing the truth of miracles does not rest on the shoulders of dentally-challenged Floridians. Far from it. In fact, Catholic officialdom turns its collective nose up at such nonsense.
More problematically, the same institution claims to be in possession of certain empirical procedures for distinguishing between true and false miracles and for establishing the veracity of the former for all time.
To be real, a miracle has to be possible. If miracles were impossible they could never exist. But if miracles are possible they wouldn’t be miracles. Since the miracle’s inexplicability is part of what makes it a miracle, then the notion of a ‘true miracle’ (as in a miracle that has been ‘established’ or ‘verified’) appears to be perilously close to being a contradiction in terms.
This is, in fact the case.
What is this beatification process that may result in Gaudi becoming a Saint?
The Catholic Herald’s Father Saunders explains online:
When a person dies who has "fame of sanctity" or "fame of martyrdom," the bishop of the diocese usually initiates the investigation. One element is whether any special favor or miracle has been granted through this candidate saint's intercession. The Church will also investigate the candidate's writings to see if they possess "purity of doctrine," essentially, nothing heretical or against the faith. All of this information is gathered, and then a transumptum, a faithful copy, duly authenticated and sealed, is submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints...
The next step is beatification. A martyr may be beatified and declared "Blessed" by virtue of martyrdom itself. Otherwise, the candidate must be credited with a miracle. In verifying the miracle, the Church looks at whether God truly performed a miracle and whether the miracle was a response to the intercession of the candidate saint. Once beatified, the candidate saint may be venerated but with restriction to a city, diocese, region, or religious family. Accordingly, the Pope would authorize a special prayer, Mass or proper Divine Office honoring the Blessed.
After beatification, another miracle is needed for canonization and the formal declaration of sainthood.
Sainthood cannot be granted unless the presence of at least two verifiable miracles have been established: that is, until it has been established that an irrational but fortuitous contradiction in terms has taken place.In Emperor Karl I’s case, for example, the Vatican attests that in the 1970s a cloistered nun in Brazil was cured of a debilitating case of varicose veins after praying for his beatification.
Gaudi’s major work of religious art the famous Sagrada Familia is the documented source of two conversions to Catholicism the first was Japanese architect Kenji Imai, on whom the Familia made such a lasting impression that when he returned to Japan he lectured on Gaudí’s work and, ultimately, converted to Catholicism; the second, a Japanese sculptor, Etsuro Sotoo, who worked for years on completing the Familia, and eventually became a Catholic.
The key research supporting the irrational early stages of the beatification process is embodied in the transuptum the body of documents collected by those pursuing beaitification on someone’s behalf which in turn embodies the life lived, presenting it for examination and virtuous determination a process that shares unlikely commonalities with both existentialism and empirical science.
What is the transuptum, but a little man, a homunculus sanctus, a man reduced to the good things people have said about him?
In a telling comment, Father Saunders adds this to his explanation:
…we must not lose sight that this thorough process exists because of how important the saints are as examples for us, the faithful who strive to live in the kingdom of God now and see its fulfillment in heaven. (Boldface mine)
Gaudi said that his task was that of “collaboration with the Creator.” In reality, all Catholic and most religious art is entangled in the relationship between artist and God, or, more accurately, a dialog between Creator and creator. This is not to say that the parameters of Catholic art are set by that dialog, even if that dialog is an essential feature of the artworks that result. What can be said however is that the art that results, will, on many levels, express the current status of that relationship. Furthermore, and for that reason, it is possible to discern the church-wide state of the Creator-creator dynamic by examining the art that the church exalts most highly.
As in every dialog, there are moments when one side seems to dominate. The earliest Christian artists, for example, took it as given that they were a Pleromaic mile from being God’s equals. Their art reflects this perspective inasmuch as it is art that has been stripped of the decorative excesses of individual expression. Within that art then, we find simple and iconic expressions of a transcendent divine.
Every relationship grows more complex with time however, and, as Christian art developed, it only retained its Creator-first perspective by heavily codifying the kind of art that it permitted. This is how the Catholic art of the middle ages came to be dominated by symbolic elements rendered acceptable by the support of scripture and theological speculations.
Since Descartes completed his paradigm-shifting sum however, (which placed Man at the beginning or ground of serious philosophy), there has been a growing tendency amongst Catholic speculators to emphasize the glory of Man and the humanity of Jesus, thereby opening up a ground from which Jesus (and, of course, the God Catholic theology attests Jesus to partake in) could be considered as an equal. This is why the Baroque movement coincides with the genesis of the post-Cartesian world, and why there has been no genuinely Catholic movement in the world of art since. (If contemporary artists find it difficult to find their true voice under the burden of last week’s fashion, they should try laboring under two-thousand years of theology. I imagine the pressure is intense, however fervent the artists’ vision.)
If the major movements in religious art describe the historical course of the Creator-creator dynamic, then the spiritual health of the Catholic Church be discerned from the religious art it exalts most highly. What of the Familia in this context?
Gaudi certainly did not abandon his personality at the studio door. The Familia, and indeed, Gaudi’s work as a whole, overflows with effusive expressions of his unique perspective. It was Gaudi’s intention to reflect creation back at God. On a personal level, this amounts to a fusion of the two most important forces operating in Gaudi’s art and life Nature and a transcendent God.
But, what does Gaudi’s work represent within the creator-Creator dynamic?
To answer this question, I must rely only on the impression the Familia made on me that impression will be different for every subject, and probably different for the same subject at different times.
That impression was not, in the long-term, positive. While I came to like every façade and revel in every syphilitic grotesquery of form, I soon saw that far from reflecting a divine creation back at God in joy and wonder, the Familia marks a miserable defeat at the hands of theology. The Familia expresses a recognition on Gaudi’s part that even after centuries of post-Cartesian theological conversation, we have made no progress with regard to fundamentals; that the fundamental inequalities of the Creator-creator relationship remain.
Gaudi designed eighteen towers for the Familia more than any church in Christendom, apparently symbolizing the twelve apostles, the four evangelists, Christ, and the Virgin Mary respectively. Gaudi wanted to give the edifice a forceful vertical dimension by way of this plethora of pinnacles. The Familia certainly makes a great effort to reach the divine but the effort is too obvious, the entire building cowers miserably under the burden, and despite Gaudi’s intention infinity is not reached.
With all its anthropomorphic decoration, the Familia indicates a failure to understand the dynamic most natural to Catholic art. It is a spectacle of suffering representing Gaudi’s humanity groaning under theological constraints. The Familia is the product of an artist alienated from his Master something Gollum might have fashioned in the Misty Mountains.
The Familia expresses Gaudi’s realization that we can never change the Catholic order of Being: humanity will always stand as the metaphysical subsidiary of God. In a broader sense then, the Familia is a symbol of modern man’s resigned despair in the face of theological and emotional stasis, rather than a celebratory and place-accepting construction.
With this in mind, what does Gaudi’s beatification tell us about the health of the Church?
Quite simply, Gaudi’s beatification indicates a Church that is ashamed of itself. Now that it has been forced to look at itself in the mirror (exactly what has happened in modernity, and what couldn’t have happened in earlier, more en-thusiastic times) of an independent observer (the true agnostic), it is folding in on itself prior to disappearing shamefully from view.
How alien the Familia is to ‘natural’ Catholic art is further demonstrated by the extraordinarily foreign conversions it initiated. In a newspaper interview Sotoo remarked, ‘I am working with stone. Each time I ask the stone what to do. I am nothing.’ Call this animism, pantheism, Eckhartian mysticism, or mental illness, but it is surely not Catholic doctrine to consult stones on matters theological or aesthetic.
Like Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Catholic church is collapsing in on itself. Its early vitality has passed and so unable to strike effectively at its enemies it has taken to striking out at itself. The contorted surfaces of the Familia embody this painful introversion well. Unable to take itself seriously anymore, the church is quietly collecting its coat and making for the door.
I always recommend taking some time for introverted reflection when you have approved the beatification of a chemical-weapon using Emperor. In this latter context, the Church’s exaltation of an expression of religious failure has a curious aptness.
The ongoing fashion for mocking Christian perspectives has its roots in a naïve faith in the capacity of reason to act as a panacea. Yet it is only is the midst of an illogical and celebratory altruism that evil truly disappears and virtue truly reigns. Reason is everything that altruism is not. Reason is calculating, utilitarian, and measuring, and altruism knows nothing of these forces. If you have to ask the question ‘Why be altruistic?’ you are missing the point. Like Silesius’ rose, altruism is ‘without why’. Precisely in the gaps in logic is where altruism occurs.
This is part of the reason why its so problematic for the Catholic Church to claim empirical possession of the miraculous through various verification processes. Miracles and wonders belong to us all, and without making sense. In any case, as Father Saunders implied, Sainthood is more or less an idealizing distraction from the virtuous life those who seek it, for themselves or for others, are missing the point.
But just as it appears foolish to claim a miracle on rational grounds, it is foolish to dismiss a miracle on rational grounds. If you dismiss one miracle on rationalistic grounds, you run the risk of dismissing them all, and eventually you will have to dismiss the irrational beauty of altruism itself. If you and I lose our capacity for irrationality which is threatened on every side by programs, methodologies, ideologies, and the calculative sciences we run the risk of losing our selves. The joyous irrationality of altruism confronts the science of sanctity and the rapaciousness of reason with equal force. We should cherish the virtuous potential of the irrational most of all, because Nature is lawless and true and the more lawless your truths, the closer you are to Her.
When a church tries to appropriate the aesthetic, it is making an attempt to accommodate it. In the process, it reduces the aesthetic to its terms and what follows can no longer be said to amount to a fair treatment. While Catholic art is art in the service of the irrational and is to be commended for this, the Catholic God has been around so long, and so much has been predicated of Him in text and speech, that the irrational has become almost impossible to find. God has been grounded too often, and has become unbearably codified and subsumed within the sedimentary layers of culture. Like the Familia, the Catholic God is exhausted.
Within all this, the creative arts function best as safe sites for expression of the hintergedanke that thought at the back of your mind that usurps the monism of your perspective, rattles your intellectual edifice, and acts as a fly in the perfected ointment that lubricates your mind. Not being a priest, I can go further than Father G- and, citing the hintergedanke, say that within a healthy symphony there are instruments of cacophony. The creative arts should be a safe place for the hintergedanke to find expression not just because the creative process is irrational too, but because its products are to be reacted to rather than acted upon. Better that art makes mistaken interpretations of what the hintergedanke offers than we base religious practice on it.
This is the difference between “fear and trembling’ and ‘joy and wonder’.
* It is for these reasons that I don’t enclose the word God within inverted commas, as perhaps I should in this kind of spontaneously formal discussion, nor do I replace the traditional ‘Him’ with ‘God-concept’ or any other construct alien to the religious worldview. At the very least, one should learn to respectfully speak the language of the temple before tearing down its Gods; furthermore, the first step to understanding an idea is to befriend it.
**Its worth noting that secular Western hero Winston Churchill ordered chemical weapons to be used against Iraqi Kurds in the same period, declaring: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” Murder should be an activity that disqualifies you from being turned into a mor(t)al hero, and not a rite of passage, although generally this seems not to be the case.