The Portals of Heaven

Although there is still a little bit of work to do with lighting and one or two other details, the new front doors at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in Washington, D.C. are now in place. The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl, will be coming to dedicate the new doors on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at the 11:00 am mass for the Feast of Christ the King, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to serve as one of the lectors for the mass and dedication. The process of commissioning, fundraising, and installing these beautiful doors has been several years in the making, but they are already doing precisely what it was hoped they would: attract attention from those passing by the church, inviting them to linger.  Yet I also hope that they will call people to reflect on what makes a Catholic a Catholic, particularly for those of us who choose to pass through these portals every Sunday on our way to mass.

The bronze panels inset into the doors are the work of Philadelphia-based artist Anthony Visco, and depict scenes from the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose life and death are recounted in The Acts of the Apostles. I took some photographs [N.B. apologies for the somewhat poor quality] yesterday morning before mass, and present them to you below. The large, central double doors showing the panels with the martyrdom of St. Stephen and his vision of Christ in Heaven will only be opened for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or visits from the Archbishop. The two smaller doors on either side, which feature panels showing scenes from the life of St. Stephen and the early community of Christians under the Apostles, serve as the main points of entry into the church.

As you can see St. Stephen’s is not, on the outside anyway, a particularly inviting building. The interior of the present church is a wonderful mix of architectural ideas from people like Gaudi and Saarinen, all parabolic arches and cool spaces. The exterior however, presents something of a blank wall to the passerby, which unfortunately is the case with many buildings built during the Eisenhower-Kennedy years.

So it was interesting while taking these pictures yesterday, and then standing far back for several minutes and thinking about the doors, that a significant number of passersby did exactly what I recall our previous pastor, Msgr. Filardi, hoped they would do. The doors would catch someone’s eye, and they would stop and look at them. Sometimes they would just pause for a minute or two, but some people did so for several minutes.  Others went up to the bronze panels to examine them more closely, and to touch them. Some people even then took the opportunity to open one of the doors and step into the church for a few minutes, and came out holding a copy of the parish bulletin.

Clearly this is an example of church art that appears to be serving its purpose very well, and well-designed doors can certainly make a difference, particularly compared to the somewhat dark and dingy, unadorned doors that used to mark the entrance to St. Stephen’s. Of course, probably the most famous ecclesiastical doors in the world are those with the 24 magnificent bronze door panels made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Cathedral Baptistery in Florence, and which Michelangelo himself once called “The Gates of Paradise”. Beautiful as our new doors at St. Stephen’s are, I do not mean to suggest that they are equal to Ghiberti’s masterpiece. Yet in showing the death of St. Stephen, these doors do provide something more than simply a decorative entrance to our church building: they are a reminder that being a Christian means being prepared to sacrifice everything for Christ and His Church, as St. Stephen did, to gain access to the portals of Heaven.

Frankly, it was a bold decision to portray the martyrdom of St. Stephen so publicly, on such a large scale, in an age and in a city where so many in the press, in public office, and the commentariat would prefer that Catholics would keep their mouths shut, or at least keep to themselves and “play nice”. These doors tell those who reject and fight against the Church that we are not prepared to capitulate to the false philosophies of moral relativism and materialism, merely because public opinion happens to be heading in one direction or another. Rather, we believe we have something better, and something infinitely more permanent than public opinion, to guide us in how we live our lives – something which those outside of the Church can be a part of as well, if only they would choose to come in.

At the same time, these doors are a reminder to those of us within the Church that the call to holiness may very well require us to reject what the world tells we must accept or do. To be a Christian is not simply about being nice to people for the sake of being nice. If you want to be nice, there are plenty of religions or non-religions where you can go be nice to people without the burden of having to carry a cross.

We have grown too comfortable with the idea of a laid-back, Baby Boomer concept of Christ, going about acting like some sort of perennially smiling 1970’s guru, spreading peace, love, and hash about the Judean countryside.  The truth of the matter is that Christ speaks far more about the wages of sin, God’s judgement, and the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice in the Gospels far more than He does about anything else. Jesus’ bloody, public execution was embraced and emulated in the countless bloody, public executions of the early martyrs who followed Him, including St. Stephen. These men and women built the Church not on the ramblings of some sort of hippie philosopher telling people to “Have A Nice Day”, but on their firm belief in Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

We forget very often in this country, perhaps because it has been so long since Catholics were persecuted and discriminated against, that we must be prepared to lose everything because of our Faith: our family and friends, our livelihoods, our freedoms, or even our lives. Yet the reward for losing everything, as St. Stephen saw in his vision at the moment of his martyrdom, is worth far more than the cost. For then one may finally meet Christ in Heaven, see Him face to face, and hear Him tell us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

God and the Discothèque

Today being Bastille Day, as I have every year for many years I mark the occasion not by celebration, but by wearing black and stopping in at church to pray for my ancestors who were killed by godless leftists in the French Revolution. It is rather fitting, then, that tonight the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, named for the 19th century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, will be screening writer-director Whit Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco”.   Both de Tocqueville and Stillman regret the cheapening of traditional values in their own communities and times, but each holds out hope that – in America at least – through the influence of religion such values are by no means dead and buried, despite the best efforts of moral relativism.

In his thinking and writing de Tocqueville – whose parents had had to flee the guillotine – was committed to the restoration of order and tradition in France, so that the ideals of classical liberalism he believed in could grow naturally, rather than through violent means. Stillman, working in the arts rather than public policy, has been chronicling the decline of the urban haute bourgeoisie of which he is a member, as ideals become cheapened through association with and the ascendancy of the seedier side of life. Both in their respective worlds witnessed an erosion of the high value formerly placed on good moral judgement, true talent, and even personal style, and its replacement by an embrace of lowest common denominator pandering.

In “Democracy in America” de Tocqueville (himself a Catholic), noted that Catholicism was flourishing in the United States, alongside many other religions, which in conjunction made sure that while religion did not rule the state, it informed the way people behaved toward one another and in public life.  He was pleased to note that, as of 1831 anyway, worship of the state had not trumped the worship of God in the United States, as he had witnessed in France. The accompanying siren song of libertine moral relativism was kept muffled in America by the fact that there was a common moral good, upheld by religious people as being more important than the good of the state:

Hitherto no one, in the United States, has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible with a view to the interests of society – an impious adage, which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all the tyrants of future ages. Thus while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.

Stillman of course is working in the arts rather than political theory. Yet in “Last Days of Disco” as in his other films, Stillman casts an accusing glance at the embrace of libertine behavior.   What are supposedly well-brought-up girls like his two central characters of Charlotte and Alice (played, respectively, by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny) doing mixing with men who embrace moral relativism over virtue and self-sacrifice? In probably the most well-known part of the film, Stillman has the idealistic young attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar) criticize the message of amorality which he perceives as integral to Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” in discussion with Charlotte and Alice:

There is something depressing about it, and it’s not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond Cocker Spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She’s great-looking, but – let’s be honest – incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind – an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or whatever he can get…He’s a self-confessed chicken thief, and all-around sleazeball.

What’s the function of a film of this kind? Essentially as a primer on love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches the idea that smooth-talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls from sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house, their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks.

This is a process which continues today, of course. For example, if decades ago the press in the United States was captivated by the (admittedly choreographed) wedding of the elegant and talented Grace Kelly; today media in the United States appears captivated by the (unabashedly choreographed) wedding of – and I am being exceedingly kind here – the inelegant and untalented Kim Kardashian. Whereas the former event allowed us to dream, the latter gives us nightmares. And I suspect – though admittedly without being able to state for certain – that both de Tocqueville and Stillman would agree to some extent that this is a natural result of a decline in the standards of what people ought to aspire to or seek to emulate, as a result of American society turning its back on traditional values of morality, and the attempts to marginalize religion in favor of the worship of celebrities, or of oneself.

Nevertheless, rather than wring their hands, de Tocqueville and Stillman are not pessimists – at least not as far as America is concerned. In looking at the America he observed first-hand, de Tocqueville saw that there was much good coming out of the American experiment with democracy, even if it was by no means a perfect system.  His belief that the role of religion in American society is ultimately a positive one should give those who would otherwise despair some hope that not all is yet lost.

Similarly, Stillman sings a lament for the trashing or watering down of American ideals he believes in,  but never adopts the attitude that the United States will somehow fully succumb to selfishness. The importance of the words of traditional religious hymns, which come to bear repeatedly throughout “Last Days of Disco”, give him and us at least some sense that the role of religion in American life is, while under attack, never going to be completely barred from the public square.  Indeed, the character of Josh, arguably the most religious of the bunch, gives an impassioned proclamation that, “Disco will never die!”, even as he and Alice head off into an old-fashioned, self-sacrificial type of happy ending in which disco music is merely something fun to dance to, rather than providing moral guidance to live by.  And Stillman ends his film not with the soul-disco classic “Love Train”, which appears over the first part of the final credits, but instead with the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace”.

In the end, both de Tocqueville and Stillman remain hopeful that, even if it will be a difficult path back, virtue will ultimately triumph, and this will come about because the important role religion plays in American society will provide the stability that such a re-emergence of virtue needs.

Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny navigate the “Last Days of Disco”