Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

It’s All Straw

The Twitterverse exploded this morning because of a tweet by Pope Francis: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”  Many of my fellow conservatives in particular were infuriated that the Holy Father would appear to lay the blame for unemployment at the feet of capitalism, which is not in fact what he was saying.   Yet in writing what he did, the Pope called attention to something which many devout Christians in the Western world regularly forget: this life will end, and sooner than you think.

Before we begin, a bit of history should be kept in mind here by conservatives who are hopping mad at the Holy Father today, and who will then jump for joy at what he might tweet next week.   Pope Francis was not advocating some sort of socialist economic model, or saying that capitalism is the work of the Devil.  Keep in mind that he was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires until just a few weeks ago.  If you know anything of what has happened to Argentina economically and politically over the past decade, the Pope is all too well-aware of the impact of various economic theories and practices.  Moreover, he was certainly no ally of the current populist-socialist President of Argentina, who imagines herself some sort of Kmart version of Eva Perón.

There are many areas of overlap between conservatism and Christianity, but there are also many areas of tension.  While recently a number of Christian denominations have adopted a policy of going along to get along, with regard to various societal and political issues, the Catholic Church remains immovable on a number of fundamental points, as she has for the past two thousand years of her existence.  One of those points is that love of both God and neighbor is the basis for the truly Christian life.  And while not in principle against the possession of wealth, the Christian does not make its pursuit his reason for living.

As we heard in the Gospel reading at mass this past Sunday, “‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” (St. John 13:34-35)

Nothing the Pope tweeted today was new, as you can see here for example, from two sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which point to the inherent dangers of both atheist socialism AND unfettered capitalism:

2124  The name “atheism” covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be “an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.”  Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. “It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.”

2424    A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.  A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity.  Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Secular materialism is not an illness confined only to those who practice socialism.  There are many conservatives, including those who call themselves Christians, who bow and worship at the feet of people like economists and market gurus, leaving God out of the picture entirely, or relegating Him to some sort of secondary place in their lives.  This is a very dangerous path to tread, and a choice which Catholics believe has eternal consequences.

In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles lays out, very simply, why the pursuit of wealth leads nowhere:

For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

(1 Timothy 6:7-10)

Please note, no one is saying that wealth is something which is inherently evil.  After all, the ministry of Christ Himself, and later that of the Apostles and the Church, would have been impossible without the material support of those Christians with the means to help.  Rather wealth is a tool, and what one does with that tool, for good or for ill, will give lie to what is really important in one’s life.  For in the end, no matter how much wealth one creates or accumulates, we are, all of us, worm food.

Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are familiar with the prolific medieval writer St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of the Church.  One of my favorite passages from his copious output – and be assured I have not even read 1/100th of it – is something which I not infrequently recall to myself.  It is useful to keep in mind both when things go wrong in life, but also when things are going well.

While celebrating mass one day in 1273, St. Thomas apparently received a mystical vision of Heaven; as a result, he stopped writing to prepare himself spiritually to go home to the Lord.  “All that I have written seems like straw to me,” he is reported to have said, in response to urges from others that he resume writing, “compared to what has been revealed to me.”  St. Thomas was by no means rejecting the work he had already done, nor its value to those whom it had helped and indeed continues to help to this day.  Rather he realized that all he had been working on and doing in the material world paled in comparison to what was coming across the great divide, and knew that he had to prepare himself for it, even as close as he was to God.

The fact is that the Pope is right.  Many times hard-working people find themselves unemployed not because they are lazy, or because they are doing a poor job, but because the wealthy chose to protect their own fortunes, and not care for their struggling workers.  This is not a blanket statement, nor an endorsement of trade unionism or forcible wealth distribution.  Rather it is a simple fact of life: these things do happen, and are happening all the time, all over the world.

The Pope is also correct in reminding us of the inherent human tendency of selfishness, and this is why Christianity, which is founded on a Divine act of loving unselfishness, is not as easy a Faith to take on as many of us would like to believe.  The Catholic Church was built on sacrifice and blood, both of Christ’s on Calvary, and of the countless martyrs who suffered torture and death rather than submit to selfishness and sin.  Human beings never like to be reminded of the fact that we are sinners; we all like to think that we are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, nice folks.  The truth is that under the right circumstances, we will not only take whatever we can from one another, but we will actually relish doing it – and that is what makes self-sacrifice such a very hard thing to achieve.

Thus Pope Francis’ job, lest those reading this forget it, is not to help the Republicans take over the Senate or lower the cost of crude oil.  The Holy Father is on Twitter not to chit-chat, but to get as many people to Heaven as he can.  You may not have thought about that, when you posted your snarky comment about the Pope this morning, but there it is.  He is trying to teach us both by word and by example what it means to be a Christian.  Sometimes that instruction is easily palatable, and sometimes we find it bitter and difficult to swallow.

For at the end of your life, God will not care whether you had 100 or 100,000 Twitter followers, or whether a celebrity re-tweeted you, or whether you appeared on Twitchy, BuzzFeed, or any other aggregate site.  Nor for that matter will He care whether you died a rich man or a poor one.   Rather, when you die and go before Him, you are going to have to show Him that you loved Him, as He loved you, and that you demonstrated that love in the way you treated other people, sacrificing your own comforts to meet someone else’s needs, in imitation of the same self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated to His followers.

Remember that, as He Himself pointed out, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.  He was laid on a bed of straw which did not belong to Him at His birth, and He was laid in a rock tomb which did not belong to Him at His death, and from which He rose on Easter Sunday.   So now would be a good time to ask yourself, if you were angry at the Pope today, whether you are so detached from the world and materialism as to remember that if you are a Christian, these three things are more important to you than absolutely anything whatsoever having to do with the economy.  You are not made for this world, but for the next.

Tomasso

Detail of “The Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Santi de Tito (1593)
San Marco, Florence

Thank You, Holy Father

Like much of the world, when I learned that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to abdicate the Throne of St. Peter and retire to a life of prayer, I was initially both shocked and saddened.  Almost immediately however, so much of the commentariat was focused on conspiracy theories as to why he was stepping down, or who the new Pope would be, that it was too easy to get sucked into speculations which will ultimately prove futile in assessing his Papacy, or of prognosticating the future of the Church.  As I pointed out in an interview I gave yesterday, the Pope has visibly grown more frail over the past year or so – he is after all in his mid-80’s – and those who are trying to second-guess what the Conclave will do are more likely than not going to be wrong.  So rather than pay attention to what the so-called mainstream media reports about the Holy Father’s decision, or respond to what dissenting “experts” argue the Church must do next in order to satisfy their own personal political agendas, allow me to thank Pope Benedict for what I see as some of the great accomplishments of his pontificate.

One of the great legacies which this Pope will leave for future English-speaking Catholics in particular, has to do with one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to practice one’s faith, and that is in repairing some of the translation problems with both the mass itself and in the lectionary.  Whenever you translate from one language to another, it is never going to be absolutely perfect, particularly when you are shifting from Latin to English.  The work to bring the mass in English as close as possible to that of the text in Latin is something which all of us will benefit from for the foreseeable future.

In a related move, I see this Pope’s encouragement of a wider use of the traditional Latin mass as a part of his effort to bring more people of good will within the fold.  While efforts to reconcile with those who split with the Church over the use of the Latin mass are ongoing, and no doubt that work will continue under the next Pontiff, this Pope has clearly shown that he not only appreciates the beauty of tradition, but wants to encourage Catholics to re-discover their own rich history.  Even in his choice of vestments, Benedict has often made a point of bringing back things which had been abandoned in the upheavals that occurred in the 1960’s and ’70’s, not to go backwards, but to emphasize continuity with and connection to the past.

Similarly, the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate to reach out to those members of the Anglican church who felt themselves drawn to Rome but still loved their own traditions, is something which in and of itself is of tremendous historical significance.  I remember well the day that this news was announced, when several friends and I gathered at an English-style pub here in downtown Washington to celebrate what we enthusiastically referred to as “Anglo Catholic Reunification Day”, and to raise pints not only to Pope Benedict, but to welcome those Britons, both clerics and laity, who would soon be joining us on this side of the Tiber.  Now of course, our own Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, has been put in charge by Pope Benedict of overseeing the establishment of the U.S. version of the Ordinariate, and we have already seen a number of Episcopal communities coming into communion with Rome, something which people like St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and Blessed John Henry Newman are no doubt very pleased to see happening with their American cousins.

Additionally, while things are still moving slowly, we have seen that this Pope has reached out to the Eastern Churches, continuing the work of his predecessors, in  attempts to reunite the two “lungs” of the Universal Church.  One cannot undo one thousand years of the Great Schism at a stroke, obviously.  However I have always felt that this Pope, in taking the actions described above with respect to those who wish to celebrate the traditional mass, and to repair the split with those Anglicans willing to work with him, has been laying a foundation for ongoing, future dialogue with the Orthodox.  The joy in Christendom if the Catholic and Orthodox churches were finally to be reconciled is something which I can only pray and hope that I live to see in my lifetime, and if it happens clearly we will have to point to this Pope as one of those who moved that reconciliation forward.

There are many other areas of endeavor which one could examine in assessing the work of Pope Benedict XVI.  We saw his continued outreach to the youth of the Church, drawing even larger crowds than his predecessor; his embrace and encouragement of the use of new media as a tool for re-evangelizing the world; his writings, sermons, and speeches; his historic visit to England and address in Westminster Hall; etc.  I would also mention two items of personal importance to me: his visit here to Washington, where I was fortunate enough to attend the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium, and his visit to consecrate the iconic Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, which he raised to the level of a minor basilica.  While his pontificate has lasted only eight years, one wonders whether any of us, if we live to such an old age ourselves, would be able to do so much.

While I am very sad indeed to see him go, I also greatly respect Pope Benedict XVI for taking what must have been the very tough decision to recognize that, in the particular circumstances in which he finds himself, it would be best for the good of the Church if he were to step down.  It cannot have been an easy conclusion to arrive at, knowing that there is so much more he could do, and yet physically he will not be able to do it.  So to step away from the world, and retire to a life of prayer and drawing closer to God, in preparation for the day when one finally meets Him face to face, is something that sets a tremendous example for all of us to ponder.

My hope is that His Holiness will be able to do so, for however long he remains with us in this present life, like the tremendous but humble scholar and teacher he unquestionably is: ordering his days of prayer on behalf of the Church and in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, while having time to rest, surrounded by the books of the great spiritual writers, the classical music he loves, and hopefully a friendly cat.

BenedictXVI