Remembering That I’m a Father

When you try to write a blog regularly and are in need of subject material, you sometimes need to look to the newspapers to find information or ideas.  At other times, things happen to come your way for no particular reason, provided that you are paying attention to the world around you, and not ignoring the direction in which you may be led.  This means being open to the possibility of perceiving the connections to be made even if you cannot see why.

This morning on the way to work, my bus passed a young couple in their early to mid-20’s. The young woman had pale, celtic features and dark, long, curly hair piled on top of her head, and was visibly rather pregnant; she looked as though she was in some distress.  She was clutching tightly to the right arm of the light-haired, preppy young man with her, who was holding what looked to be a large, quilted baby bag, like women often take with them when they are going into the hospital to give birth.  My guess is that they were walking across the circle, to George Washington University Hospital a few hundred yards from where I saw them; let us hope that it goes well for all.

Now as it happens, last evening I received an email from a good friend containing the first pictures of him with his wife and their new baby girl, just home from the hospital.  And within some minutes of this, another good friend told me of his baby son’s need to visit a pediatric specialist today for a consultation on a possible surgery; he texted me a smiling photo of the two of them together this morning.  Since there appears to have been a plethora of baby-related incidents crossing my radar over the past twelve hours, and I am trying my best to pay attention, I suppose this means I ought to write something about having children.

Of course, the problem is that I do not have any biological children of my own.  Nor am I a teacher, with a new crop of children every school year to tend to, nor a priest, with a flock of children to shepherd in my parish.  Indeed, as our departing pastor noted at mass recently, before being transferred to a large suburban parish with many children, he would suddenly find himself the spiritual father of many, many children, whom he would have to guide and help raise in the Church – a daunting task to be sure, though one he is more than up to fulfilling.  That being, said, this spiritual fatherhood is perhaps something which those of us in the laity ought to consider in our own lives a bit more closely, even if we ourselves are not blessed with children, if we happen to be a godparent or a confirmation sponsor.

In my own case, I have a goddaughter who was born here in the United States, but is now living in England, and whom I have not seen for a couple of years.  There was a time when, in love with her smallness and funny nature, I would make a point of going up to visit her several weekends out of the year, just to be able to spend time with her.  Once she moved away that ended, of course.  Now she is in primary school, has made her First Communion, and is busy with friends and activities.  And as happens in such instances, there can be a drifting apart due both to the absence of physical separation, and the child growing older.

Perhaps the lesson or reminder here for me is that I made a promise, in front of God and Father George Rutler – difficult to know which one I ought to be more careful about displeasing – that I would do my best to make sure my goddaughter receives the guidance and example she needs to grow in her spirituality.  At this distance, that role must be largely left to her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers, but that fact alone does not get me off the hook.  The godparent always has a role to play throughout the life of the person whom they have agreed to watch over in the Faith, as the Catechism tells us:

1255    For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized—child or adult—on the road of Christian life.  Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium).  The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

Thus, even though I may be neither a father in either the biological or in the roman collar sense, I am still a spiritual father to a little English girl.  She needs some periodic guidance and reminders from me to say her prayers, obey her parents, and partake in the life of the Church, and I am responsible for attempting to at least do that to some extent for the rest of her life.  And that, gentle reader, is a more important realization or reminder for me this morning, rather than the question of simply coming up with a blog topic.

Detail of “The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece” by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1445-1450)
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

Poussin’s Purpose: Looking At Sacred Art

The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge has announced that it is in the process of trying to raise the funds it needs to purchase a Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) painting entitled “Extreme Unction”, one of a series the painter created depicting the Seven Sacraments of the Church.  In viewing the painting, one is immediately struck not only by its crystalline perfection, but also by the classicism of the scene, which may strike some viewers as incongruous to their concept of Christianity.  Yet this work provides us with an opportunity to actively reconsider the way we look at sacred art, for it is an area of artistic expression in which we often do not realize that there are larger subjects being considered than simple historicism.

Nowadays “extreme unction” is rather less-grandly referred to as the “Anointing of the Sick”, since it had become associated in the minds of many Catholics only with those about to die, rather than as a sacrament available to anyone who is ill and wishes to receive it.  That being said, in Poussin’s picture the man receiving the sacrament is probably on his death bed, since his skin has a sickly pallor compared to the people around him.  The central part of the image depicts part of the administration of the sacrament, where the priest is sitting on the sick man’s bad and anointing him with holy oil.  For an added touch of authenticity, what appears to be an acolyte or altar boy kneels before the priest holding what is probably the text of the service.

Another man standing next to the head of the sick man, probably his son, holds a tall, lighted taper, while the woman immediately next to him holds or turns the head of the man so that the blessed oil can be applied correctly by the priest.  Surrounding the bed, various family members, friends, and attendants pray, weep, and bring or remove things, in an overlaid series of actions and reactions which anyone who has been around a seriously ill or dying person will recognize.  The careful viewer will note that the poor man’s feet are uncovered, sticking out from under his blanket, but that is not ill-intended either on the part of the persons in the room or the artist himself: rather, before some changes to the administration of the sacrament which were implemented after Vatican II, the sick person’s feet were anointed as well.

Without the title of the piece, and a little understanding about what is taking place in the picture, one could be forgiven for thinking this to be a scene depicting some story from Greek or Roman antiquity.  There is nothing that strikes us as overtly Christian about the people we see in Poussin’s painting. Yet this is because for most of us, the image we have in our mind’s eye of Christianity is one formed from a conglomeration of artistic ideas about sacred art, formed during the Byzantine period and further elaborated upon during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

For example, if I were to say to you, “Picture the Last Supper,” you would almost certainly call to mind Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of this subject.  In it, a long-haired, bearded Jesus dressed in a red tunic and blue mantle sits at the center of a long table, with His arms spread wide, as the Twelve react to His announcement of His upcoming betrayal by one of their number.  The perfect perspective of the room draws our eye back to a doorway and window openings, which look out to a verdant countryside.

The only problem is, from what we know of Palestine in 33 A.D., the actual Last Supper looked nothing like Da Vinci’s imagining of it.  For one thing Jesus and the Disciples, as Jews of the 1st century, would almost certainly not have been wearing tailored, luxurious robes and mantles in a host of colors from pink  to green to orange.  For another, they would not have been seated at what appears to be a European-style trestle table, eating off of pewter dinnerware, in a room overlooking the Italian countryside.

In the case of Poussin’s painting, we are not being shown a specific, historic event like the Last Supper, but rather the administration of a sacrament in an unknown place and at an unknown time.  We can reasonably assume that Poussin wants us to believe that we are somewhere in the Roman Empire, perhaps in Corinth, Ephesus, or even in Rome itself, during the early centuries of the Church, but that is all we can assume.  Yet despite their differences, both of these artists are in fact trying to speak to larger theological questions with their art.

In depicting the Last Supper, Da Vinci is interested in the reaction of the Disciples to the news of their impending betrayal of Jesus.  Betraying Christ is something which all Christians are guilty of at times, in our own lives, and this is something which the Dominican friars for whose refectory Da Vinci painted the fresco would have appreciated, as they reflected on their own fallen and sinful nature.  Similarly, in his series of paintings on the sacraments, Poussin met the needs of his patron in Rome, a well-connected scholar and secretary to a powerful Cardinal.  In his series Poussin shows that the Church is universal, and indeed had its origins in antiquity, at a time when studies of the ancient world were pulling more and more people toward secularism, based on a false perception that Christianity was something little more than medieval.

Understanding the motivations which produce different types of sacred art, one can move beyond the visual differences between different artists, to a greater appreciation of what greater truth each artist is trying to bring across to the viewer.  While neither Da Vinci or Poussin, as it happens, are personal favorites of mine, each of them in the two examples considered above points to a theological truth through their art, rather than simply creating a static, snapshot image.  The more one understands this, the more one can appreciate why sacred art may not always win points for historical accuracy, but it has a greater purpose than simply trying to capture a moment.

“Extreme Unction” by Nicholas Poussin (c. 1638-1640)
On Loan to The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Shave, Spit, and Polish

I have a confession to make.

Not infrequently, on Saturday mornings, this scrivener abstains from shaving his mug. There are few things that I loathe more than this necessary activity, with the possible exception of ironing. You see, I have rather thick, wavy hair, and a similar beard, both of which grow very quickly. As a result, sometimes within an hour or two of shaving off a nascent beard, it looks as though I need to shave again. Such is the swarthy genetic inheritance of the Mediterranean side of my bloodline, to balance the WASP side.

The relief of waking up on the weekend and not shaving, particularly when you have rather sensitive skin, is a great one. Fortunately, whether with scruff or with beard – as I grew last Halloween – facial hair actually suits me, which is not true of some people. While I have no intention of growing a full beard, it is nice to know that if I did have to do so for some reason – such as becoming a spy or a pirate – it would not look so terrible.

That being said, as I general rule I do try to make the effort to shave the previous day’s growth off for mass on Sunday, and make sure I am wearing something clean and ironed. I do not always wear a suit and tie to mass, particularly if I am not serving as a lector, but I do try to remember to shave. Someone commented over the weekend on Twitter, of all people Jesus would probably be okay with my sporting some beard, but if I forget to shave before mass I do feel rather like I am out of place at a party. So this Sunday, I shaved, ironed, got out the Spanish glazed-caramel-finish dress boots, rubbed a bit of spit and polish into them, and then slipped on a new Italian cardigan with great detailing, to happily clomp my way over to mass, knowing that I looked nice for church as well as for anyone who might run into me and need some assistance.

And as it happened, appropriately enough, this past Sunday’s Gospel reading contained one of those stories which probably makes most of us feel uncomfortable not only about how we look, but also about how and why God acts as He does. We heard the parable of the royal party no one wanted to attend, and of how the king sent out his servants into the streets to forcibly gather people up and make them attend the wedding banquet of his son. And of course the most famous part of the story, that of the improperly attired guest who gets thrown out bound hand and foot, makes us feel even more uncomfortable.

When I was small, I had an illustrated book that explained baptism, confession, and the other sacraments. I recall that a frequently used illustration was that of a “baptismal garment” – though it really looked like a t-shirt with an embroidered hem. It showed that a sinful soul’s baptismal garment had stains on it, but that the waters of baptism, or the absolution given in confession, would wipe those sins clean and leave a sparkling white garment: a sort of spiritual detergent with bleach alternative for the soul.  I thought of this image on Sunday, as the homily progressed.

The natural human reaction to the guest being chucked out for being improperly dressed is to say, “That’s not fair. He had no time to go home and clean himself up.” And as Father told us in the homily, the guest probably wanted to do so, so that he could conform with what was expected of him. Yet he ran out of time; he was not ready when the moment came, to be presented before the court, much in the same way we put off cleaning our own garments and our own souls, with the idea that there is always tomorrow.

It is interesting to note the more obvious implication of this parable, which is one that I have made before: are you presentable when you go out of the house? Now of course, God is making the point about the inside of the person, and the Final Judgment, but remember why Christ used teaching in parables in the first place. He is trying to give His listeners situations analogous to things that they themselves would have seen and experienced, but with a surprise twist. Thus the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example: it was all too common in Jesus’ day for travelers to be assaulted on the road by bandits; it was not common to expect help from a Samaritan.

Similarly, if Christ tells the story about the wedding guest being scooped up for a banquet and not being properly dressed for it, He is of course speaking about the soul, rather than the man’s appearance.  Yet there is something about the appearance that tells us about the interior of the person. For the Jews of his day, ritual cleanliness was of great importance, and particularly when surrounded by all of that sand and general odor.  In the present age in the Western world, apart from those of us who are in dire poverty and cannot afford a bar of soap to clean both ourselves and our garments, there is nothing to prevent us from at least being clean and tidy when we are out and about. So why is it that so often we do not do so?

Perhaps the answer is equally applicable to Christians and non-Christians alike. In a self-obsessed culture, such as that we have watched the Baby Boomers create over the past 40 years and which we, their children, have inherited, we are more concerned with our own comfort than the comfort of others. If we are dressed in clothing that is comfortable and yet, at best, would only be appropriate for the gym, or working on the car, is that same clothing really appropriate for going to the market, or out to eat? Putting on a suit and tie specifically to go to the post office might be a bit much, in this day and age, but why are you going there, to conduct business with your government, in clothing with rips and stains on it?

For the vast majority of us who are reading these pages, it does not take a great deal of effort to be clean, at the very least on the outside. If we are stained and selfish souls, no doubt we will dress accordingly, in many instances.  Cleaning up the inside may take a great deal more work, for most of us (myself included) and will probably never be dust-and-dirt free in our lifetimes.  Yet like anything worth striving for, that does not mean the attempt should be left unmade.  Nor is it a question of money: I would rather chat with the man in clean, inexpensive clothes from a discount store ahead of me in line at the supermarket, than with the man ahead of him in expensive, designer clothes covered in wrinkles, stains, and so on.

If we want to draw people to us, rather than push them away, then that should be reflected in how we look in public as well.  The ultimate message in Christ’s parable is that we do not know the day and hour when God will call us to Himself.  Yet because we do not, if we go about in public looking awful, we actually lose an opportunity for practicing selflessness, by sending out a message that we do not care about others, or ourselves, enough to make an effort or be approachable if help is needed – and then we really will be unready when He calls, both on the outside and on the inside.