Dear Parishioners of Sandusky Catholic Community,
When I was a student at Catholic University, I used to spend much time in the library and also at the Archival building at the Smithsonian. I felt at ease with books and papers. It was my background in humanities that helped give me that predilection. The power of books over me is profound. I understand them and feel unchallenged by them.
When I would take a break from the archives, I would go into the Art Museum in the Smithsonian. I have a soft interest in the visual arts, although I realize now, that my lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others. I knew nothing about painting and so I got very little from it. I had never given a picture my full attention even for an hour. These breaks from the archives that landed me at the Smithsonian Art museum brought me more often than not into a gallery dominated by a Van Gogh painting. It was supposedly the last he painted before his suicide. It intrigued me. I sat and looked at it for hours. I started reading about Van Gogh and painting in general and I kept going back, sometimes not even going into the archives.
The painting was perfectly at ease. I realized that I had fallen in love with the painting and with Van Gogh in particular and I had no language. I was dog-dumb, as they say. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak.
Long looking at paintings is akin to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then syntax makes a clearing in the silence. I believe art, all art, and not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think that we are familiar. No one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame one’s defaulting on the place.
Now everyday this happens to art. It also happens in religion. I had to recognize that Van Gogh and painting was not my mother tongue. I have read books about Titian and Van Gogh and I do so to look for a guide, a way of thinking. I don’t care if they are dead, but I need someone to talk things over and I need someone I can trust, a person that can help me negotiate the subtleties and could teach me the dialects and the strange language of the painter.
I also found art takes time. To spend an hour looking at a painting is difficult. The public gallery experience encourages art at a trot. I mean there are these paintings, or there are words, beautiful words, and they are impossible to ignore, if I could see, really see it. Religion and especially Catholicism is in the same category. Bruce Springsteen notes in his autobiography, that his songs and poetry reflects his Catholicism because it is the language he grew up with and that it still informs him today. His line is, “Once a Catholic always a Catholic.”
Religion is like art. It takes time. There are some paintings that didn’t move me as much. One is the Mona Lisa. I went to the Louvre to see it like all the other tourists. I can now tell people I had seen it but I prefer to look at the Masters like that with unfelt reverence so I can see and not be told.
As we approach Lent, take the time to prepare by going to Church, listen and respond, see and hear. The biggest and most important task is to spend the time. The language of God has to be learned like appreciation of painting and literature. It’s a very high art form. Spend some time with God and the Eucharist and the community. We will have five minutes of silent prayer before every weekend Mass again this Lent. Let’s all make an effort to arrive early to take part in this Tri Parish Lenten practice. In the silence, you may discover a whole new way of seeing things.
In Him, Fr. Joe