An Artistic Conflict
Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice. Pilate saith to him: What is truth?
Excerpt, John 18:37-38, Douay-Rheims
I propose that this one brief exchange summarizes the conflicted state of the arts in our post-modern, 20th and 21st century experience. For there is sacred art, and there is secular or popular art, and the two influence one another to varying degrees at different times. Proper sacred art is the expression of those who are attentive to the voice of Christ. Secular art responds to that voice of Christ—if it is even heard at all—by saying, “What is truth?”
In times where sacred art influences secular art to a greater extent, secular art has a greater tendency to express that voice of truth. In such times, there is a greater emphasis, for example, in painting an object as it is rather than as it is seen by the artist. There is a greater appreciation for objectivity over perspective.
In times where secular art exerts a greater influence on sacred art, there is conversely an emphasis on perspective over objectivity. In this latter case, the artist becomes his own subject matter, as it were. What is important is not, for example, the apple in the still life but the artist’s conception of the apple, which may not even look anything like an actual apple in the eye of the observer. In such times, sacred art also has the tendency to adopt perspective over truth, responding to Christ, as Pilate did, by stating (or at least mixing in) “What is truth?” Restated, such art declares that the truth depends on one’s perspective!
The secular artist, or at least the one who takes his art seriously in a philosophical sense, frequently declares, “I have to express my own reality.” But to arrive at such an expression, this artist must inevitably ask, “What is truth?” Some works of secular art even leave this reality to the imagination of the observer. Hence, an abstract painting of bluish swirls might represent the sky to one person, the escape of Odysseus from Charybdis to another, or an abstract world of chaos and futility without any concrete object to yet a third observer. Such art requires the observer to ask, “What is truth?” Implicitly, even sinisterly, there can be no right answer! While this might be acceptable for certain natural subjects, when dealing with sacred art, there is a right answer, and that is Jesus Christ. To suggest otherwise breeds error.
Sacred art that adopts certain secular characteristics often pushes the envelope in a way that pulls sacred art towards secular art. It attempts to expand the genre by claiming an alternate sacred status for itself. In so doing, it challenges truth. What was truth might not be completely true anymore. What before was profane might actually be sacred. The question has become “nuanced,” and the declaration “What is truth?” begins to emerge through the art in contradiction to the voice of Christ.
The above exchange between Christ and Pilate can be used in practice as a sort of test by which we can distinguish the sacred from the secular, even in sacred environments. One need only contrast, say, the abbey church of Ottobeuren (“Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice) with the cathedral in Los Angeles (“What is truth?”) or Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus with the folk-style praise and worship music that is common today.
But it might be objected that I “do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen). Surely, there must be some room for interpretation and perspective—some flexibility that does not evade the truth. There must be some acceptable “range” of what is sacred and in tune with the voice of Christ. By promoting Sicut Cervus over praise and worship music, for example, am I really just promoting my own subjective tastes in art?
Three Aspects of Sacred Art
Let us consider more closely whether the question is purely subjective by looking for boundaries. How can art “lose touch” with the truth? How does sacred art cease to be in harmony with the voice of Christ? It seems to me that this may occur in one of three ways: sacred art can lose its Catholic identity (matter), or it can lose its sacred artistry (form), or it can lose its sacred purpose (intention).
A Catholic will quickly make a connection between what I’ve just stated and the sacraments. Take baptism, as an example. The matter is the water, the form is the words of baptism as the water flows over the head of the one being baptized, and the intention is to do what the Church intends by baptism. Without any one of these, there is no baptism. I propose, similarly, that with any one of these things absent, one does not truly have sacred art.
Thus, sacred art must be Catholic, beautiful, and pure. It must be Catholic, or its connection to the truth is, at best, deficient. It must be beautiful, for the truth is not ugly. Finally, it must be pure; the artist must have the virtue of religion as his intention. But what is this virtue of religion?
When I was a seminarian (I was only one for four or five months before discerning I was not to be a priest), one of my professors, Fr. Charles Ryan, discussed the virtue of religion. In our present day, we don’t usually think of religion as a virtue; religion even sometimes takes on a derogatory sense to the modern ear, as if it were an inauthentic system of worshiping God organized by men who care more about the system than the actual worship. Such thinking only goes to show that we do not understand the virtue of religion.
The virtue of religion, as Fr. Ryan emphasized, is part of the virtue of justice. Specifically, it is that part of justice which is directed towards God. He who practices the virtue of religion, rightly understood, does his best to give God His due.
From here, we quickly arrive at the fact that we owe all to God and that, in fact, we cannot possibly give God His due in the literal, absolute sense. We owe more than we are capable of giving. The Faith shows us that God has created us, manifesting His goodness to us. The virtue of religion, motivated by charity and gratitude, compels us to make a return to God, to make ourselves a reflection of God, to give God our very selves. For if He made us in His image and likeness, then it is our endeavor to reflect Him to Himself. This is true for us all, whether we are artists or not. “What shall I render to the Lord, for all the things he hath rendered unto me?” (Psalm 115:12, Douay-Rheims).
Just as Christ, the Word, is the perfect reflection of God the Father (so perfect, in fact that, because God the Father is a Person, the Father’s own Understanding of Himself is also a Person, namely, God the Son, co-eternal with the Father), so too, as imitators of Christ, as children of the adoption of the sons of God, we are called to be images of God. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, Douay-Rheims). “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints” (Ephesians 5:3, Douay-Rheims). For the sacred artist, this reflection of God is especially important, as we will see later. But first, let us return to the three aspects of sacred art, having identified the virtue of religion.
In the first aspect of sacred art, the matter, the artist may be sure that his art is proper in its subject if it is in accord with Catholic teaching—if it expresses a truth of the Faith. While there is a great breadth and depth to truth—and therefore many worthy subjects of sacred art—the sacred subject matter is bounded and may include only that which is true and pertains, whether directly or indirectly, to God.
In the second aspect, form, the artist is a bit less secure. He has the opinions of the Church, which esteems certain forms of art—in the case of music, the Church esteems Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, for example—and he can model or base his own art on these forms. The artist draws on his own artistic sense, and the sense of the faithful around him. He strives to produce something as beautiful as he can, knowing that it will fall short of absolute Beauty. Achieving that beauty is not done in isolation but is linked to the matter and to the intention.
In the aspect of intention, the sacred artist calls upon the virtue of religion, knowing he can only strive to produce his best reflection of the truth. If his intention is to produce what in line with the beautiful and true, according to the mind of the Church, then this seems to me sufficient, just as it is sufficient to have the intention of doing what the Church intends when administering the sacraments. Another way of saying this is that the Catholic artist ought to have the glory of God in mind rather than his own glory and should conform his own will to God’s.
But it also follows that it is possible to produce “fake” sacred art by adulterating any one of these three aspects. Concerning matter, a lie can be made to look beautiful and even well-intended. Concerning form, a truth may be mocked by being expressed in an ugly way, even if this was not the artist’s intention. And even a beautifully expressed truth can be false, in a sense, when expressed for an evil purpose.
It might be objected that the artist’s path is through beauty and that all he produces that is beautiful is thereby good, for all which is beautiful draws a man to God. I disagree, for though the harlot may be beautiful, she is not thereby good, and she draws men away from God. And even if one could argue that the artist pursues all beauty for beauty’s sake, I contend that the call of the sacred artist is higher than this. There is an objectivity of truth implied in the word sacred, and there is an objectivity of intention also therein implied. Succinctly, sacred artistry is an exercise in the virtue of religion.
Evaluations Based on the Three Aspects
By way of example, let us examine a few artistic trends that are not optimal, focusing on sacred music. Some of these trends are more recent, but others have appeared now and again over the centuries. Around the time of the Council of Trent, the Church was concerned about secular songs and madrigals being repurposed, parodied, or intermingled in the Mass. The artistry (form) of these songs may have been superb. After reworking the words, these songs would have also expressed truths of the Faith (matter). So what was deficient? The intention. These tunes were never intended for anything sacred, let alone for the Mass.
More recently, artists have taken unprecedented liberties with the matter and form of sacred music. Some hymns which grace our Catholic hymnals were, in fact, written by heretics, such as Martin Luther. Even if the text of a particular hymn passes muster, the fact it was written by a heretic should probably give us pause. Forms borrowed from the secular world have taken hold, as well. Guitar Masses abound. We frequently sing about ourselves or the Catholic community rather than about Christ and his sacrifice. In places, Catholic music has largely become indistinguishable from what one would encounter at a Young Life meeting. It seems to me that there is a creeping syncretism in these trends, not only in the matter of sacred music but also in its form. One wonders about the intentions of those who have made these songs the staples of our Catholic hymnody.
Returning to the topic of artistry and mere preference, I am not going so far as to say that the Church forbids other forms of sacred music than Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. To the contrary, Musicam Sacramstates in its preface:
It is to be hoped that pastors of souls, musicians and the faithful will gladly accept these norms and put them into practice, uniting their efforts to attain the true purpose of sacred music, “which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.
I will assert, however, that the phrases “sacred popular music” and “simply religious” are vague terms at best, and they open the door to watering down the worship of God, especially if they are not understood within the context of the rest of that document and within the Church’s tradition. For example, Musicam Sacram also states,
“Let [musicians] examine the works of the past, their types and characteristics, but let them also pay careful attention to the new laws and requirements of the liturgy, so that ‘new forms may in some way grow organically from forms that already exist,’ and the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past”
“However, anything done in churches, even if only for experimental purposes, which is unbecoming to the holiness of the place, the dignity of the liturgy and the devotion of the faithful, must be avoided”.
Elsewhere, it states that Gregorian chant has “pride of place” (Paragraph 50) and that “the use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (Paragraph 47). Are we using these directives of Musicam Sacram in our present day to understand what is meant by “sacred popular music” and “simply religious?”
Still, I find the term “sacred popular music” disconcerting. Doesn’t this term suggest pulling Pilate’s “What is truth?” into Christ’s “every one that is of the truth hears my voice” in such a manner that it enters into the very temple of God, influencing not just the worship but the beliefs of the faithful? Wouldn’t our acclimation to popular forms of music dispose us to accept the errors of popular ideology, the question of whether these forms are worthy of the worship of God notwithstanding?
Musicam Sacram states that sacred music has certain purposes and effects. The purpose of sacred music “is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” Can we honestly say that our present day “sacred popular music” has achieved this end? Can we compare it with the works of the past and say honestly that it is equally for the glory of God? Do we have as true a sense of the sacred today as we had in centuries gone by? Is the art of the liturgy connecting us with the voice of Christ, or does the liturgical landscape suggest we are instead asking, “What is truth?”
Hearing the Voice of Christ
I would like to consider a productive question: “How does the Catholic artist hear the voice of Christ, and what should his response be?”
We have already demonstrated that the response of the world is to say, “What is truth?” In doing so, the world implicitly denies Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We can set “What is truth?” aside for now, knowing simply that it is the default answer when we deviate from the voice of Christ in sacred art.
We have also touched on the answer earlier by introducing the virtue of religion. The particular calling of the artist is to produce a reflection of some object; for the sacred artist, that object is God. Sacred art, therefore, must be beautiful because its object is Beauty, its true reflection is the reflection of Truth, and its intention is nothing less than the glory of God and the raising of men’s minds and hearts to the transcendent reality that is man’s true end, namely, God himself. Sacred art cannot possibly fulfill this objective perfectly, for who has seen the face of God, and what work of man’s hands can do justice to absolute Beauty? The sacred artist must achieve his objective as best he can, with humility.
I think Jesus gives the sacred artist a hint or a key to how this daunting task might be accomplished when he states, “Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice.” It seems to me, reflecting on these words, that the work of producing sacred art is done best when it is done as an exercise in mental prayer. “Mental prayer,” St. Theresa of Avila states, “is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him Who we know loves us” (The Book of Her Life, Chapter 8,5). Put in a few words, mental prayer is conversation with Christ. I think mental prayer is a necessary element in the “heareth my voice” part of the equation for the sacred artist.
Of course, if we are to engage in mental prayer, which is an intimate friendship with Christ, we must be in the state of grace. For how can we simultaneously be intimate friends of Christ and His very enemies? But take heart. God can even use our moments away from his grace, turning them for good.
Repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, King David composed Psalm 50 (Septuagint numbering), which starts, Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. On account of the sin, God led King David to repentance and to expressions of sorrow at having offending God. Can one read slowly those words and not feel the utter anguish of the psalmist? Against Thee alone have I sinned… I was conceived in iniquities… My sin is always before me… Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels… Deliver me from blood, O God…
Who can fail to make these words his own?
Do I mean, then, that the work of creating sacred art should be accompanied by mental prayer? Actually, I mean more than this. I posit that, ideally, creating sacred art should be mental prayer itself. Accompanying it with mental prayer is certainly a good beginning, but the work of sacred art should itself be a conversation with Christ, resulting from a conversation with Christ, which others may observe and which may lead to their own conversations with Christ. I can provide an example from my own experience.
One of my better attempts at music composition is the Missa in Epiphania Domini. It began with only two things: a desire to honor the Infant Jesus for the success of our parish’s building campaign and a painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano. The exercise in music composition was more an exercise in meditating on the subject of the painting for the overall sound of the Mass setting and a meditation on individual phrases of the Mass for each passage or movement while relating that back to the painting.
The musical product was a restatement of my own reaction to—no, my own encounter with—the truth depicted in that painting and in those words. These ejaculations of the soul were then arranged within the musical form, which in this case was sacred polyphony. If one who listens to the music can visualize the painting, or can place himself in that painting, or, better still, can place himself before the very manger while beholding the Christ Child at Mass, then I have done well.
Yet, the whole work was not just a concept written down. Indeed, there was a struggle. I tried so many different openings to the Gloria before finding one that worked that I was becoming discouraged. Yet, even this struggle is part of mental prayer. The important endeavor is perseverance. The inspiration comes when God gives it, in His own good time. Nor can I say that I am particularly adept at mental prayer or at perseverance in prayer. Instead I realized only somewhere along the way that my composing activities were a prayer, like unto mental prayer.
Furthermore, what occurred with this music composition is an example of one artistic conversation with Christ (da Fabriano’s painting) leading to another such conversation (my own musical depiction). If the latter is good sacred art, perhaps it also will lead others to a greater devotion and to their own conversations with Christ.
Returning to the question of the sacred artist’s response to the voice of Christ, we are again confronted by the necessity of Divine reflection, that is, of mirroring the transcendent, true God. Sacred art should move people out of themselves. Even non-believers should be touched by its beauty, whereby the art is an avenue through which they can hear that small, interior voice of Christ calling and knocking. We do well if it is not so much we who are speaking through our art, but Christ speaking. “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20, Douay-Rheims).
Life itself is a sort of art, even if we are not the artists. For life, like art, is about reflecting God as a return to Him—a sort of artwork that others may observe by example. This is one reason the lives of the saints are so moving and inspirational. They are the completed artistic works of God, as it were. Let us conclude with the words of God’s masterpiece, the Blessed Virgin Mary: My soul doth magnify the Lord.
May our souls and our sacred art do the same.