Beauty, Poetry, and Restless Hearts

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520

by Ross Decker Sr

A few weeks ago, my priest began his homily by reading a poem aloud. As he read it, I realized I was having a personal epiphany regarding my reasons for converting to the Church after spending very nearly 40 years meandering in a Protestant desert. For the very first time I began to think that I may have been drawn to the Catholic Church because it was a religion of poetry. A religion of art. A religion of beauty.

When I first began to consider entering the Roman Catholic Church, I encountered Bishop (then Father) Robert Barron. My wife Liz and I had just seen Midnight in Paris and loved it. While googling about the film the next day, she came across  Father Barron’s review of the movie along with a series of other reviews he’d done. “Look, Honey. A priest who reviews movies!”

I’ll admit that I thought it was going to be silly. After all, what kind of out of touch reviews would a priest write? I imagined that they would all be stilted works, not really capable of grasping worldly art. But I was wrong. I learned that Father Barron had a fine grasp upon the real world. He reviewed movies from the point of view of someone who loved them, who appreciated them and who understood them. He wrote a fantastic piece using Dante’s Inferno to describe the Christian life. He spoke of Lennon and Dylan as though they were artists, not as though they were silly sinners creating nothing worthwhile. I had been taught that in my previous experience, but Robert Barron seemed to see no art as secular, all art as divine.

St. Augustine famously said that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” So, of course it would have to be that all art is God’s art, all poetry and prose stems from God. Now, some of this may come from an anti-God position, but even that art exists to examine man’s struggle to make sense of God nonetheless. Whether in confrontation or communion, our restless hearts sing of God.

Over the last few hundred years there has been a movement which has attempted to separate artistic culture from religion. I grew up in that school of thought. It’s a movement that might hold that modern culture cannot speak to the Church, that modern culture should be shunned. Avoided. It’s also a movement that has sought to strip religious art, both old and new, from religion. A movement seeking almost to deny the yearning of man for God. It’s a movement that has turned beer halls and school auditoriums into churches and have turned churches into stark, soulless meeting halls. We’ve seen altars converted into stages and windows viewed things that must be covered with drawn shades. It was a movement that, for me, was lacking. I could no longer separate the two cultures. I wanted the art. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the poetry.

The history of the Church reads like the history of art itself. Through the ages the Church commissioned artistic works. The Church was a patron of the arts. Artists created canvas upon canvas of Biblical theme. They sought to explain, to glorify and to define God through their work. They left to us breathtaking art that glorified God. The Ghent Altarpiece is stunning, there was Caravaggio, who at the dawn of the 17th century was called the most famous painter in Rome. That’s certainly saying quite a bit. Last year at this time, I walked the streets of Rome to see church after church, each with amazingly beautiful artwork. The church architecture was breathtaking in itself. Walking through the Vatican Museum I was surrounded by so much beauty it made me want to just stand still and sob. And, of course, in the midst of all that is the Sistine Chapel. God reaches out there to touch mankind. Painted by Michelangelo, I see it as the pinnacle of religious art. I’m confident that I’m not alone in that opinion.

So, Robert Barron’s position that art is the language of the Church resonated with me. The vesting of the Priests, the sensory awakening of incense, the beautiful ringing of bells to signify the epiclesis, the windows, the statues, the altar, all illustrate to me a respect and deference to our God that just isn’t found elsewhere.

I was drawn to the Catholic Church by art. It wasn’t the reason I converted, of course. I converted because of the doctrine. But I never would have heard the doctrine if I hadn’t come for the poetry.

It reminds me that the world is charged with the grandeur of God.