Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books
John Christman, SSS
To be alone with your thoughts in the midst of nature. It’s such a simple occurrence. It requires very little but time and attentiveness, and yet it has perennially been the source of tremendous nourishment and inspiration. Whether Saint Francis of Assisi atop mount Alverno, Isaac Newton under an apple tree, or Mary Oliver on one of her many hikes, solitude in the wonders of nature has inspired saint, scientist, and poet alike.
Artists of all kinds have likewise been drawn to the beauty of the natural world through the centuries. Across continents and cultures artists have beheld nature with awe and delight. And whether it was Fan K’uan gazing upon the misty mountaintops of China in the 11th century or Thomas Cole watching a storm rolling in over an oxbow in Connecticut in the 1830s, artists have sought to depict in art their deep spiritual experiences in nature.
Nature itself can become an inspiration, a catalyst, a means, or even a language for conveying the spiritual. Buddhist and Taoist paintings are filled with mountains, streams, waterfalls and bamboo trees, all imbued with deeper spiritual significance. Christian art, especially that drawn from a sacramental tradition, is similarly replete with images of creation that speak of their creator. Water is not just water but a multivalent symbol of birth, life, death and even new life in baptism. Animals, like birds and fish, can evoke feelings of freedom or stir symbolic awareness of God’s presence. All of this is no further than a few steps away, in a garden, park, back yard or nature path — where God so eloquently speaks in the wonders of creation.
Contemporary artist Henna Kim is deeply attuned to this reality. Her art is filled with subtle evocations of the natural world: the contours of blooming flowers, a vast flock of birds undulating in the breeze, a school of fish swirling into the depths, water and its many personalities. It is important to re-iterate that she “evokes” these natural wonders. She does not depict them representationally. Rather, her imagery attests to time spent in nature, attuned to the subtleties of light and color surrounding her. The resulting paintings are quite abstract: fields of color, simple shapes, occasional sparse symbolic representations. Yet to these abstract visual evocations she brings spiritual insight. Titles such as “Soli Deo Gloria,” “The Voice in the Desert,” and “I Come to the Garden Alone” gently steer the viewer into a religious, often Christian frame.
Consider her lovely series entitled “I Come to the Garden Alone” (see front cover). Viewed from a distance our eyes are welcomed into the various warm yellows, greens and browns one might encounter on a summer afternoon stroll through a forest. As one encounters the painting more closely a swirl of simply drawn ichthus-like fish team upon its surface. The colors, the fish, and the angle of the brushstrokes all then coalesce and create a type of pond one might happen upon with unexpected delight; the flourishing of life and light in a vision as much internal as it is external. Tellingly, this “solitary walk in the garden” reveals not solitude but connectedness. Alone in this garden one discovers a “school” of fish teaching by their very symbolic shapes a message of belonging: belonging within creation and belonging within the body of Christ.
In speaking of her attempt to convey her own spiritual experiences while enrapt in the process of painting Kim writes, “At that exact moment, my spiritual senses become so alive, so vivid, that I can ultimately encounter the way, the truth and the life. It sometimes feels as if I’m walking through a secret garden in a dewy morning or lying on the surface of a serene sea under a warm sun. I tried to express these feelings through a series of works called I Come to the Garden Alone” (2009).
Such confluence of nature, abstraction, spirituality, and symbol is difficult to name. In the late 1940s and early 1950s when art critics in the United States coined the term “abstract expressionism” some French art critics described a similar trend in French art “abstract lyricism.”1 ‘Lyricism’ seemed a more accurate term for some of the artwork of the time that relied less upon emphatic gesture and paint splatter. Drawing from this observation, perhaps we could describe Henna Kim’s artwork as a type of sacramental lyricism. With its poetic weaving of natural imagery and sacred encounter, and its subtle use of symbol and abstraction, sacramental lyricism might just open the door to what Henna Kim is exploring in paper and paint. Whatever we might name it, its message is a promising one: in this God given garden, being alone is not being lonely, and beauty is an invitation to belonging.
1 Éric de Chassey in Joan Mitchell, Ed. Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel (London, Yale University Press, 2021) pg 90.
A Hint of a Mischievous Smile
I was not doing anything in particular.
But to my right and upward field of vision
I suddenly half-beheld a peal of laughter,
gray eyes, a smile hinting of irony …
This is not funny!
What do you mean by this?
I am sad
So sad that you have died,
and you had a virtual viewed funeral!
What is this mischievous small smile at my side, just almost there, like a word I forgot?
Hesitant, I wrote your sister about it,
since I had never met you in this life.
Her sister later informed me
that, while in coma, she was able to kiss her goodbye;
Catherine died in peace,
in the hands of Mary, her sister felt sure,
passing into eternal life
on the vigil of the celebration day
of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
So despite my sadness knowing
of hospitals, strokes she suffered and inability to move limbs and
slowness to speak,
I seem to have seen her gray eyes sparkling with hilarity …
a humorous essence
lifted beyond the veil.
Yes, Catherine had a wicked sense of humor,
her sister affirmed, and felt she’d laugh at the absurdity
of a virtual, online-only funeral service!
Your sister related an escapade ….
After newly installed in the assisted living facility as was necessary
due to medical conditions, though not elderly, one sunny afternoon, you summoned a ride:
Take me to the pizza joint,
You returned, having had your pizza and shopping,
gone for an hour or so,
safe and content.
What was not deemed safe
turned out happily.
One needs to reclaim a bit of an appetite
for pizza and shopping.
Too much is virtual,
too much has been taken away;
tell me another story
of walking along as you wanted to do,
despite orders to stay in your room.
For us, this endless time
of only virtual reality ….
I am angry for all those who are bereft
of any real human contact and solace.
I tell myself funny stories
of pizza and laughter,
for the doors
to fling open.
Liturgical Press Academic
We live in a time when political, ethnic, and racial divisions critically threaten the stability of our nation in ways not seen by most of us previously. The defense of individual rights and the pursuit of personal goals appears to replace the pursuit of the common good as a national value. In light of these realities, Mary Doak’s book, A Prophetic Public Church, comes at a critically important time. One cannot help but hear the soundtrack of current social struggles playing in the background as this book concerning the mission of the Church is read. It succeeds in making the case for the relevance of the Church in today’s world as both a sign of and an agent for unity, justice, and peace in the human family.
At the heart of this book is the importance of praxis for the Church’s approach to ecclesiology. Noting the sacramental nature of this ecclesiology, Doak observes that the sign of unity, justice, and peace which the Church is called to be, is also the reality which the Church is called to both construct through political and social engagement and to live. The Church is to be both sign and instrument of unity-in-diversity. The author builds her description of the Church’s mission firmly on the teachings of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, while acknowledging the authority of the Church’s prior teachings and its teachers subsequent to the Council. Her theological research is sound and thorough, while at the same time readable and accessible to those outside the academic theological community.
The author notes that the Church’s mission when it comes to promoting unity-in-diversity is in some cases at odds with its performance. Specifically, she devotes two chapters to what she identifies as “two of the church’s signal failures to maintain unity-in-diversity,” namely anti-Semitism and misogyny (A Prophetic Public Church, xix). These are offered as two areas where the Church of the future must learn to be Church differently than in its past and present.
Doak moves on to identify three issues with global impact that threaten the stability of unity and justice in the human family: the global economy with its many inequities, global climate change with its potential dangers to human survival, and the reality of widespread immigration which depletes the places of origin of immigrants and taxes the resources of the lands that receive them. In each case, the author reflects on the prophetic responsibility of the Church to be both sign and instrument of redemptive change. Her challenge to the Church to live up to her mission is a source of hope for the reader, even amid the honest appraisal of the current state of affairs in the world.
The proclamation of this book’s truth is haunted throughout by the reality of sin in the Church. The work begs reflection on how a sinful Church can maintain its credibility in pursuing a mission to call others to holiness. Doak does not shy away from this question but confronts it with faith in the power of grace to transform and in the necessity of the Church’s honesty in confronting its failures.
If there is a shortcoming in this book, it is the absence of racism in the list of “signal failures” of the Church in maintaining unity-in-diversity. Certainly, the events of the past year and a half have underscored the immensity of the problem of racism in the human family, not just in North America, but throughout the world. The Church’s track record on slavery, colonial aggression, and racism has been shameful and yet is still often ignored. In all, A Prophetic Public Church is a good read. For Christians who have been concerned about the relevance of the Church for the future, this work is a source of hope.
Rev. J. Mark Hobson, DMin
Pastor, St. Aloysius Church,
Jason King and Julie Hanlon Rubio, eds.
Liturgical Press Academic
This book addresses some of the most compelling subjects in Catholic and even in human history. Twenty-five articles on sex, love, and family take seriously the admonition of the Second Vatican Council to pay attention to the “signs of the times.” Unlike dogma, human moral thinking evolves. New realities call us to consider new conclusions. What might Catholic teaching look like today on a topic as explosive and mutating as sex? What new might be said about tired topics like love and families? With respect to past and present Catholic thinking and documents, this book explores these questions with data and creativity.
The first section looks at sex, evolving relational and marital models, and gender. Drawing on sociology, statistics, and theology, the articles challenge the reader to reflect on the mores of the modern world. It is no secret that casual sex is happening today in what might be termed the secular society, but any college professor can profess that it exists within the hallowed halls and dorm rooms of Catholic universities. Likewise, today’s women are not merely silent and submissive — and sometimes uncomfortable — partners in sexual activity and in all aspects of marriage. Often, they join the prevailing party by choice.
Contemporary understanding of biology and psychology raises questions that past narratives either did not understand, avoided, or even censured. Today’s relationships do not always fit models of what sexuality looked like in cultures of former times. Such novelty offers a fertile (you should pardon the expression) field to grow new paradigms of sex, marriage, and even of gender. This is true not only of the culture itself but of the incorporation of Catholic values, virtues, and voice. It is time for Catholic theology to take modern reality seriously.
The second section considers love as a call to holiness in traditional marriage. Committed love helps human beings develop virtues of friendship and fidelity and become a witnessing sacrament beyond the household. Sometimes the marital bed is the occasion for a wake-up call, as one author notes, “to get over yourself.”
The articles do not stop there. They suggest an expanded notion of the mom, dad, and loving children model. Disparate family situations like widowhood, divorce, and the single state (with or without children), too, should be loci for love and the occasion for seeing and spreading the presence of Christ. The community has a responsibility to support and encourage this growth in all models. Picking up on the work of Lawler and Salzman, cohabitation as a journey toward marriage is discussed.
The third section digs deeper into how the notion of “family” has evolved. Marriages of today are much less homogeneous than those of the past. Love expands beyond a classic nuclear couple to economic realities, care, and involvement in the outside world.
Several articles raise the questions of “mixed” marriages. Families struggle with different religious affiliation or even no religion at all. There are marital pairs where one is incarcerated or does not have citizenship, causing separation for extended times.
As a go-to-meeting old Catholic theologian with almost sixty years of wedded experience, I found the book to be a rich potpourri of thought. Some selections are “comfortable,” relying heavily on past and current Church teaching as their starting place. Others lean to sociological data and creative Catholic responses to today’s complex cultural reality (hooking up, feminism and other reshaping of gender roles, and gender itself). New paradigms: new questions.
The hegemony of traditional celibate commentators on marriage is past. Many of the authors represented here are themselves married theologians. Perhaps that accounts for the “real feel” of the work. Some articles chronicle the sociological reality. Others strive to apply Catholic thinking to these insights. Some pieces derive from personal experience. Others are more “heady.”
Bottom line: the book does not shy away from serious issues, covering everything from the hooking up and serial relationship culture of today to the challenge of modern-day marriage, such as family spirituality, play, and celebration, even during times of stress. The selections address the influence of privilege and feminism, and even put a positive spin on the seduction of technology.
This reviewer found the whole book exciting and challenging: a think-outside-the-box read. In addition to potential use in the classroom I recommend it strongly for partners, parents, pastors, and college professors. As Lisa Cahill notes in her back-cover comments about its classroom possibilities, “[no] student would skip the readings and the discussions would run themselves.” Some will be shocked and put it aside. That is regrettable. Others will take seriously the real changes in today’s culture and give the book a serious second thought. There is a lot to ponder here and a basket of hope for new ways of thinking.
Dolores Christi, Ph.D.
Retired Executive Director of the Catholic Theological Society of America
Shaker Heights, OH