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Below: STILL LIFE 2
John Christman, SSS
Certain ideas can take hold of an artist’s imagination for a lifetime. Some visual arrangement, aesthetic theory, theme, or subject can linger in an artist’s mind through the years compelling further and further thought and exploration. Cézanne became obsessed with seeing geometric forms in nature. Mary Cassatt returned again and again to the image of a mother with a child. Jasper Johns had a dream about making a painting of the American Flag and subsequently painted images of the stars and stripes for the rest of his life. Ideas take hold.
As viewers of these works of art, we are invited to contemplate not just a singular work, but to also bring that work into conversation with the artist’s entire engagement with an idea over time. Certainly each piece of art stands upon its own merits, but acknowledging the wider context in which an art work is made can shed light upon the meaning of a work of art and enrich interpretation.
The acclaimed artist Ioan Chisu has explored a wide array of subjects, styles, and ideas over his long career as an artist and a teacher. Born in Romania in 1939, his life has witnessed a great deal of change in the world of art, and he has thoughtfully engaged this ever-changing aesthetic milieu. From figurative work to abstract work, Cubist and Futurist influences, to more symbolic and naturalistic representations, all have factored into his artistic vision and exploration.
Amidst the brightly-colored patterned abstract paintings that have consumed much of his attention over the years, another interesting subject has engaged his attention: the still life. Many a young art student has learned their craft by painting still life paintings, patiently mixing colors and attempting to reproduce on a two-dimensional surface the simple objects placed on a table before them. Dutch and Flemish painters in the 1600s and 1700s raised still life painting to incredible heights with “fool-the-eye” naturalistic detail. Post-Impressionists and Cubists alike used still life painting to explore aesthetic styles and concepts influenced by modernity. The still life has proven to be a versatile vehicle for artistic expression and exploration.
Intriguingly, Chisu approaches still life subjects in both naturalistic and abstract styles. In his more naturalistic representations, Chisu often depicts voluptuous red, yellow, and green fruits set atop a table scattered with books and vessels. In his abstract still life paintings, the objects are flattened and reduced to essential geometric characteristics. One very clever painting, Still Life with Two Books (2014), playfully integrates both styles into one painting, with the naturalistic still life in the foreground and the abstract painting in the background. The painting makes a visual argument against any “either/or” position of stylistic representation. Unlike so many artists and critics who have taken sides as to the greater value of either abstraction or naturalism, Chisu’s painting proposes that artists can explore naturalism and abstraction together without contradiction.
Another intriguing development in his still life work takes a theological direction. In 1977, Chisu painted a still life entitled Still Life 2 (see Figure 1). A dynamic composition in earthy browns and warm yellow ochers, the painting in its complex geometry evokes a table densely covered with wine bottles, fruit, fish, books, and wine glasses.
Through a Catholic lens, a viewer might easily make Eucharistic connections. An abundant table, the Eucharistic symbols of wine and fish, warm colors stirring thoughts of hospitality and meals shared. The image itself is open to wide interpretation, some not religious at all. Nevertheless, as Jesus indiscriminately shared meals with saint and sinner alike, such a table seen through a Christian lens can be a profound place of encounter. Secular or sacred, Chisu’s Still Life 2 presents a meal ripe with the possibility of transformative encounter.
Flash forward 35 years and Chisu presents us with another theologically-rich still life entitled The Dove (see front cover). In some ways, The Dove is strikingly similar to Still Life 2. The shape of the table is the same in both paintings and some of the primary compositional elements are the same. And yet, the differences in the painting are both aesthetically and theologically remarkable.
Whereas Still Life 2 is busy with numerous shapes and objects, The Dove is less cluttered, without losing any dynamism. Gone are all the books and the fruit. Instead, we find a solitary cup, with a circle floating above. The plenteous wine bottles are nowhere to be found. In their place, we find instead a more sober presentation of what could be a single bottle of wine or perhaps a shape evoking a piano key and rhythm. The black rectangle that delineated the image of fishes in Still Life 2 is in the same place here; however, it is now a strong, clear uninterrupted blue rectangle, with the abstracted form of a dove in its center.
If Still Life 2 stirs the Catholic imagination to ideas of Jesus’ meal ministry and latent possibilities of building communion through the sharing of food, The Dove evokes the liturgy of the Eucharist. With its chalice and elevated host. With its balance of transcendent sky-blue otherness and inviting Mediterranean blue warmth. With its deliberate, reverent clarity counterpoised with rhythmic curves and lively angles. With its ingenious title The Dove sparking in our minds not only the freedom and presence of the Holy Spirit, but also that awe-inspiring moment of epiclesis transforming our lives and liturgy. With all of this, Chisu’s The Dove rises to theological grandeur.
How long does it take to distill an idea to its essence? Does it take a lifetime? Or is that the wrong question to ask? Is each expression of an idea appropriate to its time and rich in its own meaning? Thirty-five years separate Still Life 2 and The Dove and yet placed together each enriches the other. Through these still life paintings, Chisu gives us just a small glimpse of what our tables are capable of. He presents us with beautiful possibilities and perhaps stirs a more challenging self-reflective question, “What kind of spirit can be found at my table?”
Like an orchestra our mouths
rejoice receiving the Lord
who created the spheres
and the harmony that turns
and tunes them in perfect pitch.
As hands open
and then enshrine the Lord of Hosts
congregations worldwide strum
the music of adoration.
God’s holy people are his choir,
the polyphony of his creation,
but his voice the solo,
the virtuoso they follow.
James Martin, SJ
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2017
A Give Us This Day Book
88 pp., $7.95
The Jesuit James Martin needs no introduction. In fact, the popular writer and commentator on contemporary Catholicism seems to be just about everywhere these days. Late last year, I caught a National Public Radio news program on the drive home one evening. I tuned in mid-interview and heard a familiar voice responding to a question raised by the host about Pope Francis’ suggestion that the phrase “Lead us not into temptation . . .” in The Our Father needed to be retranslated for greater accuracy. It was Jim Martin!
Martin, the editor-at-large of America, is the author of many books including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (2012), Jesus: A Pilgrimage (2014), and Building a Bridge (2017), on dialogue between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community. In All Seasons, For All Reasons is his latest.
In All Seasons, For All Reasons is a collection of 67 reflections Martin penned for the “Teach Us to Pray” column in the monthly worship aid Give Us This Day, along with an Introduction and an Afterword. Its starting-point is the disciples’ earnest plea to Jesus in Luke 11:1, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The book is not a formal treatise on prayer but a “collection of brief essays . . . [exploring] many ways to pray — in all seasons and for all reasons” (11). The underlying thesis is that there is no single way to pray — the prayer equivalent of “one size fits all” — but a multiplicity of ways, for God meets us where we are, as Martin states in the Introduction.
Martin divides the essays into three sections: “A Rich Tradition,” “For All Reasons,” and “In All Seasons.” He begins by appreciating the richness and variety of our Catholic prayer life — devotional, Scriptural, and Eucharistic.
Most of the topics in the first part of the book will be familiar to Catholics. They include rote prayer; devotion to Mary and the saints; the rosary; the examination of conscience; lectio divina; Scripture; the Mass as prayer; Eucharistic adoration; sacred images and icons; guardian angels, etc. (I was intrigued by “The Colloquy,” an essay which highlights the prayer of friendship with God that is integral to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
Martin’s reflections are informative, inviting, uplifting. They are also short. The scope of themes presented in so few pages is impressive. For those wanting to go deeper or to know more about a particular topic or aspect of prayer, other sources can provide the depth. James Martin’s book is a beginning — and a very good one at that! It would be especially helpful, I believe, to those new to the faith in the time of post-initiation mystagogy.
Anthony Schueller, SSS
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2017
119 pp., $19.95
With Light in the Darkness: Preparing Better Catholic Funerals, Father Paul Turner has now written on every liturgical ritual of the Roman Rite. Compiled from a series of talks he did for dioceses on the Order for Christian Funerals (OCF), this excellent resource should be required reading for those in parish ministries responsible for planning the three parts of the funeral liturgy.
Turner laments that most families do not wish to celebrate the parts of the whole OCF, and encourages better support to help families through the process of grieving in ways that hold true to the vision the Church has for the OCF. Understand that this will take a significant investment of time, energy, emotion, and compassion on the part of the pastoral staff and the sacramental minister. Grieving families intuit when this type of commitment is not present and will choose to not celebrate all three parts rather than take part in superficial rituals just because it suits the pastor.
This book emphasizes the sensitivity that the pastoral staff must have as well as the aspects necessary for a well-rounded parish funeral ministry. Turner guides us through the process and shares personal stories and experiences, such as when a family thought they were getting a rosary and instead “did it wrong” by celebrating the Vigil. Turner makes helpful suggestions to navigate the planning process with families and to ensure that all the stages are celebrated well, even with others participating in the liturgies (and not necessarily with a priest present for all three parts of the OCF).
Several “Handouts for Mourners” are included at the end of the book, which are also available for free distribution on the Liturgical Press website. The topics for catechesis are “Going to Confession,” “When to Contact the Parish about a Funeral,” “What Should a Catholic Know about Cremation,” “Letter to Families Concerning Financial Offerings” (the donation suggestion and not “fees”), “Words in Remembrance — Crafting What You’d Like to Say,” “The Procession to the Cemetery,” and “The Rite of Committal with Lowering of the Coffin.” While there could be other items for this catechesis, these are helpful new resources for use in planning the OCF and in supporting families in their grief.
This book helps those in grief to move forward in hope, against the backdrop of belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and of their loved one.
John Thomas Lane, SSS
Pastor, Saint Paschal Baylon Church
Highland Heights, Ohio
Antonio Martinez, SJ,
with David Warden
Foreword by James Martin, SJ
New York, New York: Paulist Press, 2017
152 pp., $18.95
After successfully passing the bar exam in Texas, Antonio (T. J.) Martinez, who felt drawn to the Jesuits while a student at Boston College, entered the novitiate of the Southern Province of the Society of Jesus. After his novitiate, a three-year regency at Dallas Jesuit High School, and theological and pastoral studies at Weston School of Theology, he was ordained to the priesthood in 2007. He was surprised when he was then sent to Harvard University to earn a Master’s Degree in Education, which he completed in half the usual time.
Then came the surprise of his life! Anticipating that he would go on for further studies, his provincial instead appointed him the president of Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston. He was then told that he had no money, no land, no building, no faculty, no board, and no students. It was his job to get Cristo Rey up and running in Houston.
The Cristo Rey schools were developed by the Jesuits. Presently, there are almost 30 of them across the country. They are designed to provide economically-poor children with a quality college preparatory education. The students hold a job and work one day a week. The money they earn helps to pay for their education. Many of these jobs become a type of internship which exposes the students to the possibilities of their place in the world that they would not, without the Cristo Rey experience, ever have imagined. The school also raises additional funds through attracting the support of philanthropic individuals, corporations, and foundations. Cristo Rey has a rigorous academic program and creates the kind of school spirit which offers the students a very positive sense of self.
Martinez went to work and after seven years of his leadership, the school had an enrollment, a state-of-the-art building, a 100% rate of graduates attending college, a whole host of internship sites, a wonderful reputation in Houston, and a very involved and generous board who attracted many philanthropic persons and foundations to support its mission. At the end of his time as president, Martinez received very bad news: he was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer.
This book is Martinez’s legacy to the students who would continue to find a future for themselves at Cristo Rey long after he was gone.
It is clear from his writing how much Martinez loved the community of Cristo Rey, its students, faculty, and board. He was their ambassador to the larger community who were impressed when they heard the school’s story, its mission, and its success. There is a wealth of Jesuit spirituality which Martinez passed on to the students. He impressed upon them the need to examine their lives, to see God in all things, and to consistently try to make themselves better (Magis) and to assist others in that same growth.
Father Martinez died in November 2014 before the book was finished. He was 44-years-old, a Jesuit for 18 years, and a priest for seven years. He gave the task of completing the book to a close friend and collaborator, David Warden. Martinez, the founder and animator of Cristo Rey Jesuit of Houston, lives on in this book and will continue to inspire and encourage generations of students to come.
It is an inspiring book about the passion of one man to radically change the destiny of young people whose lives were mired in poverty and hopelessness. His message to the students of Cristo Rey can be an inspiration to everyone who works with children and youth.
Patrick J. Riley, DMin
Book Review Editor, Emmanuel