Eucharist & Culture (November/December 2020)

Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books

Art Review

Leonardo Da Vinci
c. 1500
charcoal on paper

John Christman, SSS

Grandmothers, mothers and children, we are all somehow connected within that web of relationships. Christian art and theology may have been slow to embrace this basic reality, concerned as it was for centuries with Christological distinctions and controversies. It seemed that icon representations of Christ depicting his divine and human natures, or Christ as Pantocrator — judge and ruler of the universe — were commonplace. The thirst was for the divine and the exulted. Mary too was given theological and aesthetic grandeur, as Theotokos — the God bearer — with her image raised high into the upper dome of churches and basilicas. These images no doubt have their historical importance as well as theological merit. But when we encounter Duccio’s famous Madonna and Child from 1300 Italy, where the Christ child held by his mother Mary, still surrounded in the gold-leaf of an icon, breaks with convention and reaches out to touch his mother’s veil, we glimpse something new and something as old as humanity itself. We glimpse a very simple and relatable human gesture of a mother and her child.

Some historians see these types of details as the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance with its penchant for humanism, the full flowering of which can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist. Here we see a family, formal in its visual composition, but at the same time not unlike a scene we might observe in our own family gatherings. Leonardo’s preparatory drawing for this painting, known as The Burlington Cartoon, with its focus more upon the manner in which the figures are relating to each other rather than the setting makes this subject all the more relatable.

How often have you seen a mother sit closely to her daughter and her daughter’s newborn child at a family reunion or Christmas gathering? The newborn baby draws the attention of young cousins and toddlers. It’s a delightful scene which loses nothing for being commonplace. Here Leonardo, like in Michelangelo’s famous Pieta, pictures a mother with her adult child on her lap. Saint Anne conveys strength and wisdom as a new grandmother, her daughter Mary seated upon her knee. For her part, Mary supports her child as he reaches out to his curious cousin, John. It’s a beautiful moment, captured in time almost like a snapshot, and kept alive and fresh with the energy of Leonardo’s line. It’s lovely to observe how Leonardo’s lines are at times searching and elsewhere as natural as the drapery he depicts.

For those seeking Christological distinctions in such a family portrait, Leonardo offers some symbolic gestures. Saint Anne points to the heavens, and in a sense, to the author of all things, as she gazes with a smile upon her daughter. Jesus reaches out to John the Baptist, his hand raised in the gesture of a blessing. Christian symbols are there to be seen and they create a deeper meaning and context. But there is also the unfolding human drama, a journey from childhood, to adulthood, to maturity and wisdom; all portrayed in an atmosphere of love and belonging.

Belonging is so important. We can feel adrift or lost in the world without a sense of belonging; belonging to a community, belonging within a faith tradition, belonging to a family. We seek this sense of belonging, so evident in Leonardo’s drawing… woven together from grandparent, to parent, to child. Of course, we cannot forget, belonging begins first and foremost within the loving embrace of God. With God we always belong. What’s beautiful about the incarnation, about Jesus’ birth within the human family, is that God chooses mutual belonging. Jesus wants belonging among us. And in Leonardo’s drawing, we see a glimpse of the love, peace, and trust that this belonging brings.


Child’s Reflection

I remember a day when my son was two
I remember him looking at a picture
as though it were a face he clearly knew.
Squealing and clapping with delight thrilled at the sight
of the loving glance of the child pictured on the wall.

I couldn’t help thinking that a mere two years before
my son embraced that child, the source of us all.

Now, when life blurs Jesus’s caring face,
I stop and remember that day long ago
when my son was two and the lesson he taught me
To pause and recall
The promise of joy in our original birthplace.

Dr. Patricia Chehy Pilette

Book Reviews

Philip C. Kolin
Cascade Books/Poem Poetry Series 30
Eugene, OR

Set aside any preconceived notions of poetry for none will hold when it comes to Philip Kolin’s Reaching Forever. If you’re looking for meaning as in looking for keys or looking for a bargain, step away from those preconceived notions about poetry. Immerse. Plunge. Dive-in and fold into the poems, for therein lies a source of understanding of our Christian faith as experienced in water, the seasons, wolves, sheep and God’s voice — all heading titles of sections, familiar subjects to Christians. But then comes the poetry.

Kolin takes the ordinary and mystifies it through analogy and metaphor. It is quickly understood but lasts … well … forever. For example, the very first poem “Baptism” imagines God’s work from above. Waters surround continents and at the waters’ high point are coral reefs and fins and seagrasses. We must submerge ourselves to see the work on canvass of God-the artist. Let the meditation begin.

Kolin writes in a stream of water flowing gently then ripples over stones attracting our attention. “The Betrayer” places Judas in the scene after his betrayal hiding from sunlight and finally, “Judas spent his soul for a halter to hang himself.” His “unclaimed body is flung into a nearby ditch, filled with slime, not worth the price of a plot.” Kolin’s poetry has that strong hit that keeps you on the page long after the words have run-out.

“Pentecost on the Beach” brings a variety of people to a beach, a Jamaican, Vietnamese, Serbian boys, tourists, and “Each heard what the waves were saying.” In the words of Edmund Wilson, American writer and critic, “Art gives meaning to experience.” We would be a dense, pile of observers if we didn’t give meaning to what is always before us. Kolin captures a moment; we transform the moment into a narrative of our own making without words. So, sit-in, listen and relish his takes on Old and New Testament passages giving them another life for our contemporary world.

The title, Reaching Forever, images startling phrasing taking us to ‘forever’ and there lies much to give us pause.

Joe McCormack
Former teacher of writing and literature
Highland Heights, Ohio

Diana Macalintal
The Liturgical Press,
Collegeville, Minnesota

I have read a number of books about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) over the years. Many are very good and provide a wonderful theological foundation as well as liturgical understanding of the various rites related to the RCIA. Diana Macalintal’s work, however, in a very good way, is in a class onto itself. The book is relatively easy to read, without being simplistic. It presumes the reader has a basic understanding of the RCIA and more than likely has had some experience on the parish level with the RCIA. That being said, the work does not stand on high ecclesial language, demand a strict adherence to a process that has been traditionally used in pastoral settings, nor does it demand specific content being covered as would be the case in most academic programs.

Rather, the author understands that the content of faith, while important and necessary, is best learned not in the traditional presentation model, but rather an adult learning style of experience, dialogue, and opportunity for engagement. The premise of the book is that each and every parish has a curriculum already designed for the RCIA by simply using the rhythm of parish life as the opportunity for teaching. Engaging the inquirer in the life and ministry of the parish, steeping people in the day to day experiences of parishioners can and will teach more abundantly than we dare imagine. Macalintal does not suggest that experience alone will help the candidate come to an understanding of what it means to be Catholic. But, walking with them through the experience, providing the candidate with mentors, partners on the journey, will go a long way not only teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but will also so engage people that they will stay involved in the parish long after they step from the waters of new life.

I found chapters 3, 4, 5, to be enlightening and practical. Reading and re-reading these three chapters has helped this reviewer look again at the way the RCIA is handled in at least one local parish. The practicality of the book, born out of Diana Macalintal’s own lived experience with the RCIA, brings new insight, fresh perspective, and an approach that can truly interest maybe not everyone in the parish, but certainly more than we might think could be involved.

I believe this is an excellent resource for a parish staff, parish pastoral council, and those who are presently engaged in ministry with RCIA candidates and catechumens. It is a relatively easy read and if even only a few suggestions make it to the table, they can prove to be fruitful on two counts. First, for those who seek our way of life in the Catholic Church, they will find a welcome not to a “class or process,” but into the life of the community. Second, and equally as important, the parish community is bound to find blessing in recognizing the power of their witness through their involvement in the parish.

Rev. Thomas M. Dragga, D. Min,
Pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Solon, Ohio
Director of Office of Ongoing Formation Formation for Clergy, Diocese of Cleveland

Diarmuid O’Murchu
Orbis Books
Maryknoll, N.Y.

O’Murchu’s mantra is “coming of age.” Reading the signs of the times in many countries, working with indigenous peoples, drawing insights from psychology and spirituality O’Murchu believes another level of human consciousness is birthing. Instead of using the phrase, “we come into the world,” he says, “we are going out to the world, the whole cosmos.” For some of us this may stir memories of Anthony de Mello, SJ, repeatedly saying, “Wake up!”

The book is divided into two parts: Setting the Scene, and Revisioning Our Christian Story. The chapters have sections that have a rippling effect. The first part has twenty- nine. The second part has many more. Each section takes a theme: human development, the importance of the wisdom of the elders, Jesus as a human archetype, the subversion of parable narrative, miracles, new companionship of empowerment, and dozens more. He ripples them to affect a deeper understanding of what’s happening in us and the cosmos.

I’ll mention five of them, with the realization that I’m not even scratching the surface of his multifaceted wisdom. First, to repeat, “more than coming into the world, we are going out to the cosmos.” Our helpers in this are the elderly, the wisdom of the aged. We’ve forgotten that truth as we move so fast in the technological world. O’Murchu’s work with indigenous peoples opened his mind again to the wisdom of the elderly. Wisdom comes with age, not technology. The indigenous peoples have retained the knowledge and experience of the Great Spirit, Spirit persons, and they can help us into a relationship with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s movement today and throughout our history.

Think here of the “nones” and the nuns that are now becoming part of our social history. “Nones” state that they are not religious, but spiritual. Reflection and contemplation are part of their spiritual journey. “Nones” have gravitated to religious women who are in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Working together the nuns have invited the “nones” to days of reflection at their convents. “Nones” are spending days even weeks with the nuns to search together for a deeper contemplation in community.

The author places great importance on archetypes. He explains that archetypes are more than instinctive. They are an intuitive part of our being. Throughout history, authentic humans rediscover the deep reality of water, fire, air, earth, ether — symbols of the collective consciousness. O’Murchu has a long, involved, interpretation of the serpent in the Bible drawing from many different cultures. It is one of the most important and misunderstood archetypes (187-188). Especially interesting is his explanation of Jesus as the archetypical human.

In the second part, one section stresses the understanding of Jesus’ instruction, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” The Catholic Church needs to stress this more. Jesus spoke once in a temple. He was outside, on a lake, with a crowd, at meals, etc. Sometimes the Church can become myopic or closed in on itself. That can limit the Church and its mission. “Seek first the kingdom of God.” That was Jesus’ mission.

O’Murchu also takes a deeper biblical understanding of the role of women in the early Church. He uses Phoebe as an example. She worked closely with Paul. Paul even sent her to Rome with his letter to the Romans. O’Murchu stresses that Phoebe didn’t just take the letter to them. She read it to many different groups and explained it to them. Women were very involved in the spreading of Christianity in the early Church. This changed after the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73.

O’Murchu closes his book with a plea, a need to recover the ancient wisdom of closeness to nature, and to extend our vision of the Spirit’s movement beyond ourselves, our nation, and into the cosmos. Of the ten or more books I have read as to where we are moving as Christians, this is the best.

Marie Vianney Bilgrien, SSND
El Paso, TX

About Various Authors