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Pondering the Sanctification of Our Ways (On Hobbit Day)

It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, hqdefaultI have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)

My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche andnativity_icon1-227x300 my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)

And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.

When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237).  As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:

  • A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
  • Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
  • Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
  • And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
  • Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.

(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)


“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)

Endearing, Pippin. But according to Tolkien, I can’t love you for the sake of second breakfast alone.

It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.

Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.

screen_shot_2014-10-16_at_4.23.10_pm__largeThe Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).

So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings  stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate  sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”

The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:

“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—thetumblr_lg5u8beBEh1qgb6vio1_500ir paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).

It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.

Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.

For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. F7e19f0098d7cf5dd31615656e13915aaor like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).

Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.


Marshall McLuhan and Liturgical Change

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Working on a manuscript I’m writing (On Praise), I’m reading for the first time, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. The book is an at times rambling analysis of how media (in the broadest sense) has shaped the world. He writes, about the introduction of phonetic writing:

The full-blown city coincides with the development of writing–especially of phonetic writing, the specialist form of writing that makes a division between sight and sound. It was with this instrument that Rome was able to reduce the tribal areas to some visual order. The effects of phonetic literacy do not depend upon persuasion or cajolery for their acceptance. This technology for translating the resonating tribal world into Euclidean lineality and visuality is automatic. Roman roads and Roman streets were uniform and repeatable wherever they occurred (138).

MarshallMcLuhanThe advent of uniform writing, the capacity to move words across space and time, led to the development of roads, which were as uniform as text itself. While McLuhan may be over-estimating the uniformity of Latin in the ancient world, his broader point that written texts create uniformity that extends to the rest of society is intriguing (and seems true). For McLuhan, developments in media are not simply about the production of new content but have an effect upon the rest of social life (and ultimately what it means to be human).

Drawing on McLuhan’s insight, one may need to look anew at liturgical change in the Church. Liturgical evolution, one might say, is always the result of the introduction of new forms of media. When the liturgy is “translated” into the fourth century Basilica, liturgical prayer will necessarily change. When the monastery becomes the center of civilization in medieval Catholicism, liturgical prayer will take on a distinct approach related to monastic approaches to reading. When the book of Common Prayer is introduced in England, the nature of liturgy itself changes (such uniformity of text, perhaps, leading to the early iconoclasm of this period).

This raises the possibility that the Second Vatican Council was not simply a response to the results of liturgical research into the development of rites. McLuhan himself argues this in The Medium and the Light: Reflection on Religion:

Latin wasn’t the victim of Vatican II; it was done in by introducing the microphone. A lot of people, the Church hierarchy included, have been lamenting the disappearance of Latin without understanding that it was the result of introducing a piece of technology that they accepted so enthusiastically. Latin is a very ‘cool’ language, in which whispers and murmurs play an important role. A microphone, however, makes an indistinct mumble intolerable; it accentuates and intensifies the sounds of Latin to the point where it loses all of its power. But Latin wasn’t the mike’s only victim. It also made vehement preaching unbearable. For a public that finds itself immersed in a completely acoustic situation thanks to electric amplification, hi-fi speakers bring the preacher’s voice from several directions at once. So the structure of our churches were obsolesced by multi-directional amplification. The multiple speakers simply bypassed the traditional distance between preacher and audience. The two were suddenly in immediate relation with each other, which compelled the priest to face the congregation (143-44).

The introduction of new media, whether we are aware of it or not, fundamentally changes the liturgy. We can’t throw up screens in our churches, without changing what the liturgy is about (the medium is the message). We can’t use Twitter in homilies, without changing the function of liturgical preaching. We can’t introduce the folk hymn into liturgical prayer, without shaping what liturgical singing consists of.

Although not entirely conscious of it, perhaps the desire for “more AdOrientemtraditional” liturgical rites is in fact a response to the rise of the internet, social media, and the IPhone alike. In a world that involves constant engagement with media, perpetual encounter with image, the use of Latin in the liturgy is a return to a kind of “coolness” where whispers rather than total clarity of speech are available. Ironically, in this age, the priest turning away from the assembly, toward the cross, may be an invitation toward deeper participation by the assembly rather than exclusion.

Liturgical change, therefore, must be understood not simply through theological categories. But, the evolution of liturgical rites (and the arguments about these rites in the present) must attend to the introduction of new forms of media that fundamentally change what it means for us to worship God. The struggles that we have in maintaining ecclesial membership today, of Mass attendance, may have a lot to do (perhaps) with the way that the “new media” has formed us for a type of liturgical participation that is not available in the rites that we celebrate.

Liturgical celebration where full, conscious, and active participation is understood as listening to the words, speaking and singing your part, and doing your gestures may demand a kind of participation that only the really engaged can perform. Yet, the internet forms us in a kind of participation where we click upon hyperlink, that leads to hyperlink, that leads to hyperlink. We move from thought to thought, image to image, not like reading across a page but more like in a spiral of reflection. Perhaps, this is why something like Eucharistic adoration has seen new interest in the Church because its free-form approach to participation is more attuned to the way that we engage media in the postmodern world.

Such questions must be attended to by liturgical theologians and pastoral liturgists alike. Liturgical prayer will always exist, until the beatific vision, in a world of changing media. If we focus only the message, and not the media, then we can’t understand the developments that are happening among those in our churches today.

Plenitude of Reality

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer



Indeed apostolic preaching with all its boldness, and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside, with something entirely new and unforeseen. Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner mystical experiences. In all its boldness and originality, it draws life from the impact of an event no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)

Recently, I was leading a group of seniors at our high school in a discussion of Fr. Jim Martin’s “Six Paths to God”, detailed in his The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. After briefly recapping what we had discussed the day before, the students’ assignment was for each of them to identify which path they were on, and to journal for several minutes about said path. Suddenly, I had a revolt on my hands.

From all corners of the room, complaints were volleyed at me: Ms. Roden, Ms. Roooodeeeennnnn, why do we have to do this? One student’s voice rose above the throng, protesting that this course was supposed to be a chance for the students to reflect on their own lives, and was not supposed to be “just another religion class.” According to my student, religion had absolutely no application to their story whatsoever, and it was an oppressive waste of their time to make them reflect on religion at all. “And I’m not the only one that thinks that; I’m just the only one that’s saying.”

In the (surprisingly fruitful) discussion that ensued, I found that my students’ attitude towards religion shed some light on my own attitude towards Resurrection.

In daily speech, I often find myself using the death and Resurrection DeathandResurrectionof Christ as symbols of sorts. “Death and Resurrection” is a template for our spiritual lives, it provides a lens through which to view the failures and triumphs of our lives. We see the pattern of death and resurrection stamped into the natural world all around us. They are a mystic blueprint through which I can understand my own story.

This is, perhaps, why the Paschal Triduum is so moving. Because they are not about the pattern of Death and Resurrection, but they are about a death of one man. The focus of the Triduum liturgies is the actual moment in history when Jesus was crucified. During this time, we address the fact that this story happened, to a particular person who was not us, in a particular moment that is not now. So, in this sense, my students are correct: this is a story that is not theirs. It is a concrete reality outside of their own experience.

The Triduum begins with this particularity: with the stories of the Passover meal, and then the horrible tragedy of crucifixion. These are images we can understand, we can grasp. We know what it is to share a meal with a community, we can watch a re-enactment of the Christ being scourged; we have all seen men and women in pain; we look at images of Jesus of Nazareth nailed to the cross every single day. These are images within the boundaries of our imagination.

When the Easter Vigil mass begins, however, we have entered a more mysterious realm. The Resurrection eludes the grasp of our comprehension; its relationship to history is not as simple as Jesus’ life and death. Pope Benedict XVI describes the Resurrection:

As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless had its origin in history, and, up to a point, still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history, but has left a footprint in history. Therefore, it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new  kind. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)

What exactly is this event?

The Gospel narratives of the Resurrection indicate the novelty and mystery of this moment: the Resurrected Christ eats fish and breaks bread with them, and still bears the wounds of the Cross, yet He also walks through closed doors, and even His dearest friends and closest companions fail to recognize Him.

The Resurrection was not just a human being “coming back” from the dead, but a human being moving forward, past this life, past the end of this life, into a new life with God, as Sam Bellafiore touched upon in his article on Resurrection and Harry Potter: Resurrection means moving forward into new life, not just the old life returning. Benedict XVI describes it as an “ontological leap.” The Resurrection impacted the world in a way that Lazarus’ return to life did not. For Lazarus would die once again, but Christ will die no more.

This is an event beyond the realm of our imagination. I can picture the crucifixion, I am moved by the images that present themselves of the Suffering Servant. But images of the Resurrection lack that pathos, and they somehow fail to capture the glory of what it means to be a risen man–one who will die no more, who has passed to whatever lies on the other side of death. This new leap into the future, a new mode of being with God; a new mode of being alive baffles our imaginations.

ResurrectionBut, the Resurrection was not just a moment of glory for Christ alone. It is truly God’s triumph of love for the entire human race. God submitted to the bonds of death, which the human race imposed on each member through sin. But, through His love for us that feared no death, He broke a barrier, and opened a new way of being, of union with God. The mechanics of the Resurrection defeats my imagination and intellect, and I imagine it did the Apostles as well, but the potency of the event occurring has not diminished, even til today.

We are, most of us, all too familiar with the words of Paul that sprinkle the Easter liturgies: If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again. (Romans 6:8-9) And too often, I think of these words as a vague promise of life after death. The Resurrection of my own self seems to be in the future. But that is not what Paul is saying. He is proclaiming to the New Church that the lives they are living right now are transformed by Christ’s Resurrection. We, too, can live in this ontological leap forward, in this new union with God.

The entire world has been transformed, now that this new mode of being has opened up, now that Christ has opened up this life with God, all of us are invited into it here and now. The Apostles were essential in spreading not only the good news of Christ’s Resurrection, but in spreading, in fact, the Resurrection. Their role in the Resurrection is essential and irreplaceable. And so, too, is ours. Apostolic teaching in all its vigor was driven by their knowledge that the Resurrection, by necessity, has remade the whole world. It is not just that Christ’s Resurrection makes us impervious to death after death, it is that Christ’s Resurrection opens up to us a way of being that is Resurrection.

The entire point of Christ’s death and Resurrection is that so we might have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10) right now. The Resurrection is not simply a prophecy of what we may inherit after death; it is an event that has drastically shaken the core of human existence.

Thus, as I suggested to my students, perhaps the stories outside of our own can shed light on the narrative of our lives. And, if we give these stories a chance, we may be shocked to discover that they are an essential part of our own story. The story of the Resurrection has a starting point: the third day, when Christ left behind an empty tomb, but there is no ending. We are living in the story right now. Each day, we are living in the Resurrection, and the Resurrection requires our participation, because the Messiah suffered these things so that not just he, but we, might enter into His glory (Luke 24:26).

Liturgical Polarization: Is All Beauty Subjective?

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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In our series thus far on liturgical polarization, we have dealt both with the diagnosis of the problem (the applying of a political ideology to liturgical practice), together with a reasonable assessment of the translation of the Roman Missal (refusing to elevate the process of translation to perfection, while also recognizing the many fruits of the translation in the life of the Church). The hope, thus far, is that I have avoided falling into ideology, a temptation that Pope Francis himself bemoans in politics, social life, and the Church itself.

But, the question of what constitutes “beauty” in liturgy raises the stakes relative to liturgical polarization. Indeed, the problem of judging the beautiful  is not unique to the liturgy. The humanities themselves seems to have given up on the project as a whole.  As Roger Scruton writes:

“It is true…that people no longer see works of art as objects of judgement or as expressions of the moral life: increasingly many teachers of the humanities agree with their incoming students, that there is no distinction between good and bad taste, but only between your taste and mine” (Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, 84).

DuChampIn liturgical art, this means that anything is potentially beautiful and thus acceptable for worship if there is some group of people, who find the piece of art beautiful. All liturgical music that is published is potentially beautiful as long as the liturgy or music director says that it is (and people enjoy singing it). All liturgical architecture is beautiful if there are members of the assembly who experience a space as beautiful.

Yet, the dilemma of assessing liturgical beauty is not merely a matter of the subjective turn in aesthetic taste. Rather, an additional source of polarization is an argument over form and function. That churches exist solely for the sake of liturgical action, and thus their “sacredness” is dependent upon the activity of the People of God. A space or piece of music should be “beautiful” but the measure of what makes such a space or piece of music “beautiful” is the quality of worship that is facilitated among those gathered. Thus, every church should be made in a circle insofar as it facilitates the act of singing. Every hymn should be sung by everyone, which means that a certain repertoire of music no longer is appropriate for worship (Palestrina, William Byrd, and even James MacMillan). Any architecture used, any musical style employed is necessarily sacred. And implicitly, the closer that this style is to daily life, to what we experience on the radio or in work, the better.

SchwarzIn recent years, there has been a reaction against functionalism and the elimination of the category of the sacred in liturgical art. Duncan Stroik in his “Ten Myths of Contemporary Sacred Architecture” writes:

From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet his people in sacred places. The ‘holy ground’ of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room, and other holy places…As a place set apart for the reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental, having as its focus the sanctuary, which means ‘a holy place.’ Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and the ambo, and the art are all referred to as ‘sacred,’ so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore, to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the building should help to engender (The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 64).

That is, it is not enough to say that the People of God is the source of splendor within the Church. Instead, matter itself is integral to worship, to fostering the disposition of reverence. Human beings within the Church are beautiful but so also are stones, crosses, sound, space, and color (to name a few). And there are ways of organizing such matter in artistic form that are not simply to be sloughed off in the name of the avant-garde.  To say that it is those within the Church who are the source of beauty, to deny that styles and forms of art are part and parcel of the tradition of the Church, is to ultimately deny that matter and history, well, matters.

But, of course, we have wandered into yet another area of polarization. That is, perhaps the real problem with liturgical aesthetics is that it is impossible to celebrate beautifully within the context of the reformed rites. That the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council destroyed traditions; and the only thing to do is to return to an exclusive celebration of the Extraordinary Form. Only then will the rich tradition of liturgical beauty be restored to the Church.

Thus, the possibility for polarization within liturgical prayer relative to beauty is three-fold.

  1. Beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, and thus there is no way to have a reasonable conversation about what constitutes beauty in worship. What I like, I like. What you like, so be it.

  2. What really matters in liturgical beauty is not outdated categories like the sacred. Instead, the source of beauty in any act of worship may be found exclusively in the people who are gathered in the assembly. The category of the “sacred” should be done away with.

  3. The Extraordinary Form alone can restore the beauty of the Church. Liturgical ugliness results from the reformed rites.

Transcending polarization will necessitate some sort of response to these three “potentially” polarizing assumptions.

A Non-Polarized Liturgical Aesthetics

1. Beauty Is Objective…We Learn to See It in Christ

Within the framework of the Catholic liturgical and sacramental imagination, it is problematic to simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for two reasons. First, there is an objective source of revelation in Catholicism, the beauty of Jesus Christ. Second, the tradition of art within the Church is not simply to be dismissed insofar as it presents to us an incarnate account of what constitutes salvific beautiful.

Jesus Christ is the source of all conversations about beauty within Catholicism. What is revealed is the total, agapic and erotic, love of God. It is a form of love that humanity could not construct upon its own. The crucifixes within our churches are not intended to make us feel guilt for the suffering of the Son. Instead, they manifest to us a new way of perceiving the entirety of creation itself. As Hans ur von Balthasar writes:

…the paradoxical events with which God ‘shocks’ sinful man are seen as an invitation and stimulus to overleap the bounds of a closed world of finite ideas and to share in God’s self-manifestation and openness, something to which the creaturely condition itself points, though unable to attain it (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” 114).

An objective (and new) sense of beauty now orders the world. The beauty of a body given over in the totality of love. A beauty that is never simply a judgement subject to culturally-inscribed taste. God’s total self-giving love is the origin of all that is beautiful. And now the beauty of the created world itself can only be understood in light of Christ’s self-giving love. As I have written elsewhere, “A Christian notion of beauty is not an idea or an abstraction. It is a deeper immersion into the particularities of the mystery of divine love enshrined in salvation history…” (Liturgy and the New Evangelization, 118).

ArtAnd this objective sense of beauty has itself taken flesh in art, which is inscribed in specific cultures. The problem with the plainness of so many churches today, of the less than poetic images of the hymns that we sing, of presiding styles that put more emphasis upon the prelate’s own self than Christ, is that it detracts from what is revealed in Christ. The tradition of liturgical art is valuable in that it enshrines for us the Church’s centuries own reflection upon this beauty. The aesthetics of liturgical practice (the structure of Eucharistic prayers and the rituals performed), incarnate in the rites of the Church, also form us to see this beauty.

Thus, not only is there is an objective sense of beauty within Catholicism. But, we can learn to see such beauty through the artistic tradition of the Church. To reject these traditions because we perceive them as “too old,” “antiquated,” not sufficient for expressing our sense of beauty today is as dangerous as denying that the specific language of Christian doctrine matters. We will lose some aspect of our capacity to contemplate the beautiful One when we get rid of Romanesque and Baroque churches, crosses that present the beauty of the crucified one, altar pieces that provide grist for the imagination, and music that gifts us with the ability to see how time itself is taken up into the transcendent.

2. The Sacred Matters

Though related to the previous point, it is essential to recognize that the category of the sacred cannot be done away without denying the  graced orientation of creation itself. “Natural” religion reveals something about what human beings need in order to worship. There are moments of our lives, which necessarily stand apart from others. We are born, we make a life time commitment, we have a child, we experience illness, we retire from our career, and we approach death. “Sacred” spaces, spaces apart, are not contrary to the intimate union of love made possible through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, nature itself is lifted up and transformed in the process.

NewYorkSaintPatricksIn this way, the various possibilities of religious experience must be employed if art is to be beautiful. Contemporary liturgical art too often reduces human experience only to the intimate, to music that does not strike one with awe, to art that is folksy. Our churches are small in size. They have walls that recall not a grand basilica or a mighty cathedral but a quiet, sleepy office building. The music is not an icon, an experience of participating in heavenly worship, but feels more like a protest song on a city street. There are spaces for this form of music. But the reduction of religious experience to this one mode reduces what it means to be human before God.

Perhaps, it is this reason that natural religion still (at least for now) interrupts when young women and men want to get married in “traditionally” beautiful churches. And even those who are not interested in being married within such spaces still want to choose landscapes in which the drama of the commitment unfolds (beaches, mountain peaks, etc.).

For this reason, relative to liturgical beauty, it is acceptable to acknowledge the existence of the sacred, of that which “gives meaning to” the ordinariness of life. This does not mean that every piece of liturgical art must be expensive or comprehensible  only to the artistically literate. It simply means that we find things beautiful that are set apart, which enable us to have the variety of human experiences that are part and parcel of the religious life.

The total elimination of chant, of polyphony, of certain architectural motifs and sacred art from parishes, of the use of an organ, etc. is not simply a rejection of all art that has come before. Rather, it seems to say that the religious experience enshrined into ancient hymns and practices of chant and altarpieces and the use of incense and stained glass…well, it’s not authentic religious experience. Sacred art is sacred because it’s set apart; it’s beloved because it reveals to us something about what it means to be human in Christ.

3. The Aesthetics of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form

It is simply untrue (and ecclesiologically problematic) to say that only the Extraordinary Form offers a legitimate experience of beauty in liturgical prayer. It is often the case that those who celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass experience a less than beautiful event. The music is often poorly done, the preaching is aesthetically (and theologically) repugnant, and the space feels more like a living room.


Yet, the young adults whom I have taught this semester at Notre Dame (in a course on liturgy and aesthetics nonetheless) have made it clear that they find ample beauty in the worship of the Church today. They see the benefit of intimate gatherings in dorm chapels; massive spaces with professional choirs for the celebration of the Triduum; architecture that reflects the rich diversity of Catholic experience. They want the old. They want the new. They want both. Can we have both in the Church today? If we do, can we have them without leading to the other being perceived as “more authentic” than the other?

Liturgy is beautiful insofar as it is contemplative. That is, beauty is never simply a matter of “sensation.” It is not pleasure alone. We can gaze into the face of an elderly couple, holding hands while sitting in a park, and see beauty. The beauty that we perceive is not their wrinkled flesh. Rather, to see an old couple still holding hands is to encounter the beauty of a love that has lasted. Yet, if we move so quickly through the world that we cannot gaze upon this couple, that we cannot take a step back and contemplate this love, then we will not see the beauty.

The danger of the Ordinary Form of the Rite is that every space for contemplation is taken away by the choir, the presider, the announcements, etc. No space is given to perceive the beauty that unfolds in the silence of the heart. Every verse of every hymn must be sung by everyone (and if the liturgical action is not finished, the hymn must begin again). The words of the hymns themselves seem to say everything, leaving little room for mystical silence (as one finds in the great liturgical poetry of the tradition). If the Extraordinary Form has anything to “teach” us who practice the Ordinary Form, it is to make room for this contemplative silence. The kind of silence that Aidan Kavanagh notes:

“…is not the embarrassed, barren, uncontrolled lack of sound which occurs when things break down and no one knows what to say or do. Liturgical silence is purposeful, pregnant, and controlled–the thunderous quiet of people communicating that which escapes being put into mere words” (Elements of Rite, 51).

That being said, the pedagogical dialectic will go both ways. The gift of the Ordinary Form (when done well) infuses the beauty of ordinary life into the liturgical celebration. Of families bringing up gifts to the altar. Of men and women offering their voices to the living God in hymns of praise. Of a community of disciples gathered together to participate in the breaking of the bread.

These are not mutually exclusive visions within Catholicism. In fact, anyone who says that only one offers the proper vision, the proper sense of what it means to be Catholic, has failed to see the most frustrating reality of Catholicism: that there are often multiple goods, which seem contradictory, but must be perceived together.

This last point will bring us to our final column in our series on liturgical polarization: priesthood and laity.

Joseph, Husband of Mary: Model of Fidelity

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney
’14 MTS Candidate 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

What do you get when a high school theology teacher marries theology grad student?


A ton of religious art.

Get it? If not, a quick look around my apartment would show you that this isn’t just a bad joke, it’s the reality of what your friends think to buy when you major in theology. Outside of the dishware and bed sets that you register for at the domestic wonderland that is Bed, Bath and Beyond, unwrapping wedding presents can be a fun indicator of what your guests really think of you (I’m pretty rotten at giving original gifts and as such truly appreciate someone who possesses the skill). My wife Rylee and I soon discovered just how lucky we were in the company we keep. The general theme of gifts seemed to be religious art and wine and, lest our apartment resemble a bachelor pad, Rylee has insisted our décor emphasize the former rather than the latter. As such the holy statues, icons, nativity sets, and crosses that our friends and family sent our way have filled our little apartment with an intentionally Catholic décor, provided us with the opportunity to grow spiritually as we settle in domestically, and has made what were at first blank white walls radiate the comfort of home and Christ.

Throughout this time one image has begun to stand out above the rest. A particularly common theme, very appropriate as a wedding present for a young married couple, were images depicting the Holy Family. I have long had a love for Our Lady and Talladega Nights taught me the theological magnitude of the Baby Jesus. But as I’ve sat reading or writing on our couch, something else, or rather someone else, has increasingly drawn my attention from the icon hung on our wall. A figure generally relegated to the background has increasingly pressed forward and become the focal point of the image in my mind. More and more I have found myself drifting off in thought, eyes transfixed on the tall bearded figure of St. Joseph, lovingly embracing his wife and adopted son.

I can’t really claim to be unacquainted with St. Joseph. Having attended St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph High School, both of which are located in St. Joseph County and situated on the St. Joseph River, its safe to say I’ve heard of him once or twice. Even one of my favorite saints (evidence of 9 years of Holy Cross education), St. André Bessette, C.S.C.,  was known for his remarkable devotion to St. Joseph. And yet despite my best efforts and the cards being stacked completely in his favor, I’ve never really been able to connect with the world’s most famous carpenter.

This all began to change following our relocation to Massachusetts this August. The day after we were married, Rylee and I loaded everything we owned into a U-Haul truck. Romantic, I know. Then the next morning at 5 AM we rolled out of South Bend and headed for Boston. Before we had been married a month we had moved 1,000 miles across the country, settled in a new apartment, Rylee had started a new job, and I was knee deep in Karl Rahner, at work on my master’s degree. Talk about a whirlwind.

To say the process was at times disorienting would be a dramatic understatement. Trying to find any semblance of stability seemed impossible because everything about our new life together had to be handled in the short term, as temporary. Rylee and I were living in Boston, for now. I was working toward my MTS, for now. We were just starting out as a family of two, for now. But in what felt like less than a week the conversations among friends shifted from why we came to BC to where we wanted to do PhDs. I was just beginning the marathon that is grad school and had no real answer to the question, “What are you doing after this?” We had no idea where we would be in two years, let alone what I’d be doing at that point. But whatever the future held, it seemed impossible to see the MTS as anything but transitory, a waiting room for the real world that lay beyond.

On top of all this was the reality that I wasn’t just a student and this wasn’t just a continuation of my 4 years of college. I was a family man now and had as much of a responsibility to another person as I did to myself. This was one of the hardest places for me to find firm ground precisely because we were trying to figure out just what it meant to be a family when there are only two of us. I had so many wonderful examples in my life of what it meant to be a great father, but what I had failed to prepare for was how to be a great husband.

And so I sat, eyes locked on the image of Joseph. I didn’t seek him out, I didn’t know why my prayers turned to him. All I knew was that one night long after my wife went to bed exhausted from a day of teaching high schoolers, I sat up willing myself to read, increasingly aware that not only did academic success determine my livelihood, but also that of my family. My attention drifted upward, past the pages of the book in my hands to the far wall, and came to rest on Joseph, holding his wife with a strong, stable, and determined love that I knew was never overcome and never defeated by any adversity that came his way.

I finished my reading and went to bed. After I turned out my light, a lone image stood silhouetted against the white walls of our bedroom. Another image of the Holy Family, this one a beautiful wood carving, it sits atop our dresser and is the last thing I see every night before I shut my eyes. Carved from a single piece of wood, Joseph isn’t just the background; he is the canvas on which his family is grounded. Mary is carved from his side and the two are united as one. I paused for a moment as I looked at the statue, turned and put my arms around my wife. She is my stability. “This one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Together with her, I will build my family. My vows to her, made before God, are the commitment of a lifetime and the focal point of my life’s work.

Today is the feast of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. He was such an extraordinary husband that the Church proclaimed an annual feast to celebrate it. We don’t just remember him because he married an immaculate woman. We remember him because he lived out his vocation so completely that it brought him to God. He does not just blend in as the third person of the Holy Family. He shines out to husbands everywhere, holding up the example of how to fully commit oneself to the vocation and sacrament that is marriage.

In a time when nothing about where I am, what I am doing, or where my life is headed seems certain or stable, Joseph reminds me to look at the walls of this apartment, and most especially to the woman who made them a home, and remember that this is my vocation. Despite the fluidity the next few years may contain in terms of location and occupation, regardless of whether our family expands in 1 year or in 10, my commitment and my role is modeled for me perfectly in the life of St. Joseph.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

And the Nominees Are. . . Whiplash

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

Editors’ Note:

In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Harmed in the Making: Whiplash and the Ethics of Art

Whiplash is a story about choices. Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls as a freshman in fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City to study jazz drumming. The movie opens with the lights on Andrew, practicing in an otherwise dark room at the end of a hallway.

Faculty conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) covertly listens to Andrew, emerges from the dark hallway and chooses him to join his advanced ensemble. When Andrew comes for the first rehearsal, Fletcher replaces the upperclassmen lead drummer with Andrew. Fletcher encourages him, “The key is — relax. Don’t worry about the numbers or what the other players think. You’re here for a reason. You believe that, don’t you?”

Not for long. Within minutes, Fletcherwhiplash-scream has thrown a chair at Andrew and violently slapped him. He abuses his band, curses them out, makes them weep, sweat and bleed. Because of Fletcher, a former student commits suicide.

As the movie continues, it becomes clear why he does what he does.

The one thing he wants is to make someone into a “great.” Throughout the movie he and Andrew cite how conductor Jo Jones motivated saxophonist Charlie Parker by hurling a cymbal at him. Fletcher explains to Andrew:

Young kid, pretty good on the sax, goes up to play his solo in a cutting session, f***s up — and Jones comes this close to slicing his head off for it. He’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And practices and practices. With one goal in mind: that he never ever be laughed off-stage again. A year later he goes back . . . and he plays the best motherf***ing solo the world had ever heard.

In the same scene Fletcher articulates his philosophy, a moral imperative about talent:

Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is an absolute necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next [Louis] Armstrong. Its next Parker.

Fletcher’s violent pedagogy points out a dilemma. You can have Whiplash1healthy humans, ones whose hands aren’t bleeding from hours of practice, or you can have really good art.

Can we blame Fletcher for implicitly raising this thorny issue? Fletcher’s position shows that human goods often conflict and compete. Practicing the amount it takes to become an expert means giving things up.

At the beginning of college, Andrew still attends the movies weekly with his loyal father, a struggling writer. Not long after he starts in the new band, he ends the practice.

Andrew then forsakes his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet Fordham freshman who works at the movie theater.  After barely a date or two Andrew explains to Nicole why they can’t stay together. He wants to be great. He will keep practicing more, she’ll be upset with him for not spending time with her, so he’ll start resenting her. It’ll become a ball of hate and fall apart. So he ends it.

Nicole is one the filmWhiplash-6206.cr2’s few images of tenderness. She presents a hope that Andrew might hold back from subsuming his humanity in his art. She represents human-ness, a light in which Andrew could see himself first as a person, then an artist. But he can’t see this. She’s standing in front of his greatness.

As the movie continues, Andrew’s pride and obsession with drumming grow together. Fletcher continues his verbal, physical and emotional abuse, eventually gaining a psychological hold on Andrew. Andrew wants Fletcher’s favor, for which it turns out he is willing almost to die.

But what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.

“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie.  Whiplash sScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.39.16 PMhows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.

Why does Fletcher think this is his duty? The viewer learns little about him, except for a hint that he is estranged from his wife and daughter. Even without this estrangement, it’s not hard to imagine how art could overtake his worldview. Beauty’s power, sensibly more immediate than truth or goodness, charms the susceptible heart.

This heart can easily go astray. Beauty can soothe the savage breast or incite a new one. Art away from its human context won’t destroy people. But if people accept contextless art, they can destroy themselves with it.

This is, at least by my lights, what continues happening to Andrew. What is Whiplash‘s position on the problem of art and human life? Despite director Damien Chazelle’s remarks that the movie is a condemnation of abusive art training, Whiplash seems at best ambivalent about the apparent conflict:

Fletcher is fired from Shaffer for abuse, in part because of a report by Andrew’s father. In the scene where Fletcher explains his philosophy he also tricks Andrew into joining a new band for a major 356140951gig. It’s a retaliatory setup. He gives Andrew the wrong music so Andrew can make a fool of himself in front of New York. Andrew doesn’t take this quietly, but turns it into an opportunity to show up Fletcher. He interrupts his conductor and begins a solo.

Fletcher in turn doesn’t take this lightly, but begins to play Andrew’s game. Fletcher approaches the drum set and uses his prowess, knowledge, and psychological power over Andrew to elicit a remarkable solo, giving Andrew specific verbal and physical cues about how to perform. The result is exhilarating.

The screen blacks at the end of the solo. As at the beginning, the lights are focused on Andrew. But in the last shot, he’s now soaked in brilliant stage light and applauded by all the New Yorkers whose opinions matter. The light radiates on him. It’s glory. But it’s sickening glory, won only because Fletcher used his power to wrench greatness from Andrew. The film doesn’t seem to mind that cost.


The soundtrack — crisp, blazing, big band jazz — is one of Whiplash’s major highlights. Hours and years of hard practice produced that skill musicianship. In light of the movie’s questions, this music should make us wonder. A great soundtrack. At what cost?

Performing Beauty: What is Liturgical Beauty?

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am teaching an undergraduate and graduate level course on liturgical aesthetics (Performing Beauty: Liturgy, Theology, and Aesthetics–see the link for the syllabus). One of the key requirements of the graduate course is that students are required to keep a blog as they go along, enabling their learning to extend beyond our little community. Each week, I hope to feature a short collection of some of the “bests” of these blogs for your own reading. In this way, I hope that the question guiding our class (what is liturgical beauty) generates commentary among our readers here.



Cathy Pearce

Religion Department

West Catholic, Grand Rapids, MI   

What is Beauty?  

What is beauty but a moment stopped in time

Standing in awe of the spectacular painted sky

In the early morning to gaze at the glow

Of God’s bidding a kissed color-filled hello

What is beauty but a whiff of a scent

That causes one to turn and bend

The scent of aromatic fragrant care

Of a lilac, God’s gift to sweeten the air

 What is beauty but the sound of a child

Stirring in the pew in front of you

Who coyly reaches out with innocent care

A soggy cracker, a treasure for you to share.

 What is beauty but a chorus of one voice

The old and the young, the rich and the poor

In full anthem singing God’s glory

In sacred space together reflecting on the Story

 What is beauty but a God who forgives

Sharing Christ’s life and love in eternal sacrament

The Son’s body and blood poured out for our salvation

An ever abundant gift, a blessing for every nation…

Continue reading Cathy’s blog.


image1Katie Yohe

Providence Christo Rey School

Echo 11

When learning a new topic in the classroom, it is important to differentiate instruction as much as possible to ensure total engagement. It’s obvious to every teacher that you can’t give up on confused students, but rather try different approaches to reach them. And when participating in different liturgies, it is important to engage as many feasible signs to be as present and transforming as possible. The ideal situation would be a liturgical celebration exploding with signs of beauty. But what if it’s not exploding at first glance or listen? Just as it is usually up to the teacher to differentiate instruction based on the learners in the classroom, it is up to the worshipper to find the beauty in the celebration.

When I was attending Mass in Ghana in a crumbling cinderblock structure with a partially rusted and deteriorating tin roof, convinced the old, warped wood benches would collapse beneath me, it would have been easy to drift off and get distracted because at first glance the beauty couldn’t be seen anywhere! My gaze and wonder may not have been on any statue or monstrance made of Gold. Instead, my focus was swooped up by Christ’s presence in the drumming and the bright kente cloth sewn into the priest’s vestments.Sacrosanctum Concilium explains, “…It is necessary for the faithful [to come to the liturgy] with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace…” (10). Being in the right frame of mind allows the worshipper to find the beauty that is always present.

It is essential to continue learning and continue finding and experiencing the most efficacious way to glorify God (10). As intelligence can be achieved differently, the mystery of Christ can be participated in differently as well. However, because we are discussing God and our innermost desire to be in a loving relationship with Him, we want to participate in the Paschal Mystery with our entire being. From our eyes contemplating the stained glass window to our ears being engulfed with the hymn, the more senses activated and the higher level of activation means the more present we are at the table of the Lord. The importance of experiencing the liturgy as beauty is even more vital than creating a classroom full of learners to a teacher. It may not be noticeable at first, but whether you are teaching or preaching, the beauty is present in the learner and the liturgy. The key is finding the beauty in all things.

Continue reading Katie’s blog.

CReuterCaroline Reuter

Roncalli High School

Echo 11

Why are there benches in art museums, upon which people may sit and stare? Why, when listening to Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau do I desire to press “repeat” for days on end? Why, in encountering beauty, is there within me the desire to prolong the experience infinitely?

Beauty is that which draws one’s entire being towards contemplation, wonder and a deeper sense of reality. It leads a person beyond the confines of oneself. It provokes the desire to act on what has been seen or heard, to share the experience with another, and to transform one’s very self into something greater, into something more conformed to the beautiful itself. Beauty captivates not just the mind but the heart as well.

How might the beautiful be found in the liturgy? Certainly one might encounter beautiful music, architecture, artwork and stained glass. One may also experience more subtle expressions of beauty—in well-timed silence, in the careful unfolding and placement of a corporal on the altar, in the steady swaying of a thurible and the slow rise of smoke, and at the sight of masses of people simultaneously kneeling towards the elevation of one host.

However, although beauty in the liturgy is certainly possible and even desirable, is it necessary? How might beauty be an intrinsic element of the liturgy of the Church?

Liturgy may be defined as the official public prayer of the Church. The mystical Body of Christ, with Christ as its head and the Church as its members, unite as one flesh in the praise and worship of the Almighty God. Liturgy involves both God’s glorification and the sanctification of the members of Christ’s body (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10).

God’s very nature provides one answer to the question of beauty’s necessity. Encountering one of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty points one towards He who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The presence of beauty in a liturgy can lead to a desire for the Infinite, as well as a desire to know the origin of this beauty. He who is the source of all beauty, the Creator of the universe, is the same He towards which all of liturgy is oriented. Hence, liturgy, which by its definition leads one towards God, ought to involve the true, good, and beautiful, and never their opposites.

One characteristic of beauty is that it draws a person outside of oneself. Liturgy, likewise, has this aim—of transforming self-centeredness into gratitude at the wonder of one’s being and thanksgiving directed towards God. Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions that part of the Church’s very essence is directing the visible to the invisible (2). What is beauty within the liturgy, if not that which, through tangible means, draws the mind and heart towards the invisible God?

The Church, itself a visible sign of God’s presence on earth, is rooted in an incarnational worldview. The externals of our world matter, for God himself became visible in this same world.Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasizes the faithful’s awareness of the liturgy and of their being led to “fully conscious, and active participation…which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (14). How might full awareness of one’s participation—rather than just a bystander’s simple observation—in the mysteries of Christ be promoted? If one’s environment is elevated, if one walks into a liturgy and finds the atmosphere different than a school board meeting or a play, and if one is somehow drawn in and transformed by what is seen and heard, will not observation itself be transformed into participation? A full awareness of what the liturgy is can be promoted through the externals, through one’s surroundings. An elevated environment—one of order and harmony—promotes the elevation of one’s entire being and spurs one to a deeper consciousness of that which is really real. Would not one then want to “actively engage” in this beauty that is directed toward the Beautiful? (SC 11).

Continue reading Caroline’s blog.



Three Things We’re Reading: Fairy Tales, Epiphany, and T.S. Eliot

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1) Rowan Williams reviews three recent books on Fairy Tales for The New Statesmen, inviting us to consider the importance of fairy tales in modern life:

Perhaps the problem with specific fairy tales becoming our shared myths, in the sense Warner suggests, is that they turn so easily these days into dramas of the individual psyche with supernatural special effects: either leaving us in a world of paralysing moral ambiguity or (in the Disneyfied version) offering salvation through the discovery of unsuspected inner resources (we can all be what we most want to be). Against this, both the original fairy tales and the chaotic romance of the Arabic wonder stories present a world of sharper edges, larger shocks, and possibilities of unmerited help, as well as danger, from outside. And that, in one form or another, may turn out to be more like the mythology we really need.

2) A video posted by Fr. Robert Imbelli for the feast of Epiphany at Commonweal.

3) Another video featuring a reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi.


Three Things We’re Reading Today: St. Cecilia, First Nations, and Millennials

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

1) For the feast of St. Cecilia (November 22nd), read Rick Becker’s reflection at Catholic Exchange on St. Cecilia and Paul Simon:

Over the centuries, as these words were picked up and incorporated into liturgical prayers in various ways, they were truncated and misapplied. The old Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that “possibly the cantantibus organis was erroneously interpreted of Cecilia herself as the organist. In this way the saint was brought into closer relation with music.”

In time, artists began depicting Cecilia as seated at an organ and singing her lungs out – still her predominant iconography to this day. And then, in 1584, the clincher: The Roman Academy of Music adopted St. Cecilia as its patroness, and the die was cast. The entire universal Church soon embraced her as the special celestial intercessor for all musicians.

Sure, it’s all due to a misunderstanding and misattribution, but so be it. She has taken to the role quite admirably by all accounts, and, who knows? – maybe she really was an accomplished vocalist and musician. In any case, even if her singular role in heaven doesn’t match up exactly with her earthly journey, the mismatch doesn’t impinge on her ability to be a special friend and advocate for all those musically inclined.

I’d like to suggest we do something similar with Paul Simon’s song, despite its saucy theme. It’s a shame to avoid what is manifestly a buoyant, joyful tune – just the kind of music you’d want to revel in on St. Cecilia’s special day. It’s such a fun song, and hard not to tap your foot to it – the melody bounces along, and the accompanying grungy percussion along with Simon’s xylophone counterpoint give it an upbeat, happy feel. Can we spin it in such a way as to mute its offensive storyline?

2) NPR has a piece by Sylvia Poggioli on a recently restored painting at the Vatican (The Resurrection by Pinturicchio) depicting the first known image of Native Americans:

The fresco, The Resurrection, was painted by the Renaissance master Pinturicchio in 1494 — just two years after Christopher Columbus first set foot in what came to be called the New World.

Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, told the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano that after the soot and grime were removed, in the background, just above the open coffin from where Christ has risen, “we see nude men, decorated with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing.” One of them seems to sport a Mohican cut.

The image dovetails with Columbus’ description of having been greeted by dancing nude men painted black or red.


Though, Piggioli is quick to analyze the potential power dynamics of the image (the Pope as longing for the spoils of the new world), there is a deep theological meaning behind a piece of artwork depicting not only the Resurrection but early, Native Americans as somehow involved in the scene of Christ’s Resurrection.

3) The Atlantic Monthly does an analysis of why it’s hard for millennials to find a place to live and work. Worth reading, especially for those interested in parish demographic trends:

The Dayton-SF dilemma isn’t about Ohio vs. California. It’s about a broader dilemma for young workers and, in particular, young couples looking to buy a home, raise children, and achieve the American Dream. The cities with the least affordable housing often have the best social mobility. And the cities with the worst social mobility often have the most affordable housing. When good jobs for the middle class and affordable homes are living in different cities, it represents a slow-motion splintering of the American Dream.


Pope Culture II: Darkness and Light in Caravaggio

Jessica MannenJessica Mannen
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame


Contact Author

“‘From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of The Calling of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.’ Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for:
‘It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me:
he holds on to his money as if to say, “No, not me! No, this money is mine.”
Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.’”
–Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Pope Francis

In this series, I have assigned myself the task of experiencing and reflecting upon those works of art that Pope Francis names as his favorites in the recent interview appearing in America magazine. I find the disclosure of these preferences to be a uniquely beautiful insight into Francis’s heart, and offer these reflections as a way to pray with and for the Holy Father.

See also:
Pope Culture I: Mozart’s “Et Incarnatus Est”

Caravaggio full

Pope Francis mentions Caravaggio several times throughout his interview, and reveals in his description of the Calling of St. Matthew a beautiful knowledge of himself as sinful but beloved. When I first read Francis’s reflection on this painting, I felt a smile of familiarity spread over my own face. The one art class I took in college was on Italian Baroque art, and Caravaggio was the very first painter we studied.

Hearing Caravaggio’s name immediately brings to mind the art term chiaroscuro, one of the most easily recognizable characteristics of his work. The word is a combination of the Italian chiaro (light or clear) and oscuro (dark or obscure). Caravaggio’s paintings are remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is the sharp contrast and dramatic interplay between light and darkness. The contrast is used to highlight characters and carry the eye through the story told in each painting.

Darkness and light—an image for the forces at play in every human life, and one that seems appropriate for the lives of many of the Apostles. I love that the Gospels’ portrait of the Apostles does not overlook their human imperfections but rather brings to the fore the cowardice of Peter, the thirst for honor of James and John, the constant misguidedness of the group as a whole. God calls these imperfect people and enables them to do great things. Perhaps awareness of oneself as a sinner, as demonstrated by Pope Francis, is an underrated mark of apostolic succession.

Caravaggio Christ detailIn the story of Matthew’s calling by Christ we see again this interplay between darkness and light:

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew
sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him. (Mt 9:9)

This man Matthew, who lives by extortion and embodies greed to his neighbors, is called by Christ. In Caravaggio’s image of this moment, light from an unknown source follows the gesture of Christ to the man who at this moment is called to forsake his former darkness for the Light Himself. The position of Jesus’ hand mimics that of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam tableau in the Sistine Chapel, recalling the biblical image of Christ as the Second Adam. Creation of Adam, detail-MichelangeloIt also makes me think that Matthew’s calling is a moment not just of conversion but also of re-creation. As at the moment of creation, God is here reaching out to human beings, calling us along with Matthew to step into our intended roles as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Matthew’s responding expression and gesture represents well the reaction portrayed in many biblical call narratives: he is unprepared for what he is being asked to do. We can almost hear him ask, “Who, me?” This reaction is shared by many of us when we realize what God wants of us, which is to be nothing less than saints.

This painting beloved by Pope Francis is housed alongside two other works by Caravaggio in the Contarelli chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. The chapel tells the story of the evangelist’s life in just three snapshots of critical moments: the Calling, the Inspiration of St. Matthew, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The Calling is flanked by the two others; it shows the initiation of Matthew’s journey of faith and is also the centerpiece of it. Caravaggio Matthew detailIt is this moment, when Matthew first hears the calling of Christ, which will lead eventually to the evangelistic writing that tradition attributes to him and to his martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel he helped to preserve.

The traditional symbol for Matthew as evangelist is a human being. The Gospel traditionally attributed to this Apostle begins with a genealogy of Christ, reminding us that God really became human in the Incarnation. What hope there is for humanity in this mystery: the union of divine and human enables our ascent from darkness to light. The life of St. Matthew, whose surprise at his calling was transformed into total acceptance of it, is a model for us (and for Pope Francis) of how we might embrace our undeserved vocations as children of God.