Living the Beautiful Life

Discerning My Vocation as an Artist

How I came to be doing what I always dreamed of

Following on from the last piece, as mentioned I am reposting an article first posted about four years ago. In connection with that, it is worth mentioning that one's personal vocation can change as we grow older. I am not necessarily set in the same career or life situation for life. What was fulfilling for me as a young man may not be right for me now. So I do think that regular reassessment is something that should be considered.

I wrote this originally because people regularly ask me how they can become an artists. One response to this is to describe the training I would recommend for those who are in a position to go out and get it. You can read a detailed account of this in the online course now available. However, this is only part of it (even if you accept my ideas and are in a position to pay for the training I recommend). It was more important for me first to discern what God wants me to do. I did not decide to become an artist until I was in my late twenties (I am now 52).  That I have been able to do so is, I believe, down to inspired guidance. I was shown first how to discern my vocation; and second how to follow it. I am not an expert in vocational guidance, so I am simply offering my experience here for others to make use of as they like.......

I am a Catholic convert (which is another story) but influential in my conversation was an older gentleman called David Birtwistle, who was a Catholic. (He died more than ten years ago now.) One day he asked me if I was happy in my work. I told him that I could be happier, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. He offered to help me find a fulfilling role in life.

He asked me a question: ‘If you inherited so much money that you never again had to work for the money, what activity would you choose to do, nine to five, five days a week?’ One thing that he said he was certain about was that God wanted me to be happy. Provided that what I wanted to do wasn’t inherently bad (such as drug dealing!) then there was every reason to suppose that my answer to this question was what God wanted me to do.

While I thought this over, he made a couple of points. First, he was not asking me what job I wanted to do, or what career I wanted to follow. Even if no one else is in the world is employed to do what you choose, he said, if it is what God wants for you there will be way that you will be able to support yourself. He told me to put all worries about how I would achieve this out of my mind for the moment. Such doubts might stop me from having the courage to articulate my true goal for fear of failure. Remember, he said, that if God’s wants you to be Prime Minister, it requires less than the ‘flick of His little finger’ to make it happen. If wanted to do more than one thing, he said I should just list them all, prioritise them and then aim first for the activity at the top of the list.

I was able to answer his question easily. I wanted to be an artist. As soon as I said it, I partly regretted it because the doubts that David warned me about came flooding in. Wasn’t I just setting myself up for a fall? I had already been to university and studied science to post-graduate level. How was I ever going to fund myself through art school? And even if I managed that, such a small proportion of people coming out of art school make a living from art. What hope did I have? I worried that I would end up in my mid-thirties a failed artist with no other prospects. David reassured me that this was not what would happen. This process did not involve ever being reckless or foolish, but I would always need faith to stave off fear.

Next David suggested that I write down a detailed description of my ideal. He stressed the importance of crystallizing this vision in my mind sufficient to be able to write it down. This would help to ensure that I spotted opportunities when they were presented to me. Then, always keeping my sights on the final destination, I should plan only to take the first step. Only after I have taken the first step should I even think about the second. Again David reiterated that at no stage should I do anything so reckless that it may cause me to let down dependants, to be unable to pay the rent or put food on the table.

The first step, he explained, can be anything that takes me nearer to my final destination. If I wasn’t sure what to do, he told me to go and talk to working artists and to ask for their suggestions. There are usually two approaches to this: either you learn the skills and then work out how to get paid for them; or even if you have to do something other than what you want, you put yourself in the environment where people are doing it. For example, he suggested that I might get a job in an art school as an administrator. My first step turned out to be straighforward. All the artists I spoke to told me to start by enrolling for an evening class in life drawing at the local art school.

My experience since has been that I have always had enough momentum to encourage me to keep going. To illustrate, here’s what happened in that first period:  the art teacher at Chelsea Art School evening class noticed that I liked to draw and suggested that I learn to paint with egg tempera. I tried to master it but struggled and after the class was finished I told someone about this. He happened to know someone else who, he thought, worked with egg tempera. He gave me the name and I wrote asking for help. About a month later I received a letter from someone else altogether. It turned out that the person I had written to was not an artist at all, but had been passed the letter on to someone who was called Aidan Hart. Aidan was an icon painter. It was Aidan who wrote to me and who invited me to come and spend the weekend with him to learn the basics. Up until this point I had never seen or even heard of icons. Aidan eventually became my teacher and advisor.

There have been many chance meetings similar to this since. And over the course of years my ideas about what I wanted to do became more detailed or changed. Each time I modified the vision statement accordingly, and then looked out for a new next step – when I realized that there was no school to teach Catholics their own traditions, I decided that I would have to found that school myself and then enlist as its first student. Later it dawned on me that the easiest way to do thatwas to learn the skills myself from different people and then be the teacher.

I was also told that there were two reasons why  I wouldn’t achieve my dream: first, was that I didn’t try; the second was that en route I would find myself doing something even better, perhaps something that wasn’t on my list now. When this happens you will be enjoying so much you stop looking further.

David also stressed how important it was always to be grateful for what I have today. He said that unless I could cultivate gratitude for the gifts that God is giving me today, then I would be in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. In which case, even if I got what I wanted I wouldn't be happy. This gratitude should start right now, he said, with the life you have today. Aside from living the sacramental life, he told me to write a daily list of things to be grateful for and to thank God daily for them. Even if things weren’t going my way there were always things to be grateful for, and I should develop the habit of looking for them and giving praise to God for his gifts. He also stressed strongly that I should constantly look to help others along their way.

As time progressed I met others who seemed to be understand these things. So just in case I was being foolish I asked for their thoughts. First was an Oratorian priest. He asked me for my reasons for wanting to be an artist. He listened to my response and then said that he thought that God was calling me to be an artist. Some years later, I asked a monk who was an icon painter. He asked me the same questions as the Oratorian and then gave the same answer.

What was interesting about all three people so far is that none of them asked what seemed to be the obvious question: ‘Are you any good at painting?’ I asked the monk/artist why and he said that you can always learn the skills to paint, but in order to be really good at what you do you have to love it.

Some years later still, when I was studying in Florence, I went to see a priest there who was an expert in Renaissance art. It was for his knowledge of art that I wanted to speak to him, rather than spiritual direction. I wanted to know if my ideas regarding the principles for an art school were sound. He listened and like the others encouraged me in what I was doing.  Three years later, after yet another chance meeting, I was offered the chance to come to Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, to do what precisely what I had described to the priest in Florence.

In my meeting with him the Florentine priest remarked in passing, even though I hadn’t asked him this, that he thought that it was my vocation to try to establish this school. He then said something else that I found interesting. He warned me that I couldn’t be sure that I would ever get this school off the ground but he was certain that I should try. As I did so, my activities along the way would attract people to the Faith (most likely in ways unknown to me). This is, he said, is what a vocation is really about.

A Beautiful Pattern of Prayer - the Path to Heaven is a Triple Helix…

...And it passes through an octagonal portal.  

Liturgy, the formal worship of the Church - the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist at its centre - is the ‘source and summit of Christian life’. We are made by God to be united with him in heaven in a state of perfect and perpetual bliss, a perfect exchange of love. All the saints in heaven are experiencing this and liturgy is what they do. It is what we all are made to do; this how it is the summit of human existence. Our earthly liturgy is a supernatural step into the heavenly liturgy, this unchanging yet dynamic heavenly drama of love between God and the saints; and the node, the point at which all of the cosmos is in contact with the supernatural is Christ, present in the Eucharist. It is more fantastic than anything ever imagined in a sci-fi drama. There is no need to watch Dr Who to see a space-time vortex, when I take communion at Mass (assuming I am in the proper state of grace) I pass through one. And there’s no worry about hostile aliens, that battle is fought and won.

Everything else that the Church offers and that we do is meant to deepen and intensify our participation in this mystery. Through the participation in the liturgy, we pass from the temporal into a domain that is outside time and space. Heaven is a mode of existence where all time, past and future is compressed into single present moment; and all places are present at a single point.

Our participation in this cannot be perfect in this life, bound as we are by the constraints of time and space. We must leave the church building to attend to the everyday needs of life. However, this does not, in principle, mean that we cannot pray continuously. The liturgy is not just the summit of human existence; it is the source of grace by which we reach that summit. In conforming to the patterns and rhythms of the earthly liturgy in our prayer, we receive grace sufficient to sanctify and order all that we do, so that we are led onto the heavenly path and we lead a happy and joyous life. This is also the greatest source of inspiration and creativity we have. We will get thoughts and ideas to help us in choices that we make at every level and which permeate every action we take. Then our mundane lives will be the most productive and fulfilling they can be.

How do we know what these liturgical patterns are? We take our cue from nature, or from scripture. Creation bears the thumbprint of the Creator and through its beauty it directs our praise to God and opens us to His grace. The patterns and symmetry, grasped when we recognize its beauty, are a manifestation of the divine order.

Traditional Christian cosmology is the study of the patterns and rhythms of the planets and the stars with the intention of ordering our work and praise to the work and praise of the saints in heaven. This heavenly praise is referred to as the heavenly liturgy. The liturgy that we participate, which is connected supernaturally to the heavenly liturgy is called the earthly liturgy. The liturgical year of the Church is based upon these natural cycles of the cosmos. By ordering our worship to the cosmos, we order it to heaven. The date of Easter, for example, is calculated according to the phases of the moon. The earthly liturgy, and for that matter all Christian prayer, cannot be understood without grasping its harmony with the heavenly dynamic and the cosmos. In order to help us grasp this idea that we are participating in something much bigger that what we see in the church when we go to Mass, the earthly liturgy should evoke a sense of the non-sensible aspect of the liturgy through its dignity and beauty and especially the beauty and solemnit of the art and music we use with it. All our activities within it: kneeling, praying, standing, should be in accordance with the heavenly standard; the architecture of the church building, and the art and music used should all point us to what lies beyond it and give us a real sense that we are praising God with all of his creation and with the saints and angels in heaven.  When we pray in accordance with these patterns we are opening ourselves up to God’s helping hand at just the moment when it is offered. This is the prayer that places us in directly in beam of the heat lamp of God’s grace.

The harmony and symmetry of the heavenly order can be expressed numerically. For example, because of the seven days of creation in Genesis there are seven days in the week (corresponding also to a half phase of the idealised lunar cycle). The Sunday mass is the summit of the weekly cycle. In the weekly cycle there is in addition day, the so-called eighth ‘day’ of creation, which symbolises the new order ushered in by the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Christ. Sunday the day of his resurrection, is simultaneously the eighth and first day of the week (source and summit). Eight, expressed as ‘7 + 1’ is a strong governing factor in the Church’s earthly liturgy. (It is why baptismal fonts and baptistries are constructed in an octagonal shape and why you might have octagonal patterns on a sanctuary floors.)

Without Christ, the passage of time could be represented by a self enclosed weekly cycle sitting in a plane. The eighth day represents a vector shift at 90° to the plane of the circle that operates in combination with the first day of the new week. The result can be thought of as a helix. For every seven steps in the horizontal plane, there is one in the vertical. It demonstrates in earthly terms that a new dimension is accessed through each cycle of our participation temporal liturgical seven-day week.

The 7+1 form operates in the daily cycle of prayer in the Divine Office too. Quoting Psalm 118, St Benedict incorporates into his monastic rule the seven daily Offices of Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; plus an eighth, the night or early-morning Office, Matins.

Prime has since been abolished in the Roman Rite, but usually the 7+1 repetition is maintained by having daily Mass (not common in St Benedict’s time). Eight appears in the liturgy also in the octaves, the eight-day observances, for example of Easter. Easter is the event that causes the equivalent vector shift, much magnified, in the annual cycle. The Easter Octave is eight solemnities – eight consecutive eighth days that starts with Easter Sunday and finishes the following Sunday.

These three helical paths run concurrently, the daily helix sitting on the broader weekly helix which sits on the yet broader annual helix. We are riding on a roller coaster triple corkscrewing its way to heaven. This, however, is a roller coaster that engenders peace.

For those who are not aware of this, more information on this topic and how to conform you're life to this pattern, read The Little Oratory; A Beginner's Guide to Prayer in the Home and especially the section, A Beautiful Pattern of Prayer.

Pictures: The baptismal font, top, is 11th century, from Magdeburg cathedral. The floor patterns are from the cathedral at Monreale, in Sicily and from the 12th century. The building is the 13th century octagonal baptistry in Cremona, Italy.

How to Make an Icon Corner

Beauty calls us to itself and then beyond, to the source of all beauty, God. God's creation is beautiful, and God made us to apprehend it so that we might see Him through it. The choice of images for our prayer, therefore, is important. Beautiful sacred imagery not only aids the process of prayer, but what we pray with influences profoundly our taste: praying with beautiful sacred art is the most powerful education in beauty that there is. In the end this is how we shape our culture, especially so when this is rooted in family prayer. The icon corner will help us to do that. I am using icon here in the broadest sense of the term, referring to a sacred image that depicts the likeness of the person portrayed. So one could as easily choose Byzantine, gothic or even baroque styles. The contemplation of sacred imagery is rooted in man’s nature. This was made clear by the 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicea. Through the veneration icons, our imagination takes us to the person depicted. The veneration of icons, therefore, is an aid to prayer first and it serves to stimulate and purify the imagination. This is discussed in the writings of Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), who was one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy.

In emphasising the importance of praying with sacred images Theodore said: “Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” [quoted by Cardinal Schonborn, p232, God’s Human Face, pub. Ignatius.]

It is good, therefore for us to develop the habit of praying with visual imagery and this can start at home. The tradition is to have a corner in which images are placed. This image or icon corner is the place to which we turn, when we pray. When this is done at home it will help bind the family in common prayer.

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we consider appropriate places for personal prayer: ‘For personal prayer this can be a prayer corner with the sacred scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.’(CCC, 2691)

I would go further and suggest that if the father leads the prayer, acting as head of the domestic church, as Christ is head of the Church, which is His mystical body, it will help to re-establish a true sense of fatherhood and masculinity. It might also, I suggest, encourage also vocations to the priesthood.

The placement should be so that the person praying is facing east. The sun rises in the east. Our praying towards the east symbolizes our expectation of the coming of the Son, symbolized by the rising sun. This is why churches are traditionally ‘oriented’ towards the orient, the east. To reinforce this symbolism, it is appropriate to light candles at times of prayer. The tradition is to mark this direction with a cross. It is important that the cross is not empty, but that Christ is on it. in the corner there should be representation of both the suffering Christ and Christ in glory.

‘At the core of the icon corner are the images of the Christ suffering on the cross, Christ in glory and the Mother of God. An excellent example of an image of Christ in glory which is in the Western tradition and appropriate to the family is the Sacred Heart (the one from Thomas More College's chapel, in New Hampshire, is shown). From this core imagery, there can be additions that change to reflect the seasons and feast days. This way it becomes a timepiece that reflects the cycles of sacred time. The “instruments” of daily prayer should be available: the Sacred Scriptures, the Psalter, or other prayer books that one might need, a rosary for example.

This harmony of prayer, love and beauty is bound up in the family. And the link between family (the basic building block upon which our society is built) and the culture is similarly profound. Just as beautiful sacred art nourishes the prayer that binds families together in love, to each other and to God; so the families that pray well will naturally seek or even create art (and by extension all aspects of the culture) that is in accord with that prayer. The family is the basis of culture.

Confucius said: ‘If there is harmony in the heart, there will be harmony in the family. If there is harmony in the family, there will be harmony in the nation. If there is harmony in the nation, there will be harmony in the world.’  What Confucius did not know is that the basis of that harmony is prayer modelled on Christ, who is perfect beauty and perfect love. That prayer is the liturgical prayer of the Church.

A 19th century painting of a Russian icon corner


How to Pray With Visual Imagery

It is now more than three and a half years since I started this blog so first of all I would like to thank so many of you for your interest and your comments. I am currently involved in several book projects which will be published in the early part of next year - more information to come. In order to give myself time to write these, I thought I would reduce my postings to one fresh piece per week. However, it also occurred to me that many of you who read this, will not have seen much of what I posted in the first two years. In my mind, these are foundational to my thinking and shed light on much of what I write now, so I thought they would be worth repeating. So for these two reasons I thought I would replay some of these foundational posts. So for the next couple of months, I will alternate old and new. The first replay was first published in April, 2010: When I first started painting icons I was, of course, interested in knowing as well how they related to prayer. I was referred by others (though not my icon painting teacher) to books that were intended as instruction manuals in visual prayer. I read a couple and perhaps I chose badly, but I struggled with them. One the one hand, they seemed to be suggesting some sort of meditative process in which one spent long quiet periods staring at an icon and experiencing it, so to speak, allowing thoughts and feelings to occur to me. Being by nature an Englishman of the stiff-upper-lip temperament (and happy to be so) I was suspicious of this. I had finally found a traditional method of teaching art that didn’t rely on splashing my emotions on paper, and here I was being told that in the end, the art I was learning to produce was in fact intended to speak to us through a heightened language of emotion. Furthermore, the language used to articulate the methods always seemed to employ what struck me as pseudo-mystical expressions and which,  I suspected, were being used to hide the fact that they weren’t really saying very much.

So I started to ask my teacher about this and to observe Eastern Christians praying with icons. What struck me was that prayer for them seemed to be pretty much what prayer was for me. They said prayers that contained the sentiments that they wished to express to God. The difference between what they did and what I did at that time was that they turned and looked at an icon as they prayed. Also, when at home, often happily and without embarrassment they sang their prayers using very simple, easily learnt chant. Before meals, for example, the family would stand up, face an icon of Christ on the wall and sing a prayer of gratitude or even just the Our Father.

As I learnt more about icons through learning to paint them, I realized that every aspect of the style of an icon is worked out to engage us in a dynamic that assists prayer – through its form and content the icon will do the work of directing our thoughts to heaven. In short I don’t need to ‘do’ anything. The icon does the work for me.

The iconographic form is not the only one to do this. The Western Catholic tradition is very rich and has also the Baroque and gothic art forms that are carefully worked out to engage the observer in a dynamic of prayer, although in different ways. If the icon draws our thoughts to heaven, the baroque form is designed in contrast to have an impact at a distance in order to make God present on earth. The gothic figurative art is the art of pilgrimage, or of transition from earth to heaven, and stylistically it sits between the iconographic and baroque. It is the ‘gradual psalm’ of artistic form. Just like the spires of its architecture, it spans the gap between heaven and earth so that we have a sense both of where we going to and where we are coming from. I will discuss how the form of each tradition achieves in the next articles I write.

So the advice I was given was to ditch the books about praying with icons, and learn first to pray. Then as I pray always aim to have visual imagery that I allow to engage my sight and which assists. St Augustine said that those who sing their prayers pray twice. I would add that those who look at visual imagery as well pray three times (and if we use incense four times, and consider posture five). This process of engaging different aspects of the person in addition to the intellect is a move towards the ideal of praying with the whole person. This is what praying from the heart means. The heart is the vector sum of our thoughts and actions. It is our human centre of gravity when both body and soul are considered. It is the single point that, when everything is taken into account, defines what I am doing. It is the heart of us, in the sense of representing the core. This is why it is a symbol of the person. It is a symbol of love also because each of us is made by God to love him and our fellow man. It symbolizes what we ought to be rather than, necessarily, what we are. The modern world has distorted the symbolism of the heart into one of desire and ‘heartfelt’ emotion, precisely because these are the qualities that so many today associate with the essence of humanity.

The liturgy is ultimate form of prayer. By praying with the Church, the mystical body of Christ, we are participating in ‘Christ's own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal.[1] Therefore, the most important practice of praying with visual imagery is in the context of the liturgy. For example, when we pray to the Father then we look at Christ, for those who have seen Him have seen the Father. The three Catholic figurative traditions in art already mentioned were developed specifically to assist this process.

Just as the liturgy is the ‘source and goal’ of prayer, so liturgical art is, I would argue, the source and goal of all Catholic art. The forms that are united to the liturgy are the basis of Catholic culture. All truly Catholic art will participate in these forms and so even if a landscape in the sitting room, will point us to the liturgical. We cannot become a culture of beauty until we habitually engage in the full human experience of the liturgy. In the context of visual art, this practice will be the source of grace from which artists will be able to produce art that will be the basis of the culture of beauty; the source of grace and from which patrons will know what art to commission; and in turn by which all of us will be able to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be, by travelling on the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty, recently described by Pope Benedict XVI.

Of course, each individual (depending upon his purse) usually has a limited influence on what art we see in our churches. However, as lay people, we can pray the Liturgy of the Hours and control imagery that we use. The tradition of the prayer corner, in which paintings are placed on a small table or shelf at home as a focus of prayer, is a good one to adopt.  We ‘orientate’  our prayer towards this, letting the imagery engage our sight as we do so. We can also sing, use incense and stand, bow, sit or kneel as appropriate while praying. A book I found useful in this regard, which describes traditional practices is called Earthen Vessels (The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition) by Gabriel Bunge, OSB

Does this mean that meditation of visual imagery is not appropriate? No it does not. But as with all prayer that is not liturgical, it is should be understood by its relation to the liturgy. So just as lectio divina, for example, is good in that it is ordered to the liturgy because through it our participation in the liturgy is deepened and intensified. So, perhaps, should meditation upon visual imagery should be understood in relation to the use of imagery in the liturgical context. Also, I would say that it is useful, just as with lectio, to avoid the confusion between the Western and Eastern non-Christian ideas of meditation and contemplation are. I was recommended a book recently that helped me greatly in this regard. It is called Praying Scripture for a Change – An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Dr Tim Gray.

[1] CCC, 1073

Using the Principles of the Liturgy and Beauty in Retail

High Shelf Esteem! When James Woodward, owner of Woodward Menswear, decided to open a second high-end men’s clothes shop he wanted to model it upon the principles he had read about in the Way of Beauty. He had already started to put some of the principles into practice in his first shop, in Oxted in Surrey, England and had been encouraged the results. Because he was beginning with a blank page in this new venture, he saw the opening of his second shop in Banstead, also in Surrey, as an opportunity to use them more fully. I received a telephone call from him earlier this year asking for ideas about the layout and decoration of the new place. He had already been trying some of these things out in the first shop, but hadn’t been able to implement them properly because a lot of the things were already set differently when he had thought about introducing them. Nevertheless the changes that he was able to make had made an impact he thought. The local bank manager had told him at one point, in the deepest part of the recession, that his was the only business on his books that showed any significant signs of growth. ‘I had been making money and I felt that this had contributed. The growth of the business is helping to fund the investment in this new shop. But it isn’t just the money,’ he told me. ‘The principles that I had been able to try seemed to show me a way of having the values of my Catholic faith penetrate much more deeply than before the everyday activities of business.’

James is a Catholic convert of about 10 years. I had known him for several years because we both attended the London Oratory when I lived in London. We had had conversations about the Way of Beauty over the years, just as a result of staying in touch and his curiosity about what I was up to over here. At some point he started to ask me how he might introduce into what he was doing in his first shop. Even so, I was surprised to be asked recently to contribute so much to the new project.

So what has he done? As a starting point I suggested that whatever he does he constantly ask himself the question, is this beautiful? And to be prepared to go against the trend of modern design if necessary. I did offer some specific points:

  • The general layout is one that gives a general impression of symmetry and order. I suggested that he introduce some details of asymmetry. If it is too rigidly symmetrical it would be cold and sterile. He went directly against the advice of his retail designers here, who were recommending more sweeping and turning curves in the layout; and asymmetry ordered to the personal intuition of the designer. I suggest that the colour scheme should be based around natural earth colours if possible.
  • The clothes are presented on shelves and I suggested that the spacing of the shelves should not be even, but should vary so that the largest spacing is at the bottom and smallest at the top, mimicking the proportions of storey size in traditional architecture.
  • He has the natural beauty of plants in the shop too, either pot plants or cut flowers. Because there are people walking around the shop, this meant that he had to design into the layout spaces and shelves just for this purpose so that the arrangements could be placed without impeding the flow of people or the views of the clothes he was selling.
  • I told him to try to avoid pop or rock music and again, if you have music to opt for something that is beautiful. I am not completely against all pop music per se, but even good music that is designed for dancing at midnight is unlikely to promote calm and peace, which is what we were aiming for here. In the end James opted for no music at all. He was really sticking his neck out here. Almost all retailers install music systems and have background music constantly. The outfitters cite scientific studies that prove that when you play such music, people stay for a shorter period of time and buy more quickly. Also the staff initially wanted it too for their own entertainment. He is not certain he wants to maintain the silent vigil and is considering using classical music.
  • I felt it was important to have the face of Christ as a focus in the décor (a good principle for all main rooms in a building). In the end he bought a small icon of the mandylion and put it on the wall behind the till. This meant that every customer who went to the counter would see it. In his previous shop James put also a nativity scene in the window every Christmas and he intends to the same here. Aside from any thoughts about décor, he wanted to bear witness to his faith in an open, but quiet way.  Again, the advice of the professionals on this one was the exact opposit! It would offend and put off non-Christians he was told. He has had no complaints from customers since he did this, and several complementary remarks. Small children were pulling their parents into the shop as a result of the nativity in the window.
  • Finally, I had suggested that he pray the Liturgy of the Hours as part of his spiritual life and even if he couldn’t pray all the hours, try to mark each Office with a prayer of some sort. He might, I thought, consciously dedicate this prayer as a sacrifice for the well being of his employees and customers.

The photographs of the shop and are shown, so you can make your own mind up about the look. The shelves are solid oak veneer and the flooring is solid oak coupled with pure-wool carpeting.  The paintwork is all natural-pigment traditional paint (produced to re-create eighteenth-century decorative schemes). What strikes me is that although traditional proportions and materials have been used, it has a clean-cut modern look. This is not trying to recreate and Italian villa or a Georgian town house. The modifications are subtle.

Clearly,  using these high quality materials involves a greater outlay than the usual materials. He has now been going for about three months and when I spoke to him recently I was interested to know: did he feel the extra investment had been worthwhile?

‘The look of the place has had an impact. Several customers and other local retailers have complimented the shop actually using the word “beautiful”. For example I was at the local newsagents and the lady behind the till engaged me conversation. When she realized I was from the new Woodward Menswear she immediately told me that people had been saying to her how beautiful the shop was.

‘Many customers have told me how comfortable and inviting the shop is and one top-notch fellow fashion retailer said it was a really beautiful shop and “very calming”. What I find so interesting is that they can't really tell why it is. they respond to the overall look but they can't say why. I haven't made it look like a Victorian shop or anything, the look is similar in many respects to other shops, but the modifications are subtle. I think that unless it was pointed out to them, for example, they wouldn't know that the shelves are spaced differently to other places.’

And the bottom line?

‘It’s early days of course, but I am very pleased. We are already making as much money as my first shop, which I bought as a business of 30 years standing and have been running for several years. This is better than I had expected. Of course, these beautiful features are not the only thing that will be contributing to the business.  I have learnt a lot about retail while running my first shop and so have put many lessons in to practice in this second. I still had to get the location and the stock right along with all the other business variables. However, if it’s only for the comments and my own pleasure at working in such a lovely environment, I definitely feel that it has been worthwhile.’

What about the future? James pointed out to me that this was done on the basis of reading blog articles and an hour’s telephone conversation. He wants to know more about the Way of Beauty.

‘I am impressed by the impact that this has had and I get the feeling that I am scratching the surface here. I do my best but I don’t know much about the Liturgy of the Hours or how to pray it and I definitely could learn more about how these proportions are linked to the liturgy. I am planning on coming over to the creativity retreat at Thomas More College in New Hampshire in August. And I will probably pay a visit to the menswear shops in Boston while I’m here too, just to see how they do it over there!’

Clothes fit for a Church Father - Boethian proportions were used for the shelf spacing.








The Liturgy and Community

Our own sense of who and what we are is based upon the relationships we have with others. If you go around a group of people and ask them to describe themselves, apart from their name they will talk about themselves in terms of their relationships with others: for example, ‘I work with this company’, ‘I am a father and I have three children’. This is the essence of a person, as distinct from an individual. A human person is always in relation with others, starting from birth. No one, by choice, disengages from society altogether (not even a hermit) and is happy. This understanding of the human person has a profound effect on how we view what society is. A relationship of the sort we are now envisioning is always between two subjects, that is two people freely cooperating as moral agents. This is termed covenantal and is based upon mutual self-sacrifice on behalf of the other - love. This freedom to respond as a person is one of the essential elements of society. Society therefore is the vector sum of the relationships within it. It is not a collective of self-contained individuals.

A human relationship is an entity in itself. Two people create, through the properly ordered love between them, a relationship that is distinct from each person, and does not destroy either’s integrity.

It is analogous, I think, to a chord created by two notes played simultaneously. We perceive the chord as something distinct created by the proximity of two notes, but the integrity of each note is not diminished by it. Something has been created out of nothing. This creation out of nothing is ‘superabundance’; love is always superabundantly fruitful (an example is the creation of the third person in a family). A loving relationship is created out of the harmony that exists between two hearts when each acts for the good of the other. There is a song (by U2 I think) that describes love as two hearts beating ‘as one’. In fact it might be more accurate to say that when love is present, two hearts beat not as one, but as three.

By using the word ‘love’ I do not always have in mind profoundly deep relationships. Any relationship, however casual, can reflect a motive for the good of the other. Even a cheery hello to a shopkeeper can reflect either a loving or self-centred motive. This means that whatever I do I bring to the party, so to speak, an aspect of every relationship that I have. I represent to some degree every community of which I am part – family, work, parish, tennis club and so on.

Liturgical activity is an act of love, in which I participate in the sacrifice made by Christ for all humanity. In participation of this supreme act of love is a transforming experience that by degrees changes me and makes me a better lover (and God knows, there is much room for improvement). This means that through every relationship I have, every other person and community with whom I relate benefits profoundly from my participation. Participation in the liturgy is a sacrifice of love their behalf. The effect is through what one hopes subsequently might be a more loving direct interactions with each person; but also because I am transformed through this participation, the relationship that exists between us and my prayers and intentions for them in the liturgy facilitate a supernatural transformation to the same degree and through my intentions for those people in the liturgy.

The liturgy therefore is the binding principle of society and those communities in which I participate. Family, friends, parish, Church, workplace, living quarters, country – will all benefit from my participation in the liturgy. This is so even when I am the only person who is doing this and no one else knows of my participation. When I go to Mass or pray the liturgy of the hours, I try to remember to consciously dedicate that day’s prayer to all those groups and individuals with whom I relate.

There is a maxim that the family that prays together, prays together. In the encyclical Marialis Cultus (On the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary), as well as describing how praying with Christ in the Liturgy is the fullest expression of devotion to Mary, Paul VI calls the Liturgy of the Hours the 'highpoint which family prayer can reach'.(54)

By extension, I suggest, this is true for all communities. The benefit of this liturgical participation in the sacrifice of Christ is magnified if the community prays in community. Unless its raison d’être is communal prayer it is rare that in any community every single member can or would even want to pray regularly with his fellows. But by degrees it is possible to move towards this ideal anywhere. If practicalities allow (and we must be aware that often they will not) a visible posting of regular times that the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed with an invitation for any member to join, would invoke the public nature of liturgy. If that invitation extends to the general public to attend the community prayer, the better still. At Thomas More College we are lucky to have priests who can say daily Mass; in addition a core of devotees to the Liturgy of the Hours have organized a rota by which we do our best to ensure that two or three of us at least pray Lauds and Vespers each day for the community.

Culture reflects the cult that is at the core of it. However modest the fulfilment of this ideal, this is the means by which the culture of community or organization can be transformed to a Catholic culture that will be in harmony with all other institutions and social groups and work for the common good. It is no surprise, therefore, that any organization, such as many businesses which typically give no thought to liturgical piety at all, reflect a secular culture. So much so, that it doesn’t even occur to many people that the workplace can be or can even aspire to be a community. Consequently it is taken for granted that while it might contribute to the financial support of the families who work there, that it is intrinsic to business that it will undermine the family (for example through demands of time) and so many other aspects of an ordered culture. I do not accept this.

This suggests though that any attempt to change things in a community or organization that does not consider its culture and what culture really is will be dealing with symptoms not causes; and the problems even if apparently solved will eventually reappear elsewhere or in a different form. It is like the Tom and Jerry cartoons when Tom has hit on the head with a giant mallet and has a huge bump on his head. In response he puts his hand on the top of it and pushes it down until the scalp is once again smooth. The only problem is that as the first bump diminishes, a second appears on the side of his head and grows. The end result is that the bump has simply moved. Most organizational change I have seen in the workplace has struck me as bump moving, rather than bump healing.

In the end, I suggest, that answer is always the same: to change a culture you must change the cult.




The Way of Beauty and the New Evangelisation

Why an education in beauty and the Liturgy of the Hours are important in the formation of lay people as part of the New Evangelisation. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts was treated to a lecture by a husband-and-wife team of theologians who both teach at St John's Seminary at Boston. David and Angela Franks run the newly established Masters of Theological Studies for the New Evangelization. Although based at the Seminary, this is aimed at lay formation and can be taken on a part-time basis. It is the first new programme of the Seminary's newly established, Theological Institute for the New Evangelisation (TINE). David and Angela inspired our students (and myself!) with the vision that the Church has for the role of lay people in evangelising the modern world, charactererised by John Paul II as the New Evangelisation. All this is invaluable in itself, but what surprised and interested me particularly was their assertion that an education in beauty is an essential element in the formation of the individual who is going to be carry out their mission of taking the Word to the world. Furthermore, they highlighted the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours in this education.

They described a process that is both active and reactive. The active role is one of living the life of faith, which is ultimately living the life of love that God intends for us. And we should do so, they said, without apologising for it!

There is a description in the Acts of the Apostles of the growth of the early Church in which people were attracted to the Christian life, we are told, 'because they loved each other'. When we lead a life of love then our lives will be beacons of light that will arouse curiosity in this secular society. Love is not so much a set of feelings but rather a set of actions motivated for the good of the other. That requires fortitude especially because it is precisely this that will cause us to stand out in the crowd and because, as David puts it, we live in an age when 'powerful forces are arrayed against true love'.

That light will be brightest when we are answering most completely the personal vocation that God has made to us (aside from following the commandments of the Church). The determination of this personal vocation is an important early step therefore. I was lucky in my own life in being given some inspired guidance in trying to discern what this might be. This has ended up in me doing what I am now at Thomas More College. I have described the process here. The programme at the St John's Seminary offers guidance also in this first step.

The second part is reactive. When people see a life of love it arouses curiosity and they ask questions. At this point we need to be able to answer them truthfully and prudently. Part of the programme at St John's is about equipping people with knowledge of the truth - we must know what the Church teaches, or at the very least, where to go to find out what the Church teaches.

But also, we must present this information in such a way that it continues to attract people. Force of logic will only take you so far. It is not just what you say, but how you say it. Prudence guides this. While knowing what to say and when can be trained in some ways directly, so much of this is about developing an intuitive sense of it. A key principle in operation here is beauty. When we do something attractively, we are doing it beautifully. This is why a training in beauty is so important, we were told. It develops that instantaneous intuitive sense of knowing what to do best.

After the talk there was a lively question and answer session and one student asked directly. What should we be aiming for in our spiritual lives in order to be able to achieve this? To my great delight, David answered without hesitation, that beyond the basic requirements of the sacramental life, he felt that the Liturgy of the Hours was a powerful and 'supremely effective' form of prayer.

David and Angela invite everyone who might be interested to take a look at the exciting opportunities for lay people offered by St John's Seminary. You can find out more by going to the and clicking on the 'TINE' logo.



For a growing series of articles about the Liturgy of the Hours as part of The Way of Beauty, see here.

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts offers a traditional education in beauty, incorporating the Liturgy of the Hours as one of the key components of the spiritual life of the college. The course, The Way of Beauty is part of its core curriculum with the intention of offering our students to best chance of coming out as ambassadors of the New Evangelisation.

In addition, our summer programme has short courses open to everyone to teach precisely this. Artists and musicians can learn it in conjunction with the skills of icon painting, academic drawing or Gregorian chant in our two-week programmes in July. Our weekend retreat in creativity and inspiration in August offers everyone else the chance to learn the traditional education in beauty - developed as part of the training of artists - but without having to learn the artistic skills. For more information about all of these courses see here.


Images Top and bottom: The Calling of St Matthew by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1621; candles at the Birmingham Oratory, England; The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Candlemass) by Tintoretto, c1550

The Principles of a Traditional Art Education for Today

When I first met the president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire, he asked me to describe my ideas for an art school that could contribute train artist to serve the Church. This was relatively easy for me to do. Inspired by John Paul II’s Letter to Artists,  I had been on a mission for several years to establish such a school and so describing it was something I had done many times. I described how I would give a training that was rooted in traditional principles, teaching an understanding of what they were doing, so that the tradition becomes a living tradition. A living tradition can develop and respond to the needs of the time without compromising on the timeless principles of beauty, truth, goodness and unity that underlie all genuinely Catholic art. This would enable us I said, to produce art for both sacred and profane settings, and contribute to the establishment of the art of Vatican II. This will evoke the art of the past, yet be distinct and in many ways of a previously unimagined in style. It will characterise our era as beautifully and distinctly as the Romanesque, the Gothic and the Baroque did theirs.

The aim of such an education are threefold: to train in the practical skills; to increase in the individual an ability to apprehend beauty; and to open the individual up to inspiration from God through a disciplined training that looks to Masters for guidance.

Following traditional patterns of art training, there are five aspects (in no particular order):

  1. The study of past Masters of the traditions of Christian art – imitating them with understanding so that the students learn a visual vocabulary of art. In his Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XV cites the icongraphic (of which the Romanesque is a Western variant), the gothic and the baroque ‘at its best’ as authentic liturgical forms.
  2. The direct observation of nature: this is the study of the work of the greatest Artist.
  3. Practice and study of abstract art in the Christian tradition and the principles of proportion and compositional design (sometimes called ‘sacred geometry’).
  4. Learning the theory of Christian art – an understanding of the Catholic worldview and the Church as it relates to art (theology, philosophy, liturgy linked to form and content) so that they understand all that they are practising.
  5. Finally, the development of a spiritual life that will open the student up to inspiration (should God choose to send it): artists are unlikely to be able to produce work that inspires prayer and devotion in others, if they are not practised in using visual imagery in prayer themselves.

Students would have an exposure to each of these elements. As study progresses, they would specialise in one of the artistic traditions listed, or into the development of new art forms consistent with the principles they have learnt and as required by the Church.

The president listened without interruption and then asked me a further question. What about those who aren’t going to be artists, can you provide a training that could be part of the core liberal-arts programme as an education in beauty?

I had never been asked this before. I stopped for moment to think before responding, then realized that this really was possible. The traditional artistic training not only taught people the skills, but also the ability to apprehend beauty. This aspect, I was certain could be taught to all and the result would be a transformation of the individual, for to open up someone to beauty, is to elevate their souls to God and to increase their capacity to love what is good. There would be change in emphasis, the practical elements would be there, but those aspects that would not be intimidating to someone who did not consider themselves good at art would be brought to the fore.

The result of this meeting was that I was invited to come to TMC to implement exactly what I had described. The first stage was to be the programme for undergraduates; this would be followed by the gradual identification of gifted artists from the undergraduate body, who would form the core of the specialist art school. I would be looking for those who not only wished to be artists, but were fired by the vision of the college and wanted to play a part in creating the ‘new epiphany of beauty’ called for by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists.

This Fall, Thomas More College starts its Way of Beauty programme to be taken by all freshman (and offered as an elective for other students). It is a course that is, as far we know, unique in the world. It draws on the principles articulated by figures from the early Church, such as Augustine and Boethius and which have been drawn to our attention recently by John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI. What I had described in my interview were the principles of the quadrivium, the ‘four ways’ (the higher part of the traditional seven liberal arts).

The traditional quadrivium is essentially the study of pattern, harmony, symmetry and order in nature and mathematics viewed as a reflection of the Divine Order. When we perceive something as reflecting this order, we call it beautiful. For Christians this is a source, along with Tradition, that provides the model upon which the rhythms and cycles of the liturgy are based. Christian culture, like classical culture before it, was also patterned after this cosmic order; this order which provides the unifying principle that runs through every traditional discipline. Literature, art, music, architecture – all of creation and potentially all human activity – are bound together by this common harmony and receive their fullest meaning in the liturgy. This course teaches a deep understanding of these principles and how they link the liturgy, ie the cult, to its culture. When we apprehend beauty we do so intuitively. So an education that improves our ability to apprehend beauty develops also our intuition. All creativity is at source an intuitive process. This means that professionals in any field would benefit from an education in beauty because it would develop their creativity. Furthermore, the creativity that an education in beauty stimulates will generate not just more ideas, but better ideas. Better because they are more in harmony with the natural order. The recognition of beauty moves us to love what we see. Such an education would tend to develop also, therefore, are capacity to love and leave us more inclined to serve God and our fellow man. The result for the individual who follows this path is joy.

This course not only teaches the students an understanding of these principles. It teaches them how to apply them. The course is directed towards the creation of beauty as well the appreciation of it. We will chant the Liturgy of the Hours, relating not only the structure of the Office itself to the Mass and the Heavenly Liturgy, but the form of the music to the harmonious principles that are replicated in the visual arts as, for example, the abstract geometric art of the Cosmati pavements of the middle ages; and used as principles for compositional design in figurative art. They will construct geometric patterns that reflect this

The practical aspect is not an extra bit of light-hearted fun tacked on to the end of the course. It is considered a vital component. It is the practical creation of beauty that effects the transformation in the person. First, it develops the habit of conforming the whole person to divine order, which is impressed by degrees upon the soul. Second, it is exercising the creative aspect of the intellect in us. We are made by God to be with Him in heaven, partaking of the divine nature. God’s intellect is purely creative intellect – if He thinks something it is. The creation of beauty is therefore a temporal step into our heavenly destiny and so directs us on to the path to heaven. Third, when beauty is created it is a gift for God and directs the hearts of others who behold it to God, bringing glory to Him. Therefore it is an act of love. This is the most powerful transforming principle of all.

The benefits to the person are present most powerfully in the Liturgy, but it is important that there is an experience also of the creation of art other than the praying of the liturgy also. This demonstrates to the students how these liturgical principles are made present in the wider culture. Even the form of the Liturgy of the Hours we are learning is developed to emphasise this link between the culture and the Liturgy. It was first developed at the Maryvale Institute, in Birmingham, England, as part of their art theory course, Art Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective, where I taught before moving to the US. The students learn to involve the whole person in the prayer, body and soul, so that it is a greater gift to God and they are fully open to inspiration and God’s grace. This means that we engage the senses directly with sacred imagery, chant, incense and consider bodily posture. This is a simple and beautiful form that draws on the tradition of the Church.

And what about the art school? It was felt that to make all students learn to paint icons was not a good thing, as some would be intimidated by this. There will be elective classes in icon painting and drawing throughout the year so that those who are interested can develop their interest. We will be offering a summer school next year open to people outside the college as well and that offers a condensed form of the Way of Beauty in a week (which like the undergraduate class, is for artists and non-artists).  Artists would wish to take in addition a two-week course in iconography and a two-week course in academic drawing, as taught in the ateliers of Florence.

I arrived at Thomas More College in January this year and I have been surprised (and very pleased) by the interest that the appointment of an Artist-in-Residence has created. There have been numerous newspaper features and even a TV appearance (I was invited to talk about the TMC programme on EWTN in late spring). This demonstrates to me that the is a great desire in the Catholic world to see once again a distinctly Catholic culture of beauty united to the liturgy. In fact as a result of this I have had several enquiries from people looking to study art full time who are well grounded in the Faith and committed to the wider vision, so much earlier in the development process than I had originally planned, I am even expecting our first full time art student to begin this Fall.


The Pythagorean Prayer of the Cosmos

The powerful prayer for creativity and inspiration and joy, which is perfected in the Church (Others in series on Divine Office here) Since the ancient Greeks there has been the idea that the happy life is the result of a good life, and a good life is a beautiful life. In the 6th century BC the philosopher Pythagoras (the same one who has a geometric theorem named after him) gathered around him a religious group of ‘Pythagoreans’ who sought to order their lives according to this principle of beauty and order. They drew their inspiration from their observations of the beauty of the cosmos. When viewed in the way of the Pythagoreans, making our actions and work beautiful becomes a guiding principle in life, just like morality. Morality tends to guide by placing boundaries on our activity – it tells us what not to do. This is necessary. Beauty, however, complements this by providing a positive principle of choice. When looking at the broad open field of choices that do not contravene moral law, it opens up new paths and gives us a principle to choose between options which may all appear to be morally neutral. How do we know what the beautiful choice is? The Greeks noted that the cosmos is both ordered and is beautiful. (The word ‘cosmos’ means in Greek simultaneously order and beauty.) This connection points us to the idea that when we find something beautiful, it is the order within it that is appealing to us. They also noticed, long before the development of modern science, that the rhythms and patterns of the cosmos could be described numerically; and this numerical ordering could become, at least in part, a principle for ordering life. Time and space can be ordered numerically, whether it’s the hours in the day, or the dimensions of a building. Pythagoras is described by Plato as being the discoverer of the numerical order behind beautiful musical harmony and his influence in this area continues to this day.

The Greeks were not the only ones. Long before Christ, the Jewish people ordered time in accordance with these principles: years, months, weeks, days and hours in conformity with the patterns of the cosmos, especially the sun and the moon. They were prompted to do by the revelation contained in Holy Scripture. For the Jewish people the cosmos was a heavenly signpost, created by God, to indicate also the rhythms and patterns and worship. The seven-day weekly cycle, the feast days and the seasonal cycles of their worship conformed to the phases of the moon and the rising and setting of sun. Within each day, there was a seven-fold prayer as well, with the addition of prayer during the night. This structure was the route to joy too. The Psalms especially stress that happiness is the result of following this path. ‘Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.’ (Psalm 118:1)

Greek temple in Segesta, Sicily. Pythagoras lived in Sicily

This ancient pattern was adopted and accommodated into Christian worship (see The Path to Heaven is a Triple Helix). The Christian fathers, especially figures such as Augustine made this connection between the liturgy and the Pythagorean description of the cosmos (The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Benedict XVI describes this), to give a sense that that the cosmos was made beautiful to direct our praise to God and both this earthly liturgy and the cosmos are not only in harmony with each other, but each reflects the order of the invisible standard of the heavenly liturgy – the unending praise of God by the saints in heaven. The connection between heaven and earth was made substantial in the Church’s worship, through the Mass. The body and blood of Christ, present under the appearance of bread and wine at the centre of the Mass is the meeting point of all that exists, seen and unseen. In Him all the patterns of order and beauty are embodied, for He is Beauty itself. He is the Creator of the cosmos and it bears the thumbprint of the one who fashioned it. In the Mass we actually ingest Beauty.

Let us recall that image of the Mass as a jewel in the setting of the Liturgy of the Hours which is in turn a jewel set in the cosmos. Through this trail of beauty, the connection between the heavens and Heaven is made complete. The Pythagoreans inspired by beauty, prayed with the cosmos. The Jews, inspired by Scripture prayed the liturgy of the hours by praying the psalms at certain times of the day. Christianity is the deepest drawing together of these elements in the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of human life. Each leads us into the next, and each completes the former. This is the prayer that the Pythagoreans sought and, I’m guessing, would have loved to have known. It is the fullest source of beauty and joy.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass is the deepest education in beauty there is, it impresses upon our very souls the patterns of beauty – of the cosmos, of heaven, of Christ. It also opens us up to God’s inspiration just as He bestows it. We draw spiritual breath as He exhales, so to speak. This developed innate sense of the beautiful shapes and guides our imaginations. Because our prayer is engaging the whole person and engaging all the senses, it develops our ability to create beauty in our work, whatever we do, because we understand how it will appeal to others through their sensual perception.

Those who want to learn to do the Divine Office, you might approach a priest or religious (ie monk or nun) and ask them to show you. Alternatively, the Way of Beauty summer retreats at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts will teach you how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and how you can realistically incorporated it into a busy working or family life

Images above: Pythagoras and an ancient synagogue in Capernaum. Below: the Romanesque Cathedral at Durham in the northeast of England.


The Unsurpassed Power and Effectiveness of the Prayer of Christ - Divine Office IV

The Liturgy is the most powerful and effective form of prayer. This is the fourth in a series on the Liturgy of the Hours. The others are here. The Liturgy (the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours) is not just powerful and effective. It is the most powerful and effective action of the Church on our behalf. Christ participated in it historically; and continues to do so eternally in heaven and on earth and we participate in His prayer through his mystical body, the Church. 

I have assumed that as a devout Jew, Christ participated in the Jewish liturgy, which followed a pattern of marking the hours, either three or seven times a day (and once at night) and praying the psalms (which is the basic form of the Liturgy of the Hours).  The bible speaks of this pre-Christian practice and its continuation in the Church that He founded (see here) ; and we know from historical records that this tradition has continued to the present day. A lovely example that illustrates this continuation of the thread of tradition is the psalm tune or 'tone' called the Tonus Perigrinus. This came from the ancient tradition of the synagogue, was passed on to the Christian liturgy and became one of the standard chants of Gregorian chant. It has become one of the standard chants of Anglican chant too (listen here).

When we pray with the Church, we pray as part of the mystical body of Christ who is our priestly advocate to the Father. Liturgy (the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) is the worship of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. It is the means by which we enter into a profound relationship with God and enter directly into the dynamic mystery of love of the three persons of the Trinity. In doing so we become divine, yes divine. This is the source of power and effectiveness, and joy. This union with God is why God created us, and God became man to allow this to happen:

'The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature": "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods."81 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460, quoting 2 Pt 1:4; St. Irenaeus in the second century AD; and St Athanasius in the 4th century AD; and Jn 1:14)

‘Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office.’ (Sacrosanctum Consilium, 83; written in 1963)

If we are participating in the divine nature (albeit at this stage only temporarily and by degrees for us as individuals) it is no wonder that this prayer is powerful.

'Accordingly, every liturgical celebration, as an activity of Christ the priest and of his body, which is the Church, is a sacred action of a pre-eminent kind. No other action of the Church equals its title to power or its degree of effectiveness.' (Sacrosanctum Consilium, 7, [my emphasis])

Those who want to learn to do the Divine Office, you might approach a priest or religious (ie monk or nun) and ask them to show you. Alternatively, the Way of Beauty summer retreats at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts will teach you how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and how you can realistically incorporated it into a busy working or family life

Images from top: anonymous, Christ Pantocrator, Monreale, Sicily, 12th century; anonymous, 'Mercy Seat' Trinity with four evangelists, English alabaster, early 15th century; Duccio, detail, showing the Agony in the Garden of the Maesta, 14th century;

Images below text: Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (1590 - 1625), Supper at Emmaus. The artist was an Italian who lived in Spain; Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus