The Artists and the Church - John Paul II

The Artists and the Church - John Paul II

Pope Saint John Paul II perhaps understood the sensibility of artists better than most pontiffs. He was, after all, a poet, playwright, and actor himself. His Letter to Artists, written in 1999, deserves special attention among those struggling to find a way to reconcile being an artist with being Christian.

Are You Using All of Your Gifts?

Are You Using All of Your Gifts?

“God-given gifts are by definition supernatural gifts. Even if they seem common or mundane, we can trust in their ability to work supernatural wonders.”

Have you ever wondered what God is trying to tell you? Have you ever felt frustrated because you don’t believe God is speaking to you at all? It may be that you just don’t recognize His voice.

God speaks to us through the gifts He has given us. Each one of us is given a unique set of gifts, and there are no small gifts. “To each individual some manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” These gifts are not given to us to hoard and use for our own pleasure, they are given to us to help one another, to benefit the common good. As these are God-given gifts they are by definition supernatural gifts. Even if they seem common or mundane, we can trust in their ability to work supernatural wonders.

Art, Artists, and a Theology of Beauty, Part II

Art, Artists, and a Theology of Beauty, Part II

A beautiful spirit may shine even through a form that has been weakened. Drawing on both old and new testaments the early church fathers developed the doctrine of "kenosis" from a Greek word meaning emptiness. In the context of a theology of beauty kenosis refers to a humiliation of form, an emptying of one's self, so that the divine beauty shines more brightly. In the Old Testament this theme is taken up in the suffering servant.

Film review: Pixar's Inside Out - watch out, it's teaching your kids to behave like animals!

Inside outIn this animation by Pixar we see how a little girl called Riley copes with a family move from the Midwest to the San Francisco when her father starts a new job. Initially she finds the move difficult and through the film gradually comes to terms with it. The process by which she does so is portrayed as one of conflicting emotions. We look into her mind and see five personifications, of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger which respond events happening to her as she perceives them, and information fed to her by the subconscious memory. Each battles to be the dominant and so control he mood and actions of Riley. The film seems to have been universally well received with most reviewers I have seen give it four or five stars. Although there are some great, funny lines in it, as with all the Pixar offerings I have seen, I did not share this view unreservedly. I thought the story was dull and the imaginary rules by which the competing elements of each emotion responded to the influence of the information seemed inconsistent and so it was unconvincing as an imaginary world inside the mind. You may feel different about that and side with the mainstream reviewers. In the little crowd with whom saw it I was probably the least entertained.

However, I would say that for other reasons, going beyond entertainment, that this is not a film to show your children. I thought it portrayed a flawed anthropology. Read this sentence from the Rotton Tomatoes summary: 'Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life.'


And therein lies the problem for me. This is a portrayal of the modern obsession with passion and emotion that has been handed on to us from the Romantics of the 19th century and Rousseau in the 18th. In my understanding (supported by my own experience, even as an eleven year old), we are not all subject to our emotions in the way that the reviewer supposes and film makers want us to believe. We have reason, we have a will. We assess all the information and although we might choose to do sometimes, we are not bound to follow the dictates whichever emotion is the strongest. That puts us at the level of animals.


There is something important missing in Inside Out. There is a part of the soul that can make judgments and which, in some way, steps back from our instinctive reactions to things and influence of the memories. It observes all the information coming into the mind and then decides what to do. This the spirit. The spirit ican look to others in love and it is by the spirit that we relate to others and to God as a human person, (just as the persons of the Trinity relate to each other). This is what is special to man among creatures: he is able to observe himself. I once heard it put like this. Animals are aware of things, like man; but unlike man they are not aware that they are aware.

Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote about the spirit as the aspect of the soul by which we relate to other in an essay for the journal Communio published in 1990 (p 439, Communio 17, Fall 1990). In reference to the spirit he wrote: 'It is the nature St Francis-Shrewsbury School-1226of the spirit to put itself in relation, the capacity to see itself and the other...the spirit is not merely there, it goes back on itself, as it were; it knows about itself. It constitutes a double existence which not only is, but knows about itself, has itself.' In icons, you often see faces portrayed with a slight lump or dimple in the middle of the forehead just above the bridge of the nose. This can be thought of as a symbol of the spirit. My teacher would refer to it with the Greek term, the nous, (meaning literally 'mind') and call it the the 'spiritual eye'.


This is the spirit which is referred to by St Paul in Thessalonians, and by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. It is referred to by Our Lady in the Magnificat, which is sung in Vespers every day, when she says: 'My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.' In the Mass, the priest turns to us and says, 'The Lord be with you.' And we reply, 'And with your spirit.' In both cases the spirit is instrumental in being in relationship with God.

Christian commentators can differ on precisely which aspects of soul reside in the spirit, but St Thomas, for example, says that it is the intellect and the will, by which we know and love, constitute the spirit. It is the spirit, he says, that separates man from 'brute animals' and likens us to angels. (I wrote a longer article on this anthropology, here.)


This is the great problem with Inside Out, in the child Riley there is no sixth personification. This sixth aspect of the soul should have been there, detached from the emotions and able to reason and to  love and be open to the promptings of grace and the Holy Spirit.

No wonder Riley was struggling with life, she was living in miserable isolation! May the Lord be with your spirit.

— ♦—

My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

JAY W. RICHARDS, Editor of the Stream and Lecturer at the Business School fo the Catholic University of America said about it: “In The Way of Beauty, David Clayton offers us a mini-liberal arts education. The book is a counter-offensive against a culture that so often seems to have capitulated to a ‘will to ugliness.’ He shows us the power in beauty not just where we might expect it — in the visual arts and music — but in domains as diverse as math, theology, morality, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and liturgy. But more than that, his study of beauty makes clear the connection between liturgy, culture, and evangelization, and offers a way to reinvigorate our commitment to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the twenty-first century. I am grateful for this book and hope many will take its lessons to heart.”




A 7th Century Saint Describes How We Participate in the Transfiguration and Shine with the Light that will Save the World

The spirit is the mind's eye through which we see God, face to face, and by which we partake of the divine nature, and are transfigured, in this life by degrees, through our participation in the mystical body of Christ. Here is a quotation from a 7th century Greek Father, St Anastasius of Sinai. I read it in the Office of Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is from a sermon by the saintwritten for this day. 'Let us listen to the holy voice of God which summons us from on high, from the holy mountain top. There we must hasten - I make bold to say - like Jesus who is our leader and has gone before us into heaven. There, with him, may the eyes of our mind shine with his light and the features of our soul be made new; may we be transfigured with him and moulded to his image, ever become divine, being transformed in an ever greater degree of glory.'

I have written a number of articles recently emphasising this idea of personal transformation through an ordered and active participation in the liturgy. By this transformation we shine with the light of Christ and experience profound joy in this life. Oh that all Christians could live this, then we might, in turn, see a profound and powerful change in society through their engagement with it. This is what will call people around us into the Church.

This is a force that can change society and change the culture, but it all happens through our everyday human relations. It is tempting to think that we should focus on influential figures, high profile people to win mass attention to our causes. But a publicity campaign is not a personal relationship and cannot touch us in the same way (although it can open the door). For those who think that relying on personal contact will be too slow to effect anything. However, if it really is true, as I have told, that even in a human race of 6 billion, no one is more than six personal relationships apart from anyone else, then this suggests that it is not only the most powerful but also the most efficient way of reaching most people.

Notice also, St Anastasius's reference to (in translation) the 'mind's eye'. This, it seems to me, is the spirit by which we establish the most important personal relationship by which, in turn, the personal transformation  described by St Anastasius is acheived.

Past articles describing the anthropology of body, soul and spirit are here and here. In his book The Wellspring of Worship, Jean Corbon describes how liturgy is the means by which we participate in Christ's transfiguration.

A summary of what they describe follows: the spirit is the highest part of the soul. It is that part of the soul which touches on God, a portal for the grace that pours out from God ‘transfiguring’ us into the image and the likeness of God. The divinely created order of the human person is the spirit, which is closest to God, rules the rest of the soul which in turn rules the body. All move together in union and communion with God. It is our participation in the liturgy that establishes this personal relationship with God at the most profound level.

The painting above is by Titian; and below by Rembrandt and it is of St Anastasius in His Monastery, 'the new Moses'. He is venerated in both Eastern and Western Churches.

St Ephrem the Syrian on the nature of man - body, soul and spirit

Over the summer, I read the Hymns on Paradise written by St Ephrem the Syrian. Ephrem is a 4th century saint who lived in modern day Turkey and wrote in Syriac. Although much of what he wrote is liturgical - in the form of hymns, it is theologically rich. There were two reasons why I read this. The first was at the suggestion of Dr William Fahey, who told me that Ephrem described the visual appearance of Adam and Eve both before and after the Fall. This was of interest to me because in his Theology of the Body, John Paul II asked artists to portray man in the manner of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall - 'naked without shame' - in order to reveal human sexuality as gift, that is, an ordered picture of human sexuality. In order to be able to do this, I wanted to do some reasearch to see what the Church Fathers had to say on what Original Man (ie man before the Fall) looked like. In the Christian tradition, we have iconographic art which portrays mankind redeemed and in heaven (Eschatological Man), and the baroque, which shows fallen man (Historical Man) but we have no fully formed tradition in which the form and theology are integrated to portray Original Man and so no visual vocabulary to draw on in order to paint him. The desire to read him was reinforced recently on my trip to Spain, when I read Pope Benedict's Wednesday address on St Ephrem, a Doctor of the Church, as part of my own personal 'Office of Readings' in the morning (I have written about this here). In this Benedict tells us that St Ephrem is 'still absolutely timely for the life of the various Christian churches...a theologian who reflects poetically on the basis of Holy Scripture, on the mystery of man's redemption brought about by Christ, the Word of God incarnate'.

As Dr Fahey had indicated, there is much useful material written by St Ephrem on Original Man and I am in the process of pulling this together for a longer article. So in this respect, St Ephrem is certainly timely.

I'm sure the style of the translation had a lot to do with this as well (by Sebastian Brock), but I found him pleasurable as well as interesting reading. He was a prolific writer and so there's plenty more to look at in the future!

My reason for bringing all of this up here is that St Ephrem wrote something that caught my eye for another reason in the 9th of his Hymns to Paradise:

Far more glorious than the body is the soul, and more glorious still than the soul is the spirit, but more hidden than the spirit is the Godhead.

At the end, the body will put on the beauty of the soul, the soul will put on that of the spirit, while the spirit shall put on the very likeness of God's majesty.

For bodies shall be raised to the level of souls, and the soul to that of the spirit, while the spirit shall be raised to height of God's majesty.

This describes so well what Jean Corbon described as the transformation that happens to us when we are full participants in the liturgy, as described here. The icon of the transfiguration is an icon of the liturgy, he says, for we participate in Christ's transfiguration when we participate in the liturgy. This passage from St Ephrem suggests that the spirit is a special place in us that is in primary contact with God's majesty that is itself raised to God's majesty and is transfigured. This indicates a special place therefore for the spirit in our participation in the liturgy, for the liturgy is the way in which we ascend, by degrees in this life, to union with God which is complete, as St Ephrem puts it 'at the end' in paradise. It also reinforces an idea that Stratford Caldecot described in his essay, Towards a Liturgical Anthropology. Strat suggests that a lack of full acknowledgement of the spirit as the higher part of the soul has lead, in part, to an incomplete participation in the liturgy since the 19th century at least, and in turn has lead to the Catholic cultural decline that we are all so well aware of.

In another papal address, on St Gregory of Nyssa, Pope Benedict XVI himself referred to this anthropolgy of body, soul and spirit as being part of the tradition of the Church.

To summarise how the spirit relates to the soul here's my understanding: the spirit is the highest part of the soul. It is that part of the soul which touches on God, a portal for the grace that pours out from God 'transfiguring' us into the image and the likeness of God. The divinely created order of the human person is the spirit, which is closest to God, rules the rest of the soul which in turn rules the body. All move together in union and communion with God.