Charity Among Sinners

My wife and I have been lucky enough to visit Italy about six times. In that country, Christian faith seems to be a tangible thing, built into the very architecture. As the altar is the focus of the nave of a church’s interior, the façade is the focus of the piazza outside. Public space is worship space, with the church at its center.

Leaving Mass in a moderately sized town, on the porch one immediately finds beggars, hookers, tour guides, hawkers, lovers—absolutely everybody—side by side, drawn there because it is the center of gravity, the obvious place to meet, to beg, to find customers, or just gawk. While we were indoors praying, the bells rang for these people too. Worship in some sense never stops. This, more than any doctrine or morality, is the meaning of a Catholic country. Everybody is assumed of belonging.

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In their own lands

By now readers will have seen that the Owl questions the relationship between faith and our ostensibly Christian culture. Most people: citizens, migrants, resident aliens, and dissenters of all kinds, participate in it comfortably enough to get along, if only by virtue of history, ancestry, and habit. When the Owl began his travels to foreign parts (1989), he carried his skepticism with him and tried to apply it in those unfamiliar places. A strange thing happened. He could not help admiring what he saw of churches, wherever he went. Not that his destinations were so exotic; at first we visited only the UK and Italy.

As it happened, the first worship service I ever attended outside the United States was Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There was a powerful modern organ prelude (though I wrote to ask, I could never find out the composer or name of the piece), followed by an aria of Mendelssohn sung by a boy soprano. That latter, a single voice resonating in the tremendous space was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I embarrassed myself and those around me by shedding copious tears.

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Use and Abuse of Religious Art

From the most ancient Egyptian and Greek monuments to the present day, most of what we call “Art” is religious art. One of our cultural superstitions is that any art is religious because it is presumed to express the grand spirit of the artist. It is a short step from “creative artist” to then artist as creator: symphonic conductors as demigods; poets, painters, playwrights, and sculptors as transcendent geniuses, and so forth. It takes only one more step to arrive the artist as an avatar of the Creator. Even modern art that appears to call religion into question, or to make a travesty of it (“Piss Christ”) finds itself addressing faith in backhanded ways. When it’s trying to say something positive, not merely mocking, capital-A Art takes the human spirit as a quasi-religious object. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, set forth by the French National Constituent Assembly, was painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier as a pair of tablets, like those from Sinai.

Lately the Owl has written about works of art that have clear liturgical functions. It is just as interesting to look for authentic spiritual and theological content in unexpected places. In some cases, the matter is clear; in others it is ambiguous, or solipsistic. Here are a few examples.

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Holiday Mass, Cartagena

People have strong feelings about forms of worship. When I first joined the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was still new. It elicited both joy and complaint. We still accommodate different tastes with Rites I and II at different hours.

This is not the place to rehearse all that, but let me venture a remark about holiday services. Undoubtedly people here and elsewhere look forward to candle light Christmas Eve service, greens and candles lining the center aisle, our favorite carols, children lying in their parents’ arms. It is lovely to pour out freshly shriven into the dark night, all smiles.

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