This month, I would like to share a few thoughts on gratitude. In a time of struggle—which is the situation for all those who seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly—it is easy to get endlessly distracted and anxious about “survival.” For Christians this can translate into survival for the sake of doing good in the world. The motive is good, but the anxiety is not. Indeed it is a symptom of a flaw in the root of one’s relationship with God as Father. In any event, that is the case with me. The past month, I have been hearing in prayer a gentle but persistent word: “All good things are given from above.”
Yes, we must work on, often with little promise of success in worldly terms. If we do so, many interior qualities are strengthened, such as patience, perseverance, longsuffering—and even wisdom.
One can know this in the mind. But it is not so easy to integrate this knowledge with the deeper movements of the heart and soul. But how does the integration come? I am convinced that it comes only through persistent prayer combined with carrying the crosses that life presents to us—the normal daily ones and the extraordinary ones that are laid on our shoulders from time to time.
In one of my previous letters written a few years ago, I mentioned the many messages I receive from Catholic writers, artists, musicians, and other creative people who are struggling to survive, or are just beginning their labours for Christ and don’t know how to follow the Lord’s clear calling to the vocation of Christian art. I continue to receive such letters, in fact in greater numbers than ever. The dilemma facing these gifted people is practically universal and is also a symptom of the disease of the modern age, which offers so little room for them. The world is very ill and heavily drugged, and it no longer really understands the cost of creation. Or if it does understand, it has decided that the cost isn’t worth it.
The vocation of the Christian artist has always been a difficult one, and throughout our history it has tended to be produced mainly by people living in religious communities or by a very small number of lay people under the patronage of kings and the Church. But the modern era has seen a gradual, swiftly accelerating change in the nature of society itself, resulting in a warping of human consciousness that is largely hidden even from our own eyes. We have lost our hierarchy of values. We have lost our sense of proportion. We have lost our place in the continuity of time. We may know what went before us, but we so rarely have direct experience of what our ancestors knew “in the flesh.”
One aspect of this change can be seen in the field of visual art, which was once valued as a revelation that ennobled man, and has now become a commodity. Worse, the sacred arts, which were once considered to be a form of prayer that not only ennobled man but gave him a more profound awareness of his eternal value, are now all too often degraded to the level of “religious” decoration. The holiness of sacred signs has been displaced by illustration.
Within a single generation, our more or less Christian civilization (I am speaking about the affluent nations primarily) has become an apostate one. In terms of socio-cultural philosophy, its manifestations are varied: modernity, post-modernity, secularism, the new paganism, utilitarianism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, anti-personalism, friendly neighborhood nihilism, automatism, et cetera, et cetera. It is a many-faced beast, but one thing certain is that it is indeed a beast. It devours countless human lives, morally and mortally. It ghettoizes the diverse resources of truly human cultures, displacing them with a profit-driven, homogenized world-culture that does not arise from the profound inner reservoirs of the human spirit, but is instead “created” and propagated by all the powers of machines, micro-technology, and invisible waves conveyed by satellites. The new culture is powerful, it is super-rich, it is relentless and omni-present.
Through the inventions of the camera, video, and the internet, it floods the world with visually stunning imagery that is made with little cost and time, and is free for the asking. One 30-second download and you can have an image on your screen as powerful as anything created by a Renaissance painter who spent years over a single image that he knew would be viewed with a kind of profound attention, a state of deep listening, deep seeing, by countless people for hundreds of years to come. But we—we have developed an appetite for dazzle and thrill, and lost our sense of wonder. We have a multitude of images imprinted in our brains, and few living icons in our hearts. Yes, the new imagery is phenomenal, viscerally powerful and emotionally rewarding. But even with images that have good content, it should be asked: how abiding are their effects? Do we find ourselves needing more and more and more of them? Do we need to keep increasing the dose in order to get the desired &! ldquo;high”? Does the e-image tell us that it is expanding our consciousness, even as it quietly and relentlessly replaces the hard, heroic labours which each of us must do to bring about our personal growth toward fully awake human consciousness? Does it offer us all this amazing abundance “for free”? Or is there a hidden cost?
We now live in a mental “zone” that was unknown to any people who came before us in the history of mankind. Ours is a psychological cosmos that feels infinitely promising, rich in human potential.
Let me digress with a personal story: A couple of years ago I found myself in New York City, where I was a guest at a cultural event of mega proportions. Uncomfortable in the opulent surroundings of the hotel where the event was to take place later in the evening, I went for a walk on one of the most glamorous streets in the world, Fifth Avenue. I wore a very nice suit that I had recently obtained at a used clothing center, and was also quite proud of my new shoes which I had bought for twenty-dollars. My tie I had borrowed from one of my sons. Thus dressed in heavy camouflage, I felt quite spiffy—a rare event for me. There was an hour to kill so I thought I would simply stroll along, soaking up Manhattan’s alien ambience. Most of the city’s business was over for the day, and I was surprised by how empty the streets were. The block I was on seemed deserted. As I passed a glittering office tower, a woman strode forth from its entrance, turned in the directio! n I was going, and proceeded along the sidewalk a few paces behind me. A micro-second of exposure had informed me much about her: twenty-eight years old, incredibly beautiful, tastefully jeweled, wearing a designer suit and high heels that probably cost more than my family car—a 1994 Buick van in need of surgery. She was carrying a large leather briefcase with gold initials engraved on it. “Probably a lawyer,” I mused to myself, “maybe an up-and-coming CEO.” Then I heard the clickety-clickety of her high heels approaching swiftly behind me on the left. “Eyes to the right, buddy,” I instructed myself, and obeyed. Then to my astonishment she was beside me, her arm inches from my arm. A cloud of elegant perfume enveloped me. My heart skipped a beat.
“I love you,” she breathed intensely, plaintively, deeply, most intimately. Stunned, mentally paralyzed, I quickened my pace from one befitting an elderly man to one preparing to break into a sprint. But she kept moving faster, gradually drawing ahead, and then as the gap between us widened, I spotted the cell-phone in her left hand, and the last thing I heard was, “I’ll pick up bread and milk on the way home, honey. I love you. Bye.” Click.
Click. Digression over.
Of course, the new technology can be helpful in the aftermath of car accidents, flat tires, as a remedy for poorly written grocery lists, and for locating missing children, but it also enables us to enjoy near-angelic powers. Tap a computer key and instantly you are watching virtual real-time events on the other side of the planet; tap another and you can download a magnificent photo and possess it as your own. Nearly everything about this culture proclaims efficiency and “creativity” but the impression is based on surface stimulation and volume of consumption. In fact, this way of life becomes ever more complicated, and most insidiously it narrows the spectrum of creative imagination. An overwhelming majority of its “cultural products” depends on electronic impulses. It is inaccessible to your hands. In the museums of old there used to be signs that said: Do not touch the works of art. Now, such signs are no longer needed. Extend your hand to ! touch the foot of a statue and a light beam detects your presence, an invisible alarm is triggered—bing-bing-bing-bing—and a voice from an unseen source says, “Do not touch the works of art.”
Visual images are primarily transmitted to you through your computer screen. Your music is almost entirely pumped into your mind by a pod inserted in your ear. You can, if you wish, store ten thousand songs in that peanut-sized object. Go walking or jogging with it, take a bath with it (warning, please do not submerge your head underwater), eat a meal with it (and take along your cell-phone too, in order not to miss anything), go to church with it (please, would everyone remember to turn off their cell-phones). You will never again feel alone. You will never again feel abandoned, disconnected, and woebegone for lack of pleasure stimulation. You will never again feel disturbed by silence. You are rich. As long as you keep replacing the batteries.
The new culture propagates itself as the broadest possible vision, and to the eyes and ears it can appear to be so, but it is like a river that has flooded its shores and spread out over fields and forests, consuming everything in its path, and in the end draining away into stagnant swamps, losing its true self. For a time we are convinced that it is a very big river—a sea really—and we forget that it is miles wide and an inch deep.
What is a good river? A good river flows swift and deep with life-giving water when it is contained and directed by strong embankments. If this analogy is applied to culture, we should understand that the “restraining” embankments are the very things that free us. The artist’s discipline and sacrifice, his investment of time and energy, his long discipleship of hand and eye, heart and soul, focus his energies, permit grace to work co-creatively with his nature, and in this way he brings forth new forms of beauty and truth into the world. His paintbrush is a tool that remains a tool—in other words, a servant; it does not turn him into its servant.
Techno-culture, on the other hand, gradually turns man into its tool. It reshapes his consciousness as he uses it. This is true of all tools, but there is something radically different in the effects of the new technology. Man’s very self-conception is being reshaped in such a way that, knowingly or unknowingly, he comes to think of himself as a mechanism—and then, if the habit is not broken, he begins to relate to other people as if they were mechanisms. Is real friendship possible in this condition? Authentic marriage? True commitment? Is any kind of love possible? Is he being trained to consume the sensations of love without investing the high and life-long cost of love, and then if the sensations no longer satisfy does he move on to another source? If his culture is all about consumption, why not in the end consume anything that his impulsive habits of consumption propose as comfort sources, including other human beings. The sources, after all, are limitless.! If your DVD player breaks down, trash it and buy a new one, so why not do the same with other things that fail to satisfy? There are always new ones to be had, more and more and more. Cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, and with better and better quality too!
A Japanese Catholic man once told me, “A room with a single beautiful thing in it is a beautiful room. A room with a hundred beautiful things in it is an ugly room.”
Where is our simplicity? Where are the good things of earth and heaven that we once respected, even reverenced? Are they lost to us forever? Can they be rediscovered? Are we able to recognize what we have lost? Do we realize that we have lost something? Do we know if we are bound by chains—soft to the touch but unyielding?
After thirty-eight years of making art, the world has changed and changed before my eyes. I am amazed by what has come to pass. Most of you were probably born after the great metamorphosis. It is your world, and I worry that you think it is a normal world. It is not. It very much is not.
If you forget everything I wrote here, please remember this:
Find the Real. Seek with your whole hearts the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.
Let us thank the Lord in times of abundance, and let us thank Him in times of deprivation.
May our Lord Jesus give you grace and peace in all fullness, and fruitfulness for eternity.