The Proper Ordering of Art and Writing

The creative impulse is a deeply rooted aspect of the human person because we are made imago Dei and God is the Creator. This desire to share in the creative action of God is evidenced by thousands of years in which art, architecture, and the written word have been shaped in endless ways. We are made for the good, the beautiful, and the true and different disciplines help us to enter deeper into reality and into God. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Do I order my creative actions to God? Art in itself is a good, but it should draw us deeper into who we are as “embodied spirits” and point us home.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful piece of music, stunning painting, stained glass window, or a poem to remind us that we are not home. When the soul is elevated through beauty we sense in that ache deep within us that this cannot be all there is; there must be something more. This sense, which comes from faith, is meant to point us home. When we create, whether it be through painting, sculpting, writing, architecture, music, etc. we are  meant to glorify God in the process. We should raise our eyes to Heaven and give Glory to Him.

Catholics have a bad tendency to compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives. This is even apparent in Catholic artists. Many of us live in cultures where we are told our faith is a private matter, and this has been influenced greatly by the Reformation and rationalist philosophies over the last few centuries. The separation of Church and state in this country is often used as a cudgel on religious adherents because far too many do not grasp that this separation only extends to a formal state religion. As Christians, we have a right and obligation to live our faith freely. Unfortunately, too many of us fall for the lie and so we keep our faith to ourselves and the one hour we are required to give worship to God.

In reality, the Church teaches that every baptized member of the community is called to participate in the Divine Offices of Christ: priest, prophet, and king. We are called to sacrifice through charity, share the Good News with the world, and bring the world under Christ’s Lordship. There is no separation between our Catholic Faith and other aspects of our lives. How we live each moment of our day is meant to sanctify and help us to grow in holiness. What we do as an artist is meant to help us enter deeper into communion with the Most Holy Trinity and draw others into that communion as well. This can be done in countless ways.

Do we realize this reality as Catholic writers? I will focus on writing because that is the art form that God has given to me to share in His creative work in the world. It dawned on me recently that so many Catholics are busy arguing, disagreeing, and fighting that they do not realize that their primary–my–primary mission as a writer is to help draw people into the good, the beautiful, and the true and to point people to our Ultimate Home. This does not mean we cannot enter into suffering, pain, and darkness, those experiences point us to the Cross.

It also does not mean we have to be saints, yet. Often, we end up falling on false modesty to avoid the universal call to sainthood. I have a very long way to go and I pray God is merciful and patient with my weakness. The path to holiness is a life-long process. It does mean, however, that we need to take stock of why exactly we write. Is it our place to vent imprudently in cyberspace? Do we desire to share the beauty and truth of Catholicism with the world in charity? That charity is meant to be holy indifferent, by the way. Most of us have not achieved that level at this point in time. Is it an extension of our pride? Do we consider that we are serving God through our work? Do we consider the impact our work has on our readers’ souls? Do we prudently and prayerfully discern any work we produce before it is published?

I can say that I have written for all of the above reasons in some form. I have been writing since I was a child, and I went through a period where I desired esteem, praise, and as many social media shares as possible. I still struggle with the desire for praise. Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions frequently is a great reminder for people like me! This is a very real temptation and danger for writers in a world of immediate connection. I remember the rush of the first time one of my articles was shared and “Liked” on Facebook by 15K readers or when the comments on one of my articles went into the thousands. It is very easy to get sucked into the praise and adoration, and the criticism.

I started to see that the more I focused on these aspects of my work, the more despair I felt in response to criticism and the more often writer’s block would set in. The more I focused on me and my work, the more I would respond in anger or impatience to readers’ comments. You can probably see this if you look back on some of my work a couple of years back or even a year or so ago. It is true that every writer gets bizarre, incoherent, irrational, insipid, vitriolic, random comments on their work. We can have a tendency to focus too much on this group of vocal people, who are a minority. Most people read our work and go on. We have no idea how it has impacted them.

In reality, the reason many of us get so upset, is because we have not given our work entirely over to God. I still struggle with this problem. Some of my favorite pieces are the least popular and I will get frustrated. I sort of understand that nihilism, utilitarianism, and transcendent beauty are not high interest for many readers. The more I focus on me the more I will read nasty comments and fume. I can avoid these problems, which are only really impacting me, if I focused on why and for Whom I am called to write. It does not matter if I write about politics, Church polemics, current affairs, theology, philosophy, or the spiritual life, the  mission is always the same: To draw people towards God. We do this by pointing people to the truth to beauty and to goodness. We cannot achieve this mission if it is not even on our radar that God is the ultimate end of all of our work.

I write because I write. I write and don’t think about how it impacts people. I write to make myself feel better. I write out of pride. I write because I want to be published. Many of these are goods in themselves–pride is not–but they are not the purpose of our writing. God did not start publishing my work on a larger scale until I started to refocus more on Him. In fact, my first big publication (big to me) came out of nowhere.

God has given us a gift and He expects us to use it for His purposes. If we focus on His purposes over our own then we are less likely to be moved to one emotion or another when someone comments on our work, complains in social media, or even writes a negative response at another Catholic website. We are able to, by God’s grace, work towards a holy indifference in regard to our work. Focusing on God’s mission and desires helps us to focus on humility and it allows us to grow in holy detachment.

I no longer read all of the comments on my pieces that publish elsewhere. I cannot keep up with them on the secular sites I write for because there are so many. Plus, all I can do is put the argument out there and leave it to God to change people’s hearts and minds. I must commend my work to God for His uses and ways, not my own. Arguing with folks in comment sections does not accomplish much these days. Much of our work has to be left to prayer. My theology professors are always telling us that theology begins on our knees in prayer. The same goes for writers. If we want to truly transform the world and bring people to Christ then we will be people of prayer.  I struggle in this department as well, but I am working on it.

Disagreements are normal and a healthy aspect of the Church community, but how we go about those arguments and disagreements matters. If our work is truly meant for the Glory of God and to bring other people closer to God, then we should not be so focused on how everyone reacts to our work, nor should we be obsessed with always being right. This is sinful pride in action. Intellectual discourse between thinkers should be done with respect for the other person and a realization that other people are watching and reading. We will be held accountable for the people we lead astray. Whether we like it or not, people trust us. If we are focused on God’s use for our work, then we are less likely to fall into weakness, temptation, and pride in our work and dealing with others.

Everything we do should be ordered to God. It can be as simple as offering up the task of washing dishes or as complex as writing on the Summa. When we enter into the creative aspect of our nature, it is essential that we order ourselves to God first and then go about our task of creating. If we do not offer our work to God, we run the risk of falling short of His plan for us and even succumbing to temptation. Pride is a danger for all of us and for writers it can be difficult in an age of billions of “Likes”. A very blessed Advent to you all!

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