Catholic Exchange: Beauty Reflects God’s Love for Us

God is rather gratuitous in the beauty He bestows upon Creation. This is evident in crystal clear rivers descending into roaring waterfalls, the sun gently rising over the ocean, the quiet of sunset over snow covered peaks, misty trees golden by early morning light, and it is most profoundly seen in the eyes of our fellow sojourners: human beings. We are constantly surrounded by this gift of beauty, but do we see it? Do we accept it as a grand gesture from our Divine Lover? A friend of mine likes to say: “God woos us through beauty.” This is indeed true, if we pay attention.

I fear that many of us have been robbed of this truth. We live in cultures that have chosen banal, bland, boring, and utilitarian architecture or interior furnishings. We view human beings as a means to an end, an annoyance, or worse, as a burden. What person doesn’t feel the soul crushing utility upon entering a government building? This is true of the surroundings and the treatment of people who go there to do business. It is as if the true, the good, and the beautiful are intentionally kept out, so that we do not ponder higher things than our supposedly benevolent government.

This is also true of those sacred spaces stripped of their awe-inspiring power, thanks to the rabid iconoclasm of certain quarters due to the great misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Vatican II, often called “the spirit of Vatican II.” I have no intention of stepping into the Liturgy wars here, but I do believe that my generation was robbed of the beauty God means to bestow upon us and the beauty we mean to give back to Him as we participate in His creation through our churches and cathedrals.

We have forgotten how to look for God in beauty. Many of us don’t look up throughout our daily lives. We do not see the wonder surrounding us, even those who are surrounded by urban sprawl. This is just as true for Catholics as it is for our non-Catholic counterparts.  I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural settings throughout my life. Each one offers unique opportunities to find God in His Creation and in our worship of Him.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Television: Art vs the Obscene and the Catholic Answer, Part I

watching-tv

I have found that one of the things we Catholics do not like to think about is what we watch on television or read in novels. In fact, when I have discussed this with friends and shared my own struggles, I usually encounter a great deal of push back. We don’t like to be reminded that our choices in the Christian life expand even to our choices in entertainment. I want to consider these choices and the dangers of much of what is on television or in novels these days, and why Catholics must guard themselves in a culture that would lead us astray with glee. In this post I want to focus on gratuitous and graphic sex in television shows, especially on Premium channels on cable. In the second part of the series I will focus on the glorification of violence and how we can discern if what we are watching glorifies violence and leads us to engage in voyeurism.

A few years ago the show Scandal came out on ABC. I enjoy political intrigue and started to watch it. I really should have known better as the premise of the show rests in an adulterous affair with the President of the United States, but no, I was slow to acknowledge the sick feeling I felt after watching the show. It took me a season to realize why my conscience was telling me to stop watching it. It is graphically violent, focuses on adultery as romantic, and most of all, had absolutely no objective good in it. Not a single character possessed the good. There was no hero or heroine. Every single character was objectively evil on some level. It’s quite shocking really, since much of Western culture is still driven by the idea of good overcoming evil. That being said, no one should watch a show with no redeeming value and that glorifies sin. Adultery is objectively evil and destroys the people involved. I should not watch a show that glorifies and tries to paint over this reality. I finally decided to stop watching it and I didn’t miss it.

Why does the good matter, even on television? It matters because we are a people of redemption. We understand the pit that sin leads to and the ever present destruction of mankind, but we know that evil has been overcome by Jesus Christ. Evil does not win and evil is never good, no matter what our culture tries to tell us. Many television shows draw people in and they don’t realize they are watching a show that only depicts evil and no good. Evil can easily be wrapped up in a glamorous package. Why shouldn’t I watch adultery, “gay marriage”, the protection of evil and morally reprehensible behavior? I don’t do those things. Well, the problem is that these shows can dull our sense of what is morally correct. This has been apparent with the Catholic dissent on the nature of authentic marriage. We see enough “gay marriages” on television and somehow that becomes acceptable. Divorce is a foregone conclusion in our culture. Hollywood is our Magisterium, rather than Rome. We start to second guess ourselves and our faith. We begin to embrace the all consuming nihilism of our age that tells us this is it. All that awaits us is oblivion, nothingness. Make the most of it, even if it means using people and then discarding them as garbage when we are done. This philosophy is diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospel. What we ingest has a direct impact on our soul. Through our viewing we tell Hollywood that the garbage they are producing is acceptable. We help with the ratings.

Yesterday, I watched a thread on Facebook related to Game of Thrones that caused me some concern. The amount of justification for watching a show with graphic sex and violence is a problem in the Catholic world. I noticed this when thousands of practicing Catholics claimed that 50 Shades of Grey was acceptable reading, when in fact it is pornography, violent pornography. First, graphic sex scenes are not “art” no matter how we much we want to justify our choices. Pornography is not art, it is the obscene. Art is to bring human beings to the good and the true. The same goes for over-the-top sex scenes that are essentially pornographic. We just tell ourselves that it is not pornography because it is on HBO and Starz not a porn channel or Cinemax. That’s just us engaging in mental gymnastics so that we can hold onto a particular vice.

I will give you an example from my own life that is quite recent. Someone had told me that I should check out the show Outlander on Starz because I like British dramas. Mind you I have not read the novels. I watched the first episode which has multiple graphic marital sex scenes in it. Marital sex is a beautiful and holy thing, but we don’t need to watch graphic scenes that incite us to lust in order to understand this point. The show gets worse from there, not to mention that regardless of time period adultery is adultery. I should have shut it off. My conscience told me to shut it off. The struggle with lust told me to turn it off, but I didn’t. Instead I had to hang my head in shame and drag myself back to the Confessional. In full disclosure, this is not a sin that I have struggled with a lot. I have shared the two most recent experiences and they are spread out by years, but I am married and I have a lot of male friends. I know that this is a serious struggle for some people, which is why I am writing. When I did get to Confession, my Confessor said that in actuality there is not much good on television and that he sticks to soccer in order to avoid the lust that our society invites us to in a great deal of shows. He’s Scottish, so the soccer reference is understandable. My Confessor did not encourage me to watch these shows, in fact, he did the opposite. He told me to steer clear of them.

I am not suggesting Puritanism. There is a great deal of art in which the body is shown in its full beautiful nude display throughout human history, but there is a difference between showing the beauty and sacredness of human beings and graphic sex scenes that move us to lust. Sex is holy. Sex is fun and meant to be enjoyed. It is not meant to be profaned. Even sexual sin can be demonstrated without a move into the pornographic.

One of my favorite novels, and its movie adaptions, is Evelyn Waugh’s, Brideshead Revisted. No one could accuse Waugh of Purtianism. The novel is rife with hedonism to include adultery, lust, homosexual acts, and alcoholism. The difference is that Waugh is not pointing to those things as good. He is showing how in our brokenness and darkness, God is always working for our salvation. In both movie adaptions, the one with Jeremy Irons and the shorter one with Matthew Goode, this hedonism is on display in all of its forms, but without appealing to the graphic. One scene in the Matthew Goode version shows that adultery can even be committed with most of the characters’ clothes on.

Many people trying to defend their Catholicism and their graphic television choices try to appeal to art or history. I even saw someone try to claim Scripture’s sexual sins and graphic violence as justification. This is merely a cognitive dissonance for something that we know to be wrong. Scripture demonstrates the depravity of mankind in light of God’s salvation. There’s a major difference between Scripture and Game of Thrones where sexuality is used for illicit reasons and that is all. Television shows can be true to the deprivation of humanity without resorting to lust filled sex scenes. But, in reality, these shows are glorifying hedonism, not pointing to the brokenness of sexual sin. Let’s at least be honest. These shows are not interested in redemption. So that argument is false and being used to justify sin. If you don’t believe me, then take it to your parish priest. Tell them exactly what you have been watching, including graphic sex scenes and gruesome violence. See what they say. It’s probably not going to be what you want to hear, but it will be what you need to hear.

Catholic art has always given an authentic portrayal of the human person, but in light of Revelation. We have a real opportunity here to move Hollywood to provide actual art. We need to stop supporting trash and force them to provide us with the beautiful and the ugly in a proper light. If you are a Catholic who has struggled with watching shows like this, then go to Confession. Trust me, the priests have heard it all. I had to go Confess this very sin of lust recently. I allowed myself to get sucked into the lie and I lied to myself in the process. I am married. I know that sex is beautiful, so why on earth am I ok with counterfeits on television? Why am I ok with watching our culture destroy one of the great gifts that God has given us? I would encourage you to seriously consider what you are watching or reading. Ask yourself, is this strengthening my soul? Does this help me grow closer to Christ? Will this help me become a saint? Does this serve the mission? Chances are, the answer will be no.  When that happens, pray for the grace to abandon those shows and books. It might be hard for a week or two, but eventually, you will forget all about them. The reality is that the closer we draw to Christ the less we want to have anything to do with counterfeits. God bless.

In Which I Respond to an Amusing Critique of My Blog

Yesterday I chanced upon a random, short, and sarcastic review of the look and content of my blog on Reddit. I don’t even know the purpose of Reddit, by the way. It made me chuckle. I wasn’t angry, I thought it was funny. I found it amusing because it is so typical of us human beings to misunderstand, judge, and label people, even based on their Internet blog choices or writing. Since I found it amusing, I thought I would answer some of their complaints. This is not meant to be snarky at all and is really a reflection of my amusement with it all.

The commenter is clearly fed up with the Catholic Blogosphere and it’s declaration that it is its own Magisterium. I completely understand. I have argued against the same mentality and took a break from writing for that very reason. I no longer wanted to be a part of the problem, at least not intentionally. I could see that a great many people make their living in the Catholic world the same way the secular world does, through shock jock tactics and click bait headlines. I get it. It sells, but in my mind, it doesn’t serve the mission which is the conversion of souls. I examined my own tactics and style not only on my blog, but in social media and realized that I was a part of the problem. When I started graduate school last year, I started to see the wealth and beauty of the faith that can be shared with others. So I decided to focus on those things that will help people on the journey and steer clear of polemics as much as possible. I am not saying that my writing is the greatest out there, not even close, but I would encourage readers to pay attention to a new breed of Catholic writers who are coming up. We are also fed up with the fighting and want to focus on holiness. That is why I am so honored and love writing for Catholic Exchange. Their mission is the conversion of souls, not Catholic in-fighting and politics.

Moving from the topic of the Catholic blogosphere, they complained that I was just another self-proclaimed theologian. That’s not entirely accurate. In my About section I make it clear that I am a “student theologian”, which is what my professors call me and my fellow graduate students. I did this so that readers understand and are aware of my education status and knowledge level. Much to my shock, folks with doctorates and who are way more knowledgeable than I am, have visited my site. I want them to know where I am at, so that if I inadvertently make an error, they can offer the intellectual and fraternal correction that may be necessary. I am not sure what constitutes theologian in this person’s mind, but advanced study is a typical pre-requisite, which I am trying to fulfill. By virtue of my vocation, I am limited in my ability to study as much as I would like and may have to stop at the Master’s level. So, no, I will never be a great theologian, but perhaps God will use me in some manner because of the gifts and interests he has given me. For now I am focused on theological study at the graduate level.

The rest of the complaints were visual, and that is really what had me amused. They complained that Catholic blogs always have a specific look or name to them. Well, that makes sense. Catholic writers tend to be lovers of beauty, sacred art, and Catholic Culture, so that is what is reflected on our blog. Beauty is a very big theme on my blog. I don’t write every day because sometimes people just need a chance to marvel at the beauty of the universe. I go out of my way to make it easy for people to find some form of beauty on Mondays and Fridays. It’s not great intellectual work, but it is one of the very specific ways that God reveals Himself to us through reason. So, yes, my blog is a typical Catholic blog.

They complained that my picture was black and white, in they guessed, some attempt to be artsy. Actually, and this is why judgment is a silly thing to do, I found this picture on my phone after my daughter had change it to black and white. Being iPhone illiterate, I didn’t even know that my phone did that, and I was impressed that my daughter, who is 3 years old mind you, had changed it. So my profile picture is me, but it is also a reminder of my daughter. She made my profile picture. I guess it is easy to mock people when we have no back story or understanding of why they choose certain things.

They also complained about the self promotion of Catholic writers. I get that, but much of that is based on perception of the individual, not reality. I absolutely loathe self promotion. I hate that I have to “promote” my writing in social media. I especially dislike Twitter. I don’t like to use it and it is so much information that I don’t know how anyone finds anything in their feed. I essentially post and run. I share a few random things on Twitter, but not because I am particularly engaged. I use Facebook more because I think that it is a useful social media platform and I am connected to many learned Catholics who are smarter than I am. I feel awkward every single time I have to share something that I have written, whether it is from this blog or my professional writing for Catholic Exchange. I also try to promote my fellow writers at Catholic Exchange in social media since we are all trying to fulfill the mission of bringing the Good News to the world.

They also made fun of the title of my blog. I have actually struggled over the years finding my niche as a Catholic writer. I am not a mommy blogger. I came up with this title when I was contemplating the vastness of the Blessed Trinity during my first semester of graduate school. In my mind, I felt like I was swimming into an infinitely deep and vast pool. Swimming the Depths just made sense to me and it is my own private devotion to the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. People don’t have to like it, but it is a profound reminder to me personally of how small I am in light of the Beatific Vision.

I think what people like this forget, is that God does call certain people to writing. I love writing. It just flows out of me. Most of the time I read my own writing and think “How on earth did that come from me?!”. I use my writing to serve God, not myself. Yes, I have to fight pride, but as I told my Confessor earlier this week, that is part of the great struggle in public work. Many people write as a hobby, much like people who paint or draw. I was writing as a hobby until recently when, by the grace of God and the charity of an editor, I became a “professional writer”. I am not entirely sure what that means, but it does mean that I will occasionally get paid for my musings. We also need to remember that in this digital age, self promotion is a part of the task of becoming a professional writer. I don’t like it, but if I want to be a writer then I have to share my stuff. I think there are a great many writers who feel the same way. Perhaps some enjoy it, but most of the writers I know despise promoting their work.

I will end with these thoughts. Feel free to dislike my choices for theme and picture. Those items are a matter of taste. The picture on my site of the rose is something that I took in Charleston, SC, which is a beautiful city. I like the picture very much. Please feel free to disagree with me, although, any Catholics disagreeing because they are not submitting to the Magisterium should take that up with their priest. This blogger submits completely and totally to ALL teachings of the Catholic Church. If you want to discuss items that are open for theological debate, please do. I would say that it’s important to move from superficial judgments, however, or we may find ourselves thrown into pride and envy. I know. I’ve done it and still do it, which is why I write quite a bit about the great blessings of frequent Confession. I thank anyone who stops by and I truly hope you leave this little basement corner of the Internet better than when you came. I just ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt and not let superficial prejudices keep you from Catholic websites. God bless.

Marveling at the Cathedrals of Europe

This morning I was looking over a fellow blogger’s beautiful website.  She has a section on stained glass and it got me thinking about my time in Europe.  My first trip to Europe was actually to England for a week long training I was leading for the Navy when I was 22.  My friend and I spent the flight drinking mimosas because we could not sleep.  I still cannot seem to sleep on international flights that are overnight.  We took a cab to King’s Cross to get on a train to Lincolnshire.  Even though I was exhausted and had a slight buzz, it was an exciting time. Yes, Catholics enjoy their drink, in moderation (okay a few times for me were not in moderation and that is called gluttony). As we drove through the London streets, I was amazed by the architecture, and the crowds.  London makes New York look sparsely populated.

Yep, I lived two blocks from this amazing cathedral.
Yep, I lived two blocks from this amazing cathedral.
A Christmas performance of Handel's Messiah fit perfectly with the scenery.
A Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah fit perfectly with the scenery.
Arches and stained glass go so well together.
Arches and stained glass go so well together.
We reached our destination a few hours later: Lincoln, England.  I did not know it then, but I would be moving there 9 months later.  We made our way through the cobblestone streets to our hotel, which was directly across from Lincoln Cathedral.  The cathedral was on top of a hill and stood large over the town.  It is the twin of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, just a few centuries older.  I was amazed.  It was the first place that I wanted to visit.  I actually was blessed to see Handel’s Messiah performed there while I lived in Lincoln.
The cathedral is in the gothic design.  It has towering arches of stone.  The building itself in the shape of a cross.  It had a stunning rose window, and the entire building is centered on the altar.  The cathedral now belongs to the Anglican Church.  I ended up living in a row house two blocks from the cathedral.  I could walk to it anytime I wanted.  I saw it every single day.  It took my breath away repeatedly.  I can remember driving home in the summer after a long 12 hour shift.  The sun had been up for a couple of hours (England is a lot further north than we are) and there the cathedral shone in the sun.  Giving me enough energy to make the rest of the drive home.
Yorkminster, the first time I ever stood on top of Roman ruins.
Yorkminster, the first time I ever stood on top of Roman ruins.
When I did move to England in 2004, I wanted to see as many churches and cathedrals as possible.  I stood on top of Roman ruins at Yorkminster in York, England.  I visited the chapel in Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland.  For some reason I never made it to St. Paul’s in London.  I wish I had.  I went to St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland.  I have to admit I was a bit disappointed.  The Reformation’s ties to the iconoclastic heresy stripped it of its grandeur.  I did stumble on a beautiful church in an alley in downtown Dublin.  It was  nothing to look at on the outside, but on the inside it was incredible.  It was in the baroque style, with marble pillars, beautiful paintings, and gold. Christ is the King of the Universe after all.
I do have to admit that in many of my travels in Europe I was disappointed by the beauty that was destroyed by the Reformation.  Remember, I hold a Catholic worldview.  The churches of the Netherlands were cold and bare, completely stripped of their former beauty. It was the same in many of England’s churches, except those that were High Church Anglican.
While in Bruges you can see Michelangelo's Madonna and then get the most incredible chocolate you have ever tasted.
While in Bruges you can see Michelangelo’s Madonna and then get the most incredible chocolate you have ever tasted.
I went to Bruges, Belgium a few days after Blessed John Paul II passed away.  It was a time of great sadness for the Church.  I went to the cathedral to see Michelangelo’s Madonna.  It was stunning.  The church itself had high arches, stained glass, artwork, and gold everywhere.  It lifted me up.  It reminded me of Heaven, which is exactly what beauty is supposed to do.  It refreshed me after being so appalled by Amsterdam. The only part of that city I enjoyed, was a sad part, Anne Frank’s house.
My time overseas was  cut short, so I did not make it to Rome.  My husband lived in Spain for a semester, so he was able to go to Fatima, Portugal and Rome.  Two places I would love to visit.  Some day we will make it back to Europe and take our daughter.
The trip that amazed me the most was my trip to Paris.  I had never had much interest in going to France.  I had heard too many horror stories and to be quite honest, I was pretty ignorant of French culture.  I decided to go on a weekend trip with one of my co-workers.  It ended up being one of the best trips I ever took in Europe.  Paris is beautiful.  It is unbelievably so.  The architecture, the Seine, the people.  It is an incredible city.  And you know what?  I never had any issues.  The key is to be humble when you are traveling in someone else’s homeland.  I only know a few words of French, but I used them, and it was appreciated.
I am not much of a shopper.  I would rather go to art museums and churches, than shop.  We went to Notre Dame first.  It was very crowded and somewhat chaotic.  There was not much room for reverence.  They were out of English brochures on the cathedral’s history, so I had to take one in Russian.  It is a gothic cathedral so it is very similar to a lot of the cathedrals that I had been to.  We heard about another church that was nearby called Sainte Chapelle.  We decided to check it out.
Sainte Chapelle, where "wow" can't even come close.
Sainte Chapelle, where “wow” can’t even come close.
When we arrived there was a line.  They only allowed a few people in at a time.  We decided to wait.  It was worth it.  When we went in, we walked up a narrow winding staircase.  If you have been to Europe, you know what I am talking about.  We then entered the sanctuary.  It was bare and open, but all around, in 360 degrees, was floor to ceiling stained glass.  I was in awe.  It is difficult for the senses to even fully discern such glory.  This was something to marvel at.  This is a defining moment for me in my travels.
Human beings are made to marvel and to worship. If we do not find God, we worship false idols like money, power, sex, etc.  When we do not have beauty to admire and marvel at we become empty and bored.  That is why so many American cities are just overwhelming, not beautiful.  Architecture has lost its connection with its roots. Art and architecture are meant to inspire, to show us what it means to be human, to worship, to create with the Creator.
We see this beauty in nature too, but it is incredible to see what man is capable of when his focus is on Christ.  The Catholic Church is the largest protector of the arts in the world.  Why?  Because we understand how beauty brings about conversion.  Marveling at something greater than us, brings us to God’s door.  It reminds us that there is something more than what we see daily.  We need to get outside of ourselves, and beauty lifts us up to new heights.
You would not know it thanks to modern architecture, but Vatican II affirms the necessity and use of sacred art.  Beauty is essential in the worship of Christ.  We are stepping into the Heavenly Liturgy at Mass, not a football game.  The senses need help being transported.  That is one of the purposes of stained glass, statues, candles, incense, gold, paintings, etc.  Not to mention that the Old Testament affirms God’s request for us to use beauty.  The Ark of the Covenant, was beautiful and included statues, gold, etc.,  hence the use of gold in our Tabernacles.  To lift us up.  Mass is a vertical expression, not a horizontal one.
A depiction of the Ark of the Covenant.  Look familiar, fellow Catholics?
A depiction of the Ark of the Covenant. Look familiar, fellow Catholics?
When was the last time you marveled at something?  Are you feeling overburdened by the world?  Make a point of seeking out beauty.  It will leave you refreshed and more focused on Our Lord.