British Screenwriter Frank Boyce on Saints, Writing, and Imagination

Brilliant and hilarious lecture by Frank Boyce on the conversion of John Henry Newman from Anglican to Catholic and what spurred Newman to leave the ivied towers of Oxford and take up the life of a Catholic priest in Birmingham. Well worth reading Boyce’s newman-lecture-2011, especially if you want a look at the side-splitting, seedy side of Catholic saints. But below is a nice section on the surprising power of stories. Happy All Saint’s Day.

[Writers] have our mission though we may not know what it is. We commit ourselves to something without knowing how it’s going to turn out – but isn’t that also true of parents, of cooks, or teachers, of anyone who starts any project that seems to be failing but which they keep going? Maybe he should be the patron saint of anyone who keeps going in spite of doubt and failure? The patron saint of anyone who can marry strong belief with a toleration of others?

There is an ecology in the World of Knowing things. An Ecology that is often forgotten or undermined. Intellectual rigour can only thrive if our other means of apprehension – imagination, faith, emotion, pleasure – are all at work too. These are all intertwined and when we try to unravel them, we lose. In the current face off between fundamentalist science and fundamentalist religion, for instance, one group has switched off their intellect, the other their sense of wonder.

We think in stories. Before you can build a rocket to go to the Moon, you have to dream of being able to do so. Before you can sail across the Atlantic to America you have to dream of Hy Brazil or the Happy Isles. Think of what an important part of your mental equipment the story of The Ugly Duckling is, or Frankenstein, Cinderella or the Prodigal Son. These stories are like scientific discoveries – they name something that exists in the world but which we couldn’t see clearly – or feel clearly – until we were told the story.

The truly creative act – I’m speaking about writing because it’s what I know but it’s also true of parenting, teaching, evangelising, engaging with others – is a kind a scientific experiment in which all our different ways of knowing are fully engaged. It’s a voyage of discovery. Every voyage of discovery has to begin with the possibility of failure. Almost every discovery made in the history of thought was not quite the discovery that the discoverer was hoping for. You have your definite purpose. You may not know what it is. But you do have your definite purpose.–British screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce, Inaugural Cardinal John Henry Newman Lecture 2011

Read the whole newman-lecture-2011.

Joan Chittister: Silence and Art in the Work of Brother Thomas Bezanson

Brother Thomas Bezanson was a Benedictine monk and ceramics artist who died in 2007. He accepted the rules of monastic solitude, and followed the advice of St. Benedict who said: “If there be craftsmen in the Monastery, [then] let them practice their crafts with all humility.” Brother Thomas spent the final years of his life at Mount St. Benedict Priory in Erie, PA, with the community of Sr. Joan Chittister. Below Sr. Joan reflects on art and the contemplative life in light of Brother Thomas’ work:

If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one. Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility.

Basic to art are the very qualities demanded of the monastic: single-mindedness, beauty, immersion, praise and creativity. The merger of one with the other makes for great art; the meaning of one for the other makes for great soul.

It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture. Ecstasies, pain, fluid truth, pass us by so quickly or surround us so constantly that the eyes fail to see and the heart ceases to respond.

It is in the awful grip of ineffable form or radiant color that we see into a world that is infinitely beyond our natural grasp, yet only just beyond our artist’s soul. It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents.

Only by seeing the unseen within can the artist dredge it out of nothingness so that we can touch it, too. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it.

The artist details for the world to see the one idea, the fresh form, the stunning grandeur of moments which the world has begun to take for granted or has failed even to notice, or worse, has now reduced to the mundane.

It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth. Knowing the spiritual squalor to which the pursuit of less than beauty can lead us, the artist lives to stretch our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things: sleazy stories instead of great literature; superficial caricatures of bland characters rather than great portraits of great souls; flowerpots instead of pottery.

Finally, it is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.

Charles Peguy wrote, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

From “The Monastic Spirit and the Pursuit of Everlasting Beauty” by Joan Chittister in The Journey and the Gift: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas.

Praising Benedict and Madonna

I’m thrilled to see that my buddy Mark G. Judge has a new book out called A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Mark and I are so opposite politically that we bump into each other coming around the back side. And he’s a fantastic writer plus a witty, wicked smart, courageous companion on the journey.

I haven’t read the new book yet, so can’t give it a proper review. In the meantime, Mark says of the book, “It is interesting theologically and very pro-pop music. I praise Benedict and Madonna, sometimes on the same page!”

Congratulations, Mark!

Merton on Falling Through the Roof

Thomas Merton was an Trappist monk, mystic, and writer who shaped modern American Catholicism. He lived in Kentucky for most of his life.

In the afternoon I went out to the old horse barn with the Book of Proverbs and indeed the whole Bible, and I was wandering around in the hayloft, where there is a big gap in the roof. One of the rotting floorboards gave way under me and I nearly feel through.
gingrich-farm-crop2 Afterwards I sat and looked out at the hills and the gray clouds and couldn’t read anything. When the flies got too bad, I wandered across the bare pasture and sat over by the enclosure wall, perched on the edge of a ruined bathtub that has been placed there for the horses to drink out of. A pipe comes through the wall and plenty of water flows into the bathtub from a spring somewhere in the woods, and I couldn’t read there either. I just listened to the clean water flowing and looked at the wreckage of the horsebarn on top of the bare knoll in front of me and remained drugged with happiness and with prayer.–Thomas Merton

Entering the Silence, Journals Volume 1. Jonathan Montaldo, editor (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, p 363)