The Arts as Paths to God: Secular and Sacred Art and the Spiritual Life
“Created ‘in the image of God,’ man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2501). Led by Fr. Innocent Smith, O.P., this course will explore the ways in which the visual and performing arts can lead us to encounter the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of God.
September 19: Introduction
September 26: Dance
October 3: Music
October 10: Sculpture
October 17: Poetry
October 24: Architecture
November 7: Painting
November 14: Literature
November 22 at 6 pm: Mass for the Feast of St. Cecilia
Tuesday evenings from 6:45-7:45 pm
St. Vincent Ferrer Parish Hall
869 Lexington Ave, New York, NY
In early August, the Frassati Fellowship of Young Adults organized a ten-day mission trip to Peru. Fr. Dominic Bump and I served as chaplains for the trip, along with two Franciscan friars and a diocesan priest from New York. Fr. Walter asked me to share with you some of the experiences of the trip.
The main part of the trip was spent in Laderas, a poor suburb outside of Lima, where thousands of people live in makeshift houses. The purpose of our visit was two-fold: to help with the material needs of the people of Laderas by building new homes for families without adequate housing, and to see to their spiritual needs by visiting families, offering house blessings, and giving the opportunity for people to go to confession and receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Each day, most of the thirty young adults worked on the houses under the direction of a local contractor, while the priests were led from house to house under the direction of women from the parish of Laderas. During these visits, the young adults rotated so as to get the experience of visiting the families, while at the same time not overwhelming those we visited with too many people! While several of the priests spoke Spanish fluently, Fr. Dominic and I were able to receive the assistance of members of our group who served as translators, even assisting (under the seal!) with the sacrament of reconciliation.
For me, the visit afforded many opportunities to see the grace of God at work in our chance encounters. At one point, my group climbed to the top of one of the tall hills surrounding the main part of the village to visit a woman who was very sick. For some reason we weren’t able to see her, but on the way up we met a man walking his bicycle up the hill, and he invited us to bless his home. This led to us then being invited to bless a series of other homes on the ridge. It was a reminder that sometimes failing at what we set out to do can lead to other opportunities to do God’s will. On another occasion, I noticed two beautiful cats on a door step, so I stopped to take a picture. While I was doing this, a woman opened the door, either by chance or to see what was going on. This led to us being invited in to do a house blessing. A reminder of the apostolic efficacy of a love of cats!
Some of our home visits revealed a distressing aspect of life in this community. It is characteristic for homes to have at least three generations living together, but unfortunately this is often because the men of the second generation have abandoned their wives or partners. There’s a tragic cycle of infidelity and
abandonment that seems to keep repeating itself. And yet at the same time one could sense joy and faith in the midst of the pain and suffering. It was a reminder for me of the importance of working to encourage growth in the virtues that make healthy and happy families possible.
The trip was also a chance to encounter anew my own Dominican heritage. On August 8, the feast of
St. Dominic, we celebrated Mass in a makeshift chapel on the top of one of the tall hills of Laderas in an open air area illuminated by a few flashlights. I preached, assisted by a translator, about how St. Dominic would climb the mountain of Fanjeaux during the ten years he spent at the first Dominican nuns’ monastery of Prouille in southern France, a mountain of similar dimensions to that which we were on. At the end of the trip, our group had the chance to spend a day in Lima, visiting the shrines of St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres, and St. Juan Macias, three great 16th century Dominican saints from Lima. Encountering these saints was a wonderful chance to be renewed in the spirit of St. Dominic – now I’ll have a new sense of connection with them when I look at their icons in our Guadalupe triptych at St. Vincent Ferrer!
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Innocent Smith, o.p.
The Holy Preaching: Pondering 150 Years of Dominican Parish Life – Pastor’s Reflection (August 20, 2017)
The Dominican Friars have exercised parish ministry in this area since 1867. We were joined by our Sisters in 1880s and since then primary and secondary education have formed part of the ministry here. As the hospital complex emerged along York Avenue, tending the sick came to be a signature work of the Dominicans. Today, our parish holds two Dominican churches, two communities of Friars, two communities of Sisters, two high schools, and a hospital chaplaincy. It also contains an administrative center for the Order. But what has shaped the whole enterprise over these generations is the common life the Brothers and Sisters share at home.
Today, if you walk into the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer or the Church of St. Catherine of Siena you will find outstanding architecture, and you will find paintings, carvings, and stained glass deployed in beautiful and evangelical ways. But these elements serve a purpose beyond pleasing the eye and informing the mind. The agenda of our churches, and hence of our parish, comes clear in a paradox you can see played out all day long. On the one hand St. Catherine’s and St. Vincent’s are places of great grandeur and they accommodate crowds gathered for solemn worship. On the other hand, someone can walk off the street into either church, for the first time, stand alone in it, and feel instantly at home.
Put simply, the churches preach. They proclaim to you the all-powerful and all-knowing God, and they make you at home with Him. Neither part of this paradox compromises the other. God is awesome, and close enough to sit with for a good cry. Our buildings convey this perception of God to you, because the life of our Order conveys it to us.
By St. Dominic’s design, dating from 1216, the men and women of the Order live an intense life in common. We pray together, and we place our income at the disposal of the Community. We share our working lives in ministry and our leisure hours at the end of the day. We all receive training in a very ancient way of life, and each community shares the task of applying that tradition in our time and place. Most religious orders could claim this list of traits, but St. Dominic added to them the work of study. Every Dominican accepts study as his or her manual labor, and so we should study assiduously even when there is nothing to prepare. Here is the intimacy of the Order; the Dominican, the book, and God. Here we learn to be in awe before Him and to befriend Him at the same time.
This common life, especially study, ordered the environment in which you pray, as it continues to order the preaching you hear on Sunday and the education our students receive on Monday. It gives shape to the way we form the faith of adults and children: it molds the way we steward resources, and collaborate with staff and volunteers.
In the ancient days of our Order, our houses were often referred to as a “Holy Preaching,” not just because the Dominicans gave sermons but because their way of life proclaimed the Gospel to their contemporaries. Our hope is that this parish will preach by what we say and sing, by how we invest our resources, by how we treat our elders and our young, members of long-standing and those who just joined.
If we take this mission seriously then we can set about deepening our own life of faith, and we can present that faith to those who have left its practice, or who know nothing of Christ and His Gospel. The key to all preaching, whether individual or communal, is recognizing that we have wealth to share.
When you think of “prayer,” what comes to mind? I think for most of us prayer consists in asking: asking for help, asking for a favor, asking for forgiveness. We tend to start praying when we reach the borders of our self-sufficiency. I ask for help when I cannot do for myself. We never admit this, but that makes prayer vaguely uncomfortable, like having to ask a relative for a loan because I am overdrawn at the bank. How much more satisfying to look upon my possessions, my body, and even my relationships, and be able to say, “Look what I did.” But the truth of our efforts always runs up against the truth of limits and we are back to prayer, and we are still sheepish in God’s presence. I am praying because I have failed, or someone else has failed, or nature has failed me.
But take a second look; human nature is designed with limits. We live within boundaries of longevity and strength, understanding and communication. So we might ask whether the One who crafted our nature intended us to be uncomfortable within its confines. That Christ assumed this nature testifies to the contrary. His Gospel represents an invitation to embrace it, with all its limitations, as our way to God, and so the Scriptures and the Sacraments intimate a deep transformation of how we see our humanity and our prayer. In the light of faith we come to see our limits not as frustrations but as openings to the personal experience of God’s goodness.
Humanly we know this truth. When I fall in love I recognize someone who supplies for what I like, who complements my own real but limited gifts. God acts in Christ to widen this realization to include the whole of life. So He invites us to befriend the deepest truth of ourselves, and to do this by recognizing how much we have received that we could never have received by toil, ingenuity, or merit. This is not putting us in our place, but helping us see how privileged is our place from the very beginning.
So I ask you: how is your own life shaped by the truth of favor, for favor tells the truth of you and me. If we have received Christ in the Eucharist, then unqualified love has entered the very heart of us as a consolation and liberation, as a summons to change and a gift of understanding. When we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” we remember that Jesus made a banquet of his blood for us in the past, and that we savor it in the present moment as a real pledge of life beyond the limits that now define me.
This perspective grows each time we make a practice of gratitude. Here is the real conscious work of remembering and recognizing. When I set my mind to it I recognize that for all the time I spend with my problems, the deepest truth of me is gift. It has been good to live, and to live as myself. It has been good to share life with those confided to me, and with those to whom I have been confided. I also wonder what my very struggles with handicap and circumstance have taught me about the reality of life.
At the height of summer there is an opportunity for gratitude for the gifts at the foundation of our lives. Its practice will give us the wherewithal to keep growing through another winter.