Friday, April 1, 2011

"The greatest art is that which glorifies God."

This is what my grandmother used to tell my brother and me, every summer when she'd take us to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  My favorite areas were always the Greek and Egyptian.  For some reason I was most interested in sculpture, which I'm still no good at!  I think my brother's favorite hall was Arms & Armor...although for the most part, he was just bored.

First bored child at the art museum

We took the younger two kids to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this Christmas.  It's smaller, but teeming with artifacts and stunning European works from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.  I felt so close to my grandmother! 

"Why are so many paintings about Jesus?" asked Nathaniel.

Well, a few reasons.  The minor, practical reason is because the most successful artists of the day were those who chose to dedicate their craft to God.  With the support of a very religious European culture, they were the only artists who could earn enough to live!

But more importantly, artwork educated during a time when only nobility were commonly able to read.  Paintings served to illuminate the stories of the Bible.  Priests, primarily those in monasteries, were the only teachers who served the common people, and they taught literacy and history using Scripture.

Second bored child at the art museum
And to this day artwork helps us relate more closely to the stories that we read or listen to.  One of the most common images, Madonna and Child, helped families understand the love within the Holy Family and put that love to work in their own homes.  And the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross simply doesn't hit home as deeply until one both hears and sees His injuries and the grief on His human face.

Finally, it's because the Catholic Church has always been in the museum business!  Even to the earliest days, the Apostles--the first bishops--recorded their activities and decisions, gathered memorial artifacts, and helped the Christians of their areas (diocese) bury the dead with plaques and relics to preserve their stories.  We wouldn't have a Bible otherwise!  Illustrations and artwork--some depicting the Consecration during Mass :) --are found on the walls of the very earliest catacombs where our ancestors gathered in secret to worship.  Then throughout the dark ages, some parishes and a handful of monateries were the only places that managed to ward off the invasions and protect records, art and artifacts. 

All for the purpose of understanding how God works in the world:  illuminating more of God's will for us, and giving honor to Him who is the source of all beauty!



I just realized it's been WAY too long since I've posted to this blog!  I only posted my story about Philomena on the other blog, even though it has a grand place here on this one.  So, here it is:
Introducing our daughter, Philomena Sebastian Gracia. One of the things that I love about my faith is the opportunity to connect with people throughout time—others of the “Church militant” still making our way on earth, and mentors of the “Church triumphant” who have succeeded in making it to heaven. Nothing gives me hope quite like the knowledge that others, just as flawed as I, have made it.

Philomena. Six years ago, after investigations and archaeological debates that lasted most of the 20th Century, scientists confirmed that in the year 202 a small girl roughly 13 years old was buried in the
Catacomb of St. Priscilla beneath Rome; buried with honors bestowed only on the Church’s martyrs of those early years: a small glass vial containing an amount of her blood and a shard of bone to represent violent death.

fresco painting of Mary, Jesus and a prophet in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla

Tiles sealing her grave were inscribed pax tecum filomena (Peace to you, Filomena), and symbols of virginity and martyrdom were engraved. Within three years of the tomb’s discovery, miracles accumulated.

“She became the only person recognized by the Church as a Saint solely on the basis of her powerful intercession, since nothing historical was known of her except her name and the evidence of her martyrdom.”

Like her namesake, our daughter Philomena is herself unknown to the world, but her good work on God’s behalf shines. She inspired love among our friends, gave us a sense of clarity and simplicity, and most importantly, she brought her sisters and brother so close to us by her short life and death. She easily brought our family to a higher level of understanding that I have been praying for for years.

I know some people who follow this blog aren’t Catholic, and a post like this is probably not usual for your faith. In my muddled words I know I risk more confusion than less. By “saint” (small “s”) Catholics mean anyone who is in heaven, including angels and people who have died and gone to paradise.

symbols of martyrdom (archor) and Christianity (fish, and Chi Rho) engraved on a tile from the Catacomb of St. Sebastian
symbols of martyrdom (archor) and Christianity (fish, and Chi Rho) engraved on a tile from the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

Since we’re not privy to the state of a person’s soul at the time of death—indeed, it’s even difficult to know ourselves well enough as that!—it’s very difficult to know for certain whether or not a soul is in heaven. So the Church dedicates such careful personal, scientific, medical, societal and prayerful study before recognizing (canonizing) a person with the title “Saint.”

The idea of God in His generosity assigning tasks to saints (people and angels) is found throughout the Bible. Personally I look at it as a joyful prospect that if I make it to heaven, I’ll be able to serve God with the surety that what I’m doing is exactly what He wants me to do! No more uncertainty about what’s best. I can get my instructions straight from the source. I think God has written into human nature the desire to accomplish good things, and that type of positive desire certainly must increase with closeness to God. Maybe in heaven I’ll even be able to communicate without the danger of misspeaking, which is always a trick of the devil when humans on earth converse!

Back to the practical difficulty in determining whether people’s souls are in heaven. In 1587 the Office of the Devil’s Advocate was established to disprove miracles and disqualify people from official canonization. Hence our popular name for someone who in good faith tries to ensure that his peers’ positive thinking doesn’t obscure reality. Although the name of the Vatican department recently changed, the office remains assigned to ensure that the Church doesn’t inadvertently encourage people to communicate with someone not in heaven! It’s only after passing all of the tests that sainthood can be acknowledged.

Why bother, when we can go straight to God? At its core, communication with saints in heaven is because love is inclusive. I remember the first time a priest described the relationship between people on earth and in heaven as “inclusive,” but that idea took a long time to sink in. God loves people past, present and future as His children, and the nature of fatherly love means He wants us to love each other. I think of when I met my stepkids. They love my husband, I love him, and we sit around a table together. Should each child and I keep our eyes on him alone, and avoid speaking to each other? Does it detract from our love towards him when the kids look to me for an example—or when they speak to each other before jointly laying a question before my husband? In coming to each other, are we denying Raul’s place as leader? How silly! Of course our love for my husband only grows as his kids and I develop relationships with each other. It illuminates more of him. Love is inclusive.

When I lost little Philomena, my oldest stepdaughter suggested that when I find a penny, I think of it as a gift from my little angel. Since then I’ve found pennies in usual and unusual places, from a cafe carpet to the thumb of a pair of gloves. Each time, my thoughts include little Philomena and my tender-hearted stepdaughter. Thank you, Kayla, and pax tecum, Philomena.

-Michelle Gracia