Posted June 11, 2009:
Servants of Beauty

by Donna Surprenant.

The following was written in connection with the death of Pope John Paul II.

Though I usually spend my days painting, today instead of taking up my paintbrush, I am taking up the tool that Pope John Paul II used—the pen. For in this time of closure after his death, I am filled with gratitude for his grace and wisdom.

For those of us who live by brush, chisel, word, or sound and rhythm, this time is an opportunity to pay tribute to the pope for his "Letter to Artists." For in this letter he not only invited us to rise to the beauty of our crafts, but he also knighted us to walk into the new millennium with a renewed calling to the artistic vocation.

How much we needed this! How many of us, who were art students in this past century, began our quest with youthful enthusiasm only to find ourselves caught up into the confusion of the contemporary art world.

In my own struggle over the last thirty-five years to realize my vision on canvas, I have come to see how little training I received even in basic technical skills. Far less was I given a vision of aesthetics that delved much deeper than the popular counsel to "express yourself."

As those in the art world were exploring new and unsettling territories, our understanding of traditional genres, including those coming out of a faith vision, were challenged to the core. As a result, we young Christian artists were left to search for a visual language.

It was the pope who showed us the road back to our homeland—to the Gospel, where beauty, truth and goodness were waiting to fill our souls and our art.

In doing so, Pope John Paul II was speaking to us from his own experience and love of the arts. For coming of age between the two world wars at a time when Poland was experiencing a cultural renaissance, he was given a blessed heritage of Catholicism interwoven, through the arts, with a rich national culture.

As a teenager and young adult, Karol Wojtyla wrote plays and poems and participated in numerous theatrical performances under a director who saw drama as a means of communicating the Word of God and the truth about life.

As Karol, who seriously considered becoming an actor, experienced ideas coming alive through drama, he came to see acting as more than a career.* He saw it as a vocation, as a call to minimize oneself for the sake of touching the audience with the power of the spoken word.

During the Nazi occupation, this theater troupe, at the risk of their lives, continued their performances clandestinely. This they did because they saw art as a means of preserving the culture and keeping alive the spiritual heart of the nation. Karol saw his participation as his part in the resistance.

Even when he became a priest, his artistic endeavors did not stop. He continued writing plays and poems, for he saw literature as a unique way, a tool even keener than philosophy, to pierce the depths of the soul.

Finally, when he became pope, his pen fused all his artistic and priestly experiences into his many documents and letters.

But I believe his creativity and his awareness of the power of the arts continued to reveal themselves in his pilgrimages to many lands.

These visits of papal blessing became festivals of dance, music, poetry and color which burst from the rich heritage of each culture into a celebration of joy.

Why? In his presence, which was filled with the Holy Spirit, our hearts overflowed, and we created in varied art forms, celebrations of the faith, life and love we experienced through Pope John Paul II.

In 1999 in his "Letter to Artists," the Holy Father told us the essence of the creativity which he exhorted us to embrace: to express in the arts the great human drama which reflects our divine Creator whose love and Being overflowed into the creation of humankind, and of the earth and all that it contains.

In this letter he summoned artists to share in this divine creative power with hearts filled with wonder before the dignity of each person and the marvels of the universe (cf. section 16).

"That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their gift, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission" (section 1).

His Holiness appealed to us to enter, not only into the mystery of our lives as revealed by Christ, but also into the mystery of the Incarnate God.

Our task is to shed light upon the path and destiny of man, and to bear witness through art that in Christ the human person and all of creation are redeemed (cf. section 14).

Beauty is the beacon to lead us into this mystery and Scripture our rich source of inspiration.

"The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of artistic talent" (section 3).

Beauty then is the key to our visual language.

And Pope John Paul reminded us to seek guidance from the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who is the mysterious Artist of the universe who suffuses true creativity with the light of illumination (cf. section 14). It is he who fills us with an "epiphany of the inner beauty of things" (section 6).

These epiphanies, these moments of grace dazzling before the eyes of our spirit, how may they glimmer through the work of our hands?

The Holy Father knew the struggle artists experience in our efforts to render these moments of grace. This journey to find the true meaning of "express yourself" is the interior journey into our own hearts.

For intrinsic to our craft is the pilgrimage into the inner depths of the human soul and spirit, and into the heart of our culture in its tragedies and in its beauties in order to reveal the full reality of life.

This is why Pope John Paul II defined the call of an artist as a vocation. For in responding to our creative drive, we need to reach beyond career and beyond our own fulfillment and come to the realization that we have been chosen.

Since we know that our work reveals our search and that it has the power to affect others and our whole culture, it takes courage to respond to this vocation. It is also humbling.

But the pope has ennobled us by giving us a vision of art as a vocation, not for ourselves but for others. He has offered us a "spirituality of artistic service" (section 4), a spirituality of the giving of self through art for the purpose of restoring both our times and the Church.

For me the description of artists as servants of beauty is the most enlightening and liberating perception in the pope’s letter to us.

Through this perception, through this vision, we can be freed from the tendency towards self-glorification and returned to the source of beauty—God himself.

And so, may this time after the pope’s death be a time of opening. May this be a time for us to pray for the grace to rediscover a language and a spiritual vision of creativity whatever our art form may be. And may this vision draw us to the window of the Gospel.

As we remember the beauty God gave us in Pope John Paul II, may it also be a time for artists to remember our call to render epiphanies of beauty.

The biographical facts and the interpretations as to the influence of art on the pope come from Witness to Hope, a biography by George Weigel (HarperCollins, 1999).

This article was commissioned in 2005 by Our Sunday Visitor for a special issue in connection with the death of Pope John Paul II. It also appeared in the July-August 2005 Restoration.

[See some of Donna Surprenant’s paintings.]


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