01 January 2011

Fr. Z meditates on the meaning of Epiphany

I often want to write effectively on how today's love of ugliness and noise is preventing us from seeing God, Truth, but I guess I'm too close to it.  My scribbles always devolve into incoherent growls.

Fr. Z has provided an excellent meditation on the topic.  ("We need beauty now as well.")  I strongly recommend you drop over there and read the whole thing.

The Catholic Church used to be (and often still is, fortunately) famous for the exquisite art in her churches. However, there is the home environment to consider, as well.

My mother had a strong sense of art and design, and she was partial to Mission Renaissance kinds of things.  When she and my father bought the house in which I was to grow up, she got a wholesale license, and went prowling around estate sales and warehouses, looking for the kinds of things that would express her vision of a well-appointed house behind the white plaster walls and under the red tile roof.

As a result, I grew up around big pieces of elaborately carved furniture:  Savonarola chairs, side tables adorned with designs and figures, and a striking piece constructed of two white Carrera marble pillars which were busts of jaguars, I guess - beautiful, and exactly alike - on which rested a massive plinth of marble, deep emerald green and heavily, well, marbled.  On one top shelf was a lovely head-and-shoulders bust of a young noblewoman.  I know of one other which was advertised by an auction; that one was clothed in a blue dress, but ours was red and gold.  I can't readily find an image like it, but this painting is similar.

Over the fireplace was hung a large oil painting of our Lord, sitting with a scarlet red cloak arranged around him, a rod held loosely in his hand, a red gash in his side (but not bleeding), and his brown hair parted in the middle and falling down to his shoulders in gentle waves.  The expression on his beautiful face was solemn, sad, and yet gentle.  Completely Italian.  It looked like a holy card, but it was probably three feet high and almost three feet across when you counted the extremely ornate gilt frame.  It wasn't rare, or particularly good, and the canvas was - is (my sister has it now) thin enough to see through in spots.

Of course as a child I was told that it was Jesus, but there wasn't a lot of explanation that went along with that.  It wasn't until I was a convert that I was able to look at it knowingly and appreciatively as an image showing a deep respect and affection for our Lord.  Never mind that it confused the incidents of Jesus' Passion - he was dressed in the cloak by Herod's soldiers after the scourging, and the gash in his side came from the soldier's lance after He was crucified.  That didn't matter.  It was our Lord, and the expression on His face seemed to be of Him meditating on the souls who needed His self-sacrifice, even if they didn't know it.

That image of Jesus watched over every Christmas celebration, cocktail party, and piano lesson that happened in that living room.  It is now stored in my sister's house.  I couldn't bring it with me to my new home, a two-bedroom apartment with limited wall space.  But it stays in my mind, of course.

At Christmas, the wood of the elaborately carved furniture glowed with polish.  The little creche with its figures and real straw was on the octagonal table on the carved base (which I did bring with me, and which is in the corner across from me as I type).  I was allowed to play carefully with the papier-mache, hand-painted figures, which included Joseph and Mary, three wise men which included the most exotic looking Ethiopian figure, a couple of sheep, a cow, and an angel hanging above.  Mary's cloak and the angel's dress were of the same pale teal-grey blue.  The faces of Joseph, Mary and the Child on his bed of straw were all beautifully painted, and conveyed the appropriate care and love (Mary and Joseph) and intelligent look of knowing, in spite of being just a bambino (Jesus).  I spent hours with those figurines at Christmastime.  I suppose I meditated for the first time, learning as I did about the Holy Family through carols and stories.  The only time I went to church was at Easter, when we went to Mass at a nearby Mission; it was Latin, incense, lots of people, and paintings that looked a lot like the one hanging on the wall at home.

The living room was devoid of any artificial noise or entertainment except for music, which was supplied from a high-fidelity set secreted in a closet behind the piano.  As an only child, when I was by myself, it was almost always in silence.  I wasn't aware of that.  My head was full of stories, thoughts, or music.  I never felt alone in the time I spent in that room.  Over the mantel was a picture of One whose love was obvious from the expression on His face, God's Son.  I didn't know much about theology.  I just knew I wasn't alone.

Without much overt teaching, my soul was prepared to be Roman Catholic.  In time, I realized the truth of the Church and learned about her history.  I was enlightened.  It was, in truth, epiphany.

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