The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Autosacramental


Thinking Aloud About Faith, Culture and Art


Thus the Angel in heaven

And the human race on earth,

The devil in Hell

All to this Bread bow,

Down below, in the heights

And on the humble ground in unison

Is heard the sweet sound of voices

That praise in accord and harmony.

Thus ends Calderon de la Barca's play, the Great Theatre of the World. For those neophytes in the history of Spanish Baroque literature, this play is one of the autosacramentales, which are grand dramatic allegories that teach the truths of the Faith to the masses. In this one, Calderon returns to one of his favorite themes: life is pure fiction when compared to the destiny God has prepared for us. All of our glories and sufferings are roles given to us, not who we are in ourselves. This is seen in the recurring slogan of the play, "Obrar bien, pues Dios es Dios." (Do well, for God is God.) In other words, you can't take it with you, and how you will live in the next eternal life is determined by how you play your transitory role in this one.

Like all Spanish Catholic productions of this time, there was a message that hammered home a tenet of the Counterreformation. In this case, as you might be able to devise from the name, the autosacramental always tried in some form to stress the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. In this sense, they were theological propaganda tools, but in this case written in the most elegant verse of the greatest poets of the time. Even if we may not believe in their message, the high art shown in these works of piety is a testament to man's creativity and the aesthetic fertility of the Incarnational religion of Jesus Christ.

What about now, though? What do we have to show for all of our scholarship, expertise, and organization? Guitar masses? Ennegrams? The Left Behind series? It sounds very smug and almost principled to say that we have moved beyond the smells and bells, that we are more in touch with the "pure Gospel", whatever that may mean. We have so many resources, yet we are almost impotent in creating something beautiful for God. Do we have any excuses? Are we too busy praying, feeding the poor and reading the Word of God? Highly unlikely!

Many people, especially Roman Catholics but not just them, will pull up into the parking lot of the church on Sunday morning in a Hummer wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a tee-shirt, even though their means could provide for much nicer clothes. "Why should they dress up," many will ask, "aren't they going to the Father's house?" It's just like love though. If I were courting a young woman, I would always dress nice around her, bring her pretty flowers, and write her poetry. If I were to be as casual around her as many are "casual" around Almighty God, I will only get her disdain.

Sorry folks, God is not a chump. Spiritual life plays by the same rules as life here below. The more attention, the more anticipation, the more "class" we put into something, the more it shows how much we care about God. Besides, its not as if with all of our time-saving gadgets and computers we don't have the time and the money to do it. There is no excuse for building churches that look like parking lots, for using hymns that sound like second rate lite-pop songs, and for subjecting the Angels to the banality of a supermarket check-out stand in our houses of worship. We have enough luxury in our over-pampered society to make our religion something that uses the greatest creative voices of our time to make something beautiful for God. We just have to start caring again. And that is a matter of Faith. Simply put.

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