“They want to hold it, but they don’t want to be bound by it.”
That observation, made by a close friend, aptly sums up the much discussed and hotly debated Met Gala, which took place on Monday, previewing a new exhibition called “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The exhibit opens to the public tomorrow and, as USA Today reports, “spreads across 25 galleries and 60,000 square feet from the Met Fifth Avenue to the Met Cloisters uptown. It contains 40 liturgical garments and accessories from the Sistine Chapel Sacristy, many of which have never left the Vatican.”
While many of the liturgical garments and accessories have never before left the Vatican, “the majority of the designers showcased grew up in the church” but “many of them no longer practice.” The Catholic imagination is presented as a mysterious entity consisting of a “shared mindset” and “reliance on storytelling” and “the trope of metaphor.” Much of the approach taken with the exhibit was inspired by the late Fr. Andrew Greeley, who wrote a book titled The Catholic Imagination and who stated that Catholics live in “a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures”. Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibit, says “these Catholic paraphernalia are only hints at the deeper and more pervasive Catholic sensibilities, which require Catholics to see the holy lurking in creation.” And, as Matthew Schmitz writes at First Things, the exhibition insists on taking a rather vague and fuzzy road:
In the exhibition catalogue, David Tracy dilates on this idea. “It has become increasingly difficult for persons outside or even inside Catholicism to describe, much less define, what distinguishes Catholic Christianity.” Unwilling to refer to traditional ecclesiological and dogmatic claims, Tracy decides that Catholics are united by a set of clichés. They “believe (like Albert Camus) that there is more to admire in human beings than to despise.” They believe that “humanity is on the whole trustworthy.”
But such a vague sense of spirituality is not only not a distinctive feature of Catholicism, it is quite opposed to it. Catholicism is rooted in history, facts, and events—especially the event of The Incarnation, which took place in a specific place and time. And imagination, contrary to popular misuse of the term, is not about daydreaming, whim, or “making stuff up”. As Holly Ordway explains so well in Apologetics and the Catholic Imagination (Emmaus Road, 2017), imagination “is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis for all reasoned thought as well as all artistic … exercise.” Reason, she emphasizes, is closely related to imagination; in fact, reason is dependent on imagination, which is that paradoxical act of seeing the reality of what is unseen. And so imagination is also vital to making judgments about what it true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
The “imagination” presented at the Gala had little to do with truth and more than a little to do with bad taste. Much of the negative response to the Gala, understandably, has focused on celebrities such as singer Rihanna, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and (of course) “Madonna” parading about with faux papal tiaras and miters, wearing dresses covered with images of saints. The impression from afar is of a bunch of spoiled children trying to impress the cool crowd, who are only too happy to fall into the predictable line. Some Catholics even insisted that the nonsensical display of lapsed and former Catholics misusing Catholic symbols and images for the sake of secular hipness was a step forward in “church-world” relationships. Eloise Blondiau, a producer at America magazine, opined:
The juxtaposition of objects belonging to the Vatican and made by contemporary designers—both of which are attempts at the religious made by human hands—is as good as any representation of the church as it exists. (Some of the designers, like Lanvin and Thom Browne, were raised Catholic.) The church’s scope goes far beyond those who attend Mass every week.
In that sense, the gala achieved what the exhibition could not, since there was no separation of “church” and “world” there. Cardinal Dolan attended, as did America’s James Martin, S.J., and they roamed among Catholics like Stephen Colbert and former altar boys Jimmy Fallon and George Clooney, in addition to celebrities of all sorts of viewpoints and faith traditions showing their interpretations (and celebrations) of the faith. Lena Waithe donned a rainbow cape, explaining: “The theme to me is like be yourself. You were made in God’s image, right?”
Is, like, that awesome, or what? No, it really isn’t. But as annoying, or even offensive, as the Gala was, it does reveal or highlight some important truths.
First, attempts by Catholics to be liked and embraced by the elites are not just problematic, they are downright embarrassing and counterproductive. While there are a number of intertwined and complicated reasons why the Catholic Church in the West has steadily suffered, for decades now, a loss of authority and numbers, there’s no denying that the desire to be liked, included, assimilated, and otherwise fit in has played a huge role. Ross Douthat examines this fact in relation to the Gala, stating:
The secular culture welcomed the church’s Protestantization and demystification and even secularization, praised the bishops and theologians who pursued it, and then simply pocketed the concessions and ignored the religious ideas those concessions were supposed to advance. Meanwhile, that same secular world maintained a consistent fascination, from “The Exorcist” down to, well, the Met Gala, with all the weirder parts of Catholicism that were supposedly a stumbling block to modernity’s conversion. … Thus the only plausible approach for Catholicism is to offer itself, not as a chaplaincy within modern liberalism, but as a full alternative culture in its own right — one that reclaims the inheritance on display at the Met, glories in its own weirdness and supernaturalism, and spurns both accommodations and entangling alliances …
Secondly, the Gala provides a marker of how far we’ve come—or, rather, how far we’ve fallen, not only as Catholics but as a society as a whole. Kyle Smith of National Review Online writes:
With each passing year, the Catholic Church becomes more of a target of derision and scorn from Western elites. There used to be pushback from the Church itself. As recently as 1989, Madonna’s profanation of Christian imagery in her “Like a Prayer” video caused so much disgust that Pepsi canceled a commercial starring her and backed out of sponsoring her tour. Gradually, as Madonna moved on to provocations like the disco-crucifixion act in her 2006 tour, the Church began to sense that any attention it paid to such matters would amount to free publicity and grew less vocal about pop culture. … The Monday-night blowout was just the latest worrying sign that the current pontificate is trying to ingratiate itself with outsiders who reject the Church’s goals. Eager to be “welcoming” and not “judgmental,” Pope Francis is reforming it according to its enemies’ vision.
This approach, Smith argues, “is a recipe for self-destruction. Serially removing each of the characteristics that make Catholicism unique will hollow out the Church until it collapses.” He is correct. And it’s not a matter of morals, as important as they are, but of authentic identity. Which, again, comes back to an authentic imagination, formed and guided by the teaching and truths of Christ and his Church.
Thirdly, continuing that thought, Schmitz writes:
What the sacramental imagination should mean, first of all, is actual belief in the sacraments: Marriage is indissoluble and ordained by God; Christ is present in the Eucharist and must be revered. My Catholic grandparents, who feared for my soul because I was not baptized as a child, were better exemplars of the sacramental imagination than every ex-Catholic designer combined. The Catholic imagination only really exists where it expresses, affirms, conforms to sacramental reality and dogmatic truth.
Very true. And that brings me to my own modest observation. Whether by chance or Providence, several books I am currently reading have made a point that has been a part of me since reading it in Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s 1963 book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963, 1973). In an Appendix titled “Worship in a Secular Age,” Schmemann argues that although it has been approached and analyzed from many angles, the core of secularism
is above all a negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshipping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it. [emphasis in original]
Schmemann builds on this point for a number of pages, emphasizing the centrality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and then makes this applicable remark: “For paradoxical as it may sounds, the secularist in a way is truly obsessed with worship. … Celebration is in fact very fashionable today.” Man remains a “worshipping being” who is “forever nostalgic for rites and rituals no matter how empty and artificial is the ersatz offered to him.” And then this: “And on the other hand, by proving the inability of secularism to create genuine worship, this phenomenon reveals secularism’s ultimate and tragic incompatibility with the essential Christian world view.”
This point comes up in David Fagerberg’s excellent new study Liturgy outside Liturgy: The Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann (see CWR’s interview about the book), which delves deeply into these particular waters. And the same point is found in George Weigel’s new book The Fragility of Order (Ignatius Press, 2018), in a chapter on the end of “the secular project.” That project, Weigel asserts, involved “the effort, extending over the past two centuries or more, to erect an empty shrine at the heart of political modernity.” Weigel connects this back to the story in the Book of Daniel of the Babylonian king Belshazzar, who had been throwing a great feast using the “vessels of gold and silver” taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Having drunk wine from the sacred vessels, the king and his guests—who “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone”—witnessed a mysterious hand writing words on the palace wall. And those divine words, translated by Daniel, prophesied the destruction of Belshazzar’s kingdom—which began with the king’s being slain that very night. Belshazzar’s blasphemous use of the sacred vessels, Weigel writes, was a “negation of worship”—a “deconstruction” that has been part and parcel of the secular project since the time of the French Revolution. But this “false worship of the Self” cannot last; it cannot provide the basis for thriving culture, real virtues, and sacrificial living, all of which are necessary for order and the common good.
And, finally, the brilliant historian Glenn W. Olsen, in The Turn to Transcendence (CUA Press, 2010), quotes Schemann’s observation about the negation of worship and then observes:
A sacramental view of life, an understanding that God is love and that therefore love is at the center of all created being, can only be recovered by attending to the liturgy, that is, by recovery of those dimensions of life most neglected in the busy “external” life of secular liberal man.
The Catechism sums all of this up in a blunt, beautiful way: “God’s first call and just demand is that man accept him and worship him” (CCC, 2084). If we are going to talk about “the Catholic imagination” and fixate on splendid dress, brilliant wonder, and awesome mystery, then we must contemplate The Apocalypse, which describes the heavenly throne room filled with heavenly and earthly creatures; and the latter, it must be noted,
fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:10-11)
The Gala at the Met was a sad attempt to pretend, to think (or feel, more likely) that colorful celebration and rampant symbolism can capture or reveal the essence of Catholicism.
Yet, again, as Fr. Richard Janowicz, the priest of the Ukrainian Catholic parish we’ve attended for nearly twenty years, rightly remarked to me earlier today: “They want to hold it, but they don’t want to be bound by it.” They want to be enveloped in spirituality, but without acknowledging the Triune God; they wish to touch what is holy, but without being set apart; they desire the spotlight, but have no room for Christ, Our Light; they want glory, but will not give Him glory; they love to preen and strut, but will not bow or kneel.
But, really, how much of that is their fault? Enough, of course. More importantly, how much of it is the fault of Catholics who are embarrassed by the scandal of particularity, the “weirdness” (as Douthat describes it) of Catholicism, the daunting dogmas, the exacting demands, and the crushing love of the Lover of mankind? Are we willing to be bound? Are we willing to say, as we do in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Come let us worship and bow before Christ”?
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