In 2016 I received a letter from the Lilly Endowment awarding us in the Theology Department at the University of Saint Francis a large grant to run a program each summer aimed at Christian (and particularly Catholic and Orthodox) high-school students. Entitled “Beauty Will Save the World”, the centerpiece is an iconography workshop in which each student learns from a master iconographer how to paint a traditional Byzantine-style icon of Christ. Built around the iconography sessions are discussions about beauty in the Church, vocations, and the Christian life of the mind. And holding everything together is sung liturgical prayer: Matins and Vespers with a closing liturgy on the last day at which their completed icons are blessed.
The very clear message these high-schoolers have conveyed to me over these past two summers is the same message I have been hearing consistently from my undergraduates at USF for the last decade: they want the Church’s most reverent and resplendent liturgical traditions celebrated with all the beauty and majesty possible. It is the same message Bishop Joseph Perry in Chicago has been hearing, as his recent CWR interview indicated.
My students match their interest in iconography and other devotional art with a desire to recover the use of chant in the Church, to abolish guitar Masses (they really loathe these!), to see Mass celebrated with the proper orientation (as I’ve argued here), and to recover other lost parts of the Latin tradition. What they want, in short, is something we talked about this summer in recounting the famous story (the so-called Russian Primary Chronicle) of the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir whose emissaries, after attending liturgy in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 988, apparently reported breathlessly to their political master in Kyiv:
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and…we cannot forget that beauty.
This theme of beauty shows up in the instrumentum laboris, “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” released by Rome earlier this year in preparation for the upcoming Synod on these themes. I strongly encourage the Synod fathers to further pursue what they call “the enjoyment and beauty of the liturgy” (no. 187) for this is exactly what my students are seeking, and have been for some time now. Time and again my students, when given beautiful churches, liturgy, and devotions, allowing them to feel drawn deeply to and immersed in the mystery and worship of God, not only stay, but they want more! I’ve seen this in my regular USF students for some time. And then I saw it again at this summer’s camp, which was almost evenly divided between Roman and Eastern Catholics youth, along with one Methodist student.
On several occasions the Roman students expressed open awe of the Eastern Catholic students for being immersed on a constant basis in liturgies where everything is chanted, and where they are surrounded by icons. Moreover, both the Roman and Eastern Catholic kids wanted more sung prayer. I had abbreviated Matins (which in the Byzantine tradition is a composite service running to nearly two hours when fully sung) for us to do it in about 30 minutes each day, and the same with Vespers. It turns out they wanted the full versions and the more elaborate melodies, not the abbreviated and simplified ones; they also convinced us to change the schedule to put in sung mid-day prayer as well! Moreover, I learned that each night after I sent them back to bed, the male students took it upon themselves to say the rosary together before going to sleep.
Additionally, they asked that we make sure, at next year’s program, to use more incense, to have more chanting, and (Cardinal Sarah—call your office!) more silence. Cell phones were banned during the iconography workshop, a regulation the students accepted—to my amazement—with alacrity, allowing for a real retreat atmosphere to govern our week. When, at one point, some student conversation got a bit excessive as they painted, the rest of the students thanked me for restoring the atmosphere of a retreat after I instituted what I called “monastic reading”: while they painted, I slowly read from the Scriptures, the Fathers, and modern theological writers about icons and beauty. They asked me to do that every day next year.
Two other revealing moments with my students should be carefully noted by the bishops at the upcoming Synod—and indeed even now: Vespers and Matins during our camp are of course celebrated the proper way, facing East. Not only was there not a single complaint about this from the Roman Catholic students, they immediately and intuitively grasped the logic of this. Why, then, are bishops and clergy so afraid of returning to this practice? The arguments in its favor are not just the eccentric views of some Byzantine Catholic academic. I well recall a conversation in 1998 with Fr. Jonathan Robinson, the founder of the splendid Toronto Oratory. Ordained on the eve of Vatican II, he lived through all the tumult and described to me, in details memorable for the palpable sense of pastoral anguish in his voice, his sense that nothing had been more damaging to people’s ability to encounter God in church than the abandonment of ad orientem liturgical celebration, forcing the community to focus in on itself and thereby squeeze God out. Fr. Robinson, a philosopher with a razor-sharp mind, has argued all this out in an important book from Ignatius Press: The Mass And Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward.
The second very revealing conversation we had this past summer concerned the questions of creativity, identity, and self-expression in the context of vocations. We talked about how Byzantine iconography strongly discourages indulging in the temptations of “creativity” and “self-expression”. The students were both fascinated and in fact deeply relieved to hear that a good iconographer is defined not just by his or her manual dexterity with a brush, but above all by her or his humility and submission to the tradition such that an icon is judged not by the question, “Is this a creative and original take on the face of Jesus, updated to 2018?” but “Is this faithful to the prototype as it has been handed down for centuries?” (This same question, mutatis mutandis, should be asked of liturgy.)
The vocation of iconography, then, offers a key to all other vocations the upcoming Synod will consider. The key comes in the profound liberation one experiences if one allows one’s life to be poured out in service rather than stuck in a neurotic cycle of trying to find out how to express one’s identity most creatively. And this is exactly what liturgy also does: self-forgetful sacrifice and service without regard to our feelings or our vain efforts towards being “relevant” or “contemporary”. Iconography, like liturgy, we realized, is a vehicle or cipher for the Holy Spirit to work through. If you give your life away to Him without being paralyzed by or obsessing over questions of creative self-expression, you will discover a deeper joy than anything you thought possible, and the truest of all identities in Christ.
Beautiful liturgy, then, besides being an intrinsic good, not only serves and feeds people today, including young people, but is the key to vocations as well. The attraction of beauty draws people in deeper. If the Synod fathers really wish for more young people to give their lives in service to the Church—a goal the Lilly Endowment is also pursuing by funding camps like ours—then they need to build churches where the beauty of holiness is resplendent, and then fill them with icons, with singing, and with all the sensual riches of worship so that, whether in Kyivan Rus’ in 988, or in Indiana in 2018, all youth—indeed all people—will leave each and every Catholic liturgy exclaiming, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth… We cannot forget that beauty.”
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