Artists live with a stereotype of being moody and emotive, their heads in the clouds and their hearts perpetually broken. Something like the way most Catholics seem to be feeling in these recent months since scandal has attacked our Church. I’ve never felt more like that stereotype than one night when I lay awake until four in the morning, my chest aching as though it had been ripped apart and hastily patched back together in a World War I field hospital.
What is one to do with pain like that? My faith was not shaken. I felt Christ suffering with me; I knew the pain was His first and His most deeply. He always stands with His Church. But the hurt was real. The betrayal was real. The confusion and apathy creeping into the corners of my consciousness were real.I felt Christ suffering with me; I knew the pain was His first and His most deeply. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Healing Through Art
Well, if I was going to feel like an artist stereotype, I figured I might as well tie that shoe on and wear it running. Because Christian artists have given us a pattern to follow when the world crumbles around our feet. They weep, yes, just as Jesus wept at the death of His friend, Lazarus. But united with the same power that brought Lazarus back from the dead, artists turn mourning into beauty. Out of the ashes of misery, they bring this beauty to stunning, startling life.
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A striking example of this transformative power of creation is found in the work of William Bouguereau, a nineteenth century French artist. In 1875, Bouguereau experienced the devastating loss of his teenage son, Georges. Bouguereau sunk into a depression. He wept and he railed against the heavens and against earth.
After three months of railing, he put his paintbrush to canvas and painted the parent who knew his suffering so well. In his Pietá of 1876, Bouguereau painted Our Lady cradling her Son’s lifeless, submissive form against her chest. Her eyes—like none I have ever encountered in another painting—burn with sorrow and pain as they look out and accuse the world of what it has done. The darkness of her mantle is almost lost in the dark background of the painting, and the blood red of her gown is echoed in the blood still clinging to the crown of thorns resting at her feet.
But around this harrowing image of pain sweeps an arch of angels, surrounding Mary, praying, worshiping. One hides his eyes, one beats his breast, some look on in wonder. Their clothing—striking against the darkness of Our Lady’s robes—is all the colors of the rainbow. Bouguereau, even in his grief, was reminding us of God’s promise to Noah: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”
In the death of Christ, He kept that promise; Christ took on our punishment, and His Mother took on our sorrow.
Another artist who could, perhaps, understand my World War I field hospital analogy, came home from the terrors of the Great War and took up his pen. Rather than letting the cruelty and evil he witnessed destroy him, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings and gave us a world where we can see evil defeated and witness the happy ending in store for all of us after life’s literal and metaphorical battles.
Anyone who has ever read The Return of the King will remember the shiver of hope and truth he felt when reading of the Grey Havens that waited after death:
The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back…and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country, under a swift sunrise.
Tolkien’s contemporary, American poet Joyce Kilmer, died as a soldier during the First World War. From the trenches, he wrote:
Who fights for freedom, goes with joyful tread
To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,
And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head
Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.
The great majority of Kilmer’s poetry was written through heartbreak. Even before the war, Kilmer lost his young daughter to a childhood illness. Her sickness and death did not crush Kilmer’s newfound Catholic faith, but strengthened it, inspiring his best work.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Aline Kilmer, Joyce’s widow. Faced with the death of her daughter and the loss of her husband to a seemingly-senseless war, Aline wrote through her grief, supporting her family through her essays and poetry. One poem in particular has been coming back to me, aptly titled “After Grieving.” It ends, powerfully:
Athletes who know their proven strength,
Ships that have shamed the hurricane:
These are my brothers, and at length
I shall come back to joy again.
However hard my life may be
I know it shall not conquer me.
St. Therese (another artist) said, “The world’s thy ship, and not thy home.” Certainly that world is facing a hurricane of trouble at present. What will it take for us to ride through the storms, to “shame the hurricane?”
We are Artists, Let’s Use Our Art
As Catholics of the twenty-first century, we are hardly the first to writhe in pain at scandal defacing the beauty of the Church that is our home. The artists now are not the first to have something to say about that corruption with their art.
Michelangelo, whose chisel gave us Mary’s crushing sorrow and humble acceptance in his Pietá, whose brush gave us the power and glory of God’s creation of Adam, also wielded his brush to paint a Church official into the fires of hell in his Last Judgment. Yet who notices the twisted figure of that cardinal when confronted with the calm majesty of Christ, judging from Heaven? Michelangelo’s skill in color and composition made him one of the most sought-after artists of his time. Today, it helps us direct our gaze away from ugliness and toward Beauty itself.
Whether or not you consider yourself an artist, you were made in the image of God the Creator. Are you crushed by all the ugliness of the world? Don’t let the ugliness win. Ask yourself, how can I mourn like an artist? How can I make something lovely, whether it’s a painting or a song or a dinner for my family? You have the power, through God’s grace, to remind a hurting world of the beautiful God that created it and mourns with it.
This is Our Gift, Our Call, Our Task
John Paul II wrote his Letter to Artists to you:
People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm [inspired by art] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world.”
When your heart is breaking, ask yourself this: how can I flood the world with God’s beauty, the beauty that will save the world?Mourn Like an Artist #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Faith E. Hough is a writer and homeschooling mother of six. She and her artist husband live in Connecticut, where you can find her making art and avoiding laundry. You can find out more about her here.