Monday, April 28, 2014

Abyss of Light: St. John Paul II's "Letter to Artists"

I know, I know. This weekend the Catholic media is already overflowing with articles on the two newest saints of the Church, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Why more words? But let me first say that I feel extremely blessed to have lived while John Paul was still pope, although I was too young to appreciate it much. I'm appreciating it now, and that's the reason for this post. This past week I discovered (Saint!) John Paul II's "Letter to Artists", presented from the Vatican on Easter Sunday, 1999. (I was one and three-quarters at the time...)

In this beautiful and heartening letter, John Paul reminds artists of their divine calling, shows the intimate and mutually enriching relationship between art and the Church, and urges the artists of all kinds--writers, visual artists, architects and musicians--to renew that relationship and persevere in the pursuit of beauty. Indeed, he affirms, powerfully quoting Dostoyevsky, "beauty will save the world."

I loved the entire letter, but especially connected to the parts where John Paul speaks of artistic inspiration as an encounter with the divine. Granted I have only experienced this in fleeting moments--usually when writing a contemplative poem, or imagining a powerful character moment in my novel--but I feel I know exactly what he is talking about:

Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

(Oh, that unbridgeable gap! Exquisite torture.) And again, writing of the Holy Spirit as the literal "in-spiration" or "in-breathing" of artists:

Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art. It is right then to speak, even if only analogically, of “moments of grace”, because the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond.

Clearly John Paul's own artistic experience as a poet, actor, and playwright was very deep and powerful. I am only minimally familiar with his literary work, but I am very eager now to explore it and rediscover this great man and modern saint!

Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us!