By Brian Volck
July is a chopped-up, expensive, and overcommitted month for me. Early on, I’m likely to be in Chicago for the annual gathering of the Ekklesia Project.
The conversation this year was “Wealth and the Household of God,” exploring the ways in which forms of wealth, including money, often divide the church into rich and poor rather than nurturing shared lives. I met old friends—pastors, laypersons and academics—and made new ones.
At month’s end, I’ll often be in Santa Fe for IMAGE’s Glen Workshop. I expect to meet old friends—artists, writers and musicians—and make new ones.
Is there some reason I’m the only person regularly attending both? I don’t think art and the church’s commitment to the poor incompatible, but how do I articulate a unity? There has always been music and art in my family, my liturgy, my life; but I am all too conscious of the disposable wealth necessary to sustain something so “impractical.”
I love Michelangelo as much as the next guy, but can anyone reconcile the Renaissance Church’s flamboyant artistic patronage with the example of St. Lawrence who, pressed for payoffs by Emperor Valerian’s menacing interrogators, presented the poor and sick, saying “Here is the wealth of the Church”?
I don’t have a strategic answer to so complex a matter, but there are tactical responses.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others, labored to restore beauty to its proper place alongside truth and goodness after long exile under modernity’s harsh regime. Anecdotally, there’s Dorothy Day, who listened to live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays at the Catholic Worker, or Central American campesinos, who adorn the poorest homes with simple religious art or a few luminous impatiens.
Or I could tell the story of the funeral I attended yesterday.
William Schickel, artist and designer, died last week at the age of 89. Not nearly as well known as he should be, his work is justly celebrated in Greg Wolfe’s Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel, soon to be available in a second edition.
I never met Mr. Schickel in person, though I’ve become friends with members of his large and gracious family, visited several of his commissions, and worship in one of them: Cincinnati’s Bellarmine Chapel, which he magnificently renovated over a decade ago. He lived much of his life on a farm in the vicinity of Loveland, Ohio’s Grailville, part of an international Catholic women’s movement, “The Grail,” which integrated faith into everyday experience; stressing simplicity, work, and closeness to the land.
There, he lived an exemplary life and produced an equally impressive body of work, embracing high modernism while preserving the best liturgical traditions. As a source of new and reclaimed art and music, Schickel and Grailville provided antidotes to the sentimental schlock blighting Catholic worship in the wake to the Second Vatican Council.
It was fitting, then, that his funeral mass took place in the Grailville Oratory, a renovated cattle barn and one of Schickel’s true masterpieces of traditioned simplicity.
The July morning was cool and lovely beyond imagining. The Oratory seating under the wooden post and beam nave was filled to capacity. Many in attendance stood. The Schickels—and there are quite a few—sat on either side of the altar, bathed in natural light from the hidden skylight.
Family members rose to sing music ranging from medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony to Shaker hymns, spirituals and music from Grailville: psalm settings, Navajo texts, and compositions of Clarence Rivers, a longtime friend of Schickel and the first African-American ordained a priest in the Cincinnati Archdiocese. We all joined in, often in harmony. (Who says Catholics can’s sing?)
The final commendation returned to Chant (from the Requiem liturgy), ending in the lines: Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, / et cum Lazaro quondam paupere / aeternam habeas requiem. (“May choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once poor, may you have eternal rest.”)
The hand-carved pine coffin was borne from the Oratory, then downhill on a footpath, between woodland and meadow, to the Grailville cemetery. We followed, singing “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,” and I recalled dusty roads in the Honduran highlands, where a hairpin turn would suddenly reveal a funeral procession, mourners in their very finest, singing or silently praying behind a spare wood coffin.
With prayers at the gravesite—beside that of his wife, Mary—family members lowered the coffin into the ground. Yet, we were told, our work wasn’t finished. Once again singing, we all took turns filling the grave from the adjacent dirt mound, the first clods of earth falling ominously on the wooden box, growing softer with each shovelful.
Women and men set to work, young girls hiked up their skirts, young boys reveled in an excuse to get their best clothes muddy. We sang in harmony until the job was done. One of Schickel’s sons in law asked if I’d gotten my hands dirty. “Yes,” I said with a smile, “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
It was then I recalled the title of a Flannery O’Connor story, and realized one could, in fact, be much poorer than dead. Rich men and women die every day, bereft of beauty, faith, family, community and land, the visible touchstones of William Schickel’s life.
Printed on the last page of the funeral program was an excerpt from Pope John Paul II reminding artists how they are led to see “the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks.” The prayer-readied heart finds wholeness as much in the poor person as in the thing of beauty, which are, in Christ, indistinguishable.
Such gestures toward wholeness won’t, I know, satisfy the skeptic. I don’t intend them to. For me, this tacit unity, however inarticulate, is sufficient, an occasion for contemplation and thanks. I’m a blessed and wealthy man.