The following is an excerpt from an essay published over forty years ago. I came across it as a small pamphlet in an obscure series and have never seen it referred to by anyone anywhere. It was written by a British Dominican priest who was well known in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Father Vann’s most famous book was The Divine Pity, but he wrote many others, including The Heart of Man and The Eagle’s Word. Despite a few dated forms of usage (such as referring to “man” and “mankind”), Father Vann’s words are as fresh and eloquent today as they were more than four decades ago.
Are cultural values of any immediate relevance to the vitality of the Christian renewal? Are we to say that culture is desirable not for its own sake but only as providing, let us say, a stronger armory for apologetics? There does, in fact, seem to be a widespread feeling among believers that all “worldly” pursuits, cultural, scientific, and otherwise, are in themselves a
distraction from “spiritual” ends….
This view is quite at variance with the facts. In all that we do, as Saint Paul tells us, we are to praise God: apart from sin nothing is profane (profanum, outside
the temple) for in the moment of Christ’s victory the veil of the temple was rent from top to bottom, which means both that God is in a new way accessible to man and that all of man’s endeavors are to be part of his worship and praise of God: his work, his human activities, his cultural pursuits are not a distraction but
Talents are not to be buried in a napkin but lovingly developed for and in the love of God: the more fully and completely human we are, the more complete our praise of God can be; it is good to praise him not only through temple sacrifices and strictly spiritual pursuits but, as the psalmist tells us, with trumpets and flutes and dancing, with drums and the triumphant clash of cymbals.
To what extent do we in fact try to praise God by developing and training our sense-awareness to an affinity with what is aesthetically true and good? Do we not merely see and hear things, but look at and listen to them long and lovingly till they reveal their secrets to us? And what of the sense of touch which, as Saint Thomas remarks, unlike sight and hearing is keener and more delicate in men than in other animals: apart from artists and blind people how many really make sensitive use of it, except perhaps in their physical love-making?
In all this we have a duty not only toward God but toward the world of matter. Because of his psycho-physical nature, man is a mediator. To his ontological status as midpoint between the worlds of matter and of spirit there corresponds a mediating function: to incarnate—to give material expression to—spiritual reality and to spiritualize or humanize material reality. It is not only animals, it is nature as a whole that has to be domesticated. Ars perfecit naturam. Man was first made to be a gardener; and as now his art must turn wilderness and wasteland into fields and gardens, so instead of the primitive cave-shelter he must have the amenities of a home well built and furnished, and the primitive raw materials of speech and song must evolve into the beauties of language and music….
Working these transformations requires reflection, stillness, receptivity. The world today is shadowed by political fears and troubles and by economic anxieties and stresses that tend to blind us to the deeper psychological crises through which mankind is passing. And perhaps the greatest of those crises can be expressed by saying that generally speaking the human psyche is forgetting to contemplate. Man must be contemplative before he can hope with success to be active; he must receive and assimilate reality before attempting to give it out again. The artists, of course, know this, the poets and painters and sculptors and musicians: the beauty they create is a beauty they have first received….
The power which knowledge brings must be put to healing and redemptive purposes: to the humanizing of the material creation, of the earth which is man’s home and setting, but also and even more of man himself. “Don’t preach to the starving; give them bread” can be given a new application: “Don’t preach divinity to the subhumanized; first give them back their humanity.” And it is in the light of this that the importance of Christian cultural renewal can be gauged. We cannot save others from subhumanity if we are subhuman ourselves.
We easily recognize the subhuman in contemporary society, and even more easily criticize its deficiencies and errors, its foolishness and emptiness, but when we confront the challenge to contribute something positive and constructive to the progress of culture, we find certain obstacles to progress which are largely of our own making….
One such obstacle is thinking about morality in terms of negativism and fear. Goodness, in this view, tends to be equated with (negative) sinlessness, and
therefore the main motive for doing this or not doing that is fear: fear of blotting this spotless tabula rasa, fear of breaking “the plaster saint.” The concomitant slogan is “Safety first.” One might suppose that our Lord had said he had come not that we might have life but that we might have safety. And therefore prudence has come to mean, quite simply, caution, the caution necessary to avoid all danger and ensure complete safety. To such an extent has the greatest of the cardinal virtues come down in the world! Prudence, phronesis, does not mean caution; it means practical wisdom, the ability to make wise judgment about practical matters. And sometimes wisdom will require us to be cautious, but sometimes it will require us to take risks.
The tragic effect of an attitude lacking practical wisdom is that the role of prudence in relation to art is seen simply as an attempt to prevent artists from doing anything that might be thought dangerous to morals and, if they cannot be prevented, to ban them. Moreover the danger will be seen as lying exclusively in the content of a book or film or painting (e.g. it may be thought erotically stimulating, or may seem to argue in favor of the morality of suicide or divorce) and not at all in its aesthetic quality….
Again and again a great book or film or painting will be denounced as immoral while the mawkish, the moronic, the aesthetically meretricious will be extolled because its message is regarded as edifying or at least safe. In the end those who are docile to this sort of guidance acquire an affinity not with what is good and real but what is bad and false, not with genuineness and integrity but with the debased and ignoble. And the element of falsity in particular needs to be stressed: a novel, play, or film which communicates a profound insight into the nature of the church will be denounced because it contains a “disedifying” portrayal of a priest; another book or film on a similar theme will be praised because it makes everything in the ecclesiastical garden lovely, even though this is a falsehood and the sentimentalized picture of religion in general is a distortion and falsification of the very stuff of religion. Grace builds on and in nature; it is no service to
religion, and no part of prudence, to turn potentially mature human beings into morons, and we cannot claim to serve and worship truth if we acquiesce in or
encourage the distortion or falsification of truth….
Is cultural progress then relevant to the progress of Christianity? Emphatically and doubly so: emphatically because the fulfilling of all things in Christ is obviously the special duty of the Christian; doubly because as artist the Christian must help in the ennobling of matter, as Christian he must help in the hallowing of matter. Therefore, to the best of his ability he must himself be simultaneously a civilized man and a man of prayer: simultaneously because these are not two distinct fields of activity but two aspects of the one activity which is life on earth.
And this in turn implies that his own renaissance may have to begin with a double reform: with ceasing to be an activist, so as to make all his activity thoughtful, prayerful; and with a revision of his cultural standards and a vigorous onslaught against all that in Christian life today—in worship, piety, art, literature—is ugly, debased, subhuman. In other terms, this renaissance demands
the repudiation of the life-refusing, life-denying doctrines of Manichaeism and its derivatives, which seek to save the soul by denying or ignoring or destroying all the natural and especially the material elements in the life of man: joy in the earth and its fullness; joy in the vitality and beauty of the body; joy in the life of the senses and in the beauties of color, of life, of form, of sound, of texture, which delight and fulfill them; joy in all the human values of love, good fellowship, gaiety, all that still remains to us, through God’s mercy, of the delight of the paradise garden.
Concomitantly, the renaissance of culture requires the personal reaffirmation of the Christian ideal of holiness as implying wholeness: loving, serving, worshipping, praising God with the whole personality; developing, training, using all one’s God-given gifts of nature and of grace, all one’s potentialities, unified and made harmonious under the rule of mind, of spirit, and under the all-embracing motivation of the love of God and his will. For only then will the Christian be able without falsehood to say…that he loves the beauty of God’s house, and only then will he be able to share fully in the Christ-work of ennobling and hallowing God’s house in the wider sense, the cosmos, the whole of creation.
It is for us Christians, then…to do these two things: first, to learn to be receptive of life before plunging into activity, to learn to be possessed of life, of truth, of love, to be possessed by God; then secondly, to learn to face the squalors of life as they come to us—and we do not grow into the light by trying to escape the darkness but by meeting it—with courage and tranquility, as we shall then be enabled to do, trying to make sure that the deeper our knowledge of it becomes, the deeper also becomes our sense of oneness with the redemptive pity of God, and therefore the less our danger of coming to terms with evil…. In that way we shall incidentally integrate ourselves, for we shall find that, in a world which is so largely uncreative and so largely hopeless, we for our part shall find always a renewal of life and of hope, through our sharing, however humbly, however fumblingly and imperfectly, in the re-creative, the redemptive, work of the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us in order precisely that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.