Sacred Art and Diverse Expression in Worship
February 04, 2008
In his 1999 “Letter to Artists, [Español] [Français]" His Holiness Pope John Paul II writes:
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and…attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God… Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds…It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery…Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.” (para. 12)
Diverse Worship. Diverse Community of Believers
Sacramental liturgies. Devotional prayer. The flow of liturgical seasons. Benediction. The liturgical cycle. Liturgy of the Hours and the feasts of the Saints. The Roman Catholic life of worship is a banquet of expressive diversity…
In our times, in North America, the Church is probably closer to the demographics of the Early Church than at any period of our history. Each Sunday, across the country, we gather in the pews, shoulder to shoulder with folks of an ethnic and cultural diversity that couldn’t have happened back when parishes had fixed cultural identities. To "Greek and Jew and Gentile," we can boast that we’re now also Asian, Latin American, African, Anglo, Middle Eastern, European. We are widowed, divorced, married with young families, elderly founding members of our parishes. We’re laborers and legislators alike. All in the same worship space. A dream come true for a Church whose very name means "universal."
And what a challenge. "Hospitality" takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to authentically welcoming those with whom we can sometimes not even have a conversation. We’re learning that language and culture are more than foreign words or special devotions. They are the identity of a people, and we are all rightly possessive of our own. With this shift in demographics, as borders become bridges, re-imagining how to weave ourselves together in communal prayer, how to transcend differences in language, cultural expression, and socio-ethnic diversity, the essential role of sacred art and music becomes ever more apparent.
Sacred Art As Bridge
When it comes to communicating the realm of spirit, of the mystical, we all know that language only takes us so far. A former professor of mine, Fr. John Dunne, used to talk about “crossing over” into other cultures, and then “coming back” again into one’s own culture with fresh insight into one’s own life and experience.
We’re learning that the multiple expressions of sacred art inherent to each culture provide much more than the comfort of the familiar. They are integral to the way that a culture connects with God. Incorporating the artistic and cultural expression of the peoples we welcome into our communities will ultimately lead all of us into new understandings of our shared stories of faith.
The Place for Diverse Sacred Art
The Church has always recognized that from the unique gift of each sacred artist flows unique manifestations of the "face of God" through sacred art. Diverse forms of sacred art provide at times comfort, or inspiration, or instruction. Sacred art is also needed to catechize, to lift up, to reassure, to transport us. To challenge, and to remind. Sacred art has the potential to change us.
There’s a natural tendency in most of us to want to recognize what we’re looking at. It makes us feel safe. And in terms of art, we want to understand things at face value. We want art to be something, and we want to know what it is. So we tend to equate art that is "literal" with "good." And art that is not literal is not so good. Understandable.
When I think of this in terms of Jesus’ teaching ministry, I find a helpful analogy. Jesus was often dealing with folks who took His words literally, like the woman at the well asking Him how He planned to get that Living Water without a bucket. Even Nicodemus, a wise and learned man, didn’t get how he could possibly crawl back into his mom and come out again all new. Jesus was ingenious at coming up with ways to carry the listener from their literal-mindedness into His more abstract and difficult-to-understand teachings. He began always with the literal, and when that had stretched to its limit, He’d switch to the figurative. He’d use analogy, metaphor, simile, whatever it took. But He never stopped at mere facts. He took His listeners into their imaginations, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming. Beginning with the literal, He imbued His imagery with expansive possibility, giving His listener a virtual feast of truth to be savored, and never a mere illustration of a fact that came and went.
His is a good method. As such a diverse people, we each come into a fuller understanding of the truths of our faith by just such diverse doorways. Through the rich expressions of sacred art, which cross borders and continents and imaginations, shared from one culture to the next, we’re given the grace to transcend the boundaries between us, transforming them into bridges, as we help one another to comprehend, by means of the gifts of sacred art, the great mysteries of our faith.
Claire Wing is a liturgical artist and designer in in Dallas, Texas.
Photographs by Claire Wing.