I think there is something special about a cover—about taking a song, a painting, or a movie and recreating it within the modern frame of mind. Aretha Franklin’s bold and unapologetic “Respect” is a perfect example, as she interprets the song as a Black woman in the 1960’s. As is Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” in which he narrates the song with hauntingly beautiful guitar riffs. In visual art, Andy Warhol recreates the portrait of Mao Zedong with a messy array of bright colors—an unusual depiction of the dictator. Finally, modern movies, headlined by the Cohen Brothers’ True Grit, give life to old characters and stories, recreating them for new audiences.
However, even the Beatles, the most covered band of all time, cannot compete with the millions of interpretations of Jesus Christ. Thousands of artists have painted Christ crucified or the Madonna and Child. Everyone from Van Gogh, Basquiat, or da Vinci have painted Jesus Christ, each in their own manner. It can be mind-numbing to try to flip through them all, viewing each painting, alien to the others, and, oftentimes, to us. There are always two questions to ask when discussing art: “What is this artist trying to say?” and “What do we think he or she is trying to say?”
These questions matter much more when investigating faith. In a special way, how artists of all disciplines—including sculptors, writers, or directors—interpret Jesus will affect us. Every Catholic, no doubt, thinks of Jesus through some piece of art or another, but Jesus is more than just a collection of paints, words, or images. Jesus is alive. It is tempting to trap Him in a Caravaggio, an El Greco, or even in the Passion of the Christ—to prevent Him from challenging us. Jesus as represented in art cannot call us out in our sins; He cannot tell us the hard truths we need to wrestle with. Even further, we should not trap Jesus in the Church or solely in the Mass. Yes, we are oftentimes challenged in specific ways during the Mass, especially when a priest gives a difficult homily. It can be easy, however, to selectively hear the priest, interpreting him and hearing only what we want to hear. We often want a sanitized Jesus, one that affirms us and makes us feel good. But while Jesus resides in the tabernacle and comes to meet us in every celebration of the Eucharist, He cannot be left there. Jesus wants to encounter us personally in order for us to help others encounter Him.
Jesus always challenged His disciples to worship, act, and believe in accordance with truth. Jesus was not “sanitized” or acting in the “proper way” when He overturned the tables of the money changers; He was not “sanitized” when He described the narrow way; and He surely was not clean and tidy when He died on the Cross. Jesus defied our expectations. He was filled with passion for God’s truth. While He is Beauty itself, Jesus often made His listeners look away as they were unable to embrace the unsavory truth that can be hard to swallow.
I enjoy going to Washington’s National Gallery of Art or New York’s MET, but next time I see Christ there, I will be reminded that He is not trapped in the golden walls of the frame. Jesus is alive, living in the Eucharist and in others. While it is beautiful to witness Jesus in the arts, we must remember that Christ lives in the audience, the museum goers. While the beauty of the art itself is mesmerizing, Christ is alive in flesh, both on the altar and in people who remind us that, while beautiful, Christ’s message is a challenge.
In his book, The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote that, “Beauty will save the world.” For Christians, this phrase takes on an even deeper meaning theologically. The Christian worldview views truth, beauty, and goodness as reflections of the One who is perfectly True, Good, and Beautiful: God Himself. Authentic expressions of human creativity in some way glorify the ultimate Creator who endowed mankind with the freedom to co-create. We do this in a miraculous way through procreation, but also each time we write, dance, paint, mold, shape, sing, and so on. To celebrate art as a form of evangelization, the Catholic Apostolate Center invited two artists to share their perspectives on creating art and how art can also be a form of spreading the Gospel. For our first artist spotlight, Center contributor Dana Edwards Szigeti interviewed graphic designer Tracy Johnston. Our second artist spotlight features Spoken Word performer Michael Mookie C. Manalili in his own words.
Artist Spotlight: Tracy Johnston (Graphic Designer)
How did you get involved in your artistic expression?
Since high school, Catholic artist and mom Tracy Johnston has been creating art for her family, friends, and others. While earning her college degree in Studio Art at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Johnston designed retreat flyers, youth group T-shirts, and fundraising campaign materials for several groups and organizations, including the UCF Catholic Campus Ministry in which she was very involved. After graduating, she continued this service to young adult ministries and youth ministry. These projects provided Johnston with plenty of experience that helped develop the skills she uses today for her small business. Johnston specializes in hand-painted wood signs, canvas art, chalkboards, printables, and Rosary hangers.
Working as a stay-at-home mom and artist has always been a dream for Johnston. While employed as a full-time graphic artist, Johnston began looking for ways to stay at home with her first baby. She decided to open an Etsy shop to sell Catholic artwork – the first big step toward her dream.
What is the intersection between your art and faith? How can art be a form of evangelization?
As part of her research, Johnston reads a lot of Scripture and saint quotes. These holy words challenge Johnston in her prayer life and serve as inspiration to her.
“There is accountability when the products I’m creating are designed to lead people to God and to holiness – it should also be leading me to God and to holiness,” Johnston said. “It is a beautiful thing to be able to spread the words of Christ and the saints, and to know that these pieces I’ve created are in homes all over the country.”
While making the artwork for clients, Johnston takes the opportunity to pray for the people who will receive the art. She desires to lead others to prayer, “but it also leads me to prayer,” she said.
Sometimes people can be discouraged to share a gift or talent because someone else may be doing something similar, but Johnston says there is always room for more at the table for aspiring Catholic artists. “There is always a need for your light in the world!” she said. “God has blessed us with unique gifts and talents for a reason, and He needs all of us to reach different people and work together to accomplish His mission for the Kingdom.”
Artist Spotlight: Michael Mookie C. Manalili (Spoken Word)
Can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in your art/craft?
I was fascinated with the question of "why" since I was a tiny child in the Philippines. The way that stories helped explain our world always seemed to intrigue me - from the life lessons of rehabilitation patients my parents worked with to the theology, folklores, and mathematics taught by pink-habited nuns in our schools. I suppose having to learn different languages along the way also helped - not only adopting English but the different "languages" of the neighborhoods I grew up in. And yet, there always seemed to be the faint hum of something else and something more: the unity of our human experiences.
I've been involved in "spoken word" from the very beginning. More formally, however, I started writing other forms of poetry in high school (sonnets, haikus, etc) - and later started to dabble into performed poetry as I entered college. There was something about the cadence, pauses, and inflections that you can do in spoken poetry that made it feel more.... alive.
What is the intersection between your art and faith?
The resonance of art and faith can be both complex and simple. It can be complex insofar as beauty, meaning, and divinity always seems to have a resonance. From the Ancients, the pursuit of eudaimonia (or flourishing as opposed to mere 'happiness') requires actions that are excellent (virtue in Latin, arete in Greek) - and these excellent actions are noted as "beautiful" unto themselves. From the chaos and dawn of the Scriptures, the Spirit/Ruach/Breath of life animated the very dust of the humus and marrow of our bones. The echoes of the Word/Logos/Meaning echo forth in us, through the art of our embodiment and actions.
The intersection between art and faith can also be simple insofar as I hope that the meaning echoes forth from the poetry and speaks for itself. The beauty of a sunset amidst creation or bread that is broken and shared for another need not give itself in difficult elaborations - the very presence of something 'beyond-my-self' is given in the experience.
How can art be a form of evangelization?
I believe that art can orient our awareness beyond ourselves. When I practice spoken word poetry, I write with the audience in mind - not for myself. In the performance of the spoken word - my lived experiences, my meaning, my time, and my very breath are poured out for the other. And after the fact, I hope to "speak in congruence" when I act as a therapist for my patient, mentor for my students, and fellow laborer for my colleagues. Indeed, this is not a form of proselytizing evangelization merely through logic - but an invitation to serve and inspire others, given in the second ending in the Gospel of John: "Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Follow me."
I recently watched a movie that’s been on my Hulu queue for some time--a 1966, mostly black and white film by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on the 15th century medieval Russian artist named Andrei Rublev. Sound exciting? Maybe not to all… but it was on the Vatican’s recommended Best Films list, so I thought it was one probably worth seeing.
Of all the magnificent works of Christian art and architecture, I believe the Russian monk and artist Andrei Rublev’s (c. ~1360–1430) icon of the Holy Trinity still stands out. For how influential the icon has been for generations of artists and theologians, it doesn’t look like much. You may have seen the icon but never heard of the Russian monk and artist, Rublev, of whom little information is known (especially after he took his vow of silence!). Those who have seen the icon may never have recognized the Trinity present in the domestic scene of three people sitting around a table. Rublev’s icon is both simple and complex.
Even though the Catechism tells us the, “mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life” (CCC 234), we may still find it difficult to imagine what difference the Trinity makes in our daily life and actions.
The Sunday after Pentecost (this May 22) celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinity Sunday for short. I’m not giving a movie review or a systematic take on the Trinity, but Andrei Rublev did serve as a reminder of the great mystery and gift of God revealed in the three persons of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rublev’s work is not simply a masterpiece of medieval Russian iconography, but also represents one of the most profound and concise theological reflections on the Trinity in history. Known by most non-Western Christians as The Hospitality of Abraham, the three persons seated around a table depicts the Old Testament scene of three angels visiting Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15) that Christian tradition sees prefiguring the Trinity fully revealed at the coming of Christ and the sending the Holy Spirit.
Andrei Tarkovsky produced Andrei Rublev and loosely based it on the life of the artist and his conviction of “Christianity as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity.” Tarkovsky’s hauntingly beautiful film, set in 15th century Russia, is not really a biography, but an exploration of the human longing for transcendence and freedom in God through faith and art in a world often characterized by the chaos and violence of sin. When first released, various scenes were censored or cut out entirely by government officials of the atheistic and authoritarian Soviet Union, whose oppressive ideology the film subtly criticized. Tarkovsky believed his Trinitarian faith led him to take risks for truth, not remain comfortably passive. It was for this reason that he produced such a compelling film.
For Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Trinity wasn’t just an abstract idea, but a power and a presence at work in the world and in every human heart. Their work highlights their belief that when we suppress God in our lives, we are cut off from the source of true freedom, beauty, creativity, and peace. Instead, the Trinitarian character of our faith should empower us to bring these qualities into every aspect of our lives- from art to politics, medicine and healthcare, business, and everything else.
Maybe the most “practical” truth about our belief in the Trinity is how it changes the way we look at things, especially our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Tarkovsky’s movie is in black and white… until towards the end when it shows Rublev’s icons. The Trinity icon is the last, and it stands out in vivid color. Artists like Rublev and Tarkovsky don’t show us what God actually looks like, but they do depict the realities of everyday as they look like through the eyes of faith.
The community of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a model of mutual affection and other-centeredness that we can apply to our relationships with friends, family members, and those we encounter. For example, in our political views, are we seeking power and influence over others, or striving for cooperation in achieving the common good? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in their respective functions of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. Do our actions and lifestyles imitate this self-giving? By contemplating Trinitarian works of art like those of Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity helps our everyday thoughts and actions beautify and bless the world around us.
To celebrate the Catholic Apostolate Center passing 50,000 "likes" on Facebook, Communications and Social Media Intern Andrew Buonopane created a list of 50 Ways to Enjoy your Faith. This is the first post in a five-part series where we'll share the whole list. Check back on the first Tuesday of the month for another installment!
#50 - Go to Confession
The Sacrament of Confession is one that many Catholics do not celebrate regularly. Haven’t been in a while? Check your parish website and see when Confession is offered and give it a try again! Need a refresher on the ritual? Check out the Catholic Apostolate Center’s Lenten Resource Page for year-round resources on this important sacrament.
#49- Remember to Laugh
Laughing is not only emotionally beneficial, but also has health benefits as well! Take the time to find humor where you can!
#48 - Learn to appreciate Silence
In our busy lives, silence is often hard to come by. When you do have a quiet moment, take a second to appreciate it!
#47 - Devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, whose "little way" taught that holiness can be sought in ordinary, everyday life.
Take some time to learn more about this incredible saint, whose feast day is celebrated on October 1st. She can teach us how to find holiness in our daily lives!
#46 - Become more active in your Parish
Next Sunday, check out your Church bulletin to see what is going on in your parish. See if there’s something you’d like to be more involved in!
#45 - Serve the Poor
Find a local meal program in your city and learn more about volunteering there. There are many programs and services that need time, talent, and treasure and offer many ways to serve those less fortunate.
#44 - View and Reflect on Sacred Art
Find an art museum or view a museum’s online collection to see many important works of art that depict sacred scenes. Or check out local art in parishes in your diocese! Many churches contain beautiful works of art such as stained glass windows.
#43 - Own a Catechism
…or view the new USCCB online Catechism here! The catechism is a great place to turn with questions about your faith or as a resource to learn more about what we as Catholics believe.
#42 - Take a pilgrimage
Pilgrimages can be to places near or far. In your own diocese, visit a parish or church you never have been before! Or research places such as the St. Jude Shrine, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, or other places of pilgrimage farther away!
#41- Devotion to St. Jude
St. Jude is a wonderful Saint to pray to when you don’t know where else to turn. He’s the patron saint of hopeless causes and many people find peace in praying to him.
#40 - Find a Bible Study
See if your parish has a bible study and get involved! Studying sacred scripture is an important way to deepen your faith.
Andrew Buonopane is the Communications & Social Media Intern for the Catholic Apostolate Center
"The joy of love, the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death" (Porta Fidei, 13)
Death is often something that we do not like to discuss, especially in the context of the New Evangelization. These two concepts might seem like they don’t mix well, but I hope to show how they are. It is quite natural that we try to deflect the topic of death and dying and why we do not want to face the reality of a difficult situation. But, when death comes into our lives we have no control and it is something that we must handle. After the wake and the funeral are over, and the family goes home, the void is sill there. The sense of loss does not want to go away and it seems like we cannot move on from the loss.
On March 7th, I went though this pain for the fourth time this past year with the passing of my paternal grandfather and namesake. I lost two grandfathers, a cousin, and a close family friend who I consider more like an uncle. Each of these individuals have greatly impacted my life and I would not be who I am without them. Recently I have done a lot of reflecting on what these lives have meant to me. Time and time again I go back to the number of lessons that my grandfathers' have taught me. They taught me some of the classics like fishing, a love for music and art, gardening and the importance of a good cup of British Tea or Italian coffee.
But it was not these lessons that are the most import that matter. These two men also taught me the importance of family, tradition, love, and faith. My maternal grandfather was a great lover of music; he was singer and a violinist. He introduced me to the Masses written by Mozart, Beethoven, and Verdi. Through his love, he showed me how music can represent a love for God and his creation. Music has come to affect my life and how I pray to God. He broadened my horizons and taught me about musical tradition that dated back centuries, and his love for this went far beyond the music itself. It helped one transport oneself to become close with God. My paternal grandfather taught me two different aspects of faith: a devotion to Mary and the importance of service. He suffered from Alzheimer's disease, which caused great pain and eventually an almost complete loss of memory. There were only four things he could remember before he passed away; his brother, his wife (my grandmother), his personal motto, which was “great and grateful no matter what”, and how to pray the Hail Mary. His devotion to the Blessed Mother was a quiet one. His service to others was like his devotion, a quiet one. He was just as happy serving on a board of trustees or picking up trash at the church picnic as long as it helped others.
On the night before my paternal grandfather's funeral, one of our parish priests began the prayer vigil. He offered a short reflection on what this meant and there was a part of it that has stuck with me. This young priest said that our relationship with the dead was not over, but rather was changed. The relationship was now through the eternity of Jesus Christ. Our faith teaches us that Christ connects us regardless of time and that life continues after death. The New Evangelization is a reminder of this hope and comfort. Pope Emeritus Benedict got this right in Porta Fidei, it is the joy of love that conquers death and gives us hope. This hope is found in our faith, and fills the void from the loss. While the sting of death will always be present, it is Christ, who walks with us at every step, who takes away the sting and returns our capacity to love one another.
Pat Fricchione is the Research and Production Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center
While we cannot have the Church without having community, I have realized that a lot of my spirituality also depends on my own initiative and personal relationship with God. I am learning to see God everywhere in the world, but particularly in frequent mass, exercise, music, the Rosary, art and silence. As persons of faith in our society, it is important to have strong foundations that enable us spread the love of our work to those most in need.
Here are a few elements I find crucial:
1. Prayer - Prayer is the foundation of faith and spirituality. The beauty of prayer? There’s no right or wrong way to pray. While some of us turn to more traditional forms of prayer such as praying the Rosary or praying with Scripture, exercise, meditation, writing or service work can also be forms of prayer. Every morning, I like to say a prayer offering up everything I will do, think and feel up to God. This even includes my weaknesses and anxieties. The key is to set aside regular time for prayer in whatever way you most connect with. What kind of time do you have? Do you have 20 minutes? 10? Five? One? Whatever time you can, set that aside for regular prayer. See what happens.
Spiritual Tip: Have a smart phone? Check out the “pray as you go” section of the free Laudate app. It’s an Ignatian podcast of daily scripture, song and reflection that is only ten to fifteen minutes long and is great to listen to on your commute to work!
2. Silence - This one is often overlooked….or seemingly impossible. But silence enables us to truly think and to let those thoughts mature. Just like prayer, think about how much time you can set aside for some moments of silence, even if that just means closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths during your work day.
Spiritual Tip: “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
3. Spiritual direction - I like to think of a spiritual director as a type of faith-based therapist. I’ve learned that I can think and pray and meditate all I want, but it’s helpful to have an outside perspective that enables me to see outside of myself. This can be a priest, religious, trained spiritual director or leader in your community. It’s helpful to have a spiritual director you trust that isn’t necessarily a friend or family member. That way, this person can bring in a fresh, outside perspective to guide and direct you along your spiritual journey.
Spiritual Tip: Browse spiritual directors they way you would browse for shoes for an important occasion. Spiritual directors, like shoes, are not “one size fits all,” so be sure to have some preliminary discussions with several people before settling on one.
4. Retreats - It’s typically recommended that we do a retreat per year. Retreats are exactly what the name implies: a retreat from the world, from our lives or from our typical schedules. They are important in allowing us to focus our thoughts and energy on the divine in a way that our regular schedule hardly permits. The beauty of retreats is that they can vary greatly. There are silent retreats, community retreats, family retreats, staff retreats, yoga retreats, weekend retreats, day retreats—you name it. Think about what one may be right for you at a certain time.
Spiritual Tip: This once a year thing sounding impossible with your schedule? Try a daily three minute retreat from Loyola Press by clicking here.
5. Eat, sleep and exercise - Seriously. God gave us minds and bodies as well as spirits. So make sure to take care of all of you! We can’t be of much help to others if we ourselves are not being taken care of. Shut off your laptop or TV at least 30 minutes before getting to bed; studies show that the light from these screens can keep you up or leave you restless. Read a book instead. Take a ten or fifteen minute walk during lunch. Add some more green to your life. Recycle. Do whatever you need to feel rested and taken care of. Think of the phrase, “Behold God beholding you…and smiling.” Rest with that.
We are the Church. And we are called to support, love and stand with others. Our work as people of faith enables us to do this in unique and beautiful ways, but we need to make sure we are healthy and strong in our own spiritual lives in order to truly be living, breathing instruments of God.
How will you commit to living intentionally today?
Kate Flannery is a former Catholic Volunteer Network Communications intern.
This post was originally written and posted on the Catholic Volunteer Network Blog. For more Catholic Volunteer Blog Posts please visit the CVN Blog. The Catholic Apostolate Center is proud to partner with the Catholic Volunteer Network by developing faith formation resources for volunteers and alumni, assisting in its efforts to provide and advocate for faith-based volunteerism and collaborate in many additional ways.