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."
As I write this, there are currently 2,382 people in my home state of New York who have contracted the Coronavirus, with 21 others having lost their lives in the pandemic. With both of those numbers climbing each day, the feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and despair are palpable— not just in New York, but around the world.
Here in New York, I am currently a seminarian on pastoral year (a year-long internship at a parish in my diocese). In an exercise of charity and concern, our diocese like many others has cancelled all Masses, public liturgies, devotions, and meetings through Easter in order to keep our most vulnerable parishioners safe. This has of course posed a certain ministerial crisis since many of the avenues (Mass, confession, one-on-one meetings) that we have been taught to send people down when feeling anxious, despondent, and isolated from God are now closed indefinitely. So, what do we do? This situation is calling us to be creative in how we minister to people. Online resources, social media, live-streaming liturgies, and even just phone calls and video chats can and will keep people feeling connected. I think many of us already know this and have been putting effort into these new ministries and forms of evangelization even before the pandemic. It is true though that without sacraments and personal connection, even this media approach could never be enough.
While creative ministry right now is important, I would like to focus rather on the flip side of that same question—what do we do? Here, I would like to address my brother seminarians and anyone, priest and lay alike, that is struggling due to a lack of fulfilling ministry. I don’t think this is a selfish pursuit, but an essential one if we are to check our own feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and despair.
Last summer I had the great experience of attending the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). In these last few days, one of their spiritual approaches came back to me vividly; they called it Relationship-Identity-Mission—and here the order of the words does matter. IPF posited that many people in ministry may operate backwards. Mission is primary; from there flows Identity (I am a seminarian. I am a youth minister); then, the personal Relationship with Christ gets whatever energy is left. If these last few days without “real ministry” have been a struggle for you, as they have been for me, I think we need to ask ourselves not “what do I do?”—because frankly we cannot do much of anything our Mission truly requires—but rather ask “who am I? I work for Jesus, yes, but is my own, personal relationship with Him primary?”
In discussing Relationship-Identity-Mission, the question was often asked “where do you live?” If you live in your Mission and your Identity is synonymous with what you do, you are going to have a difficult month (or maybe even longer). But if you live in the Relationship and make that your starting point, even during a time when the Mission is unclear or nonexistent, then you are going to rediscover your Identity as a beloved son or daughter of a faithful God. Amidst fear and uncertainty, God is giving us this time to go deeper into a relationship with Him, so that we can live out our missions more fruitfully when this is all over.
So, if you find you are struggling now because you are living Mission-Identity- Relationship, take his time as a Lenten Retreat and don’t feel bad about it! The world needs your prayers now more than ever, and your creative approach to ministry now will then be the fruit of your time alone with Jesus. If you are living Relationship-Identity-Mission, go deeper and speak honestly with Jesus about frustrations with your minimized Mission.
In closing, I would like to offer this consoling quote from Henri Nouwen for your reflection:
“We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving creator.”
Jesus is calling us to remain in His Love (John 15:9), a request that I imagine was made for times like these. So choose to live in the relationship, take ownership of your identity as the beloved, and watch your ministry take root.
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