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."
To all the parents home with their children, who are looking for creative, easy, or fun ways to spend the day, here are some great options to try for spiritual, mental, and physical health!
Set a routine. It is important to establish consistency and keep kids on a structure like they are during a school day. For older children, have them collaborate with you as you create a schedule to allow for some influence on their day. It allows for predictability in the day, and children knowing what is expected of them is crucial to the well-being and peace of all in the family. Below is a schedule example. This can be used as a starting place for your family. Feel free to move things around or dedicate your time differently. What’s important is maintaining a routine that works for your family!
Focus on gratitude. With many feeling anxious and having to deal with a lot that is so unknown, having a grateful heart can mean a world of difference for your well-being and that of your family. Have your child write thank-you-notes to mail carriers, restaurant workers, grocery store employees, and members of the family. Or, start the day by finding 3 things to be grateful for, then end the day like that too. Talk about this with your child and share your gratitude with them.
Prayer. There is nothing more powerful than prayer, and prayer as a family is crucial during this time at home together. Make time. Take time. Add it to a daily routine. In addition to saying prayers you may know by rote, consider reading the Daily Readings from USCCB to read the Word together in prayer.
Play! For young children, older teens, and everyone in between, play is crucial. For older children that may mean down-time or free time to decompress, but for young children in elementary school this is so important for development. Playing together, but also playing independently helps support their creativity. As a parent, also take some time to think of ways you can “play”—not only with your children, but with your spouse or on your own. Make sure to come up with fun activities that are life-giving for you and your spouse: board games, a puzzle, baking, etc.
Pretend and make believe. “Boredom breeds creativity” I was once told, and I couldn’t agree more! When children are given a chance to imagine and pretend away from distractions and technology they will think up all kinds of incredible things. As a parent, you may need to guide or inspire some pretend or make-believe with prompts or guidelines until your kids seem ready to take-off on their own. Even giving your child a difficult or challenging task and saying, “figure it out” may help for older kids who need to problem-solve. But here are some ways to get started:
Exercise. For children of all ages and adults too, exercise is so important. Although we must consider social distancing, getting outside and even just taking a walk is more crucial than ever as we are in our homes all day long. If you don’t have a yard to play in, try walking to the closest field or park to catch a ball or ride a bike around the neighborhood. If you cannot get outside, there is plenty to do inside. YouTube has workouts for children and adults, and there are workouts on Netflix and other streaming services to get you started.
Write letters. This is a nice thing to do at all ages and levels of writing abilities, young ones can draw pictures and write what they can, while older kids could tell someone all about their latest adventure at home. Write to grandparents, relatives, elderly folks in nursing homes, neighbors, and friends from school who are also at home. It’s amazing how good someone may feel receiving a note or letter, knowing your child was thinking of them.
Call someone, FaceTime, or video chat with someone. We are blessed in this digital age to have technology that can still keep us “together.” Calling friends, family, and loved ones, either on the phone or using a video chat application, maintains and strengthens our relationships with people we may not be able to see or visit right now.
Read a book. Have your child help you create a booklist of 50 or 100 books and see how many they can read, then have a fun prize like baking cookies together or extra down-time be the reward.
Activity pages made by teachers. For kids who are out of school altogether, look for materials online to keep kids up to speed on math skills, reading activities, and everything in between. With schools shut down, there is plenty out there to find!
Make your own studying tools. Don’t forget that anyone (including the student) can make flash cards for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division - as long as you have paper and something to write with! Some drills you could practice:
Fine motor development. Play with Play Doh (or make your own). Squeeze items with tweezers. Count and play with beads or buttons. Bake and roll out dough, ball up cookies, or knead pizza dough.
We are living in unprecedented times which can add to the stress level of family life. We invite you during this pandemic to see this as a blessed time to rekindle relationships within your families and communities through prayer, play, and creativity and hope these resources will prove fruitful for you as we continue to navigate this time.
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The call to holiness and the mission presented to the Church from Jesus Christ is certainly a challenging one. The fact that God created us with the ability to freely choose not only between right and wrong but between varied truths allows the members of Christ’s body, the Church, to live out the freedom given by God by our birth and baptism. The Catechism defines freedom as “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility ... Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (1731). The ‘mission,’ so to speak, of Catholics in this day and age is to live the Gospel message and to promote a New Evangelization.
This does not mean that everyone is called to any particular vocation. However, everyone is called to a vocation. It is up to the individual, because of their freedom, to choose and discern where they are being called by God and for what purpose. Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, eloquently puts it:
Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.
Concrete personal reflection has never come easy for me, and there is a reason that people tend to hide their emotions. Reflecting on the meaning of vocation and what God is calling me to do conjures up memories of high school retreats of discovering where God is found in daily life. While structured experiences of faith exploration and formation are important in shaping the broad spectrum of faith, I have learned that is not all of what my faith encompasses.
At the very first meeting with my spiritual director, he asked, “Who is Alex?” I began to spew answers such as student, friend, brother, and the like. What I wanted to avoid was the internal reflection on the self because I didn’t want to have to address the underlying feelings regarding vocation and personal identity. If we are indeed called to shape our own identity, then we very often have a choice. This could be a choice between choosing the truth over a falsehood or even between particular vocations. In discernment, it is my task to look forward, to look to the future. If I dwell on the things of the past, I will never adequately be able to say that I have done what God is calling me to do, whatever it may be. It is the Christian’s responsibility, my responsibility, to discern this vocation, whatever it may be, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If we must seek the Creator “spontaneously,” as the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it, on their own accord and out of impulse, then it becomes clear that the mission of the baptized Christian is to seek God always and in all things. The Italian priest Saint Vincent Pallotti, patron of the Catholic Apostolate Center, wrote, “Seek God and you will find God. Seek God in all things, and you will find God in all things. Seek God always and you will always find God.” I have often found consolation in this prayer of Saint Vincent. It serves as a reminder to attune my heart and mind to God, in all things and at all times. Out of this freedom of choice and seeking comes a responsibility to act out of instinct and to lead others closer to Jesus Christ by first seeking the very God who created us.
Alex R. Boucher is the Program & Operations Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center. Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexBoucher.