Saturday, December 09, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord

On this second Sunday of Advent we hear the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel. Mark is believed to have been the secretary of Peter and Paul and wrote his Gospel in the year 70 from Rome. A writer. some say, will put his most important idea in the first line of his text. Here the first line is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Mark is telling us what his whole Gospel is about: that there is something new to know, and it is profoundly good. So what is the evangelion, the good news of Jesus Christ, anyway?

The Jews experienced exile for much of their history. And now, although they were in their homeland, they were under the occupation of the Romans. Israel is waiting for a messiah to restore her to her true mission and identity of being "a light to the nations".

"A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light". Mark’s news is that Jesus Christ is the messianic figure they have been waiting for. But the enemy, says Mark, is not Caesar. Rather, there is a strange twist. John the Baptist is “preparing the way of the Lord” by preaching “a baptism of repentance”. That’s a rather odd thing to be preaching, when you are waiting for your liberator. What does repentance have to do with anything when you are the oppressed people?

Yet this is the message of this strange new Messiah: the oppression we might experience on the outside is a small thing compared to the oppression we might feel on the inside. Or put another way: we can only begin to bring about God's kingdom if we first reform ourselves. We are all exiles, in a sense, and we long to find our true homeland. Most of us feel imprisoned one way or another. We might be enslaved by our addictions, by our weaknesses, by our frustrations, by our faults. In short, we feel at times the lack of love in our life. Our true liberation will come only when we throw off the chains that hold us in bondage, and discover our true homeland that is with Jesus Christ. “The kingdom of God is within you!” he said.

John the Baptist knew we would find our freedom when we meet Jesus, but for this to happen, our hearts have to be prepared. How do we “make his paths straight”, which is to say, how do I prepare the road for him to come to me? Many of the streets in Regina, Saskatchewan, have large bumps and sudden depressions because of the cold winters that cause the earth to heave with the frost. They sometimes impede smooth travelling around town, and can even ruin the axles of cars if one hits them too fast. Our Advent task is to make smooth the roadways into our hearts for the Lord.

How do we fulfill that Advent task? It means, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, "we must search deep inside for that turning point in our innermost self, the place where we turn from the 'I' to the 'thou' and to God, from a sterile living for ourselves, to a fruitful and joy-filled living for others." (You Crown the Year with Your Goodness). We must accept the insistence of John the Baptist that we go to the Jordan River. We do this by praying to God with our families, reading the scriptures a little bit each day, and confessing our sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we do these things we are bathing in the river of mercy; thus, the same means of preparation are as available to us as they were to the people in John's time.

Today, December 10, we are exactly in the middle of two Marian feasts. Two days ago we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Two days from now is the feast of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. It’s like we are standing in the middle of Mary’s great spirit breathing "yes" to the coming of the Lord. Mary was the first fully prepared to receive Jesus Christ, so much so, that she received him bodily in her womb, and gave him her flesh and blood. As such, she is the “mother of Advent”, the queen of hearts preparing to receive her Son. Like her, we are all empowered to become pregnant with Christ, that is to say, to carry him in ourselves and bear him to the world.

It is not complicated, but we do need to be reminded of it with frequency. We carry Jesus when we are kind to our brothers and sisters, when we love our spouses, when we bear patiently the small humiliations that happen in our lives, and turn them into opportunities for love, a superhuman act which is true power. When we turn to God each morning and each evening and say: “thank you, Lord, for the gift of life. You have given everything to me. I offer it back to you.” These are the acts that transform us into a free people. And nobody – no Caesar, no tyrant, no bully, no bad boss at work – nobody can take that away from us. For we belong to God and God belongs to us.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kurelek in Niagara Falls

For a period of six years, 1957-1963, Canadian artist William Kurelek gave himself the task of painting the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nobody, to our knowledge, had ever painting a Gospel sentence by sentence, and the finished series consisted of 160 paintings, called The Passion According to Matthew. A book was published in 1975 (now out of print), whose images I contemplated when I was growing up.

Kurelek went to the Holy Land to research the project, and painted steadily, on average completing one painting per week. The paintings would be purchased by the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, a small exhibition space not far from the falls, where they have remained ever since. The gallery is easy to find, but only open for certain restricted hours. I had always wanted to see the paintings, and finally made my pilgrimage last week.

The artist honoured the gallery by making a sketch of its exterior that appears the book:

Most of the major exhibition space in the gallery has now been converted to children's art programming, which evidently keeps the private gallery afloat. The magnificent collection of Kureleks are confined to a few basement rooms, which the attendants will graciously lead you to when you arrive.

Only about 40 of the 160 Passion paintings are on display at any given time. But they stunning. They begin with the Last Supper.

And continue with various scenes of the passion:

In addition to the Passion series, a number of Kurelek's other paintings are in the gallery, and the owners did not shy away from collecting his more powerful and disturbing works. For instance, "All Things Betray Thee Who Betrayest Thee" (1970) depicts the artist sitting up in bed struggling with depression, while a moon-illumined field of cabbages is just outside his window. One can make out a dog at the back the field. Painted just prior to his conversion, the title is a line from the poem "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson, a reference to the God who never ceases to pursue the lost soul.

What might be Kurelek's most disturbing paintings are a diptych called "Love/Hate" (1968), which shows in one panel, medical missionaries in Africa, and in the other, Viet Cong violently torturing villagers suspected of collaboration:

And "Our Mai Lai: the Massacre of Highland Creek" (1971), from Kurelek's "O Toronto" series (a variation on Christ's lament over Jerusalem). The painting shows a creek-bed in a snowy landscape, with the Scarborough Centenary Hospital in the background. Scattered everywhere are garbage bins contained little aborted bodies.

The artist wrote: "I guess it's really the strongest, and probably to some who don't agree with me on the subject of abortion, the most offensive picture. Since, however, I know that unborn babies are living human beings, I believe myself duty-bound to speak for them, because they can't speak out or defend themselves when they are being killed."

Another harrowing picture is "Nuclear Madonna". In the 1960s and 70s, with the spectre of nuclear war, Kurelek felt inclined to warn against this outcome of man's folly. Here one can see jet trails streaking in the sky above a mother and child, while other victims recline beneath a sod shelter.

Kurelek's work, which is featured in collections all over the world, including the National Art Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, ranges widely from the pastoral, the historic, the psychological and religious. At the Niagara Falls Gallery there are also some more gentle human scenes:


The gallery also features something I'd never seen before: Kurelek's homemade signs. While well-known for the homemade frames he made for almost all his paintings, the signs were a revelation:

The gallery has also recreated a replica of the artist's studio, with materials donated from the artist's widow, Jean Kurelek, before her death in 2009:

The Passion According to Matthew is the core of the Niagara Falls Art Gallery collection, and must be seen to be appreciated.  While most of the paintings depict literal events of the narrative, for certain phrases, Kurelek had to be creative. For example, he rendered the ending of the Gospel in this way:

It's well worth visiting this gallery, as long as you make sure it is open before you plan your trip. A pilgrimage to the beautiful chapel of the Carmelite monastery and waterfalls nearby make for a fulsome day.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Brebeuf Drawings of William Kurelek

One of the hidden treasures of the Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ontario, is the set of drawings by William Kurelek depicting St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions, the 17th century Jesuits, whose gentle missionary life among the Huron or Wendat people came to a tragic end when the Huron nation was destroyed by the Iroquois in 1649, and the Jesuits abandoned the Sainte Marie mission.

Kurelek is one of Canada's iconic painters. His works hang in the National Art Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and numerous collections, private and public throughout the country. His great output covered Canadian life both urban and rural, past and present -- and even future through his Dali-esque apocalypses. For a fuller description of the enigmatic but fascinating artist, see "The Resurrection of William Kurelek".

To my knowledge, there are no reproductions of the "Huronia Mission Paintings" drawings in print [except for a 1991 academic monograph]. For many years they were displayed behind glass beneath the church at the Shrine, and it was difficult to take good photographs of them. They are now in archival storage while the Shrine church awaits development [update: the paintings are being sold to pay for much needed renovations of the Shrine church]. But the following give a sense of the drawings' originality. The inmistakable style of Kurelek, as well as his own personal devotion (he converted to Catholicism in 1957), are evident in the composition of persons and events.

(Click on images to enlarge. The captions are Kurelek's own titles )

1. Recollet missionary in North America.

2. Father Brebeuf setting out from Three Rivers on mission to Huronia.

3. Father Brebeuf suffers from water glare.

4. Huron guides maneuvering the rapids.

5. Father Brebeuf and guides turning in during the voyage.

Brebeuf described his own experience of 1634 as follows: "To be sure, I was at times so weary that my body could do no more. But at the same time my soul was filled with great happiness as I realized that I was suffering this for God. No one can know this feeling unless he has experienced it."

(6. Map showing Three Rivers to Huronia Route. Not pictured here. Similar to the one below, it showed the route, which went from the St. Lawrence, up the Ottawa River, then across through Lake Nipissing and the French River, and south to the bottom of the Georgian Bay. The trip took about a month.)

7. Map of the Lower Great Lakes mission area.

The land called Huronia is a relatively small but fertile region between the Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Lake Simcoe in present-day Ontario. The Huron/Wendat were unusual among native peoples in that they were primarily an agricultural nation, planting vast crops of corn, beans and squash, and fishing in the abundant waters of the nearby lakes. Other tribes, such as the Algonquin and Petun, would trade with them for food.

8. Father Brebeuf baptizes a dying man.

9. At the height of Huronia mission, thousands came into the church.

In this drawing, Brebeuf is depicted baptizing the neophyte converts in the St. Joseph Chapel at Sainte-Marie.

10. Iroquois ambush Father Jogues' party.

11. Father Jogues and Rene Goupil give themselves up to be with the captive Hurons.

(There are three drawings that are not on display at the Shrine in Midland titled "12. Rene Goupil is martyred", "13. Father Jogues is martyred", and "14. Jean de la Lande is martyred")

15. Map showing Iroquois advance in the Huron mission.

In 1649 a large army of Iroquois warriors was making its way north into Huronia. Though outnumbered, the Huron men decided to attempt to defend the village of St. Louis, and are depicted being blessed by a Jesuit, while another assists at evacuating the women, children and elderly.

16. Fathers Brebeuf and Lalemant prepare the mission fort for the Iroquois attack.

17. They give last rites to dead and dying defenders.

According to historians, the Hurons repelled the first assault, and then a second. But on the third assault the Iroquois broke through the palisade of stakes and took the village.

18. After Huron dispersal, Jesuits push West and North.

The Huron/Wendats had called Brebeuf “Echon”, which meant “He who carries heavy loads”.

19. Stories of Blackrobe courage travels ahead of them.

20. Even the Plains Indains welcome the Jesuits.

 After the destruction of Huronia, certain Jesuits and many Huron survivors in diaspora would spread Christianity across North America.

21. And in the end even the dread Iroquois let them into their towns.

After a slow trial period in which a handful of Jesuits lived and worked among the Iroquois, during which 20-30 were baptized including five chiefs, in 1667 the missionaries began to serve all Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy, and made notable converts such as the young Mohawk woman St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

Kurelek's drawings depict delicate relations between French missionaries and Huron/Wendat First Nations. The mission was extremely difficult, but through careful learning of the language and observation of customs, their efforts afforded them a tact that won them many converts and friends. Kurelek probably read this letter that Brebeuf wrote to France, offering advice to aspiring young missionaries:

You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers. You must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking. Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp; these little services win their hearts. Try to eat the food they offer you, and eat all you can, for you may not eat again for hours. Eat as soon as day breaks, for Indians, when on the road, eat only at the rising and the setting of the sun. Be prompt in embarking and disembarking and do not carry any water or sand into the canoe. Be the least troublesome to the Indians. Do not ask many questions; silence is golden. Bear with their imperfections, and you must try always to be and to appear cheerful. Carry with you a half-gross of awls, two or three dozen little folding knives (jambettes), a hundred or so fish-hooks, and some plain and fancy beads with which to buy fish or other commodities from the nations you meet, in order to feast your Indian companions, and be sure to tell them from the outset that here is something with which to buy fish. Always carry something during the portages. Do not begin to paddle unless you intend always to paddle. The Indians will keep later that opinion of you which they have formed during the trip. Always show any other Indians you meet on the way a cheerful face and show that you readily accept the fatigues of the journey... 
Jesus Christ is our true greatness; it is he alone and his cross that should be sought in running after these people, for, if you strive for anything else, you will find naught but bodily and spiritual affliction. But having found Jesus Christ in his cross, you have found the roses in the thorns, sweetness in bitterness, all in nothing.

-- From “Instructions for the Fathers of our Society who shall be sent to the Hurons”, Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Vol. 12, 118-121.

The Feast Day of the Canadian Martyrs is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on Sept 26 in Canada (and Oct 19 in the General Calendar).

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ten Popular Songs that Point to the Transcendent

One of the most-viewed posts here was called "Ten Secular Songs with Religious Themes". Now, I'm not that person who scours the pop cultural landscape with a magnifying glass looking for oblique references to a latent Christianity. But I do believe that Christ is very much alive, and can be found in the remotest corners of humanity. Sometimes the profoundest truths are not in theology books but in the lyrics of the poets and the insights of artists.

Four years later, I'd say it's time for a sequel. The following songs have in common a certain degree of popular acclaim, although not be familiar to all readers. They are, I submit, beautiful songs that point beyond the mundane, offering glimpses of the transcendent -- that is to say, of God who is beyond this material world, while nonetheless present in this life as well. They remind us that we will one day see God "face to face", and generally reflect the key dispositions of faith, hope and love that anticipate that meeting.

First. Back in 1998 a Canadian artist with an extraordinarily powerful voice named Amanda Marshall wrote a song called "I Believe in You". It was about the value of having faith in someone. What I found intriguing, and still do, is that the first-person narrator remains deliberately ambiguous: is it Amanda singing to her son? To someone else? We see a whole lifetime in sequence, from a birth to a death, with all the major landmarks of a human life in between, so it seems to be almost from a divine perspective. Thus, in the end, for me it is a love song from God to each one of us.

Second. This song came out in January 2016 just after David Bowie died from cancer. A man who seemed to personify the ambiguities and angst of the past forty years, and the constant search for personal reinvention, his death struck a chord with people the world over. "Lazarus", his posthumous final act, is a stunningly melancholic and plaintive hymn that yearns for the transcendence that will soon come. Actually written on his deathbed, the song's lyrics have been much-discussed, but I hear a man on the threshold of encountering his Creator, taking stock of his life in an almost confessional way, and making a plea that despite all of his meanderings, doubts and misgivings, still has a reckless hope.

Third. Continuing the theme of the afterlife, this song from Wiz Khalifa called "See You Again", was featured at the end of the adrenaline film Furious 7. What gives the song lift is the fact that it is an in memoriam to actor Paul Walker, who was accidentally killed on the set of this film. It becomes a paean to the bonds of friendship and of family. Above all, it testifies to the enduring belief that this is not the end of the story. As the title indicates, it too is suffused with the spirit of hope.

Fourth. Back in 1999 Celine Dion wrote this winsome tune called "That's the Way it Is", in which the beloved Quebecoise chanteuse sang about the fundamental importance of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and their inter-relations. Seriously. That's essentially what the song is about:
When you're ready to go and your heart's left in doubt / Don't give up on your faith / Love comes to those who believe it / And that's the way it is.  Amen.

Fifth. The Danish group Lukas Graham is climbing international charts with their pop hip-hop song about growing up and anticipating aging. While striking for its millennial vibe, "7 Years" is equally remarkable for its lack of cynicism and openness to the wisdom of fathers and to the true goods in life, like love, children and the gift of time. It seems wise beyond its years, while not in any way pretentious, and exudes something like joy in the midst of life's mysteries.

Sixth. Taking a break from the mainstream limelight, one might savour this casually recorded video of gospel singer Calesta Day warming up in a church somewhere. Have you heard of her? Neither had I. But turn it up and hear it through, and you will have soul-shivers all day. Called "Hear My Prayer", she just keeps going and going, with a range that scrapes the upper echelons of the vocal ceiling, to some baritone depths that will melt your spiritual mind.

Seventh. Ed Sheeran's song "I See Fire" from one of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, has a remarkable depth of feeling that captures the textures of fraternal communion and the anticipation of shared sacrifice. It is essentially a prayer, in which he sings "calling out, father...", making the petition "I hope that you remember me". The overall theme is the willingness to lay down one's life, should it be necessary, with the comfort of camaraderie to blunt the fear, and the invocation of the mysterious "father" to be with them in their time of adversity.

Eighth. The Fray is a Denver-based rock band whose 2012 song "Be Still" invites comparisons to Psalm 23. "When you go through the valley and shadow comes down from the hill / If morning never comes to be / Be still, be still, be still." A peaceful, minimalist piece about remembering the One from whom we came, and who is the source of all being: "Be still and know I am."

Ninth. Bek O'Brien's hymn to humility and strength in trial and adversity, "Lion's Den" is lovely beyond words. Her jazzy folkloric sound resounds through the entire album of the same name, which contains a song-list that is infused with pathos and heartstring lyricism. I should disclose that Bek is my first cousin, but my fandom transcends bloodlines and is based upon my appreciation for her raw and undiluted musical talent. Here is a live version of "Lion's Den". If readers can find her whole album, they might also take a deep listen to "Pendulum" and "Doubt", among other tracks. They will not be disappointed.

Ten. Love must have the final word. Let's end on a folky vibe, and retrieve Bob Dylan's 1973 acoustic panegyric called "Wedding Song". It is clearly written from one spouse to another, yet might also be heard in a more layered way, like the Song of Songs. There is not a good version on YouTube that can be embedded here, so follow this link and feel the love.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Andy Warhol in Toronto

Today I popped into the Andy Warhol exhibit (no pun intended) on Bloor Street.

There was a very large stack of Campbell's vegetable soup cans (which were very real).

Then I caught Vladimir Lenin scowling at me, both in black and red.

Although separate pieces, the Gotti and Lenin I put side by side for comparison. They represent criminal minds who get popular appeal:

Despite his many complex struggles, Warhol was practicing Catholic, of the Ruthenian rite, who would slip into church in Manhattan. This was the only religious work at the exhibit, labelled as St. Apollonia, a 3rd century martyr.


In the documentary film, I overhear Warhol being asked if he is original or not. He says "no." Confounded, the interviewer asks: "Don't you want to do something original?" He replies: "No. This is easier."

The well-known dollar sign print:

Warhol, famously shy and withdrawn, was a bit intimidated by the charismatic athletes he did for a "major athletes" series. There was also a Gretzky print I should have captured, but here, a pop boxer of some repute:

Her Majesty's eyes pierced me to the core:

I believe I was able to identify all the characters from this "wild west" series of screen prints:

And what is probably the most famous Warhol, the Marilyn Monroe:

More soup cans, this time prints on a wall.

The King of Pop:

These things were for actually sale, not part of a pop-art exhibition. It wasn't always clear. 

When Andy Warhol died, there was a memorial Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

The "Andy Warhol: Revisited" exhibition opened on July 1, and will close on Dec 31. I was glad to have seen a healthy sampling of his works. He will remain an enigmatic but influential figure in the history of modern art.