Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionately committed to proclaiming and unfolding the hidden treasures found in what I would consider the greatest gift of the Second Vatican Council to the Church: the recognition and valorization of the lay call to the fullness of holiness in its secular dimension. In other words, the lay calling is to realize the pinnacles of sanctity while living fully immersed in the heights and hovels of secular society. This Conciliar articulation of the laity’s unique path to perfection holds within it an immense and largely unrealized potential for opening all manners and fresh expressions of “worldly” holiness. The Council’s vision was that there is that the laity, by virtue of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist and (for those called) Marriage, are given by God a specific vocation and mission whose genius demands a distinctive spirituality different from those in the Church called to dedicate their lives principally to the “goods of religion.” As Lumen Gentium #31 worded it:
Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.”
And that demands a proper and peculiar asceticism and mysticism.
I won’t completely rehash right now what I have already said on this topic, but I will today renew my contention that the only real antidote to an increasingly rabid atheistic secularism is an increasingly radical theistic secularism; that the only real cure for the growing worship of the world as a god by idolaters is the consecration of the world to God by Christ’s faithful; that the only real remedy for modernity’s divorce of faith and life is to be found only in lives lived “on earth as in heaven”; that the only healing for a culture built on the divinizing self-exaltation of man is a culture built on the humanizing Incarnation of a self-emptying God; and so on.
From such a robust vision of a world-consecrating laity flows a spirituality that refuses to merely condemn, hide from or flee the world but, like Christ crucified outside the sacred walls of Jerusalem, intentionally places itself in the midst of the world’s secular affairs all-the-while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Again, Lumen Gentium #38 says that the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body,” which means that the laity must have a spirituality that is able to inspire lives dedicated principally to bringing the divine will to bear on the goods of this world. And, as Dcn. Dr. Jim Keating contends, that means a spirituality that flows from Catholic social doctrine.
The laity’s world-leavening spirituality, so rich and varied according to each of the faithful’s place in the world, finds its home, in a unique and particular way, in the midst of human culture. In other words, the ordinary (meaning normative) path to holiness for the laity, which constitutes the specific mode of their intimate union with Christ, is to be found in the cultivation of a culture that extends the Incarnation into every nook and cranny of social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business, etc., as well as into marriage and family life for those so called by God.
When God became human in Christ, He did not just assume to Himself a human body and soul, but the whole cultural matrix that constituted the fullness of His human life as a Jew living under Roman occupation. And at Pentecost, Christ offered to draw the whole culture of mankind into His Body to be transfigured and redeemed unto eternal life. I would argue further that the Eucharist itself proclaims this truth in a singularly striking way as the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy transforms nothing other than two artifacts of human culture, bread and wine, into the Body and Blood of the God-Man. Understood in this way, engaging human culture can never be seen as a “mystically” neutral act, but doing culture itself becomes an essential and, you might say, sacramental medium of entering into transforming communion with the Risen Christ. In other words, the laity are the purveyors and embodiers of a “cultural mysticism,” which permits no aspect of “worldly/secular” life to escape the ambit of God’s sanctifying Spirit.
Among the nearly infinite variety of world-leavening acts of culture-making the laity are called to engage in, the Church has always placed a special emphasis on art — musical, visual, literary, theatrical, etc. In fact, St. John Paul II, himself an artist, wrote a beautiful letter to artists in 1999. In that letter he said,
My hope for all of you who are artists is that you will have an especially intense experience of creative inspiration. May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.
People of today and tomorrow need [your] enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!”.(26)
Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.
May you be guided and inspired by the mystery of the Risen Christ, whom the Church in these days contemplates with joy.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary be with you always: she is the “tota pulchra” portrayed by countless artists, whom Dante contemplates among the splendors of Paradise as “beauty that was joy in the eyes of all the other saints”.
“From chaos there rises the world of the spirit”. These words of Adam Mickiewicz, written at a time of great hardship for his Polish homeland, prompt my hope for you: may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.
What an extraordinarily precise phrasing of what is, for me, the soul of the lay saint: one called and sent by the Spirit into the world to “transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.” The laity are called to be iconographers of culture, co-creating with Christ the Artisan a civilization made susceptible to what the Preface to the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe calls
a Kingdom of truth and life,
a Kingdom of holiness and grace,
a Kingdom of justice, love, and peace.
Let me leave you with a cool video that has various young artists reading a section of the Pope’s Letter to Artists. May his intercession raise up a new generation of cultural mystics who are not afraid to be secular and will reveal in the midst of the world the Kingdom of God. Those who are set on fire by the Gospel should not turn within and burn only in church, but should rather Ite, missa est, “Go, be sent” into the world to set it on fire. Do not be afraid!