Bernardo Aparicio García
President, Dappled Things
Its gleaming gothic pinnacles and pointed spires bring to mind nothing so much as rocket ships—rows of rocket ships reaching for the sky. But with its foundations deep in the underworld of the Guaitara River gorge, the main body of the church seems suspended somewhere between Heaven and Hades. It is the Basilica of Our Lady of Las Lajas in Nariño, Colombia, close to the Ecuadorian border, built on the side of a wild cliff in the middle of the Andes, in the middle of nowhere. On the opposite cliff, a white cascade plunges hundreds of meters into the earth, while the river roars deep
below a bridge that meets the church doors in midair from across the canyon. It is a strange and marvelous sight; not for nothing do Colombians consider this one of the country’s wonders.
Photo courtesy of Martin St-Amant - Wikipedia - CC-BY-SA-3.0
Unfortunately, all I have to say about Las Lajas is secondhand. I could have gone there during my early teens when my family went to Ecuador over a long weekend, but those were the days of the great ascendancy of the FARC, the dreaded guerrilla group, and I had heard reports of boys my age getting kidnapped on the road and pressed into combat. I absolutely refused to go. My parents and sister went anyway and returned in perfect safety three days later, gushing about the place. We might have gone back later, but the security situation only worsened during the following years, so I did not get to visit before moving to the United States. And while I could say I’ve come to know the place from all I’ve seen and heard and read about it, that would be missing the whole point of Las Lajas.
As others have explained, one has to be there to understand. Because, anywhere else, the same church would be merely pretty, not the stumbling block it becomes when placed in the middle of the Guaitara River gorge. The location seems perfectly irrational, and yet the scope and intricacy of this monument erected by a largely poor local population makes the choice of place seem so utterly deliberate that visitors are forced to wonder, as it were: Why is this place different from all other places?
As sure as its spires point to the sky, the fact of the basilica itself proclaims the conviction of its builders, and of the countless pilgrims that have visited the site, that at this particular place God acted in history. Unlike the “once upon a time” of myths and fairytales, the story of Our Lady of Las Lajas gives us a date, a place, and a name: 1754, at a cave over the Guaitara River near the village of Ipiales, where Maria Mueces de Quiñones, a Colombian Indian woman, heard her deaf-mute daughter speaking for the first time. The girl was saying that a mestiza woman was calling her from the cave. In the cave was found a magnificent image of the Blessed Virgin and the infant Christ, with St. Dominic and St. Francis at their sides. It is there still today, only not housed by the mere rocks (lajas) of the mountain, but by the magnificent gothic basilica. The fact that the basilica had to be built where it is, and in no other place, has everything to do with what makes Las Lajas a stumbling block to the world: Las Lajas reveals a human choice that is utter folly unless something happened that throws our usual human calculus into confusion.
And yet, at the same time, Las Lajas is not a unique place. The faith is replete with such specific locations, choices, and signs that are a scandal to the world, beginning with the scandal of Christmas, of the idea that the Creator of the universe, the unmoved mover, the ground of all being, could have been born of a particular girl at a particular place and time (none of whom or which were particularly noteworthy, on their faces). How easy it would be to read the stories of the apostles and martyrs as one reads of Romulus and Remus if one could not find the bones of Peter and Paul—rather than the other pair—buried in the soil of Rome. Or how easy it is to see nothing but pious platitudes in a Catholic priest’s homily about surrender to God, until one realizes that in following his vocation, the priest has chosen a life that only makes sense if—and is a complete waste unless—God does, in fact, exist.
Las Lajas, Bethlehem, the priest—in the context of the Catholic faith they are all signs that point us upward as surely as gothic spires. This is an indispensible aspect of Catholic spirituality. For all the great philosophy that is part of the Church’s tradition, in the end the Catholic does not find God in abstractions, but joins Hopkins in declaring that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” To find God in the concreteness of the world—this is what Dappled Things aspires to.
Throughout the past five years, we have striven to present artistic and literary work that explores the world—a world Hopkins described as alternately “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”—with seriousness and honesty, convinced that this can only lead to a deeper communion with the Divine Artist and Author of Creation. For this, our fifth anniversary edition, Dappled Things asked five notable writers—Joseph Bottum, David Clayton, Joseph Pearce, Fr. James Schall, and Duncan Stroik—to help us explore this aspect of the faith by telling us about places that, like the Basilica of Our Lady of Las Lajas, point beyond themselves. Call the answers that follow, then, a geography of faith.
The London Oratory
When I was in my late 20s, after a period of despair brought on by atheism, a friend whom I respected suggested that I pray for help. Because I didn’t believe in God, he suggested that I pray to a God that I hoped might exist. Behave as though He exists, I was told, and you’ll find out He does.
I found that prayer worked. There were no blinding flashes of light for me. The things that happened to me on that day weren’t much different from the events of the previous day. But, crucially, I felt different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew that it had been easier. This small event opened the door to what became a quest for happiness through faith in God.
After about three years I had reached the point (after a brief flirtation with Islam) of considering myself to be a Christian. Now I had to pick a denomination. I started to go to church services and speak to ministers and priests. When visiting this same friend one day, his name was David, I mentioned to him that I was looking for a church. Without hesitation he recommended that I go to a church in South Kensington. He didn’t tell me why, but he stressed, “go at eleven o’clock.” We then talked about other things. Just as I was leaving, he said to me again, “remember; go to that church at eleven o’clock.”
He had directed me to Solemn Mass at the London Oratory and I went there the next day. I didn’t know it was a Catholic church. I didn’t know that David was a Catholic—he had never even told me that he was Christian.
The place was hard to find and, although I had set off early, I arrived three minutes late. As I walked through the door, I entered another world. I smelt incense and the noise of the traffic died to be replaced by music of heavenly voices (it was Palestrina). I had never heard anything so beautiful before. The thought that flashed across my mind was, “this is what angels sound like.” I looked around for the choir but couldn’t see them (they were in a raised gallery). Shafts of sunlight lit the clouds of smoke floating up. They swept my eyes upwards and there on the ceiling were mosaic angels, portrayed singing glory to God. There was, it seemed, a conspiracy between composer, architect, and artist. Although all long dead, they had created an irresistible call to the contemplation of heavenly things.
I looked around at the congregation and the focus of their attention guided mine to the far end of the building. Three priests in ornately embroidered green robes were at the head of the column, as though at the bow of a ship, leading us onward and upward to God. I couldn’t understand anything being said (it was all in Latin) but I knew that when one priest held aloft a white disc, that all believed that this was God.
The language of faith is body language. The actions of the congregation were particularly eloquent. They knelt, stood, bowed and sang in unison.
This event was more spectacular and profound than all the flashing lights I had hoped for when I had first prayed. The architecture, art, and music were all in harmony with the worship of God, and the power of it was irresistible. It was the source of grace that revealed to me the summit of human existence: to be with God in perfect exchange of love, that is, the perpetual heavenly liturgy. Most immediately it stirred in me the greater longing for God that led, two years later, to my reception into the Church.
But it went further than that (as if that were not enough!). It allowed me later to understand why so much attention had always been paid by the Church to a culture of beauty rooted in the liturgy. This was not pointless extravagance. It was there to fulfill the highest purpose, that of raising souls to God. All of man’s work, whether outside or inside the church building should reflect that heavenly beauty that directs our souls to the worship of God in the liturgy.
I quickly realized too that what I had seen was not typical. But, I thought, it ought to be. While not every church could have the resources of the London Oratory, any could have dignified and reverential liturgy and, however simple, art, music, and architecture that is integrated with it. This spelt out to me the need for liturgical renewal and for the evangelization of the culture. I want as many as possible to have that experience of the liturgy that the London Oratory gave me.
This vision has directed my work as an artist ever since. It has culminated also, nearly twenty years later, in my current role as Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a Catholic college in New Hampshire. Part of my job is teaching a course called “The Way of Beauty.” This teaches our students about their cultural heritage and how it is rooted in the liturgy. As a layman I cannot do much about the renewal of the Mass (except thank God every day for Pope Benedict XVI and the changes that are now occurring). However, I can do something about one neglected aspect of the liturgy, the Divine Office. In my course the students learn to chant the Divine Office. I am convinced that the incorporation of the harmonious patterns and rhythms of the liturgy into a spiritual life that includes both Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours is a vital step towards a cultural renewal, which will lay down the way of beauty to God. Pope Benedict recently called this way of beauty, or via pulchritudinis, the “most compelling” path to the love of God.
The Priest’s Hole
As a hobbit in exile my heart’s hearth remains in the Shire; and, to be specific, to the English shire of Norfolk in East Anglia.
For many people, the restfully rolling landscape of East Anglia will bring to the mind’s eye the works of John Constable, whose depiction of haywain and mill have become timelessly evocative rustic icons. Constable’s landscapes are to the mind’s eye what Beethoven’s sixth symphony is to the mind’s ear—a sensual celebration of the pastoral idyll which places pasture and peasant in perfect and permanent union. Implicit in the composition of both the landscape painting and the symphonic score is the vision of humanity harmonizing with Creation in a hymn of living praise to the Creator.
Whenever I have the opportunity to revisit the thatched coyness of rarely visited villages, viewing churches and pubs that border lovingly groomed village greens, I wonder why these eastern parts of England are so often overlooked. The picturesque coastal towns and villages of Norfolk and Suffolk are heaven-havens of Hopkinsesque serenity in which the landscape’s inscape is almost palpable. Aldeburgh, once the home of Benjamin Britten, and Southwold, still the home of the justly celebrated Adnams ale, are paradoxically dwarfed by the diminutive charm of Walberswick, nestling shyly at a bashful distance from the bustling world, and by the desolate charm of Dunwich, most of which has long since sunk beneath the waves.
There is, however, one special sacred space to which this particular hobbit makes a pilgrimage whenever he returns to the Shire. Oxborough Hall, a place which embodies the unbroken spirit of Catholic England, fills my heady heart with reverence and revelry, commingling heartfelt humility with heartskipping joy so that the desire to kneel in silence battles with the urge to jump and sing. This mystical and powerful sense of peace and elation is connected to the fact that Oxborough Hall feels like home, and Home, in its truest and fullest sense, is the most sacred place of all.
Needless to say, Oxborough Hall is not “home” in any literal or mundane sense. It is the ancestral home of the Bedingfield family, noble lords who have counted royalty amongst their associates. As far as I am aware, I have not the least drop of blue blood flowing through my veins, though, as the son of a carpenter, I can perhaps claim a mystical equality with the noblest of my countrymen. Oxborough Hall is home because it has always been a bastion of Catholicism in England, and it is as an Englishman and as a Catholic that I claim kinship with the Bedingfield family. Throughout the centuries, in spite of all the persecutions of the penal years, the Bedingfields kept the Faith, spurning the lure of heresy and the allure of worldly preferment which had enticed most of their fellow countrymen to rebel against Christ’s Mystical Body. In an age of trial, tribulation and treachery they emerged as heroes of the Recusant Resistance.
Today, amidst the many treasures to be found at Oxburgh Hall, the most dramatic is the Priests’ Hole, secreted beneath the stone floor of one of the upper rooms. Climbing into this hideaway one can feel, with the thrill of chilling reality, the perils of being part of the Catholic underground in Elizabethan England. Here the priest could hide from the prying eyes of the Queen’s cohorts, knowing that, if he were discovered, he would face torture and death.
Asking for the prayers of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and feeling the presence of the forty canonized martyrs and the eighty-five beatified Martyrs of England and Wales, any pilgrim who clambers down into this holiest of hobbit holes will know that it is a magical cave into which saints have crawled on their journey to the ultimate Home that every healthy heart desires.
Sancta Luna: The Moon as a Holy Place
James V. Schall, SJ
Psalm 81 reads “Raise a song and sound the timbrel, / the sweet-sounding harp and the lute, / blow the trumpet at the new moon, / when the moon is full, on our feast.” In Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, these words are found: “The shining table-lands / To which Our God Himself is moon and sun.” And the refrain in Daniel 3 is: “Sun and moon, bless the Lord. / Stars of the heaven, bless the Lord.”
In early October, as the sun was setting, the first quarter of the moon began to glow. I watched it for a while. I could make out the shadow of its oval. It soon makes its way to the full moon. It “waxes” and then it “wanes.” At different months and years, I often recall watching the full moon just rising down the near-by street. No one can doubt its beauty. It is impossible not gaze at it for a while, even for a long while.
No wonder the moon is associated with romance—“Shine on, Shine on Harvest Moon up in the sky. I ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June or July. Snow time ain’t no time to sit around and spoon, so shine on, shine on Harvest Moon, for me and my gal”—as the sentimental old song used to go.
But when we do gaze on the moon, we soon realize that it always does this rising again to become full, even in ages and eons in which neither we ourselves nor the human race yet existed. Was it there waiting for us to come along? Could we be here without its being there, shining, waxing and waning?
What would our planet be without the moon? Other planets have more than one moon. Saturn has seven large ones and many smaller ones. We measure months by the moon’s orbit of our earth. Its gravity is enough to cause the rise and fall of tides in our oceans. The moon, as I watched, faced the sun, throwing back to us its reflected light. The moon has always taken second place to the sun. The same face of the moon constantly confronts us because of the rate of its own axis rotation in comparison to ours. That same face is what we see. It seems strange, this seeming stationariness of the moon. I once read of scientists who wondered if it would be possible to detonate something so that the moon would circle more rapidly on its axis. That way we could see its other side. The “dark side” of the moon does see the sun. We just do not see that it does. But we see what most still call its face, the Man in the Moon.
On almost every feast in the breviary, we read the canticle from Daniel in which the moon “blesses” the Lord. I often wonder: “Is the moon a priest then? Does it too bless the Lord?” But, of course, the meaning is passive. The moon “blesses” the Lord by being what it is, what He made it to be in the, to us, complicated construction of our cosmos. Things praise the Lord by being what they are, not something else.
The Incarnation did not take place on the moon. Nothing “carnate” is there, except the recent footsteps of our astronauts. Sancta Luna—if the moon is “holy,” it is because, as Daniel’s Canticle sings, all things praise the Lord. Yet, the Incarnation did take place in a place, in Nazareth.
The Resurrection of Christ takes place, by tradition, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Easter is mobile because the moon and the earth round the sun at a different pace. It maddens the liturgists and scientists, but it happens. Some dispute exists among the rites about just what day the Resurrection happened, but none doubt the fact.
In Luke 21, we read: “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars . . . Then they will see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near.”
The Psalm instructs us to “blow the trumpet when the new moon is full, on the feast.” It does make us think again of the Resurrection and how it is to be celebrated.
The passage from Tennyson is striking. The Duke, hopefully, is now in those “shining table-lands where Our God is moon and sun.” On Sunday, in the Night Prayer after Evening Prayer, we find a passage from Revelation 22. It is mindful of the Duke of Wellington and the fate Tennyson gives him. It reads: “They shall see the Lord face to face and bear his name on their foreheads. The night shall be no more. They will need no light from lamps or the sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever.”
But is the moon a place for us? We cannot really get there. Yet, in another sense, the moon is perhaps the most familiar place in the world. It is the one thing everyone of our kind who has ever existed has seen and watched. It is more common to us than most of the other places on earth. It is there, regularly, for us to see, from wherever we are. We do not lose it any place on our planet.
Is it a holy place? “There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars . . . When you see these things, look up, raise your heads, your redemption is at hand.” “Blow the trumpets at the new moon, when the moon is full.” “They will need no light from lamp or sun.” “Our God Himself is moon and sun.” “Sun and moon bless the Lord.”
It is the star of the Venice basin. From piazza San Marco it appears as a temple floating across the water. From the church itself the view of the Doge’s palace, the mint, the dogana and the Salute are unsurpassed. The double temple front, gleaming in the sun, of San Giorgio Maggiore has welcomed travelers to La Serenissima for over four centuries. Once the site of an important and large Benedictine monastery, its grey dome and quintessentially Venetian red and white belltower beckon to visitors like
Photo courtesy of Duncan Stroik.
spiritual sirens. Designed in the 1560’s by Andrea Palladio, an architect’s architect, San Giorgio is one of the first Christian churches to adopt the temple portico on the facade, a concept later imitated around the world. Yet the power of original has not been superseded. Four giant columns support a massive pediment with statues of Christ and angels, while pilasters articulate the lower side aisles also surmounted by saints. As the vaporetto approaches the church, one realizes that what appeared as a freestanding stone portico is engaged to the wall. And in good Italian fashion, the sides and rear are merely colored stucco.
Because of its simplicity and rigor the architectural historians tend to favor Palladio’s later church of the Redentore. Yet, San Giorgio, for all of its experimental qualities, is the maestro’s most spatially complex. The façade intimates the complexity of the nave with horizontal entablature bands intersecting convex columns like some three-dimensional tartan plaid. As on the facade, the lower corinthian pilasters on the interior sit at ground level while the larger composite columns rise above our heads on pedestals. These columns and pilasters which “order” the sacred edifice, are the major and minor chords of the total composition. Along with the generous arches which span the openings to the aisles and define the crossing, the classical orders repeat, pair, and break forward in visual polyphony. Eight side chapels with groin vaults lead to the apsidal transepts with their monumental altars and paintings. Covering is a semicircular barrel vault which directs movement toward the altar and a central luminous dome.
Photo courtesy of Bruce M. Coleman.
If any church could cure someone of the belief that polychromy and stained glass are necessary for sacred architecture, San Giorgio is the one. The exterior and interior are a revelation of transcendent proportions and spiritual light which call heart and mind to God. In his treatise, The Four Books of Architecture, Palladio writes that the proper color for churches is white, “since the purity of color, as of life, is particularly satisfying to God.” A byproduct of the pure white and beige stone interior is that it sets off the liturgical and devotional focus: side altars with their colorful paintings and the high altar with its bronze Trinity surmounting a golden orb. In this way, San Giorgio Maggiore should be seen as the culmination of the Venetian Renaissance and an exemplar of the noble simplicity that the domus Dei can aspire to.
The desert, Balzac once declared, holds everything and nothing—for God is there, and man is not. The beauty of the bleak and empty, the holiness of the still and blank: If you cannot call up this mood in yourself, then half of literature will seem insane, and half the human reaction to reality will feel alien and cold. Yes, the mind of winter is an arctic mind. Frozen, perhaps, into immobility. But those whose minds are never cool—how can they see the nothings that stand on the other side of things, the shadows that define the lights? We have a word to describe such people. We call them overheated.
But then, the lush, the full, the rich, the lively—there is another landscape of splendor and the divine. God warms His hands at human fires, at family hearths and public flames. And why not? It is how He made us. The political animal hunts in packs, the social being dwells with others, and the cultured man seeks friendship. Yes, the crowd can stifle and the mob can kill. But if you cannot call up in yourself the warmer mood of love for neighbors, of happiness in throngs, then the other half of human things will seem unreal. We have a word to describe these people, too. We call them lonely.
Shiloh and Jerusalem, the desert and the city, the hermit’s cell and Rome: The history of human experience knows this duality and maps it to the world. To call it symbolism is hardly to do it justice. That word is just another expression of the modern thinning and demythologizing of reality. Those places once were more than symbols. They were trumpet cries that echoed across the universe. They were weights that tugged on the imagination. They were magnetic points that influenced our compass readings. They were centering points in the cartography of the soul.
We walk so mapless today. Our spiritual geography has come adrift, and the compass swings in aimless circles. It’s not every man his own priest; it’s every man his own surveyor of the wilderness of life.
I saw the perfect darkness, once. Driving across the plains, from Brookings to Pierre on a two-lane blacktop, I glanced in the rearview mirror, expected to see the headlights of the car that followed me since dusk, a mile or so behind. But it had turned off, somewhere, and instead I saw nothing. The absolute nothing. A darkness so thick it was like deep water, or hard basalt, or the shadow of God. By the time I awoke, I was half off the road, the gravel and weeds on the shoulder rattling against the wheel-wells of that old Ford pickup I was driving.
I’ve seen the brightness, as well. Not often, just a touch here and there of the beingness of things. A woman in a Polish church, tears after taking communion running down her face, the mascara and pancake powder of her over-made-up face dribbling down to stain her dress. A damaged man, with twisted limbs and the mind of a slow child, placing groceries in a box with a care and concentration as great as any genius could manage. A child, once, laughing and clapping in a stroller as her mother wheeled her bouncingly over a brick sidewalk.
But all that was happenstance, the adventitious and the once-off. The places were beside the point, the locations incidental. When Samuel Johnson and Boswell went to the island of Iona on their Scottish tour, they went expecting—knowing, demanding—that they be led by their presence to contemplate the divine, the monastic, and the holy. Where shall we go for something like that now? Without a spiritual geography, the known world is terra incognita. An over-populated wilderness. A lonely crowd.
Bernardo Aparicio García is president of Dappled Things.
David Clayton grew up in England and in 2009 moved to the U.S. to take up his current role as Artist in Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, NH (www.thomasmorecollege.edu). His blog is www.thewayofbeauty.org. He writes regularly for the New Liturgical Movement website.
Joseph Pearce is Writer in Residence at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and is co-editor of the Saint Austin Review (StAR), www.staustinreview.com. He is the author of many books, including C.S. Lewis & the Catholic Church and Tolkien: Man & Myth, both published by Ignatius Press.
James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor of government at Georgetown University and a priest of the Society of Jesus. He has published many books including Another Sort of Learning, A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning, and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs.
Duncan Stroik is professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dane and editor of the Sacred Architecture journal.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things magazine.