God who is Beauty – Arts Congress

 Introduction

The beginning of this convention on beauty and art coincides, date and hour (April 23, 1999, 11:00 a.m.) with the official announcement, given by His Eminence Cardinal Poupard, of John Paul II’s letter to artists. It is a wonderful coincidence. It is not difficult to discern in this the hand of God, the Lord of history, who is guiding, too, the small history of our Movement. This letter is dedicated “To those who with impassioned dedication seek new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so as to give it to the world through artistic creation.” Therefore, it is addressed to you too.

And now we come to the theme. Last February some seventy Bishops, friends of the Focolare Movement, visited Loppiano. When they returned to the Mariapolis Center of Castel Gandolfo and continued their program, which also included a customary question and answer session, they asked me: “During our visit to Loppiano, we experienced in an overwhelming way the ‘beauty’ that springs forth with great transparency and purity in the Focolare Movement. How do you account for this crescendo of uplifting artistic expressions?”

The question did not surprise me. Rather it was a confirmation for me that this little town of ours demonstrates, through its artists, that art is at home in our Movement. It is really true.And this explains the title of my talk, a title which focuses my attention on one specific topic.

I do not intend, nor would I be capable, of speaking of art in general, of the various schools of expression down through the centuries, and so forth.

This talk of mine on art will be limited to its relationship with the ecclesial and social reality we live in, which embraces not only the religious aspect but all human aspects of life, including art.

Work of art as incarnation

Without doubt, for us too, absolute Beauty is God, God who is eternal.

And in some way authentic artists share in this quality of God through their works. True works of art outlive the earthly life of artists because they possess something that is eternal. This is an evident sign that they are in relationship with Supreme and eternal Beauty, with God, or with the human soul created immortal by Him.

In this perspective then, a work of art, whether it be with brushes, chisels, notes, verses… cannot help but be viewed as a sort of incarnation, a renewed incarnation, as Simone Weil writes in her book Gravity and Grace: “(In true art) there is almost a kind of incarnation of God in the world, the sign of which is beauty. This beauty is the experiential proof that the incarnation is possible.” But if this is true, art cannot but elevate, cannot but raise one Above, into that Heaven from where it descended.

Plato speaks of this effect in Symposium, if it is true that, in some way, beauty and art have the same destiny. He defines beauty as “a ray which, from the face of God, as from a beautiful sun, is handed down and shared with created nature; having thus rendered nature beautiful and gracious with its colors, it returns to the same fount from where it came.”

Recently, I too had a small personal experience of this sublime, uplifting capacity, which is characteristic of art. I do not think it is out of place to speak of it here as an act of love. This experience also clarified for me the role of beauty, so deeply felt in our times.

Travelling by car one day, I was listening to Gounod’s Ave Maria. Masterly performed, it called to mind a very fine veil, interlaced here and there with delicately embroidered designs.

Listening to that piece of music uplifted my spirit and opened me to union with God and in him to Mary, sublimely exalted by Gounod.

It was the feast day of her divine maternity and I admired her as being “beautiful beyond words”. I thought to myself: if God planned that she be his mother in Jesus, the Incarnate Word, the splendor of the Father, what degree of beauty must Mary have attained? It’s beyond all imagining!

I spoke to her about the day I would be coming to her, perhaps not far in the distant future. And I sensed that her presence made everything else in me and around me, everything that I might still be linked to on this earth, all that is beautiful and good, decisively disappear.

In fact, the thought of her and of her beauty was enough to imprint on my heart, like a seal: “You, Lord, are my only good.”

I realized that she was giving me those virtues I ask her to teach me each day, the virtues needed to make the words – “You, Lord, are my only good” – become a reality. But she gave them not by listing them, not by explaining them, not by giving me an ardent desire to live them, but by showing herself to me.

Yes, it is beauty that will save the world, that beauty of which Mary is a divine model.

And I understood all this because a piece of music I listened to was a work of art.

Beauty and our Movement

When and how did beauty find a home in our Movement?

From the beginning, at once.

The reaction of people to what we were communicating, enlightened by the first glimmerings of the charism which was beginning to disclose a specific plan of God for the Church and humanity, was not: “How true!” “How good!” No! It was “How beautiful!”

“Beautiful” certainly because what was being said related to God who is Beauty. Could we say that it was wisdom? And often the very persons who spoke of our great Ideal appeared as beautiful, truly more beautiful. This was a common impression.

Beauty became an integral part of our Movement also because the one word which our charism was beginning to say to the world was unity. And unity is synonymous with the utmost harmony.

This vocation to harmony characterized, even in practical details, the new culture that was emerging from the charism. So we felt, for example, that we also had to dress with harmony and good taste; that our houses, centers and little towns had to be beautiful, harmonious, and welcoming.

It was as if the Son of Man, the Incarnate Word, was repeating to us: “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow…” (Mt. 6:28).

Beauty and our consideration of beauty also emerged from time to time when we were enraptured by some writing, painting, or sculpture, and could not but express fascination and deep admiration.

To give only one example that underscores the concept we have been expressing, I would like to quote from a page which is familiar to many of you, entitled: “Michelangelo’s Beautiful Madonna,” the Pietà that welcomes whoever enters St. Peter’s Basilica:

“Artists transfuse the human soul, which is a reflection of heaven, into their work, and in this ‘creation’, the fruit of their genius, artists find a second immortality. They find their first immortality in themselves (in their souls), like any other man or woman on this earth, and the second they find in their works, through which they give themselves throughout the ages, to humankind.

“Artists perhaps are the persons who most resemble the saints – because if the saints perform the miracle of giving God to the world, artists give, in a way, the most beautiful creature of the earth to humankind: they give the human soul.”

Then, because I was aware of the great value of art, I concluded:

“And since to you I have spoken, beautiful Madonna, to you I ask a gift: satiate the world’s thirst for beauty. Send great artists, but shape with them great souls, who with their splendor may direct men and women towards the most beautiful of the sons of men – your sweet Jesus.”

You all know, more or less, the more than fifty-year story of our Movement, its aims, its spirituality, the universality of the callings, its consistency, its outreach, its all-embracing dialogues, its concrete works….

Among its concrete achievements are the more or less valuable works of art produced here and there by our artists. While expressing themselves in art in Italy, as well as in other nations of Europe and also in Asia, South America and Australia, without clamor, they have firmly maintained their position, their specific vocation in the Work of Mary.

Hence the ardent words of encouragement they received from time to time: “Thank you… because through your effort, you contribute to telling the world that God is beautiful!

God is Beauty and not only Truth and Goodness. It has always been our passion, one of our passions, from the beginnings of the Movement, to express this with our lives, our words, and with the arts.

Also in this regard, the Movement was born as a peaceful form of protest against the prevalent way of thinking at that time.

Three periods of time

Our Movement has a long, rich history. This history is marked by three stages.

We know, in fact, that God is not only beautiful. He is also good and true. And there is no beauty, authentic beauty, unless there is also truth and goodness.

The interconnection between beauty, truth and goodness has always been emphasized in our Movement, and we were able to deepen our understanding of this in an original way.

In the first stage, which lasted decades, the Holy Spirit urged us to imitate God in his being good, in his being love. In fact, from the very beginning our Ideal could be summed up in the words God-Love. We were called to re-live, in a sense, God who is infinite goodness, each becoming like a tiny sun beside the Sun.

In the second period of time, after this lifestyle of ours had become precise and clear-cut, the Spirit called us to another task: to seek to draw out from our way of life, from our personal and communitarian spirituality, the underlying doctrine: its truth.

In Franciscan terms, “Paris,” the city of studies, was being added to “Assisi,” the city of life.

However, we never feared that the reality of “Paris” would destroy “Assisi”, as the saying goes. On the contrary, the almost ten-year experience of our Abba School, which is dedicated to studies, confirms that the light of truth is an immense support for life, a life based on love.

In the third period of time, which is the one we are living now, we perceive that the Holy Spirit is urging us to express with our lives not only the goodness of God, not only truth, but also beauty. And we named this period after another city: “Hollywood”.

It is a “Hollywood” which does not annul “Assisi” and “Paris”, but rather, it presupposes their existence, and it is not fully itself unless it is the other two as well.

In fact, Jesus in us wants to be Life (Assisi), Truth (Paris) and the Way (Hollywood).

Many signs indicate that we have reached this latest stage and this Conference is one of them. It could not have been held earlier. In fact, our artists are not truly artists unless they have already matured in experiences of goodness and truth.

There is another sign, among many, which is not out of place to mention here. Recently, and it was not for the first time, a group of approximately seventy actors and actresses, directors, producers, writers and technicians of the city of Hollywood, met with some people of our Movement in a villa of Los Angeles, in a festive atmosphere of enthusiasm, in the desire to learn more about our spirit and to bring it to Hollywood. A Jewish film writer who was present concluded the meeting by saying: “Let’s be courageous and live what we heard today: let’s give priority to God in Hollywood, on the set, in our productions.”

Now they are looking forward to meeting with us again.

There, artists who find God; here, people who love and know God and who aspire to be true artists. Ultimately, there is no difference: in one way and in the other, our third stage moves forward.

Who is an artist

But who is a true artist?

Salvatore Fiume, contemporary artist, exaggerates when, confounding artistic inspiration with the Spirit of God, he affirms that an artist is like one who writes under dictation: God dictates and the artist paints, sculptors, creates music, poems, architecture, Romance literature and philosophical concepts. When the work is complete, with naive audacity, he or she signs it.

And yet, he is not far from the truth if the Second Vatican Council advised artists: “Do not close your spirit to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”

Undoubtedly, there can be no artists where there is no genuine talent. There can be no artists where there is no artistic inspiration.

Nor can the Holy Spirit be far from them.

John Paul II affirmed: “When we turn over certain wonderful pages of literature and philosophy, justly admire some masterpiece of art, or listen to passages of sublime music, we spontaneously recognize in these expressions of human genius a radiant reflection of God’s Spirit.”

Our artists and modern art

What are our artists like? What is our art like?

What is art in view of the culture of our “people”?

We know that Vatican II affirms: “Let the Church also acknowledge new forms of art which are adapted to our age.” This is a valid principle for us too.

And our artists seek to conform themselves to it.

Today, as you know, there is modern art. It has its own new and interesting demands, its own viewpoints and considerations which are not without fascination. I hope that it will be a topic of your discussions during these days. Nonetheless, as happened for all kinds of art down through the centuries, there are those who do not interpret it in the right way and who can even use art for evil purposes.

We said before that God is beauty but also goodness and truth.

A true artist cannot consider beauty detached from goodness and truth.

Beauty, in fact, which does not contain truth and goodness is a nothing, an emptiness. “Beauty” affirms Vladimir Soloviev, “without truth and goodness is only an idol.”

But if beauty contains goodness, it means that nothing sinful, scandalous, or evil can be justified as a privilege of art, not even as a means, not even with the intention of making beauty triumph in the end. Here too, the end does not justify the means.

Certainly, art can represent what is ugly, suffering, anguish, drama, tragedy. All this can be expressed in a work of art and it always has been. Indeed, a group of expressionist artists, the Blue Rider, affirms that the joys and sufferings of men and women and nations are behind the inscriptions, paintings, and temples, behind the cathedrals and masks, behind the works of music, theatre and dance. If these do not form the foundation, if shapes are empty, without meaning, there is no true art.

Certainly, Jesus forsaken on the cross was not beautiful.

He, the Word of God, the highest Artist, in becoming man, assumed all of our human nature to the point of making himself sin, but never a sinner. Isaiah says: “There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Is. 53:2). And yet, faith tells us that the glory of the resurrection was already present in him.

Jesus crucified and forsaken is the model of artists and especially of our artists who will always, like him, offer a ray of hope even in the saddest situations. The Holy Father said to artists: “All great artists have come face to face, some their whole life through, with the problem of suffering and desperation. Nevertheless, many allowed something of the hope which is greater than suffering and decadence to shine through their art. By expressing themselves in literature or in music, by shaping matter or by painting, they evoked the mystery of a new salvation, of a renewed world. This must be the message of authentic artists also in our times, of artists who sincerely live all that is human and even tragic, but who are able to unveil with precision the hope that is given to us even in what is tragic.”

In addition, our artists will have to remember that because art can be compared to a new incarnation, it is mysterious; it could not be otherwise. For this reason it is modest, it doesn’t reveal everything. In seeing certain deviations in art, one would go back with nostalgia to the great artists of the past, who have been gone perhaps for years, but whose works survive. This is the case of the drama of the nun of Monza in The Betrothed, for whom Manzoni spent only these words: “and the unfortunate woman replied.”

A new art in a new culture

The Movement, as we said, brings a new culture, one that is characterized in its various ambits by new paradigms derived from the trinitarian vision of man and of the world.

This has been noted, in recent years, in the fields of theology, philosophy, sociology, economy, politics, and recently, in psychology.

It cannot, therefore, be missing in the field of art.

This novel concept of human living in its various expressions is possible because men and women of the Movement constantly strive to assume a lifestyle that is both personal and communitarian, as required by our collective spirituality.This applies also to those who are dedicated to art: “before all else mutual love among you.”

As with all the cultures that have appeared on earth, the specific characteristics of our culture too will be expressed by art.

Thus we look forward to a new art.What qualities will it have? They will necessarily be an expression of its personal aspect and of its collective aspect.

What I stated last summer is true, and I reaffirm it now: it is not always necessary that a new work of art be the fruit of a collectivity with the presence of Christ in the midst of artists. It is necessary that he be in the midst of individuals at one point, that they become one soul, so that then, distinctly, all may be in each one.

But what I affirm now is also possible.

Camus says: “Those who choose to be artists because they feel different will soon learn that they will not bring to fruition their art nor their diversity unless they seek similarities, common ground with others. Artists are forged in this everlasting coming and going between themselves and others, half way between beauty (from which they cannot separate themselves) and society (from which they cannot withdraw).”

In this light then, because interaction with others takes nothing away from the artist, on the contrary, it enriches him or her, we can envision an art which is the fruit of a group of artists who, united in the name of Jesus, are devoted to the same artistic expression which is expressed in the works of one or of the other.

Indeed, we must ask ourselves: if this attitude and mode of working is possible in other fields, why couldn’t it be used also in that of art? And couldn’t this mode of working usher in unexpected and new works of art?

We see this in the experience of the Abba School: each field of knowledge gains so much when we are ready to serve it in this way! The promptings of the Holy Spirit, already present in the individual can become gigantic! In the Abba School, in fact, there is something more, a something more that is human and divine. The atmosphere there is sacred. Without exaggeration, we often feel that we are in heaven.

But there is a price to pay: the total death of every “self” so that another Self, with a capital S, may triumph in all and in each one.

We learned this in 1949 when we were dazzled by a blinding light.

Several persons of the Abba School have commented these intuitions or inspirations.

One of them said: “Those who love Jesus forsaken are asked to be detached from their way of thinking, from thinking itself: this is the non-being of the mind. And this holds true also for the will, the memory and the imagination (synonymous with artistic inspiration). We attain these deaths “by losing” (putting aside also what we think might be an inspiration).”

Another affirmed: “We speak of imagination because unlike other spiritualities perhaps, we highlight ‘beauty’… However, imagination must be lost in unity, in order to have a sort of new ‘inspiration’ which enables us to see heaven, in some way, and also all the things of earth in a new way.”

A third commented: “One of the effects of our spirituality will be a new art. With regard to this new art, many times people in the Movement who are devoted to art have worked freely on their own, given that, generally speaking, it is very difficult for artists to understand one another. Instead, if there were unity among them, we would see works of art never seen before.”

A final comment: “Losing everything and finding everything is a classic principle of the spiritual life…. But not many authors of spiritual writings speak of losing one’s imagination in order to acquire a new one. Usually, they only say that we must lose, put aside, one’s imagination. Here, instead, a new imagination is found. We can understand this better today, in the wake of Vatican II, which affirms that all that is human is rendered Christian. Imagination is no longer considered as something that should be distanced from the ascetic life required by sanctity. We have been forerunners in these positions.”

And then he adds: “Also present here are the roots of a renewed and great Christian art.”

Therefore, a new art is coming to life among us. Or perhaps it has already begun. You will understand this from the experiences the artists will narrate.

At this point, what I wrote about the “Resurrection of Rome” comes to mind:

“We need to bring God back to life in us, then keep him alive, and overflow him onto others with bursts of Life that revive the dead.

And we need to keep him alive among us by loving one another (…).

Then everything changes, politics and art, education and religion, private life and recreation. Everything.”

Mary

The Focolare Movement has something to do with beauty also because it must in some way, reflect Mary, in its individuals and as a whole.

Mary is the tota pulchra, the all beautiful.

In fact, Mary is the fullest expression of the redemption accomplished by Christ. She is the creature in whom the image of the Creator shines forth in a unique way. For this reason, she is the object of the attention and admiration of artists who are particularly sensitive to beauty and to the attraction of the supernatural; she is therefore an inspiration for painting and sculpture, for music and literature…

In his “Paradise,” Dante says of her: “Look now upon the face which is most likened unto Christ”. Boccaccio sings to her: “You adorn heaven with your happy features.” And Petrarch: “Clothed with the sun, / crowned with the stars, so pleasing were you to the highest sun / that he hid his light in you.” Tasso sees her as the: “Star from which serene light is born, / light of the non created and highest Sun.”

May Mary, the all beautiful, envelop our artists with her splendor.

Let us conclude.

Every religious based Movement, like ours, that has made a mark on history, has expressed new forms of religious art. We truly hope that it will be so for ours as well, if it is true that it is a Work of God. And it is true. Recently the Pope inscribed the following words on my mind and heart: “Work of Mary?”, he said, “Work of God”.

Yours then is the honor and onus of being its artistic expression.

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