"Oh Beauty, ever ancient, ever new!" Thus Saint Augustine eloquently wrote, addressing Our Lord upon his conversion from paganism. "Late have I loved thee!" Late, meaning he was in his thirties, and a good twenty-five years of sins were weighing heavily upon his soul when finally, through the unceasing, heroic prayers of his saintly mother, Monica, and the spiritual paternity of Saint Ambrose, he saw the truth for what it was, and more importantly, for Who it was: Jesus Christ.
Most people have an innate appreciation for beauty, particularly when it's discovered unexpectedly, especially when it's both ancient and new, as Saint Augustine proclaimed. The Grand Canyon is undeniably a very old formation, but if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you. Even old-timers who've seen it several times will declare that the Canyon looks different, varying in shades and hues with the time of day, time of year, and the way the sun happens to be shining on that particular day. Ever ancient, ever new.
Since the 1960s Church experts have been debating the value of towering vaulted Gothic cathedrals with capacious stained-glass windows versus homey, carpeted octagonal-shaped buildings with comfortable chairs that look more like Holiday Inns than Catholic churches. Here at Clear Creek Abbey, where the above photo was taken, the monks are taking the classical view that goodness, truth, and beauty lead souls to Christ, the source and perfect personification of goodness, truth, and beauty and the perfect fulfillment of the ultimate desires of man, even though he may not consciously be aware of it.
And let's face it. Most of us are on auto-pilot most of the time and aren't consciously aware of much of anything except maybe our general surroundings and where our cell phones are.
A Surprising Appearance
But then, one day, a surprisingly beautiful thing appears. Even here in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, where nothing but rock and scrub oak has stood for countless generations, one may come upon a striking limestone carving depicting the history of salvation beginning with Adam and Eve and traveling all the way through the Apocalypse, and over it all the Lord of History, the King of the Universe, ruling benignantly from his holy throne. One cannot help but stand and stare. And hopefully, pray.
The Abbey itself is still a work in progress. The construction workers are building another dormitory to house the endless procession of devout, self-sacrificing young men who are drawn here like bees to heavenly honey. While the construction workers toil, the Abbey bell will be ringing at the appointed hours all the blessed day long, calling the monks and the faithful to prayer. And Christ the King atop the Grand Portal will be over it all. Right across from the long construction trailer, just yards from the church entrance, they will see the Abbey Grand Portal that took George Carpenter seven years to carve, laboring in the steamy, dusty heat, not just to create something that looks pretty or dramatic or artistic, but to create real, lasting beauty--beauty that draws the mind and heart of a man, beauty to open his eyes to the God who is "ever ancient, ever new," beauty to touch his weary spirit and, most importantly, to save his immortal soul.
The Essential Things
And I thank God that he did. Because at the end of the day, Facebook memes and YouTube videos and Netflix movies, entertaining though they may be, aren't going to save the world. They will not inspire us to acts of heroic virtue or compel us to change our bad habits. They will not forcefully remind us of the invisible realm of grace from which we came and to which we may one day return if we are fortunate enough to succeed in disentangling ourselves from the powerful snares of the devil, through the forgiveness of sins obtained by Christ on the Cross and dispensed to us poor sinners through the seven sacraments in His holy Catholic Church. All they will do is divert and monopolize our attention and keep us from doing the one thing, the only thing that will achieve all of the truly essential things mentioned above: praying.
That is the role of sacred art and architecture--to remind us of the essential things. To remind us that God is real and that no matter how late the hour may be, He eagerly awaits our love and invites us to pray.
I'd like to think that's what the man in the photo is doing.
There is quite possibly no other subject of vast import so mysterious and all-encompassing, elusive yet indefinable, and essential but often disregarded, as the holy Love of God. And yet, that is what the Church presents to us this weekend with the Vigil on Saturday and the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday, continuing for eight days (an octave). As we come to the end of the Easter cycle, the Church in her wisdom (i.e., Christ), knows we need more than just one day to contemplate the third Person of the Holy Trinity, whose name is Love.
[If you'd like a little musical inspiration while you read, go here to listen to a gorgeous recording of the sublime hymn of Pentecost: Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit) sung in traditional Gregorian chant. There are English versions, but I prefer the Latin. The musical notations are shown, along with the Latin verses. An English translation is given in the notes.]
On this, the third most holy feast of the Catholic liturgical year (Easter being first, and Christmas second), the long-awaited culmination of the mission given by Jesus Christ to the twelve apostles returns again to fire our hearts anew with "tongues of flame" in that most spectacular manifestation of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus and God the Father nine days after Christ's Ascension into Heaven. It is the birthday of the Church. Fittingly preceded by nine days spent in desperate yet trusting prayer by the twelve, accompanied by Our Lady, spouse of the Holy Spirit, they awaited the promise of the Father, given by Jesus as recorded by Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, 2.1-11 (cf. Gospel of Saint John 14, 16) that He would send another Paraclete, and that in fact it was good for them that He leave them so that He could do so.
Many devout Catholics have been praying these past nine days since Ascension Thursday, some in formal novenas to the Holy Spirit (formerly known as the Holy Ghost, a perhaps more apt term given His mysterious tendency to appear and disappear or, rather, to descend without warning) asking for His seven gifts and His twelve fruits, or for specific gifts or charisms; e.g., truth, joy, fortitude, preaching, etc. --whatever one might feel most in need of. Others may be praying in a general way for the Church itself, threatened by schism and heresy from within and indifference and hostility from without. As in times past, we remain in great need of Divine intervention. But He forces Himself on no one. We have to ask. Let us open our hearts to Him and beg for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in souls who are disposed to receive Him.
"Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth."
I invite you to peruse Father Abbot Philip Anderson's homily from Pentecost (also known as Whitsunday) 2020. Given just as the pandemic was exploding, it is still relevant today.
To learn more about the painting above, see this Catholic Digest article from May 2018 by Geoffrey LaForce.
May the Indwelling of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, remain in our souls forever, and may we always return Them love for Love. Amen.
Actually, his name was Gregory Wietrzychowski (as in "watch your house key," he would humorously explain.) But everyone at the Abbey called him Gregory the Painter, where he was an enduring, if sometimes irregular, presence over the past several years, painting on his knees in the Crypt, hour after painstaking hour.
I do not know the details of his life or how he came to take on the major work of reproducing a major piece of Renaissance art for the Benedictine monks at Clear Creek, but from all accounts he was a serious and devout Catholic. Clearly, his faith beautifully informed his art.
Gregory the Pilgrim was the perfect subject for human interest stories in the local papers. You can read fascinating online articles about this gentle bear of a man who traveled the world, painting beautifully on sidewalks in Paris and Rome, and who in 2016 visited 150 Marian shrines and churches in reparation for sin, traveling like a medieval penitent on foot, trusting fully (and foolishly, some might say) on Divine Providence and in particular on Our Lady, "Searcher of the Lost." She never let him down. Then, he returned to Clear Creek once again, to work on his magnum opus. Gregory the Pilgrim became Gregory the Painter.
Last week, after a sudden sneak attack of the dread coronavirus while traveling out of state, Gregory embarked on what would be his final pilgrimage.
While we mourn the loss of a unique and talented artist, a faithful son of the Church who spent his final months creating something meant to inspire and uplift those who saw it, perhaps the uncolored figures will remind us of the souls of the saints who, though invisible to human eyes, are with us always in spirit, accompanying us our long and arduous journey home.
May they remind us of Gregory himself. And may he rest in peace.
The opinions expressed on this website are my own personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the Catholic Church.
If I have erred in any statement, whether directly or by implication, in any matter pertaining to faith or morals, I humbly invite fraternal correction.