Lessons from an era of confusion

George Weigel

In the introduction to Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus: The American College in Rome, 1955-1979, Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni warns readers that his book will be most easily understood by students and alumni of the Pontifical North American College. With respect to my old college classmate and friend, I hope Msgr. DiGiovanni is wrong about that. For amidst all the inside baseball about Roman seminary life over two and a half turbulent decades, Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus offers a snapshot of a once-stable institution caught in the maelstrom of ecclesiastical confusion and crisis. And from that picture, much can be learned for today.

Like any sensible student of these years, DiGiovanni understands that reform and renewal were imperative as the North American College entered its second century in 1959. The severe regimentation of student life undercut the house rule’s intention to prepare men for lives of service in parish ministry, where they wouldn’t have dozens of bells telling them what to do every time something was to be done. The pedagogy at the Pontifical Gregorian University was ill-suited to the American temper (or to any form of intellectual curiosity), as lecturers repeated every year the same (Latin) lecture they’d given on that day the previous year. NAC was understaffed, not least in terms of spiritual direction. Student morale was a problem because of nit-picking rules and chronic health problems caused by inadequate (and sometimes literally poisonous) food. Change was imperative.

What followed Vatican II, however, was not so much change as confusion and even chaos.

One of the many strengths of DiGiovanni’s book is its demonstration that attitudes among American seminarians in Rome closely paralleled the dynamics in the drama being played out in St. Peter’s basilica, just down the Janiculum Hill from NAC, where the Second Vatican Council was meeting. At the Council’s halfway mark, Father Henri de Lubac, SJ – a reformer once silenced by the Roman authorities who was a key theological advisor at the Council – sensed that the reformist party at Vatican II was dividing: one camp sought an organic theological development of the Church’s self-understanding, while another seemed more interested in kicking over the traces and reimagining everything anew. As DiGiovanni’s painstaking examination of contemporary diaries, committee meeting minutes, and various NAC publications shows, that division began to express itself among NAC students at the same time.

So even before that cataclysmic year, 1968, a fissure was opening in Catholicism between those who believed that Christ had given the Church a certain form, reference to which was essential to true reform, and those who argued that the “Spirit of the Council” called for a root-and-branch rethinking of Catholic doctrine, mission, ministry, and morality. This fissure led, in short order, to confusion about the nature of the priesthood and its role in the post-conciliar Church. And out of that confusion, seven devils worse than the first were set loose, as the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church took a nose-dive unlike anything the Church had experienced since the 16th-century Reformation.

It should have been no surprise that this confusion was catastrophic for both vocation recruitment and priestly formation; as one of the rectors who turned NAC around in the 1990s, now-Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, once put it, “A man will give his life for a mystery, but not for a question mark.” During the last fifteen years of Msgr. DiGiovanni’s story, NAC was a house of question marks – and worse-than-question-marks. The Catholic Church in America paid, and is paying, a heavy price for that season of deep confusion.

The North American College today is as solid a seminary as can be found in the world Church: a happy house, filled with impressive young men and led by an outstanding faculty. NAC’s transformation from the confusions of the immediate two post-conciliar decades is due to a re-centering on first principles: a clarity about what the Church teaches and why that teaching is a prescription for beatitude, for happiness. The mystery – of Christ, the Church, and the priesthood – has replaced the question marks.

Some imagine that a return to the free-for-all of the 1970s is the evangelical path forward for 21st-century Catholicism; others think a return to the 1950s is what’s needed. Msgr. DiGiovanni’s important book not only raises grave questions about both these prescriptions; by pointing at the end toward the reform that NAC underwent in the 1990s, he reminds us of the imperative, and effectiveness, of an authentic conciliar Catholicism dedicated to the New Evangelization.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.