Supreme Court justice nominee a testament to Catholic education

Neil Gorsuch attended Denver’s Christ the King School

Roxanne King

The nomination of Coloradan Neil Gorsuch for Supreme Court justice during Catholic Schools Week appears to affirm the celebration’s 2017 theme: “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.”

Gorsuch’s life exemplifies those qualities, according to President Donald Trump and Catholic educators.

Although Gorsuch attends an Episcopalian church in Boulder, he grew up attending Christ the King Catholic School in Denver and a Jesuit high school in Maryland.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who as a parish priest in the ‘80s taught Gorsuch religion at Christ the King, was delighted with his former student’s Jan. 31 nomination.

“I think it’s great that this has happened during Catholic Schools Week!” the archbishop said of the news, which was announced during the Jan. 29-Feb. 4 national observance.

Kevin Kijewski, the archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic Schools, was equally elated.

“It’s great to see how a Catholic education, especially a Catholic education from within our own Archdiocese of Denver, can not only form and guide students to succeed and be the best they can be, but to provide the moral judgment and competence to play-out in such a highly visible and influential position.

“It is a testament to our schools and to having a Catholic education,” he told the Denver Catholic.

In a Feb. 1 interview with Fox 31, Kijewski noted, “Catholic thought and the Catholic intellectual tradition has shaped him.”

Gorsuch, a Denver native and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, graduated with honors from both Columbia University and Harvard Law School and earned a doctorate in legal philosophy from Oxford University. After law school, he was chosen to be a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He is the son of Anne Gorsuch, who was the first female secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Donald J. Trump has nominated fourth-generation Coloradoan Neil Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court justice Jan. 31. Gorsuch grew up attending Christ the King Catholic School in Denver, and his eighth grade teacher, JoAnn Ehrlich, remembers Gorsuch as being “humble, honest and fair.” file photo

President Donald J. Trump has nominated fourth-generation Coloradoan Neil Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court justice Jan. 31. Gorsuch grew up attending Christ the King Catholic School in Denver, and his eighth grade teacher, JoAnn Ehrlich, remembers Gorsuch as being “humble, honest and fair.” (File photo)

“Judge Gorsuch was born and raised in Colorado and was taught the value of independence, hard work and public service. While in law school, he demonstrated a commitment to helping the less fortunate. He worked in both Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Projects and Harvard Defenders Program,” Trump said in his nomination. “He could have had any job at any law firm for any amount of money, but what he wanted to do with his career was to be a judge, to write decisions and to make an impact by upholding our laws and our Constitution.

“The qualifications of Judge Gorsuch are beyond dispute,” he said. “He is a man of our country and a man who our country really needs and needs badly to ensure the rule of law and the rule of justice.”

JoAnn Ehrlich, who has taught at Christ the King for some 25 years, was Gorsuch’s eighth-grade teacher.

“I’m really proud of him,” she told the Denver Catholic. “I was whooping and hollering for him [Jan. 31] like he had won the Super Bowl. Only it’s better—it’s better that he may be a Supreme Court justice.”

Ehrlich said the virtues of the eighth-grader she taught are evident in the man she watched accept the nomination.

“I remember him as being humble, honest and fair,” she said. “That’s what I saw then, that’s what I see now.”

Not only was Gorsuch a good student but he also had a great sense of humor and was friends with everyone, Ehrlich said. Even then, recalled Ehrlich, she saw “sparks” of his judicial career choice.

“He loved talking about history or government or politics,” she said. “He was just a good kid, a really good kid.”

In accepting the nomination, Gorsuch expressed gratitude and humility.

“Standing here in a house of history, and acutely aware of my own imperfections, I pledge that if I am confirmed I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great country.

“I am so thankful tonight for my family, my friends and my faith,” he added. “These are the things that keep me grounded at life’s peaks and have sustained me in its valleys.”

Featured image by Drew Angerer | Getty Images

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.