4.25.2011

Art, Beauty, and Easter

Apologies for the long paragraphs in this post and its sort of journal-entry feel. It's getting late on Monday, I'm sleepy, and Easter is so powerful for me that I have a hard time describing it in short sentences. To you brave souls who choose to read on, I hope at least this is evocative and enjoyable.

The Easter Vigil Mass is the high point of my year, and I always go through it with emotions burning every which way. For one thing, weeks of Lenten discipline, minor-keyed music and thoughts of penance and death can really psych you up for the bells and trumpets, the Glorias and Alleluias of the Resurrection. For another, I had my confirmation at Easter Vigil. Anyone who has made the shift from Protestant to Catholic knows the joy of union and the pain of separation involved in that moment. I remember standing at the altar with chrism oil wet and strong-scented on my forehead, staring at the white lilies, wondering how such opposite feelings could originate from the same event. The memories return every year.

I had distractions as well as memories this Saturday night, some due to my being part of the music (which I was more than thrilled about, don't get me wrong) and some due to my own weaknesses. Amid fiddling with flashlights in the darkened church so I could keep tabs on the order of service, swallowing stage fright, watching for the next cue, and concentrating on ringing a bell and hitting a high A without blasting out the hot studio microphone four feet from my face, I found myself battling my personal Apollyon, the Questioner. This is beautiful, but is it true? Does it matter? Does it actually mean everything it's supposed to, or are we deluding ourselves?

That latter struggle actually made me angry. With all the times agnosticism comes a-haunting—and it does so often—surely it could spare me during the sweetest, most wonderfully symbolic point of the Church's experience? I thought of Lewis and Harry Potter, set my will against the doubts, and went on with the service.

And while the distraction of doubt pestered me during the Mass itself, it’s the vivid beauty of the night that I remember clearly now. Men in suits and women in white and gold and bright colors—one lady in the sort of tremendous white hat I'd expect from a Pentecostal in the South. The stars in the darkening sky as we stood around the bonfire, Saturn bright in Virgo. The almost-warm spring air. Lou smiling beside me in the crowd—Easter Vigil is the high point of his year, too. Our new deacon singing the Exsultet as hand-held candles lit the faces of choir and congregation. Eight of us chanting Psalm 16 in the darkness. The euphoria of Tom Conry's Roll Away the Stone—my fellow sopranos winging through the high descant, drums and brass and piano and organ thundering together, the director’s face intense with concentration as his right hand kept a crisp four-count and his left cued our starts and rests, the basses ascending on the last line of the chorus. Kneeling at consecration. The rush of affection for everyone around me. Our pastor lowering the red candle-holder, flame burning bright, into the sanctuary lamp. The fortissimo joy of Jesus Christ is Risen Today.

If the Resurrection is true, humans have nothing in all of history more worth celebrating—more worthy of commemoration in the best art we can create. And the rituals and loveliness surrounding its celebration are part of the substance of things hoped for, the promise of things unseen.

Liturgy itself is art, and there are good reasons the Church has always put so much of its resources into architecture and sculpture, painting and stained glass, music and processions and word choices and the like. Beauty, wonder, and mystery comfort the soul against the troubles of life, and are therefore the natural companions of faith.

This might not seem to have much to do with writing, which is what I usually post about on Mondays. To me, though, the writing of novels is not unlike helping with the art of liturgy. It searches for the same beauty, and—in its own smaller way—it celebrates the same mysteries.

For thoughts on beauty and order, check out this great little piece by my friend and fellow writer Annie O'Connor. "Order is the alchemist," she says. I think that's wondrously true.

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