Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 23, 2004
We've lost our faith's romantic ideal
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
"All miracles begin with falling in love."
- Morris West
What we're lacking is fire, romance, aesthetics, as these pertain to our faith and ecclesial lives. What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination and this is not so much the job of the theologian as it is the job of the saint and the artist. We need great saints and great artists, ideally inside the same person.
We see this, for instance, in Francis of Assisi. Francis was not a great theologian by the standards of the academy of theology and it was not his insights as a theologian that so moved history and transformed Christianity. He does not have major cities named after him and more than 300 congregations of men and women trying to live out his charism because of the books he wrote. His greatness lay in his sanctity and in his art and in the particular way he brought those together.
It was as a saint and artist that he was able to inflame the romantic imagination of the Church and the world. When he took off his clothes and walked naked out of Assisi, he wasn't preaching from a pulpit, lecturing from a university podium or writing a book. He was making an aesthetic, saintly gesture, and that gesture, complete with the commitment he made afterwards to back it up, helped restructure the romantic imagination of Christianity and the world in general. Seven hundred years later, his gesture and his life still speak. Such is the power of great saints and great artists.
We see this too, though to a lesser extent, in the effect of great works of religious art. Take, for example, the painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci: Nobody today cannot not picture the Last Supper as he painted it, even though scholars agree that Jesus and his disciples at table would not have looked anything like his imaginative depiction of it. But one great artist and one great painting can permanently brand itself into the imagination.
It is this, saints and Gospel art, that we most need to revitalize our faith and our churches today. Generally speaking, the theologians are doing their part and so too are diocesan and parish programs.
But solid ideas and solid programs alone are not enough. They need to be backed by saints and artists in a way that can re-inflame the romantic imagination. We need a new Francis, a new Clare, a new Augustine, a new John of the Cross, a new Therese of Lisieux.
Intellectuals and artists come at conversion from different sides: Bernard Lonergan, a great intellectual, used to say: "Conversion begins in the intellect"; Morris West, a great novelist, used to say: "All miracles begin with falling in love!" Both are right. Without vision the heart doesn't know where to go; but without romantic fire it doesn't want to go anywhere, least of all to Church.
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