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Met Gala: Catholicism Broken but Shining

“Yo que sentí el horror de los espejos,” says Jorge Louis Borges. “I’ve been horrified before mirrors.”[1]

Such strange things, mirrors. Those mysterious surfaces that reflect the eye’s light back to itself.[2] Poets so like to speak of them. Perhaps out of vanity, and perhaps because in mirrors we see “darkly” (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). One can never quite tell with poets. As for mirrors: mirrors, they are everywhere. Mirrors are experienced “ante el aqua,” writes Borges. “Before water.”

Before speculating water that imitates
The other blue in its deep sky[3]

Or mirrors exist in windows, some of which Rainer Marian Rilke describes as an “Auge.” “An eye, which seems to rest.”[4] An eye that “opens and bangs shut (zusammenschlägt) with a crack of thunder.”[5] It is as if both poets imagine entire worlds behind (beneath? within?) each reflective surface.

I include the original languages if only to force the eye to pause, to interpret. To hesitate and search for understanding. After all, knowing is not like looking.[6] I cannot walk along and pick up a fact as I would a rock. Knowing changes me, the Medievals liked to say; when I learn, I am not quite the same as I was before.

Nothing ever seems to hold still, even in mirrors. This might’ve been what bothered Rilke so much about them. How utterly strange, in any case, that my own reflection can be a stranger to me, or reflect a new me that I have yet to really know. (Imagine the soul is a diamond castle, or made of diamond mansions, a brilliant and multi-sided and vast inner space . . . [7])

It felt a little like that vertigo. That mirror-vertigo. It felt a little like that when I looked at the photos of the Met Gala, “Heavenly Bodies.”  It felt like that, and it felt like other things I’ve yet to untangle. I’m supposed to offer commentary on said gala. I must confess, however, that I am a theologian, and, worse, I am not a very useful one.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Catholicism, that Catholicism that I know “darkly” in the depths of water and window and sky, is this insistence that there must be time for nothing at all. The Catholic conviction that labor requires rest,[8] that culture requires leisure,[9] that no individual is ever, ever to be considered anything but a pure gift to the world.[10] One way of saying it is that I love Catholicism’s uselessness. Another way of saying it is that I love Catholicism’s understanding that not all things are meant to be used (techne). Think of the woman in John (Mary of Bethany), so often associated with the Church, who pours out the precious perfumed oil over Jesus’ feet (Jn 12:3). She wastes it, and how right that she does. There will be no real beauty without such things.

Medieval Latin tended to use two different words (among many) for the word “beauty”: pulchritudo and formositas. The first referred to what we might call “glamor,” or an empty and superficial beauty—something that glittered; the second referred to what we might call, in a sonorous James Earl Jones voice, beauty. The idea was that some types of beauty are more distracting, problematically so, than others. Shiny but empty. Other beauties more easily lead the soul along God’s vestigial footprints to Beauty himself.[11]

This is not to say it’s easy to tell the difference. This occurred to me as I flipped through the photos from the gala. Some were something like resplendent; others bizarre; still others confrontational. That a thing is bizarre or confrontational does not make it, of itself, ugly or beautiful. Beauty can be both. Beauty often will not tell me which or how many things it is. She is happy with her gilded secrets.

I think, for example, of Zendaya’s remarkable and arresting Joan of Arc dress, somehow intimidating and elegant all at once. It reminded me of an essay I read recently that offered a “phenomenological contemplation” of darkness and blackness. Blackness and darkness, says Andrew Prevot, appear. They are not void, a lack of light or color. They are the fullness of presence, a night sky.[12] How brilliant the shining contrast between warm brown hues and metallic grays. How lovely the long lines that began to flow at her feet. How beautiful, the armor and the gentleness. It works especially well, I think, because saints are more readily embodied than other material elements in Catholicism. Saints are more easily and more often borrowed, mimicked, echoed by Catholics themselves. This Jeanne is her own, entirely new knight of God; she is also recognizable in terms of the original.

Other imitations were perhaps less . . . well, less like that. I cannot, and in any case will not, say which ones. “Who,” after all, “has not sat fearfully before his heart’s own raiment?”[13] The whole thing is really the thing under question rather than any specific thing. The glittering, glinting showcase of a Catholicism that wasn’t quite Catholic and that wasn’t quite not Catholic. Too much was too recognizable, and too much was too new, to be otherwise.

I have seen this Catholicism often, when in the hands of others. Broken (and still shining) by the grip of another. I have seen it, too, in my own hands. The sacred, Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, can never cease to be sacred. Even where her pieces are scattered, they become a divine fragrance that the Church herself seeks with the passion of a lover.[14] Like the Bride in the Song of Songs.

I wonder sometimes whether we are willing to see this Bride. She is beautiful. “Black and beautiful” (Cant. 1:5). She is also not yet fully herself, searching in the lonely streets for her beloved as others look on (cf. Cant 3:1-3). Are we a bit ashamed at our own vulnerability? At the vulnerability of our material universe, and how easy it is to borrow? “Do not stare at me because I am so black” (Cant 1:6). Such things of ours have been and will be borrowed all the more. Such things may not have been ours at first at all.[15] We have only ever been known through the things that are ours and not-ours.

We have been known as a living people and in museums—and sometimes the museums are our own. Do our things die when we preserve them, or does preserving them keep them alive? The answer is not quite one or the other. Magnates like William Randolph Hearst would buy castles, medieval roofs, entire rooms of furnishings for use and restoration. The objects lived again, but differently, and sometimes not at all. (Or, sometimes not at all as they once did.) Are we, can a people, can Christ’s people also be like this?

Being Church, being a part of the Church is . . . complicated. Origen, that venerable and strange Church Father, is fond of comparing the Church to Rahab. He declares, “Whoever therefore wishes to be saved should come into this house of the former harlot.”[16] Our religion is not a striving for purity, for a Church of the pure alone, unless the purity we mean is Christ’s.[17] Yet Rahab also means “breadth,” a stretching out to include all.[18] Indeed, as she traverses the earth, the Church bears within herself both sinners and saints—and it is not so easy to tell the difference. “But see the mercy of God; see his extraordinary mercy!” God spreads his wings out over us, covering our nakedness (Ezek 16:18).[19] The Church is but the moon, reflecting the light of the Son of God, who reveals the Father’s infinite mercy.[20]

How unusual to see the colors and shapes of liturgy, of papacy, on limbs unused to the movements of the Mass. What a startling experience, to see the familiar in ways so unfamiliar. Would that I could see such familiar things always: as startling, as strange. Could see the well-worn things as the unexpected that I’ve little idea what to do with, that I may even be a little disappointed in. Such is the Bride, the sinful and sinless Bride here on earth, who strives on after the Bridegroom. How ordinary and extravagant and remarkable and dispiriting. What a mirror to be looking in.

I feel almost as if I’ve lost my head. It’s too much for me—this Church that holds me—and yet I live. I’m Saint Denis all over again, though significantly less holy. He reminds me of his resplendent church, which was wrecked and robbed of its beauty (except for its saint, for even those from outside know not to touch sacred bones). And yet there it still stands, this church, triumphant though emptied. Triumphant and emptied, like the tomb of Christ. The Church who offers her riches for robbery, and who will have them back again, to lose in the arms of Christ, her Head.

Saint Paul died like this, head cut clean off.
But he didn’t get up and walk as I do,
rising over the bloody sword at my feet,
head held in my hands as I move through

the brilliant dark. My eyes burn with holy fire,
and I am living and I am dead, head held
at my heart. I am both and I am neither,
body of a church that bears the head

leading on. I am dusk and I am dawn;
like a lantern I see on to where
God bids me to live and to die. I am drawn
where God bids my bones be crucified.

The church grows around me like a stone tree,
and in her cool shadows she collects
the royal dead. She gathers gold and silver
and with them she bends herself to elegance.

Everything pulls the eyes upward,
all glittering. Archways twine together
in the warm blood of the setting sun.
As under the carved limbs all gazes are set down

to the stone and marble that stares back at them.
The sightless eyes of the semblanced dead
that watch as they are all unhoused
of the figures they were shaped to vigil over.

There will be no kings for the people now.
There will be no bones. Throw them down
together to the dark. They with their empty eyes
and silent jaws, unable to object as they are buried

in a shower of powdered fire.
They lived once and they died,
and now their likenesses are the choir
present for a second death, which is to forget.

Now there is nothing behind these gathered stone eyes.
And my hollow gaze is fiery dark,
solitary witness to death and to life,
likeness of living one as slain.

God bids me up; Lord of living and dead.
God who makes from chaos and void.
And God bids me rise again in death,
for he has made even an empty tomb his sign.[21]

SEE ALSO:

The Extraordinary Is Wed to the Mundane in the Catholic Imagination

Featured Image: Screen capture from homepage of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fair Use.

[1] Jorge Louis Borges, “Los espejos.” Translation mine.

[2] A popular Medieval idea preferred to use sight analogies when discussing knowledge. The intellect, since it is active, can “throw light” on objects. As Thomas Aquinas says, “Not only does the active intellect throw light on the phantasm: it does more; by its own power it abstracts the intelligible species from the phantasm” (Prima Pars Q 85, a. 1).

[3] Borges, “Los espejos.” Translation mine.

[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Die Fensterrose” in Neue Gedichte. Translation mine.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cf. especially the thought of Bernard Lonergan.

[7] Cf. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle.

[8] Rerum Novarum

[9] Josef Pieper, Leisure and the Basis of Culture

[10] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis; Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate; Francis, Laudato si.

[11] Cf. Bonaventure, Itinerarium

[12] Andrew Prevot, “Divine Opacity: Mystical Theology, Black Theology, and the Problem of Light-Dark Aesthetics,” Spiritus 16, no. 2 (2016), 177.

[13] Rilke, The Book of Hours. Translation mine.

[14] Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Razing the Bastions.

[15] Liturgical vestments in particular have this kind of cultural malleability, coming from Roman culture, for example, or Frankish and Germanic culture, and so forth.

[16] From Hans Urs von Balthasar’s anthology of Origen, Spirit and Fire, §395.

[17] Spirit and Fire, §406a.

[18] Spirit and Fire, §395.

[19] Spirit and Fire, §406a.

[20] Spirit and Fire, §378.

[21] “Saint Denis, 1793.” The poem is my own.

Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Saint Mary’s College of California. She has written scholarly essays on liturgy, metaphysics, phenomenology, monasticism, and theological aesthetics. Her book Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being was recently published with University of Notre Dame Press (2015). Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.