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The Catholic Creatives Salon just hosted a viewing of St. Pope John Paul’s play, The Jeweller’s Shop. This is my introduction to it for guests who had not been reading Cat Hodge’s great article, Theodrama in Mid-Century Poland, from Second Spring volume 18.
Pope John Paul II once said we could know him best by studying his plays. His understanding of the role of drama, of the spoken word, in proposing truth to the world is at the core of all his writings about human freedom and human destiny.
In Nazi-occupied Poland, during WWII, young Karol Wojtyla considered how theater might be a means to restore man to himself. He was opposed, in principle, to a school of thought in which theater becomes a quasi-liturgical event, and where actors so strip away the elements of self as to become empty transmitters between impulse and action, drama and audience. Believing that the actor’s gift of self must not be a complete negation of self, Wojtyla emphasized the primacy of the spoken word over emotive gesture in his plays.
His Rhapsodic Theatre was a form of cultural resistance to the Nazi suppression of national identity. Stories that help us hold onto the narrative of our people help us hold onto our individual sense of self. Naturally, Poland’s masterworks of literature and her history were not welcome under German occupation.
Wojtyla and friends presented their adaptations of these essentially Polish stories in cramped spaces, in secret, in real danger, with few props and no lighting or sound technology. The actors wanted to so lift up the words as to convey idea most purely and emphatically. Just as an icon points back to the viewer for its full realization in his own being, their plays created a sacred space of encounter between audience and idea. As the viewer is moved, is provoked to come to a judgment, is challenged to respond, that space opens to God’s action within him.
Instead of propelling a wave of emotional stimuli, and initiating a thoughtless movement of gestural imitation in an audience, Rhapsodic Theatre, with its ‘words like a song’, sought to serve idea by proposing it well, and serve listeners by respecting the boundaries of their personhood. The Theatre of the Word demands more from us than to sit still while others act, vicariously experiencing action while atrophying in our own capacity to act. Instead of a bath of emotions, ‘free’ of intellectual analysis, reason, and judgment, we are involved in a questioning, and not supplied with a simple answer. Such a production isn’t complete until each of us then acts, freely, in response to the idea we have met through dramatization.
After Wojtyla became a priest, he continued to write plays, and The Jeweller’s Shop is his most famous. In it, he meditates on the Sacrament of Matrimony, through the lives of three different couples. In the third act, we meet the children of the first two couples. There are two spheres of action: the shop where they buy their wedding rings, and each character’s interior landscape. The Jeweler stands for the durability of marriage, as the couples reflect the pain and struggle in tension with that ideal.
We loved the movie, and had a great discussion of the ideas it placed before us – the importance of community to marital strength, the beauty of the Lover claiming his Bride, the way our response to the dissonance around us shapes our lives, the reality of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ that surrounds us, our longing for priests with time to be part of our families’ lives, and more.
In an amazing ‘God’s instance,’ The Jeweller’s Shop was also picked for this year’s readings by the Well Read Moms. God must agree with them that this a good time for the ‘year of the Spouse’!
“Think Globally, Act Locally” for Catholics might be: “Think Universally, Act Creatively”.
I wish more Catholics were as clear as those with modern, greenie bumper stickers that small, local, personal decisions and actions matter very much – not just morally, which we do get, but in terms of making huge sea waves of change in the world around us.
Fr. Luigi Giussani (founder of Communion & Liberation), uses the term ‘gesture’ for a response to reality that embodies the judgment of the actor about that reality he encounters. The judgment must ‘have heart in it,’ according to Fr. Giussani. When the encounter with reality is provoking – when it questions our faith, our understanding, our experience, our preconceived notions – then we have an opportunity.
It will take some time to answer that ‘call’ (see the –vok in provoke that is the same ‘call’ as in ‘vocation’?) and form a clear judgment. The process cannot be rushed along. We must consider what we’ve run up against in light of our heart’s response, and our reason’s information. Then, taking both into consideration, we must formulate a response that, again, is a mere gesture – an attempt to convey in actuality a judgment formed in response to reality.
This gesture then has the potential to be transformative – for us, and for the people around us. As a free act, it expands immediately our own sphere of freedom. As a new fact, it in turn provokes those who encounter it – invites them to answer the call of reality, form their own judgment, and create a response. That’s one model for thinking about the ripples of provocation and freedom, goodwill and humanity that can spread from each particular person. I imagine there are other ways to think about it, but this one has completely captivated my attention because it corresponds so beautifully to my lived experience.
Can you think of one small thing you could do right now to respond to this call of mine?
* Spend the Time * Clean the Mess * Cook the Meal * Sing the Song
*Learn the Skill *Take the Step *Write the Letter * Make the Call
*Give the Gift * Right the Wrong * Speak the Word
*Stop the Violence * Move the Money *Ask the Question
*Offer the Help *Bake the Bread *Finish the Job
*Pray the Prayer *Make the Commitment *Change the Pattern
*Toss the Junk *Kiss the Wound *Embrace the Friend
* Craft the Poem * Keep the Sabbath
There is a dimension of freedom I consider to be its highest realization. I tell my kids all the time that the highest form of freedom is to do in freedom what you must do. Good luck with that! It’s easier said than done, but it’s also not as impossible as it sounds. It’s a paradox!
Are you free if you are obligated to act? It sounds like a contradiction, but a high form of freedom is to fulfill obligations with an interior freedom that is not sacrificed, but placed in service. In freedom, we bind ourselves to religious vows, marital faithfulness, and to the rules of our voluntary organizations. In such cases the difference between freedom and bondage is our capacity to maintain interior freedom while our actions are constrained by the rules and promises we’ve made.
Social courtesies are a small training ground for this capacity, but in our day they are often dismissed as old-fashioned, lost for lack of common usage, or resented as empty formalities. Take, for example, the obligation placed upon you to respond to an invitation. Granted, you did not ask for the invitation, yet it does (or it used to) impose upon you a duty to say yes, or no. Sadly, many recipients today simply dismiss this opportunity to re-weave the social fabric and another opportunity is lost. When non-response becomes the norm, then bondage becomes the norm as our response-ability atrophies.
A gift invites the response of gratitude. Sure, you could write that blasted thank-you note just because you have to, or you could write it in true freedom, realizing it is an ennobling responsibility. It’s not that the giver only gave in order to force you to write that note! A person who always just assumes the giver knows he’s grateful, but never expresses it is missing opportunities to enlarge his sphere of response-ability. No one can make you go to Mass, return phone calls, keep appointments, accept invitations, offer help, contribute, participate, or vote. But if you do what you should, you’ll grow in freedom.
RCYF! Respond – Create Your Freedom!
…for being deeply human and vulnerable and honest…for sharing his life and thought with me through writing well and truly of his experiment in personal environmentalism.
He and I would find little to agree about and much to disagree about if we looked merely at the surfaces of one another’s lives. Books like his are meant to get people past those surfaces, to challenge us to see more deeply into the mystery of another’s personhood, to remind us of all the yearnings and fears and desires and questions that belong to us both as human beings. We must take the risk of being provoked by such books.
Colin tried a year of having little-to-no impact on the environment, and backed his convictions with personal choices that were sacrificial, difficult for him as a family man, impossible to justify by their results. His no-impact year had little-to-no effect on the environment, but it had a huge effect on him. This may be the single most important lesson his story teaches: that free action first must emerge from interior freedom. The act that is a truly free response to the reality I encounter will not be a ‘solution’ to that reality, but a gesture – even a symbolic act – that, if nothing else, carries my judgment out into the world of actuality in a way that changes me. He does not quote Fr. Luigi Giussani, whose wisdom I paraphrase here, but his book and interior journey illustrate Fr. Giussani’s point well.
Tree-huggers, crunchy conservatives, utopians to right and left, corporate supremacists, evolve-yourself transcenders, upscale environmentalists, Popes and parishioners, scientists and engineers are all confused about what’s really going on with the environment. The confusion serves to blind us to any facts that are clear, and to the need for us each to take in and respond to what we can of the whole mess. People-labeling serves to blind us to the humanity of whoever’s thought challenges us to dig deeper for answers. One label – RADICAL – fends off anyone who threatens our comfort zone, whether that’s a ‘radical religious nut,’ or a ‘radical green nutcase,’ a ‘radical Luddite,’ or a ‘radical techno-optimist’.
Well, Colin dared to be ‘radical’ for a year, moving to the very root of action, where labels don’t help and real struggle is needed to come up with a creative and authentic response to the reality being encountered. He got a bit too spiritual for some of his environmentalist pals, as he looked past Right Answers to Deep Questions. He offers dozens of resources for readers trying to make sense of questions like, “What aspects of my life express values at variance with my highest ideals?” “What level of environmental impact is acceptable to ensure my materialist, consumerist lifestyle?” “What responsibility do I have for huge, global problems like poverty, pollution, hunger, and economic impotence?”
Colin never does cite Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Charity in Truth, but his book would make a fantastic companion volume for readers of that work of genius. Charity in Truth speaks specifically to Catholics of the need to concern ourselves with the kinds of questions Colin has raised. Thankfully, the Pope writes in the context of concern for “integral human development,” which speaks to the fullness of human being – inclusive of his spiritual dimension and his responsibility to a Creator. Interestingly, Beavan arrives at a similarly human-centric perspective. We can’t cope with ‘the environment,’ absent concern for actual human persons whose lives are affected by whatever is happening with air quality, global temperatures, soil poverty, neutered fish populations, antibiotic resistant superbugs, and all the rest.
It is, at the end of the day, human being which gives our lens the perfect focal distance for personal response to impossibly huge environmental dangers, problems, changes and responsibilities.
You can scoff at the wackos all around you, or you can risk being thought a wacko just for deciding to be free, to act in alignment with your values, to be provoked to action by reality as you face it and by the concerns of your fellow man. I’m so glad Colin took the risk of being free, instead of getting a passing grade on the fill-in-the-blank test of Life! I hope you’ll consider some of the questions he posed at the end of his experiment:
There is a limit to how much less harm I can do. But my potential for good is unlimited. …The question becomes not whether we use resources but what we use them for. Do we use them to improve lives? Or do we waste them? My life itself is a resource. How shall I use it?
This is a shameless plug for my own book! I’m so excited that Angelico Press has published Souls at Work, and I have high hopes that it will be a blessing to readers. Someone has asked “What kind of book is this?” and it’s hard to put it into a typical category.
It is ‘self-help,’ because I enjoy talking to people who enjoy self-improvement. It is ‘educational,’ because I look at the world through the lens of the classical Trivium and suggest this as a model for self-educators and for teachers. It is ‘Catholic spiritual direction,’ because I strongly believe that your interior life will be much improved by taking on reality in all its forms – art, persons, subjects, buildings and more.
It is ‘poetic,’ because it is meant to give you entrance into my own lived experience, and so is written with a richness of vocabulary and diction that is sadly missing from many 10-bullet-point books. It is ‘hard,’ because it invites you into the adventure of working out your salvation in the rough and tumble tensions of things that are difficult for you. It is a ‘workbook,’ because I ask you to do the work of writing it for yourself (!), or, at least, responding to its questions to make it truly your own.
It is ‘dangerous,’ because there is no true growth or education possible apart from venturing into the unknown territory of the Real World with only our imperfect realization of Christ to guide us. It is ‘Catholic,’ because it is deeply indebted to and respectful of the Faith, and is predicated on my own love for Christ and His teaching magisterium…without being at all a work of theology.
What else? A fountain of youth? Yes. A great conversation starter? Yes. A fun romp through science, art, literature, architecture, and more with, not an expert, but an interested fellow student? Yes. A help in understanding relationship dynamics? Yes. A new perspective on the new evangelization? Yes!
So, as one who is obviously totally unbiased about this book, I highly recommend you get a copy and share the news that it is available. THANKS to all who take the plunge and wade into this ‘invitation to freedom’. Together, Catholic writers and readers must discover what it means for an artist to be, not a law unto herself, but a member of the Body of Christ. I so look forward to your response to this book. Please tell me what kind of book it is when you know!