Art, Religion, and Purpose

Brother Francis used often to speak of the importance of purpose. He would begin with Aristotle, but not end there — for “the Philosopher,” as he was known, did not ascend to the truths of supernatural revelation. Aristotle saw the “four causes” in nature: formal cause, material cause, efficient cause, and final cause. That last, the final cause, is called “the cause of causes.” It is the first in intention and the last in execution. It is synonymous with the purpose of a thing, and is often also called its “end.”

Brother would speak with passion about the loss of a sense of purpose being at the heart of so many of the problems in the world.

Lately, I am reading the book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by the Latvian-Canadian scholar Modris Eksteins. The title borrows from the famous ballet that was a collaborative effort of several masters of the avant-garde, including the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Le Sacre du Printemps, as the ballet is named in French, is a perfect specimen of the fierce primitivism of modern serious art forms. Originally named by Stravinsky “The Victim,” the piece ends with a virgin dancing herself to death in an imagined pagan Russian fertility rite. Stravinsky’s music, and the choreography that Nijinsky contrived to accompany it, were both provocatively jarring and hideously ugly. The Rite of Spring famously caused a riot at its 1914 Paris premiere.

What do these two things have to do with each other — purpose and ugly modern art? I will answer this by bringing up a third thing. At the same time I was introduced to Eksteins’ book, I learned of a baroque composer I had never previously heard of: the Czech, Jan Dismas Zalenka (1679-1745). His name is not even in the index of the respected and authoritative A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca which was my college textbook for music history. Although he is still little known, there has been interest in remedying that, and some excellent recordings of his music are now available, including many recordings of his sacred music. One of Zelenka’s great works was a Mass entitled the Missa Dei Patris (Mass of God the Father). I cite this undervalued artist in order to quote the dedication he wrote on the score of that masterpiece:

“Mass in honor of God our Father, the almighty God, Creator of all Things, the Most Sublime and Best Father. Dedicated to him in deep humility, submissive veneration and profound adoration with a contrite and humble heart which He will not despise, by His most lowly, most humble and most unworthy creature, Jan Dismas Zelenka.”

Zelenka, who is sometimes called “the Catholic Bach,” was educated at Prague by the Jesuits. Reading this dedication, one gets the idea that he learned a thing or two from those great Catholic educators whose motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam — to the greater glory of God. When, in our religion classes, we teach our youth that they were made for God’s glory, and that all that was made was made for that same purpose, we are not merely trafficking in pious platitudes. This is a profound truth that lies at the basis of Creation. And to this truth the arts and sciences, work and leisure, and life itself must willingly submit if they are to be rooted in and directed to the true, the good and the beautiful.

At the time of the Catholic Reformation, Zelenka expressed the same sense of purpose to his art that the Medievals had. While baroque music, like the visual arts of the day, was dramatically different than the music of the Middle Ages — and while the intervening Renaissance witnessed the growth of the profane or secular in the arts — some of the baroque masters who were Catholic could direct the ornate new styles to the glory of God. What the Spaniard, Francisco de Zurbarán, could do for baroque painting, the Czeck, Zelenka, and the Bohemian-Austrian, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (also Jesuit educated, possibly), could do in their music.

There is something appropriate in the fact that the arts, further and further divorced from their purpose of glorifying God, become ugly. The work of Stravinsky and the sometime homosexual lovers Diaghilev and Nijinsky, was a work of ideological rebellion, and consciously so, for they thought themselves to be revolutionaries. In retrospect, the riot that they incited in Paris in 1914 was eerily prefigurative of the sanguinary accomplishment of the other revolutionary ideologues who would bring us “the Great War,” the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and then World War II. Like music, politics, if it is divorced from its purpose, is also destined to become perverse.

Alter the purpose of the marital act, and birth control becomes acceptable to you. Alter the purpose of marriage itself, and the abomination of “same-sex marriage” gains traction. Alter the purpose of government, and you get despotism and our omnipresent nanny state. Alter the purposes of the armed forces, and the nanny state hyperextends itself into other peoples’ affairs. Alter the purpose of leisure and the arts, and society is “entertained” into mental and moral oblivion. Alter the purpose of disciplining children, and we get alternatively the enabling of vice, or angry parental brutality. Alter the purpose of divine worship, and we get the liturgical calamities that take place in so many parishes.

The reader can no doubt connect many more dots.

The relevant precept of Our Lord is “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Luke 12:31) — these things being our bodily needs of food, drink, shelter, and clothing. We can extend this to all legitimate human pursuits. In saying this, Jesus utters His solemn command to fulfill our purpose, and not to be preoccupied with secondary things. It is an injunction to keep us from reversing the priority of ends before means. It protects us from anxiety and distractions on our way to our heavenly homeland.

To situate the arts and sciences in this evangelical schema of priorities and the purpose of things does not disparage them. Rather, it uplifts them and properly orients them, making them tools for achieving Wisdom. Brother Francis said, “Wisdom consists in a discovery of, and a conformity with, the universe, as unified, simplified, centered, made meaningful and purposeful, by the human story — from Adam and Eve to Jesus and Mary.”

Another word for purpose, as I said, is end. Death is not our end. Our End is the Holy Trinity. Saint Augustine put it succinctly: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”