March 1, 2004

God's World Is Holy

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


Studying Literature Side by Side With Theology
This Perspective Came Slowly

"Literature does not save the soulit makes the soul worth saving." This was the way Father Leander Blumlein, O.F.M., began his literature class each year at Duns Scotus College, our now-defunct Franciscan Seminary College in Detroit, Michigan. I was one of the many friar students Leander taught back in the late 1950s and into the '60s. The gentle, soft-spoken friar, who died in 1981, helped us see that it was not good to create a divide between our religious education and our so-called "secular" studies. The truth and beauty expressed by the great writers and poets, he suggested, was somehow linked to the Divine Word through whom all things were made.

Week after week, we friar-students experienced ourselves being enriched and ennobled by the great poetry and novels and dramas we explored with Leander. He helped us find in the great works of literature and art the same mystery of God's goodness that St. Francis of Assisi discovered in the world of nature. He instilled in us a spirit of reverence—reverence being a way to respond to the world with a sense of wonder, a way of sitting down humbly before truth like a child and being open to the vast layers of mystery surrounding all things. Having reverence meant not being like the kind of know-it-all for whom there is no mystery—like the tourist who stood at the Grand Canyon and said: "Oh, it's nothing but big-scale erosion!"

Studying Literature Side by Side With Theology

Father Leander influenced my future in other ways too. While I was studying theology at St. Leonard College in Centerville, Ohio, I began during the summers to pursue a master's degree in English literature at Xavier University in Cincinnati. I completed that degree in 1966, three years after my ordination as a Franciscan priest.

A question I found myself dealing with during this period was: How does the study of literature and the arts fit in with my pursuit of the religious and Franciscan life? Isn't it something of a contradiction to mix the secular and the sacred? A part of me understood that there was no real division between the secular and the sacred. There is only one world, and it is a holy world because its Creator is holy and through the Word of God and the Spirit of God is present to all its parts and all its strivings. As Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his famous poem "God's Grandeur,"

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil..."

Moreover, we should embrace as holy anything that helps human beings develop to their full, God-intended stature and potential. In this regard, we return to St. Irenaeus' formula: "The glory of God is the human person fully alive!"

This Perspective Came Slowly

I must be honest and say, however, that it took some time for me to be at peace with this perspective. When my classmates and I went through our Franciscan training at Duns Scotus College, we were living, to a great extent, in a medieval monastic world set apart from secular society. We seldom ventured out from behind the monastery walls or far from the strains of Gregorian chant and the faint aroma of incense. Our philosophy books, like the prayers during Mass and the Divine Office, were in Latin, and the uniforms of teacher and student alike were brown Franciscan habits. Inside the walls was a sacred and religious world, while outside the walls were ordinary people pursuing secular activities, or so it seemed to us.

Father Leander did his best to help us see the sacred in the world of literature and art as well as in the world of nature. In fact I had tried my best to respond wholeheartedly to his encouragement to get actively involved in the arts—to dabble in watercolors, woodcarving and silk screening, theater, writing poetry and short stories. After my ordination, I took the opportunity to attend creative writing classes at the University of Louisville and at Notre Dame University.

Yet some years past before I became more fully comfortable with the vision that one's human development and spiritual development are the work of the same Spirit. The Church as a whole was beginning to assimilate a similar vision at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The Spirit, I believe, was helping the Church narrow the gap between the sacred and the secular.

The following poem, which I wrote in 1964, reflects my own personal struggle with this issue—and even suggests, happily, that I had come to a resolution.

An Apology for Artists

An old monk made some tiger cubs
from lumps of moldy clay,
then found a block of cherry wood
and gaily carved a tray.

His abbot caught him later still
with water paints and brush,
all smiles, and dabbing speckles
on a fresh and dazzling thrush.

"Jerome! Jerome!" the abbot cried
"explain these vain distractions!
A monk should paint madonnas--
depict nice, pious actions."

"Well tell me, sir," the monk replied,
while brushing off his habit,
"Did God give you a good excuse
for making fox and rabbit?"

This musing was adapted by Friar Jack from a chapter of his spiritual autobiography, Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness.

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