"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 reverencereverence 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 mysterylike the tourist
who stood at the Grand Canyon and said: "Oh, it's nothing but
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
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
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!"
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
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 artsto 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
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 issueand 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
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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