Changing the Subject: Forming People to Encounter Mystery

Authored by Leonard DeLorenzo in Issue #4.4 of The Catechetical Review

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There is a scene in the film Good Will Hunting where Sean (Robin Williams) and Will (Matt Damon) share a pivotal conversation on a bench overlooking a swan-filled lake. The week before, Will quickly and incisively interprets a painting that Sean had created and hung in his office. As Sean says to the younger Will: “You presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine and ripped my [bleeping] life apart.” Will Hunting is a transcendent kind of genius with limitless intellectual abilities and who seemingly already knows everything except for one truly necessary thing: he doesn’t know that he’s trapped by his own presumptuousness. And this is where Sean begins to turn things around on Will, starting with art:

If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo… you know a lot about him: life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.[i]

Will has never been in the atmosphere of the mysteries he presumes to know so much about. As if for the first time Will senses that rather than there being just more stuff to learn, there is a whole different way of thinking, apprehending, and even being grasped that is foreign to him. A latent desire stirs within him to see what Sean’s seen and to feel what he’s felt.

The issue with forming Will Hunting is not primarily about getting the right information in front of him, as if the object of his gaze is everything. The issue has to do with changing him as a subject, opening him up to beauty and mystery, guiding him past his insecurities, helping him dismantle his defenses, and unlocking the certainties that clamp down his gifted mind. Even if he were, at that very moment, transported to the Sistine Chapel with the early morning light streaming in the windows and the sweet musty smell of the cloistered night still lingering, Will wouldn’t see and feel what Sean did unless he opened himself up to the atmosphere, rather than cataloguing it. The wrong disposition makes beauty, truth, and goodness recede into obscurity, muteness, and invisibility.

The example of Will Hunting is an entrée to thinking about a hidden and foundational aspect of catechetical instruction, which concerns the issue of forming the mannerisms—the approach—of those being catechized. Few, if any of us, work with transcendent geniuses. What we more likely have are people quite a lot like ourselves: distracted, hurried, insecure, perhaps presumptuous, and unskilled in yielding to mystery. I want to focus our attention on the necessity of the slow work of teaching the habits, the disciplines, the approach to encountering the mysteries we proclaim and pass on in the life of faith. To do this, I will consider what Scripture demands of us when we encounter it, alongside sacred art. The hope on the horizon is to invite those we catechize into the atmosphere of the mysteries, but only after or at least alongside nurturing a change in them as subjects.

Between Certitude and Ignorance: A Prelude to Encounter

Will Hunting knew too much in the wrong way. He was locked in to his own certitude. He was in need of wonder that is only given to those willing to stand humbly before mystery—and here the term “mystery” is used quite broadly to include certainly the “mystery of God,” but also “the mystery of another human being” or even “the mystery of art.” In that respect, I actually have worked with quite a lot of students and adults who are more or less like Will Hunting and, to be honest, I have been like him, too. Certitude may take various forms such as “I already know what this is really about,” or “I absolutely must keep to my schedule,” or “that is just the way that person is,” or “I just can’t be bothered.” These predispositions are rarely receptive to a revelation of beauty.

There is also an equal and opposite obstacle to apprehending beauty that comes not from presuming to know too much but from assuming that since you can’t really know for sure, just about anything goes. As is sometimes thought with art, the subjective experience is everything, which functionally means that there is no objective quality to the work itself. All that matters, it seems, is what it does for me. Likewise, in other instances, what seems to count is who my God or this person is for me. These assumptions run on scripts of banal tolerance, dictating that “I can think this and you can think that and we can all think what we want and there is no way to adjudicate because, well, the experience is everything.”[ii] Rather than certitude, this is a form of willful ignorance, or entrenched skepticism about actually arriving somewhere definite in the interpretation of a work of art, or the apprehension of another person, or the worship of God.

Part of the crucial hidden work of catechesis is leading others away from these forms of rigidity and vagueness—which often coexist in different ways within each person—so as to be willing and ready to be grasped by beauty.

The Willingness to See: Encountering Scripture

How do we teach people to encounter Scripture? A Will Hunting might think of it as a collection of things to know about, perhaps with occasionally helpful moral lessons mixed in. The vague skeptic might see it as useful to the extent that it helps you with what you need or corresponds to what you were already looking for.

But what about thinking of Scripture as Sean spoke above about the Sistine Chapel: as an atmosphere, an environment, a culture in which to be grasped in wonder? Sure, that’s a tough sell to bleary-eyed tweens on a Sunday morning or overextended adult inquirers on a Wednesday night, but it was also a tough sell to the publicly overconfident, privately insecure Will Hunting. If Sean was right, maybe this is right, too.

Instead of trying to wade into this inquiry about Scripture from the shallow end, let’s just jump straight in to the most daunting part—i.e., the Book of Revelation. It is far more common than it should be for the Book of Revelation to be treated as either a repository of strange images or as a photographic testament to what the final future of things shall be, precisely and exactly, at the end of time. Things get weird pretty quickly when an imbalanced literalism is applied to the text, and people get weird just as quickly when they start to use the images in the Book to validate their own a priori views.

When Romano Guardini—the twentieth century theologian, liturgist, and literary scholar—wrote on the Book of Revelation, he set out, first of all, to teach his readers how to approach the text. While recognizing that readers should eventually know certain things, he argues that inflexibility renders the text lifeless. Moreover, too much looseness, as if this were all unendingly open to interpretation, also keeps the deep meaning of the text obscure, mute, and invisible. Guardini writes:

To understand [Revelation], one must first of all free oneself from the conception of things’ rigidity. Gradually animated, they must mingle and flow, and the reader must surrender himself to the movement… He must learn to listen, to be docile of spirit, accepting the images as they come, opening his heart to their meaning, harmonizing his being with them. Then the degree of understanding willed by God will be his. Once he has made this intrinsic approach to [Revelation], not before, careful study of its symbols, its construction, its historical background will be wonderfully profitable.[iii]

Guardini recognizes the typical human tendency to want to change the things that we encounter to fit into our preexisting expectations or biases. The thing about approaching Scripture is that the objective quality of the Word takes precedence (if Scripture is to be read as Scripture, that is). What is required of the one who stands before this work is, therefore, the same thing that is required of anyone who is to encounter, say, a work of art in an honest and truthful manner: the viewer must be willing to see what is actually there and to hear what is actually said.[iv] The first and most important part of encountering this work is the very manner by which you approach it.

Usually with considerable guidance, the reader must learn to let go of the ways of interpretation he or she imposes on the work. “We must be careful,” Guardini continues elsewhere, “not to pollute and darken the divine converse with our impurity and darkness; not to confuse it in our confusion, distorting it to fit our pride and pleasure, dragging it down into our worldliness, instead of adjusting our lives to its truth!”[v]

The Book of Revelation is all about the unveiling of true beauty and a judgment upon all that is not that. In fact, the unveiling of the Lord’s beauty is the final “No!” to all our feeble attempts to control and dictate meaning, or perpetually keep things open and revisable. The practice of reading this work correctly is, therefore, a way of participating in what is revealed therein: that the only “attitude toward Revelation [that] is valid [is a] readiness to hear and listen.”[vi] This is what I call “aesthetic recalibration”—letting go of the need to make beauty fit our preferred categories as the willingness to grow into the dimensions of the beauty we encounter takes its place. This is what it means to read Scripture as Scripture.

The Virtue of Strategic Patience: Becoming Capable of Encounter

It is one thing to say that encountering beauty on its own terms is preferable, another to will to do that, and another thing still to actually be able to do it. Living in our present digital culture makes this all harder. Consider this summary conclusion from a study on online research habits from the University College London:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.[vii]

This particular study was completed in 2008, when both Twitter and iPhones were still in their infancy. There is no risk in saying that the desire for “quick wins” has only increased since then. But even then, culture commentator Nicholas Carr recognized a change in himself, as a subject:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. […] The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.[viii]

Attention is difficult and patience is fleeting. Especially Millennials (and those coming after them) have been reared in a culture that has trained them to scan everything and focus on little. So how does one do what Guardini says we ought to do when encountering art, or the revelation of God’s Word, or even just what someone else wants to tell us?

By practicing, strategically.

Here’s what the Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts says about the place of such practices in the learning environment:

I want to…[create] opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available “in nature”, as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity…I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.[ix]

This is a critical point. The kind of environments that incline us to wait, to wonder, to slowly grow in understanding, to pass through waves of boredom to perhaps arrive at insight—these kinds of environment have become quite rare in the ordinary course of modern life. Teachers and catechists must therefore create these environments for their students. In Roberts’s view, the craft of teaching requires the deliberate cultivation of environments that will challenge—even force—students to exercise patience and attentiveness. The foundational but often hidden educational task is in forming intentional cultures.[x]

This does not mean simply that organizing a classroom in a certain way or choosing a particular kind of space for a faith formation session will do the trick. Again, transporting Will Hunting straight from the side of the lake to the middle of the Sistine Chapel wouldn’t magically deliver to him the sense of being grasped by beauty that Sean once experienced. Just as Will would have to slowly learn how to rest intimately with a lover, so too did he need to be prepared, formed, even prodded into opening himself to the sort of contemplation a place like the Sistine Chapel invites and demands. So too with those who undergo catechetical instruction, who are being made capable of intimacy with Jesus Christ and of being grasped by the mystery of divine love.

Dwelling in Beauty: Encountering Art

How do you guide people into the virtue of “strategic patience,” of a willingness to wait for rather than grasp at understanding, to dwell in poised attentiveness rather than seeking to run away through any number of immediately enticing distractions? By beginning with small exercises, then slowly increasing the concentration and intensity. To illustrate my point, I will share a way I, as a teacher, led a group of students through such a training regimen.

A few years ago, I developed a theology course that integrates academic study with deep spiritual reflection, through the medium of (mostly) sacred art. Like Sean talking to Will, I intended to stir my students’ imaginations with appeals to places like the Sistine Chapel; but unlike Sean, I received a grant to actually take the entire class to Italy over Spring Break. As wonderful as that sounds (and it was wonderful), there was a daunting challenge right from the start: in addition to teaching the students the theology that would discipline their minds (a form of teaching which is in my comfort zone), I also had to prepare them to read art well (a form of teaching not in my comfort zone). The latter task was very much about developing the right approach. It wouldn’t matter if they were in the Sistine Chapel if they weren’t prepared to give themselves over to the atmosphere of mystery.

I had two months to lead typical college students from their fast-paced, often impatient, regularly distracted, “quick win” obsessed rhythm of modern life to a decelerated and patient slow mode of inquiry where they would be willing to see clearly, wait on understanding, move through waves of boredom, and immerse themselves with humble attentiveness in the art we would encounter in person. So rather than meet in a normal classroom, I moved our class into our campus museum. In alternating class sessions, we went from a typical lecture and seminar format to an atypical “gallery” format, during which they practiced spending time with particular pieces of art and learning how to talk about them together—thoughtfully, discerningly, confidently.

They were very bad at this at first. They wanted to over-interpret things: jumping to conclusions, inserting bizarre theories, going for “quick wins.” But we stuck with it. Along with the museum curator, I gave them questions to slow them down and make them think. We spent time just silently gazing together at the art. They journaled. And in a few weeks’ time, they were beginning to have more careful and more absorbing discussions.

Once they had a bit of experience, we increased the challenge—quite considerably. As a major class assignment, each student was required to spend three full hours (in blocks of no less than an hour each time) with a single and rather simple piece of art. The whole point was to struggle to pay attention to what was there, with the inevitable waves of boredom sure to arrive. They were to take notes on what they were seeing, sketch shapes, write out short reflections, jot down questions, then allow themselves to reconsider things as they perceived new features of the art. When I first introduced this assignment, there was audible dread at the prospect of spending three hours alone with a single piece of art. By the end of the assignment—following several weeks of incremental practice with other works beforehand—they experienced an unexpected form of delight, having developed some kind of relationship with their piece of art.[xi]

All of this, remember, was to prepare them for the encounter with sacred art in Italy. They did go to the Sistine Chapel and, though surrounded by the noisy throng of tourists who packed the chapel, these students gazed wide-eyed with mouths agape at the ceiling, the walls, the majestic Last Judgment. They were absorbed, not by the busyness around them, but by the beauty beckoning them.

Cistine

It wasn’t in the Sistine Chapel, though, where I witnessed the greatest fruit of their training in the exercise of wonder, but rather in a smaller chapel in Orvieto in which frescoes from Fra Angelico and Signorelli cover all four walls and the entire ceiling. It was a cold day and the cement floor was hard on our feet. It was a rather uncomfortable environment. The students were free to come and go as they pleased. And they all stayed, by their own free choice, in that chapel for more than three hours in rapt wonder, or what I might describe as “tenderly poised attentiveness.” They silently reflected, they journaled, they shared quiet conversations, they asked me and our guide questions, they prayed. In the end, they stayed past the cathedral’s closing time and had to be asked to leave. That chapel was for them an intentional culture they were prepared to enjoy. It wasn’t endlessly open to interpretation but instead a definite act of communication that necessitated exceptional imaginative energy. We might think about an adoration chapel, a gospel parable, or service site in similar terms.

Few people ever work with a genius like Will Hunting and it is highly unusual to be able to take a class to Italy for a week. Those rarities aside, what must become more common especially in catechetical instruction is a pronounced emphasis on forming the mannerisms—the approach—to the mysteries encountered in the life of faith. The selection and creation of intentional cultures that invite attentiveness and patience is key, but only alongside intentional practices that prepare growing disciples to enjoy what these cultures make possible.[xii]

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., directs undergraduate studies at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life’s Big Decisions (Ave Maria, 2018). You can find him online at leonardjdelorenzo.com.

Notes

[i] Film clip available at https://youtu.be/qM-gZintWDc, under the title “[Great Movie Scenes] Good Will Hunting – Park Scene.”

[ii] Christian Smith argued for something like this when he concluded that “civic tolerance” is the chief operative value in American religio-civic life today (“Is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism the New Religion of American Youth? Implications for the Challenge of Religious Socialization and Reproduction,” in Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, ed. James L. Heft (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), 55–74.

[iii] Romano Guardini, The Lord, trans. Elinor Briefs (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Company, 2013), 562.

[iv] This corresponds with the priority of the “literal sense” of Scripture (see CCC §116; cf. ST I, 1, 10, ad. I)

[v] Guardini, The Lord, 596.

[vi] Ibid., 608.

[vii] Quoted in Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” The Atlantic, 2008, .

[viii] Carr.

[x] For more on these points, see especially chapters three and four of my What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life’s Big Decisions (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2018).

[xi] For more on this assignment, see Rika Burnham, “Intense Looks: Solitude, Scholarship, and a Teacher’s Transformative Experience,” in Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), 67–78.

[xii] This essay is adapted from a conference paper delivered at the 2016 Fall Conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

This article originally appeared on pages 16-20 of the printed edition.

Art credit: screen capture of Good Will Hunting © MIRAMAX 1997.

 


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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