Faith & Thought

It Seems That Masterpieces Never Really Stop Growing

As I mentioned in last week’s column, my favorite American playwright is Eugene O’Neill. In a letter, probably written in 1925, O’Neill expressed what he was trying to do with his dramas. He wrote that he wanted “to see the transfiguring nobility of tragedy, in as much near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives. And just here is where I am a most confirmed mystic, for I’m always trying to interpret Life in terms of character. 

“I’m always acutely conscious of the force behind Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it — Mystery certainly — and of the eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression” (O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion and William J. Fisher; New York University Press, 1961, pp. 125, 126). 

O’Neill has expressed the mystery of being human in what may be his two greatest plays, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Both plays are painful to watch, but that is because O’Neill sees so deeply into human suffering and dramatizes that suffering so brilliantly. 

I find it interesting that I have been helped to reflect on the mystery of God by artists who have a vision of reality quite different from my own. My favorite American playwright is Eugene O’Neill, who abandoned his Catholic faith. My favorite film director is Ingmar Bergman, who was possibly an agnostic. I am a big fan of many Woody Allen films even though time and again he has described himself as an atheist. 

It is also interesting that in the Problem of God philosophy course that I teach at St. John’s University I think I have learned a great deal about the mystery of God from some of the atheistic philosophers I teach in the course. Perhaps this should not surprise me. In reading great philosophers and viewing works of art created by geniuses, I have exposed myself to deep thinkers and great talents. 

Maybe I would have been more surprised to find the reflections of great thinkers and the creations of great artists contained no insights. I know I feel great gratitude for what I have received from philosophers and artists. 

When you experience the art or the philosophy of some thinkers who are exceptionally reflective people, anything can happen. I have found powerful insights where I may not have expected to find them. 

Reflecting on this, I am reminded that somewhere along the way in my educational journey, someone convinced me of the importance of accepting truth wherever I find it. I wonder if it was St. Thomas Aquinas. 

The example I use to explain my outlook is to point out that a great play by an atheist and about an atheist is still a great play, and a poor play by a Christian believer about Jesus is still a poor play. 

Writing about a revival of O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” one critic wrote, “It seems as though masterpieces never stop growing.” I know what he meant. An artistic masterpiece is like a freshwater well. You can continue to return to it, and it never loses its freshness. In fact it sometimes seems as though you are seeing the masterpiece for the first time. In one sense, the masterpiece has not changed, and yet it seems to be a living reality that invites you to experience it more deeply. 

Writing this series of columns on the arts and religious faith has brought back wonderful memories and blessings. It has also caused me to look toward the future, anticipating future blessings. 

What will be the next great play that I see, the next great novel I read, the next cinematic masterpiece I encounter, the next philosopher I read who helps me understand more deeply what it means to be human or who sheds light on the mystery of God? Nature is filled with God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. So are human artistic creations. 

In beginning this series of columns about the arts and religious faith I was hoping to write something that readers of the series might find interesting and even be motivated to experience great artistic creations more frequently. I find that I am motivating myself. 

One of my favorite poems is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” The first line of the poem is “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The poet is focused on the presence of God in nature. I think we can also praise the presence of God in artistic masterpieces. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.