Arts and Culture

Self-Education & Profound Aesthetic Experiences

I have been thinking about Josef Pieper’s statements about awe and wonder in his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New Yok: Pantheon Books, Translated by Alexander Dru, 1952, pp. 127). Pieper mentions some events that can lead us to wonder. Among the events are studying philosophy, the experience of love, and the experience of the death of a loved one. He also mentions that we can be moved to wonder when we have a profound aesthetic experience.

I paused when I read that he mentioned aesthetic experiences along with such profound experiences as love and the death of a loved one. Reflecting on some profound aesthetic experiences that I have had, I now agree with Pieper completely about their special value.

When I search my memory for profound aesthetic experiences, I immediately think of Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (sometimes referred to as #34); the Eucharistic ending of the film “Places in the Heart;” the homily in the hull of the ship in the film “On the Waterfront;” the soliloquy “To be or not to be” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the recurring melody in “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” by Rachmoninoff; the painting “Ecce Homo” by Rouault; and Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Pieper has helped me to see how important experiences of awe, wonder and mystery are. As far as we can tell, the smartest dolphin and the most complex computer can have no experiences of awe and wonder. A culture should offer many such experiences.

These experiences can help us to retain our awe and wonder in relation to specifically religious experiences such as celebrating the Eucharist and other experiences of prayer. We never want our lives to become routine and boring. We never want our religious practices to become “business as usual.” Because of our religious faith, our life should be an adventure, indeed the greatest adventure.

Since Covid has arrived I have temporarily cancelled two programs that I had been involved in for approximately 30 years.

The programs were conducting film festivals and moderating an adult education course on the “Catholic Novel.” I think as I began those programs I wanted to invite people to experience the treasures of some great films and novels. I also think it was my attempt to combat the secular messages that people were receiving from some films and some best sellers. I don’t recall thinking that the films might help people to experience awe and wonder and that this might help them experience awe and wonder in relation to their religious beliefs and practices.

Perhaps without realizing it, I conducted both those programs to provide for myself and others cultural experiences more profound than the frequent fare offered in our contemporary secular culture. If and when I ever return to offering those two programs, I would be much more aware that I am creating my own culture as a kind of antidote to the secular culture in which all of us live. I would be much more aware that what we were doing was not only educational but profoundly religious.

We need more than a 10-minute homily at a Sunday Eucharist to deepen our faith and hope and to encourage us to live as self-gifts to God and others. We can be gradually moved in our contemporary culture to trivialize our faith or to be self-consciously insecure about what we believe. We don’t ever want that to happen. For several years I have been trying to persuade teachers of literature in Catholic high schools and colleges to teach a course on the Catholic novel. I have had no succees. One teacher at a Catholic college told me that the English department had courses on Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. I said that was wonderful, but why not a course on the Catholic novel, which is like a treasure in a field? No teacher of literature showed any interest. My impression was that they thought the Catholic novel would be too parochial. Of course, I think the opposite. I think the Catholic novel is cosmic in its themes and vision.

I think each Catholic should try to create his or her culture, a culture that will foster awe and wonder, a culture saturated with mystery. I think all of us should evaluate our leisure activities.

Are we reading books, viewing films, attending theatre, reading poetry, listening to music? Are we exposing our minds and wills to what will enrich us? Or do we settle for junk? Evaluating our leisure activities is not easy, and I am certainly not advocating that we should never relax. What I am encouraging is that we take advantage of what is easily available and exceptionally enriching.