Pope John Paul II left his mark on the world in countless ways, and in the wake of his death it seems that all of them are being written about at endless length.
Appropriately so—there can be no doubt that he will be remembered as one of the half-dozen most consequential figures of the 20th century—but it doesn’t leave much room for further comment. Still, I’m struck by how little has been said about one of the most provocative aspects of his life and work, which is that he was, among many other things, a practicing artist.
To be specific, John Paul II was both a poet and a playwright, and though his efforts in these fields have not proved to be of lasting interest, they are important for another reason. Like a great conductor who composes as a pastime, John Paul understood the way of the creative artist from the inside out, not as a passive consumer but as an active practitioner. This, I believe, is what made his 1999 “Letter to Artists” so revealing a document. It isn’t one of his better-remembered papal letters, nor did it attract much attention among artists in Europe or America, most of whom regard Catholicism with the utmost suspicion. Yet it speaks to the attentive reader in tones of intimacy that leave no possible doubt of what the pope was hinting at when he spoke of feeling “closely linked” to artists “by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly marked my life.”
Most astonishing of all, at least to me, is the very first paragraph:
None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.
That is, of course, straight out of the neo-Thomist playbook, but it quivers with a poetic comprehension that not even Jacques Maritain at his most penetrating could summon up. (The use of the word “pathos” is an especially exquisite touch.) It is the very voice of the artist—but one who would never think of elevating himself above his mortal station. It reminds me of a favorite saying of the great choreographer George Balanchine, himself a deeply religious man, who always went out of his way to deny that he “created” anything. “I don’t create or invent anything, I assemble,” he explained time and again. “God already made everything—colors, flowers, language.” Balanchine would have known just what John Paul II was talking about.
The pope knew, too, that while the truly serious artist is obliged to accept “art’s specific dictates,” and that there is “an ethic, even a ‘spirituality’ of artistic service,” the ultimate source of the beauty of art is ever and always that perfect order of which it is but an earthly reflection:
Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery…. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God.
I never met John Paul II (though I have on my desk a simple wooden bracelet blessed by him, the gift of a friend who brought it back from Rome a few years ago). Still, I felt when I read his letter to artists that he was speaking directly to me, and to others in my often uncomfortable condition. It reminded me of a passage from Helena, the least well-known of Evelyn Waugh’s full-length books, which has just been reissued in paperback as part of the new Loyola Classics series of Catholic novels. The speaker is St. Helena of the True Cross, who is praying to “those three royal sages who had come from so far” to adore the infant Jesus. She refers to them as “patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation… of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.” Then she petitions the sages in words that lodged permanently in my mind the first time I read them: “For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
The learned, the oblique, the delicate. What an utterly characteristic catalogue of traits for so complicated a man to have placed on the tongue of a saint! Its autobiographical overtones will be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Waugh—and I’m sure that John Paul II would have understood it, too. He knew from experience the steep incline of the artist’s way, and I expect he would have been more than happy to pray for the learned, oblique, and delicate, more than a few of whom have come late to the truth, led there at last by that which John Paul had in mind when he wrote that “art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
How I shall miss him.