This Lent, we've asked one of our favorite writers, Ellyn von Huben, to look at some works of art though a "Catholic lens." And boy, does she see some incredible stuff. This week, she gives an oft-ignored work by Ivan Le Loraine Albright a good once-over, and we are all better off because of it.
There is a painting that I stop to see every time I visit the Art Institute of Chicago. This has been going on for many years, since my first trip to our city’s splendid repository of great art. In fact, it is probably my favorite. Many people have a great deal of affection for Grant Wood’s American Gothic or Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But I've always been the most drawn in by the poignant and grotesque That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do by Illinois’ own Ivan Le Loraine Albright. It is known also by the simple title, The Door.
While most works of art are sufficient with no title attached, it is the sorrow in the painting’s longer title that makes it a great work for contemplation. Regret. The artist’s own verbalization of deep regret is the final touch that makes Albright’s work magnificent. No matter what it was that the artist regretted, viewing it stings our own sense of regret.
More people are familiar with Albright because of his portrait of Dorian Gray, painted for the movie version of Oscar Wilde’s book, which was filmed in the 1940’s. There is not a lot I remember about the movie — I think Donna Reed was in it — except for the revelation of Gray’s portrait as being a wonderful depiction of what must have been in Wilde’s imagination. But for me, it is The Door that is Albright’s masterpiece. This is a masterpiece of 10 year’s toil. Albright went through several wreaths, the hand model finally quit and he had to use a plaster cast of a hand. For Albright, great productivity consisted of the completion of a square inch of the painting, often using brushes with only one or two hairs...
Lent begins tomorrow, and as we finalize our plans for "giving up" or "taking on" habits, practices and tasks, Jared Zimmerer has some advice of what to do, but more importantly, what not to do. While the hairshirt might not be necessary, some form of asceticism is. But don't worry, this "New Asceticism" is more joyful than painful.
Catholic asceticism, coming from the Greek word askesis — meaning bodily exercise — has slurred into the shadows of the peculiar as of late. Today, most associate the act of fasting or abstinence as the only means of asceticism to be used, and if used, applied with cautious moderation. Reticent attitudes toward asceticism are in sharp contrast to the ancient Church’s practitioners of bodily mortification, who had a much more aggressive concept of what self-inflicted discomfort could accomplish to advance the cause of spiritual attainments. Flagellation, life-threatening fasting and days without sleep were a regular practice for some of the greatest saints in Church history. While their efforts were not completely in vain, in that their goals were always holiness, such practices of mortification are not meant to be applied broadly, and thankfully there are much less potentially destructive means that can be utilized to achieve the same end.
Genuine asceticism should be less about the infliction of pain and more geared toward our lower nature subjecting itself to our higher nature. In doing this, the sins of our physical nature, lust and gluttony for example, are restrained for the higher purpose of growing in the opposite virtues, chastity and temperance. What few realize is that ascetical practices do not have to inevitably involve the punishment of our bodies; rather it could very well include the building of them. In the act of growing in health, there are times when pain is required and times when distressing temperance is manifest, yet it is in these times that our bodies grow stronger and are improved. Therefore, we have the ability to build muscle, lose fat and gain cardiovascular endurance while embracing the very virtues that mortification demands. This New Asceticism sets its participants on a journey of discipline, virtue and holiness during bouts of exercise, and a daily living of eating for function rather than constant self-gratification...