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Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

The Joy of Suffering

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Chris Renz, OP

A reflection on the broadside “Arbre de Vie” by C. J. Renz, OP  

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During this time of “sheltering in place,” I am exploring “the new normal.” Recognizing the urgent need to educate the public about the realities of the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus (or as the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has officially renamed it, “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, or SARS-CoV-2), I am aware of a chronic level of internal anxiety that results from being constantly bombarded by this topic. 

To abate this anxiety, one aspect of my new norm is to ensure daily breaks from this topic by turning “on” to a topic that is nourishing my soul as well as my mind. Specifically, I am turning towards Beauty, thinking of the often-quoted phrase of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “beauty will save the world.” Whether it be natural or created, beauty will be my “happy distraction” for each day.  

In an article entitled, “Will Beauty Save the World?”, Michael D. O’Brien reminds us that Dostoyevsky used this phrase ironically, wanting to examine how beauty and suffering share a very important characteristic, they both “can seize the human heart of the observer.” O’Brien further notes, “This is why the Church has frequently called artists to open their hearts completely to Christ so that as they live in the fullness of both crucifixion and resurrection, living words might flow through them.”  

Grateful for this reminder, I have decided that each day I will link the suffering of this current pandemic crisis to the beauty held in Blackfriars Gallery art collection. As I catalog a few pieces of the art we have inherited from a former professor of art history at DSPT, Michael Morris, OP (+2016), I allow myself to be drawn into its beauty, which more often than not focuses on an aspect of the passion and death of the Lord.  

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Arbre de Vie

The other day I was struck in particular by a very wonderful broadside entitled, “Arbre de Vie”. As with nearly all of the art in the Blackfriars collection, its provenance is unknown. A similar version is held by the British Museum, which has dated its piece to the late 19th century. The image is catechetical, identifying the new life that arises from the tree of the cross. The lower left contains the Biblical tree of life that rises from the “root of Jesse.” Next to it is the scene of the apostles in the boat, and Peter crying out to Jesus for salvation. (By the way, if you watched the Livestream of the “Urbi et Orbi” message from Vatican City, then you will recall this is the Gospel passage that Pope Francis chose for his message to the world.) The lower right presents the seven sacraments as waterfalls flowing from the rock. Above the crucified Christ, various fruit “name” characteristics of the Christian life – justice, piety, work, prayer, culminating in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These all lead to the Father through the Holy Spirit. 

I sat for some time with this image, allowing my emotions to explore both its beauty and its sadness. I felt no contradiction because I am reminded that they must work together to create a vision of the Paschal Mystery. I think the current situation, especially as it comes to us during the holy season of Lent, affords us the opportunity to order our focus of attention, giving priority where it is due – not on “crisis” but on the truth that suffering and death give way to everlasting life.

Learn more about the Blackfriars Gallery and enjoy viewing this piece, as well as the entire collection. Simply follow the link entitled, “Browse the Art Catalog” and bring a little beauty home. 

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