A Sacred Look: A Call to Become Pop-Cultural Mystics
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on January 19, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. The first entry in her twelve part series—below—makes clear the need for this kind of vision and the potential it has to reshape our lives. - Editor

I often converse with people who experience an intense dilemma of how to connect faith and media for their families. Realistically recognizing the powerful influence media have upon our culture and each of us individually, they struggle with the desire to lead their families on the path of holy living amid the plethora of adverse media messages that are contrary to their personal and faith values. Pondering this quandary compelled me to find a theological underpinning to bridge that gap between faith and popular culture. Exactly how do we bring our faith into dialogue with the culture without losing who we are? How can we become holy in a culture that often points out the opposite? What type of anthropology and spirituality is needed for today?  

I believe there is a call for a new mysticism. As the great mystics of the past, such as a Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich communed with God within their physical and cultural context, so, too, are we called to bring that mystical experience of the Divine into our own digitally-sophisticated media culture and daily experiences. Being a mystic means being authentically who we are as believers. It requires a transformation on our part, as it has been for every mystic throughout the centuries. It means not only to learn about God but also to personally encounter and develop an intimate relationship with God. As Christians, this means that we are to be the Gospel message that Jesus proclaims and make it incarnate in us. Our baptism calls us to this very idea of being the evangelizing word in today’s world, preaching with our very lives the joy of knowing Christ. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said that as disciples of Christ we are to become everyday mystics, finding God in all things, in all circumstances and human experiences. He even goes so far as to express that the Christian of the future will be a mystic, or will not exist at all.[1] For us 21st century Christians, everydayness is a digital experience. This is why I believe our call is to be cultural mystics, that is, mystics of the popular culture that pervades our lives. We are not to fight against it, point out everything that is evil in it, or condemn it. That’s the easy thing to do. Instead, we are to be the mystics who look at the world with love and contemplate the deep underlying desires, longings, needs and struggles present there in order to offer the world a message of hope, truth, beauty and goodness. In order to do this, we must take a step back intellectually and reflect on the beauty that is present within the created world and in the creations of cultural artists who seek to give expression to the existential desires of humanity. It requires us to take a sacred look. Through this theological aesthetics we can we can develop an anthropological-incarnational-sacramental foundation for a theology of popular culture.

Seeing is a function of the body but also a function of the soul. The human person sees tangible realities and makes meaning that transcends these realities. This meaning comes from the depths of human understanding of what is being, what is real. To look at the real is to probe the depths of being. When we do this we touch upon ineffable realities that challenge and probe the human psyche to grasp a Beauty that is beyond itself, a Beauty that can be seen by plunging the depths of created reality. Whether conscious or not on the part of the artist, beauty’s purpose is to point to the beauty of the Creator from whom all beauty originates. However, this effort often meets with ambiguity since created beauty is seen through humanity’s deformed vision that often becomes enamored and distracted by penultimate beauties.[2] Sacred Scripture and theology tell us that this vision can be deformed by the darkness of sin that can blind and obscure one from seeing the beautiful harmony of creation pointing to the source of Beauty, who is Being itself.[3] To truly see this reality, the infinite beauty of the Creator in creaturely beauty, one must make that journey inward, perceived, as Augustine says, through our spiritual senses,[4] to develop one’s power to see beyond to the ultimate source. This interior journey allows us to understand that we, human beings, are not the creators or sustainers of life and reality. Instead, this interior-ization opens us to a humble stance before transcendence, to that which is beyond our finite intellectualism, giving us eyes to see to the non-material, supernatural realities. This is the sacred look.

Everything in creation leads us to a harmonious relationship of the beauty and truth of individual creations to the beauty and truth of the Creator, the source and summit of all beauty. This is the heart of theological aesthetics, the main task of which, according to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, is to cultivate the imaginative awareness to recognize created beauty as manifesting the presence and glory of God. This relationship between creation and the Creator comes together in the incarnate Word made flesh, forming a bridge between creature and Creator. Augustine says that the Word is the perfection of Beauty, the way we enter into relationship with ultimate Beauty through the “superabundance of his life.”[5] Thomas Aquinas shows that it is in beauty where the Incarnate Word is revealed to humanity.[6] It is this experience of God that is an experience of grace working through natural elements. This anthropological vision makes the human person the starting point for a theological discussion on culture. For it is in the Word of God made flesh that humanity now enters into communication with God in a concrete, tangible way.

Through contemplation of the Son of God made man, we encounter the eternal self-communication of God that draws us into a relationship of love, where the Word is the icon of the Father.[7] The icon is how the Transcendent, the One who is completely other and not confined to limits, shines forth in order to direct the gaze of the beholder to glimpse the eternal.[8] Henri Nouwen implies that the icon of the Transcendent also invites the beholder into an experience of the Divine.[9] No longer is humanity trapped in its own existential darkness, because through Christ we have been made new. As St. Paul says, we are a “new creation.”[10] It is by this contemplative sacred look through the power of the Holy Spirit that we see Christ as the perfection of humanity, the One who shows us what it truly means to be human. Christ in his humanity expresses the truth, beauty and goodness of God most unequivocally in his passion, death and resurrection. For it is in probing the depths of human existence in its desperate, despairing darkness that he brings humanity the hope of salvation. It is in the anguish of abandonment that he communicates a communion of love. It is in the horror of death that he offers eternal life.

By seeing the Word we see ourselves and we also see the One who is Other, the Trinitarian God who communicates the abundance of truth, beauty and goodness. This Trinitarian communion of love is the communicative expression of these qualities of being that flow forth upon all of creation in God’s self-communication. These qualities of the true, the good and the beautiful, these modes of being are often referred to as the transcendentals, meaning they lead us beyond material categories to the realm of the spiritual. Human beings are the receivers of this communication of God, but not passively or alone. Instead, this communication calls forth an active relationship of love—a two-way communication that gives birth to creative beauty in humanity, in community, expressed in its cultural artifacts that communicate the depths of human experience. This response does not remain only with the artist or the observer of the art, but moves beyond to the entire community. It is in grappling with what it means to be human that we come to an experience of the Divine. We, therefore, enter into that transcendent communication with God the Father aided by the grace of the Spirit, with Jesus, the Word made flesh, as our mediator.

This communication with God takes place most concretely in liturgical worship and sacraments. It is through the communal worship of believers who embody rituals that communicate reverence, praise, and adoration of God that this relationship of love is clearly expressed. In the liturgy – the gathering of the faithful for worship – Christ is present in his Word and Eucharist, and thereby the believers enter into a profound and corporeal intimacy with Christ and his Body, the Church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, liturgical/sacramental rituals and symbols use material objects and human actions as means for encountering the Word made flesh, He who comes to redeem us and draw into a new and lasting relationship with himself. Through the objects of bread, wine, fire, water, oil, incense, icons, artistic images and the theatricality of ritual, we not only perceive the Divine mediated through the tangible realities but truly receive grace, the gift of God himself, communicated through the material symbols and embodied rituals. It is through these symbols and signs that our cultural imaginations are formed. That is, the way we view reality and our place within the wider cultural experience, and in this case, the digital media culture. We can see this dynamic at work in a few recent, popular films.

In Gravity, when Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is stranded in a capsule at the International Space Station without fuel to propel her to the Chinese Space Station in order to return to Earth, she shuts the system down and prepares for death. One camera shot focuses on a small icon of St. Christopher, the patron of travellers, while Stone is giving up on life. This symbolic shot offers the viewer a sign of hope, communicating that we are never all alone. There is Someone guiding and watching over us. Our liturgical communal practices represent that desire for human beings to belong, to be in communion. Though Dr. Stone was an independent, self-assured professional, she was also very lonely since her young daughter died in an accident. This was symbolized in her aloneness in space. Yet, through the communication with an Aleut-speaking fisherman on Earth she realizes then how she needs other people. Her perspective on life changes even while she prepares for death.

The aesthetics in films often provide me with a spiritual experience, especially those regarding food. I love to cook so I notice the details in the food movie genre. Not only are the savory delicacies visually appealing, but also they represent some of the most profound yearnings in human beings—the need for connection and communion. To share a meal with someone is a way to get to know that person on a deeper level. Our cultural and sacramental imaginations are engaged when we see food in popular films since it provides greater meaning to the story.

Jon Favreau’s film Chef offers just such depth. When a particularly talented Los Angeles chef, Carl Casper (Favreau), argues with his boss and restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman), he quits his job and tries to make a living with a food truck in Miami with the help of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara). Casper, who in the past became wrapped up in his work, begins to notice his son and his talents for social media when he joins Casper and his best friend (John Leguizamo) on a cross-country trip in their new food truck. The comfort food they provide on the truck draws crowds and becomes a catalyst for the sacramental moments of life—time with his son and a fresh start with his ex-wife. It is a story about communion and connection around the seemingly mundane necessity of food. Yet, it becomes an inspired experience of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love expressed through taste, texture, and the beauty of satisfying cuisine. A genuine eucharistic feast.

To truly see with new eyes, to develop that sacred look that sees beyond the cultural imagination and the tangible realities to a broader liturgical and sacramental vision of the human person, there is a need to become cultural mystics. This means we are called to embody the desire for transcendence, that is, the desire to reach beyond what is tangible and surpass finiteness, while critically engaging the popular culture. We then can offer a perception of reality that is anthropological-incarnational-sacramental. To see with the vision of the cultural mystic means that we have a faith that compels us to recognize the profoundly rich image that the Triune God has of each person and all of creation. To embody the ideal of the popular cultural mystic is a spiritual exercise in recognizing God’s presence in the world and especially in the artistic questioning in regard to human experience that ferments in popular culture. All Christians are called to be mystics, to see the world with eyes of faith. It is through a contemplative stance on the world and our popular culture that mystics offer a transcendental view of reality that is only fulfilled in the beatific vision of our God. Yet, it offers us a way of bridging the gap here and now between our faith and our popular media culture.

[1] Rahner, Karl, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), xviii.
[2] Cf. Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 11.
[3] Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty, 9.
[4] Cf. Augustine, Confessions  X, 6, 8: “What am I loving when I love you? Not bodily beauty nor the gracefulness of age, nor light’s brightness, so dear to these eyes of mine; not the sweet melodies of song, nor the fragrance of flowers, of perfumes, of aromas; not manna, nor honey; not the body so dear to the embraces of the flesh: no, these are not the things I love when I love my God. And yet in a certain sense I do love light and sound, smell and food and embrace, when I love my God, the light, sound, smell, food, and embrace of my inner being.”
[5] Augustine, Confessions IV, 12, 18.
[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, q. 39, a. 8c.
[7] Forte, Bruno, The Portal of Beauty, 17.
[8] Ibid., 75.
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen’s reflection on Rublev’s icon in Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2007), 20-22.
[10] 2 Cor. 5:17

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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