Sunday, July 18, 2010


This photograph started out very differently from the image that ended up as one of the signatures of the project. The priest Steve was photographing had taken us through the motions of the Mass, step by step, starting with preparing in the sacristy--and including a brief discussion of the attributes of sacramental wine. When he got to the elevation of the Cup, Steve took the shot from several angles. One included the nimbus of light from a sconce on the wall that, from the proper angle, looked like light emanating from the chalice. Right from the camera, it was a distance shot, in color and impressive enough to my untrained eye. Steve fretted that the image was too complicated, and the purple chasuble in one corner of the frame and a doorway in the other took away from the power of the shot.

My groom has an artist's appreciation for the picture-in-the-picture; he sees not only what is, but what can be. One evening, we went to our respective computers after dinner, he to work on photos, I to work on a book I was in the process of writing. He cropped this image, softened the edges, took away the color and sent it down to my desk. It took my breath away when I opened it.

I'm no intimate of the processes of the digital darkroom, but it seems that wresting this beautiful picture from its less impressive source is a bit like growing in the spiritual life. Start with something good, as we are created, but a work in progress, needing an Artist's touch here and there to be what we are meant to be. Get the right perspective on things, focus in on Jesus and remove distracting details--it's surprising what can emerge.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sign Language

Almost every priest talks with his hands as he preaches, and the accents are as distinctive as are the accents of voice.  Some are given to grand gestures; others hold their hands closely and more controlled.  Watch any priest in the course of Mass, and his favorite gestures will become evident very quickly.  See him outside Mass, and you’re likely to find the same motions in conversation.  Recognizing the postures was easy, but posing them was more difficult.  Our subjects were often unaware of their most characteristic poses and stiff when asked to reproduce them. 
One expedient Steve used was to get his subject talking, and the discussion was often as interesting as the resulting images.  One priest told the story of a taxi driver and a priest—the priest ending up with time in purgatory and the taxi driver waltzing right into heaven despite his profane life.  The punch line?  The priest’s homilies put people to sleep but the taxi driver regularly drove (literally) people to prayer. 
The result is a diverse collection of images.  One priest regularly pushes up the sleeves of his alb before beginning to preach--or celebrate-- as though to emphasize that he is preparing for important work.  One is given to elegant, inviting gestures, palms up, that beckon both the listener and the Spirit.  Another’s “accent” is to bring his hands together in various ways, emphasizing the connections of the people of God.  Yet another often raises his hands in sheer joy at the wonder of the subject he teaches. 
One of the great gifts of Catholic worship is that we get to use our bodies, not just our hearts and minds, as vehicles for worship.  We see the beauty of our churches, we hear consecration bells and some of the most glorious music ever written, we touch beads and holy water, we are surrounded by the fragrance of incense, we taste the Blessed Sacrament.  The language of our priests’ hands in worship provides yet another dimension in a tradition already rich in expression,inviting us to communion with God and each other.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Holy Smoke!

This is an image of an image-maker.  This priest is himself a photographer, which meant that the photo session was particularly enjoyable, especially for the man behind the lens.  It wasn't long before our subject and Steve were deep in conversations about f-stops, pixels, lens characteristics and the electronic (as opposed to the traditional) darkroom.  When we'd exhausted our repertoire of shots in the church, the good Monsignor invited us to the rectory to see some of his own work.

It was always a treat to be invited back to the priest's digs.  It's too easy to think of our clergy as a breed entirely apart.  Seeing their home base has a way of reminding us that they are as ordinary and individual  as anyone else.  In this case, as soon as we walked in it was evident we were in the house of someone who loves photography and reading.  There were stunning images of the Irish countryside on every wall, and books in the book-cases, some two-deep, spilling onto the desk and left by the easy chair, several in progress at once.  And on the table beside the chair, under the light was a neat, wooden stand, with half a dozen pipes standing at attention, ready for use, leather tobacco pouch laid beside them.

A small confession.  I've always loved pipes, an admission liable to result in my being drummed out of polite, anti-tobacco American society.  As a physician I am well aware of the pernicious effects of smoking, but there's something warm, professorial, thoughtful and oh-so-comfortable about pipe smoke.  Maybe it's my primal affection for Sherlock Holmes and his two-pipe problems, or the memory of a particularly pleasant colleague whose office was one down from mine and whose cherrywood smoke drifted into my own office as he worked.  At any rate, I asked if we could take a few more images, and our subject was delighted to comply.

As a rule, pipe smokers fiddle with their pipes more than they smoke them.  Steve clicked away as the pipe was filled and tamped with a well worn implement and  eventually coaxed into flame.  A few determined puffs and smoke curled from the bowl, making graceful shapes as it rose.  Rearranging his subject for optimal light, Steve sought the perfect image of that curving smoke.  Once back home, we realized there was an abundance of riches in those images.  This is a detail from one of them.

Maybe my affection for pipe smoke isn't so hard to understand from a Catholic perspective. We inherited from our Jewish forefathers an appreciation for smoke--the smoke of offerings, the smoke of incense, as both metaphor for God and the very image of our prayers and sacrifice rising heavenward.  Pipe smoke isn't incense, of course, but I am willing to believe that it is at least as pleasant as the smoke from burnt offerings of old.

Why the smoke?  Aside from tradition and the Biblical references of incense symbolizing prayers rising and the altar (or the faithful) being recognized as set apart by censing, there's the physical reality of it all. Smoke is best seen up against something else in the world to bring it into sharp focus.  It's impossible to feel it or taste it, but  just as impossible to escape from it--it surrounds everything and you KNOW it's there.

A bit like God.