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Rev. Jan Michael Joncas Illuminates ‘The Wound at the Heart of the World’

Mixing visual images, music, and poetry, composer Rev. Jan Michael Joncas described the Catholic spiritual journey from childhood to maturity when he presented the annual St. Catherine of Siena Lecture at Providence College.

Father Joncas is a renowned classical composer and author of four books, but he is best known for his hymns, including “On Eagle’s Wings,” “I Have Loved You,” and “Taste and Eat.”

His lecture, “‘I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me’: The Spiritual Journey in Catholic Imagination,” was sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies and presented in Aquinas Hall Lounge before about 80 people.

Father Joncas is an associate professor of Catholic studies and theology at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minn., and artist-in-residence and fellow of its Center for Catholic Studies. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Saint Thomas, a master’s degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame, and a licentiate in sacred liturgy and a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical University of St. Anselm in Rome.

Father Joncas opened his lecture with an excerpt from author Michael Chabon: “The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research ‘childhood.’”

Adolescence, wrote Chabon, is “a memory of the world unbroken” — an ache for the ideal experienced before. As people mature, they put the world together again, in the process creating little worlds of their own, scale models of the broken world, known as “works of art.”   

The development of Catholic spiritual imagination follows the pattern of childhood, adolescence, and maturity, Father Joncas said. The journey begins with wonder, encounters doubt and disillusion, and through grace, creates works of art and healing through the love of God.

“You now know what I want to talk about this afternoon — wonder, and the wound at the heart of the world, and of trying to put it back together again,” Father Joncas said.

From childhood to maturity

To illustrate the wonder of childhood, Father Joncas showed a photograph of a small boy exploring a window filled with bubbles. The child’s face showed delight and enchantment — the same feeling celebrated in a sonnet, “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which God is praised for beauty in nature. Father Joncas concluded by playing his own composition, “This is the Day,” a song of rejoicing.

In contrast, Father Joncas’ illustration of the adolescent journey was somber. Adolescence is a period of growth that “gives us an intuition of the wound at the heart of the world and our own woundedness from it,” and for many, “shuts down the spiritual journey,” Father Joncas said.

He read Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall,” about a girl who is sad at the approach of autumn.

“What this young girl in adolescence is grieving is not just leaves falling from a tree, but the fact that she and all that she knows is going to die,” said Father Joncas. “All human sorrow derives from a single source … all our mourning is ultimately grounded in mourning for our own death.”  

He displayed “Tomoko Uemura in her Bath,” a photograph published in Life magazine in 1972 that depicts a 21-year-old woman, blind and physically deformed by mercury poisoning, cradled by her mother in a Japanese bathing chamber.

“I believe we are here in the presence of the holy, to see the wound at the heart of the world in the body of that child,” said Father Joncas.

The paradox is the photograph’s beauty and its similarity to Michelangelo’s Pietà — “the Christ who has identified himself with every broken person.”

“This, too, is the Catholic imagination,” said Father Joncas. “It takes seriously the brokenness of the world.”

Redeemed by Christ’s love

Father Joncas played “Lord Send Out Your Spirit,” music he composed a decade ago after being paralyzed by Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Catholic imagination is not shocked by “the pervasiveness of sin,” but “enters into divine compassion for the brokenness,” he said. In maturity, people discover that grace heals, according to God’s design and in God’s time. People are “wounded, but not obliterated, by sin and redeemed by the love of Christ.”

He showed a pencil sketch of Mother Teresa, noting “eyes that have seen everything and are still open wide.” He contrasted two works, Sophocles’ “Antigone” and Hopkins’ poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” then played Psalm 139, “Lord, you have searched me and you know me.”

Father Joncas concluded with a passage from Genesis, in which Jacob wrestles with God and leaves limping, but not before God has renamed him Israel, “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

“Welcome to the spiritual journey, where you grapple with God in the dead of the night and he wounds you, and you will spend the rest of your life limping, but it is glorious — it is glorious! — because you have seen the face of God and lived to tell it,” Father Joncas said. “Amen.”   

The St. Catherine Lecture on Spirituality and the Frontiers of Evangelization is one of four lectures presented annually through the generosity of Edward J. Quinn, Jr. ’63 and his wife, Kathleen Reilly Quinn. The feast day of St. Catherine of Siena is April 29.

— Vicki-Ann Downing

 
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