In an oft misquoted statement by St. Thomas Aquinas the Angelic Doctor is alleged to have written, “Grace builds on nature.” What he actually wrote was, “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” He does this in the Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 1, Article 8, in his response to the objection to the belief that sacred doctrine can be a matter of logical and reasonable argument. For Aquinas, the use of reason is a partner and not an opponent of faith, and in this he separates himself, and thus the Church, from any sort of simple fideism – the epistemology that proposes that faith is separate from and superior to reason.
This might seem like a whole bunch of highfalutin theological mumbo-jumbo akin to the attempt to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it has real-world applications that get to the heart of our most meaningful and transcendent human activities.
All of this ran through my head as I drifted off to sleep on Sunday night, grateful to my wife Ann for her suggestion that, after attending Mass, we go on a field trip. What we took away from our adventure went beyond the merely natural and took us into the sublime realm of God’s grace.
Throughout the day our senses were enraptured by what we heard, saw, touched, smelled, and tasted. In addition, we were moved by what scientists call proprioception, and what to the rest of us is the sense of space or surroundings.
We heard heavenly music in a building the size and beauty of which was a fitting home for such ethereal sounds. We touched, smelled, and ate pizza that was as much a memory of the past as it was present culinary delight. And then we stood, and sometimes sat, enraptured as we saw what gifts are given to us by those who can take oil and canvas or ink and paper or stone or metal or wood and transform them into something that calls us beyond anything bound by such mundane materials.
At the 11 a.m. Mass at our parish, St. Ignatius of Antioch, we felt lifted beyond our seats in the fourth pew, on the right, next to the pillar, by the mix of music, voices and space. For those who are unfamiliar with this church, it is massive – European massive, and the ceiling, although not as high, always reminds me of that of Notre Dame in Paris. This overwhelming, and overwhelmingly beautiful, space takes the beautiful voices of our parish choir and makes them sound like those of angels, including that almost undefinable sense of proprioception, of filling up the heavens with their euphonious song.
After Mass we hopped on the Shoreway and wove our way through University Circle and up the Hill to University Heights to get lunch at Geraci’s. I recognize and understand that pizza, like all food, is a matter of personal taste, but I also believe that food is more than what is on the plate in front of you. I love Geraci’s pizza even more for what it is in my mind, than for what it is in my mouth.
For me Geraci’s pizza tastes like the memory of so many take-away meals with my young wife Ann before, during, and after her pregnancy with our son Kevin, eaten in the kitchen of our University Heights home three decades ago. That period in our lives was a time of enjoying the present moment while looking at the distant horizon of the future. Today, Geraci’s pizza tastes like the soft yet melancholy glow of a fading sunset in the rearview mirror, of great memories in a time now long gone.
From Geraci’s we wove our way through Cleveland Heights, scanning the landscape for houses with For Sale signs on the front lawn to see if we could spot a future home for our house-hunting daughter and son-in-law. This was an enjoyable exercise, yet was merely a pleasant diversion as we sought out our ultimate field trip destination: the Cleveland Museum of Art. Of all the places that define Cleveland this is the one site where I feel truly at home.
For as many times as I have visited this museum, I always find something new to marvel at, even as I am eventually and without fail drawn as by a magnet to the peacefulness of Monet’s Water Lilies. The surprise gem of this particular visit was a relatively small drawing of the Pieta by Twentieth Century Polish artist Wiktoria Goryńska. Her stunning work reminded me of the many Fritz Eichenberg engravings that graced the pages of the Catholic Worker newspaper, and it had such a haunting, almost medieval-meets-art-deco quality that I returned to it over and over again, ignoring all of the other works in the special exhibition dedicated to artwork created in response to the masterworks of Michelangelo.
As Ann and I made our way to the exit, I was drawn into the Master/Apprentice exhibit room one final time to sear into my memory the sublime beauty of Goryńska’s work, knowing that this overwhelming vison of sadness and empathy was the perfect conclusion to a day of divine grace intervening in our fallen natural world, and lifting us inexorably towards the perfection of God.