1941 was a dark and cruel year for Eastern Europe. Torn between the oppressive forces of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, thousands of ethnic Slavs, Jews, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, homosexuals, people with disabilities and intellectuals were seen as threats to their visions.
Many lives were taken within the walls of concentration camps that had been forcibly erected on their lands. Those that remained outside those walls were also at risk as they faced cruelty and oppression by the foreign invaders. The people longed for the return of that which all humans hold most dear—their culture and freedom.
Simultaneously, a group of young artists, poets, actors, and playwrights met clandestinely in one another’s homes in Poland.
At risk of imprisonment—even death—these artists met to read poems and perform plays that spoke about humanity, culture, and beauty. This underground resistance group, self-identified as the Rhapsodic Theatre, had formed with the sole purpose of sustaining Polish culture and morale.
Why would these young people risk so much for art?
The answer lies not in their nationalistic pride, but in something much richer.
Art represented more than words on a paper or paint on a canvas; these individuals met to discover profound truths of life revealed in the now-forbidden work.
Among them was Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.
Over 60 years later, I stood among a group of fellow actors backstage, excitedly awaiting the hour of our opening night performance of the musical, The Pajama Game.
We had gathered for a prayer before the orchestra queued us to take our places for the opening scene. The leader among us began our prayer with a request for the intercession of Pope John Paul II, a fellow thespian, and ended with, “He knows our artistic aspirations and its place within the greater scheme of creation.”
I don’t remember how our high school performance went that night; whether we said all the right lines, or hit all our notes. But from that night forward, I saw (now) Saint John Paul II as a fellow creative spirit and particular friend and advocate among the Communion of Saints.
Despite a special devotion to this great Saint, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered a beautiful gift that he had left for me: a Letter that spoke to the yearnings of my heart, to a seedling whose presence I had been aware of from a young age.
Since I was little, I’ve had a great love for all things beautiful. Whether the surrounding landscape, the essence of a poem, or the heartfelt melody of a song, I was passionately attracted and sensed some deeper meaning behind it all.
I longed to somehow be a part of that beauty. Over the years, I’ve sought to fill this longing with various creative endeavors, without understanding the significant way God was compelling me to act.
The reading of St. John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists definitively changed that; it shone lovingly on that little seedling I sensed within me and called me to grow into the fullest of my being.
The Pope’s letter revealed the unique calling I had received, written on my soul from an early age, and my understanding of my role as an artist began to unfold. His words explain humanity’s need for art, and invite all artists to help people develop an understanding of themselves and God by using their work to unveil the mysteries of creation and its destiny.
St. John Paul points beautifully to the source of all creative inspiration—the Holy Spirit, the breath of the Author and Creator of the universe. Every inspiration is originated from the original breath that the Creator infused in the world at the dawn of time; the same breath that breathed life into Adam. He writes,
“The divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art.”
In this way, artists are able to experience a small sense of the Divine—a gift that inspires them to capture a thing and share it with others, which can elevate the audience to reflect on the beauty from which it has been inspired, even stir them to wonder. As St. John Paul II puts it, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future.”
What a thought! To think of the stirring power of beauty, and its ability to captivate the human heart and move it to higher aspirations!
Art in all its forms has the power to touch people of today and tomorrow; to reveal the marvels of the universe, the truths of humanity and the profound mysteries of the Divine. It also brings hope amidst despair and invokes enthusiasm to overcome challenges posed to humanity in every age. Fyodor Dostoevsky must have understood this truth when he wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
Only by fully understanding the unique gift that artists receive and from where it comes, we creatives are able to know ourselves and the whole of creation, as well as the understanding of our mission and responsibility to the world. In St. John Paul’s words, “by drawing ever near to the good, the true and the beautiful, they will also draw closer to the finality of their vocation.”
John Paul understands, as well, the artist’s need to create—it is imprinted in our very beings. By perceiving the divine spark which is the artistic vocation, we feel a deep obligation not to waste it, but to develop it to the fullest potential, so that we may serve both our neighbor and the whole of humanity.
We thus have a unique and necessary place in the fabric of each nation and culture to which we belong. With aspirations both worthwhile and beautiful, we have the ability to enrich cultural heritage while unveiling to our audiences of today and tomorrow something of the great truths of life.
Fellow creatives, what a great mission we have before us! How much greater than our individual selves is any creative inspiration, any finished masterpiece. What a great obligation we have to our brothers and sisters, now and in the future, to develop our talents and express the divine creative inspiration gifted to us by God.
May John Paul’s Letter inspire you to further meditation on your artistic vocation. I’ll close with this great Saint’s hope for us:
“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy….may your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”