Black and White

There are two colours that old-fashioned printers like me think about more than any other: black and white. What subtle gradations of white there are, and how important the white space on the page is! How many shades of black there are, and how delicately they affect our perception of what is printed! It is my firm opinion that until one can appreciate shades of black, white and grey one ought not to be let loose on colour as commonly understood. Colour is often used to compensate for weak design because it captures the eye and lends an obvious charm. It is rather like make-up applied to the human face: well-done it can add striking effects, but it can never achieve anything as simply perfect as bone and muscle can unaided. The key to good book design is structure: the harmonious blending of white space, typography and layout, all of them in the service of meaning. On the whole, with some important qualifications, I think that holds good for the design of digital pages, too. We need to think in black and white before we can express ourselves in colour.

Is there any analogy to be drawn with prayer? I think there is. Very often we get asked about prayer: what prayer is; how to pray; why God won’t answer my prayers (usually meaning, why won’t God do what I want). Sometimes we get lectured about prayer by Those Who Know (or think they do). We get people writing to us about some of the more difficult passages in mystical authors. We seem to be regarded both as experts in prayer (which we aren’t) or complete boobies (which I suspect we aren’t, either). So, when people ask my advice,  I always want to say, start at the beginning, don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never be as ‘advanced’ as you think you should be. God places the desire to pray in our hearts. ‘All’ we have to do is to allow him to pray in us. That is harder than you might think because it means taking our gaze off ourselves. The very learned and the very complicated must become very simple; and the process of becoming simple is never easy because we cling to our complexity for dear life. We do not like being stripped of the fig-leaves we have gathered for ourselves.

Sometimes those who write about prayer suggest that it is a wonderful adventure, full of light and colour. I hope it is, eventually. My experience, however, suggests that if we wish to learn to pray, we must first learn to think in black and white, in the colours of Calvary as well as of Eden. We must read the scriptures and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Just like the printer designing a page, we must give the process time and never be afraid of beginning again. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning.

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The Twelfth Degree

Humility is very attractive, in other people at any rate. Does it have an effect on the physiognomy or is it something that shows itself only in the moral sphere? It would take several blog posts to unpack what St Benedict has to say this morning (RB 7. 62 to 70), but there are two points I’d like to highlight: the monk (and equally, the nun) must ALWAYS show humility in their outward bearing and their doing so is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Take the outward show first. You might think that nothing would be easier to fake than the appearance of virtue. In a monastery, that’s not so easy. We become extremely sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviour. Any falsity, any lack of enthusiasm for the Divine Office or the task in hand quickly communicates itself. This awareness of the other is one of the great helps to Christian living that membership of a monastic community provides. The fraterna acies, the community battle-rank, is a source of strength and encouragement. I think it explains why Benedict was so keen on community living. Without community, the opportunities to grow in humility are fewer and the need to manifest humility less obvious.

Next, consider the action of the Holy Spirit. We all know how easy it is to take something to oneself: I did such and such; I overcame some fault or other. Benedict will have none of it. We are gradually cleansed of vice and sin by the action of the Holy Spirit. True, he may use our brethren to do the scouring, but it is always the work of God. In older monks and nuns, one often sees a transparency, a goodness that is hard to define but unmistakable when seen. A lifetime of virtuous living, of allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from within, tends to have an effect even on the face. It is the only make-over that costs nothing and yet everything, the only beauty that lasts beyond the grave.

BBC Radio Wales
The podcast of Digitalnun’s  9 October 2011 interview in the ‘All Things Considered’ series may be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/atc.

 

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SS Peter and Paul 2011

The Catholic Church can claim to be the oldest surviving institution in the western world but it is built upon foundations that look ridiculously flimsy. Neither Peter nor Paul is an obvious candidate for greatness: Peter always putting his foot in it and running away when things got tough; Paul talking the sun down and regularly falling out with his colleagues. Yet we know that each in his own way fulfilled the mission of an apostle and brought to the infant Church a necessary grace. We are here today because generations of Christians have followed in their footsteps, ‘sharing in the prayers and the breaking of bread’. Today we give thanks for their fidelity, just as we give thanks for Benedict XVI’s sixty years of priesthood and faithful service of Christ and his Church.

Last night the pope used an iPad to launch the news.va web site and tweeted his first tweet. Peter might have wondered, but I think Paul would have been quick to follow suit; and what a tweeter and blogger he would have proved! The Tradition handed down by the apostles is alive and active. It flows from the past but takes us somewhere new every moment. It is like the beauty of God himself, ever ancient, ever new. On this feast of Peter and Paul, let us also give thanks for the eternal youthfulness of the Church and for the beauty that we find in her.

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Illustrations for the New Missal

Yesterday CTS Catholic Compass made public one of the illustrations it will be using in the new version of the Roman Missal. It’s taken from the lovely Ingeborg Psalter and you can look at it here. As a humble book designer myself, I entirely agree with one of the comments, that being from a book of similar proportions, it will make a better illustration than a scaled-down altar-piece or fresco. As a lapsed medievalist, I also agree that the illustration is in itself perfectly lovely and modern printing methods will allow it to be reproduced with an accuracy and brilliance impossible even twenty years ago. So, why do I have a niggle?

The Ingeborg Psalter represents talent in the service of religion, something which transcends time and place, but, as you can see from the illustration, is also very much the product of a particular time and place. I believe that our own generation is capable of producing art that is both faith-filled and beautiful, and part of me is sorry that the missal editors have not sought out some contemporary artist to illustrate its pages. I don’t subscribe to the view that all contemporary art is ugly and brutal. I do subscribe to the view that our churches and everything in them should be the best we are capable of. A beautiful medieval psalter is a safe choice but is it the best choice? What do you think?

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