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Inside NCR

Exile and the kingdom; art and the nuns

There are many forms of loneliness, and priests, being human, are subject to all of them. Spare a thought, then, for Fr. Henry Williams of Sierra Leone looking out at the white faces of the congregation in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria, British Columbia. As the music started, so did Williams’ hands -- but discreetly -- keeping time to the music.

It was his first Mass in his new life.

What must it be like, wondered Arthur Jones, NCR’s editor-at-large, to undergo such dramatic culture shock: to a cold climate, to such sedate worship and reticence in daily life compared with the exuberance on which he was reared?

“I already miss the drums,” Williams told Jones later. “And the dancing and the hands.”

Three months earlier, the priest was hiding in the bush as Sierra Leone’s civil war went through another wild phase. The bishops of Sierra Leone and Victoria, old acquaintances, agreed to a transfer, and the priest from Bonthe Island is now on Vancouver Island.

It will take time for the people “to get used to my accent and my style of delivery,” Williams told Jones, “and me to theirs. But we’ll do it.”

To the congregation he said, “Don’t make me be lonely. Come up and introduce yourself to me on the street. That’s what we do where I come from.”

That, and sing and clap hands and dance their way through liturgies.

Once upon a time, Christianity and the arts went hand in hand throwing light on each other. More recently the words almost add up to an oxymoron. Christianity and the Arts is, therefore, a daring venture, an act of faith -- a sleek, thoughtful quarterly now about 5 years old, edited by Marci Whitney-Schenck (PO Box 118088, Chicago, IL 60611; phone 312-642-8606).

The fall 1988 issue has something special: “Hidden Treasures of the Church: Arts by Catholic Nuns.” This is a stunning reminder of the amazing energy and creativity of American sisters this turbulent century. This is not a collection of pious little pictures; it is frequently art at the cutting edge, an impressive variety from Sr. Corita Kent to -- well, too many to mention.

The “nun art” issue is a grand mix of theory, history and all kinds of art works. There’s art from the barricades but also some nostalgia, poetry, fiction -- who will fill those sisters’ shoes?

Not that they have left the scene. Among the flood of reminders that have come to my desk is Prayers for a New Millennium, by Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki (Ligouri Publications), already leaping over minor problems such as Y2K into a more gritty and exciting new millennium. Her “Prayer for Interior Improvement” concludes:

... When the wild angel arrived,
she placed a flaming sword of justice
in my hand.
When I entered the burning bush,
you told me
that where I stand is holy ground.
When the writing formed
in the palm of my hand,
I knew my true name.
If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999