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Tianna Williams: Leading with Beauty and Trusting in God

Today Matt Nelson sits down with Canadian artist Tianna Williams to discuss her work, as well as the methods and inspiration behind her paintings of the faces of Mary and the Saints. Could you begin by telling us about your upbringing? Were you raised Catholic? My father is a Catholic evangelist and musician. My mother, a graphic designer by trade (who also has a beautiful voice and sang backup), managed much of the ministry behind-the-scenes. From my youngest years, my parents led our family in faith and prayer. Some of my earliest memories include learning how to clap to a worship song my dad wrote—one two three, four five—and running around in the back of the church while the adults around me raised their hands and voices in praise. When I was a bit older, my dad regularly brought my sisters and I to daily Mass before school. We…

Mr. Manna: In Praise of Demanding Teachers

Frank Manna was a master teacher who built a legendary high school band by making his students pass through a crucible. At times as ruthless as Terrence Fletcher—the jazz band instructor in the movie Whiplash—Manna demanded absolute perfection from his students. His teaching style would not work for everyone, yet there is something praiseworthy about it and perhaps in need of emulation in our times. Teachers should not be afraid to be demanding; they should study the legendary taskmaster of Chicago’s South Side and learn to do it well.  He was my high school band director. My first encounter with Mr. Manna was at a marching band practice that felt more like bootcamp. I was part of the last all-male class at Marist High School, toward the end of Manna’s teaching career. It also happened to be the highlight of Manna’s musical…

Accepting the Most Royal of Invitations: To Suffer

Let’s begin with something that is painfully obvious: Life is hard, and nobody gets out of it without a measure of suffering. No one. We need only look at the crucifix to understand the truth of it—to see the very embodiment of innocence and goodness brought into a torture and torment most unjust, enduring his suffering unto death. We need only look at the Woman, his mother, standing with him, never leaving his side, but instead consenting to suffer her own agonies as her baby, her adored little boy, is shredded, drained of his lifeblood before her eyes, defiled unto death and even beyond. The Woman—the Theotokos, the God-bearer—and her son, the God-man, consented to endure their trials because their sufferings were meant both to effect something and teach something to all of humanity. First, that the God of creation and salvation and sanctification is The God Who Knows. The pains…

Stealth Evangelization Through Music and Beauty

One of the eight principles of the Word on Fire movement is “leading with beauty.” This principle is on glorious display in the newly produced Word on Fire Bible, where beautiful art illustrates the Word of God in visible form and is an extension to our senses of the written Word placed beside it. This edition of the Gospels got me thinking of the multiple ways the Word of God can be communicated through means other than the written Word. I think here of sacred art, mosaics, iconography, frescoes, architecture, and, of course, music. Over the centuries, it was through the medium of music that the Psalms were prayed, the Scriptures were proclaimed, and God was praised in the liturgy. Music was, and continues to be, a wonderful gift from God through which he can speak to us and uplift us in worship and praise. From the Old Testament, we…

5 Ways Saint John Henry Newman Can Help You Through This Year

One year ago today, Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman. What a year it has been since then. Bishop Robert Barron was present for the canonization Mass last October in St. Peter’s Square, where in Pope Francis’ own homily, the pontiff quoted one of Newman’s: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not.” Newman spent twenty years as an Anglican priest before being received into the Catholic Church, a journey he describes as “like coming into port after a rough sea.” As a former Anglican priest myself, Newman’s witness is powerful to me; but at this moment in the life of the Church and the world, St. John Henry Newman has much to say to all of us. We all seek peace, and we all need a vision of home amid the rough seas of 2020. Here are five ideas from Newman that…

On Going through Hell

Recently, during the summer of rage, my eighth-grade daughter stood gazing at the television news with furrowed brow and a shaking head. When she realized that I had been looking at her, she blushed and confessed, “With everything going wrong in the world, it’s hard not to get down.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. There is a clever (but depressing) cartoon showing the spines of books neatly ordered on a shelf. Each volume had a date (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)  indicating that between each book’s covers is the story of that year. When one arrives at 2020, however, there are well over a dozen books grappling with all that 2020 has been. Just think about it: a paralyzing pandemic; a tumultuous economy; riotous racial strife; vulgar, sophomoric behavior from our elected leaders (from both parties); dislocation from family and friends. It is a time of fear and anxiety,…

“We Lepers”: The Mimetic Saint

Born on January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, near Louvain, Joseph De Veuster (Damien is his religious name) was the youngest surviving and seventh of the eight children of Frans and Anne-Catherine, Flemish-speaking farmers. Forty-nine years later, he died from leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, during Holy Week on Monday, April 15, 1889 in Kalawao of Molokai, literally on the other side of the world, having ministered to those living and dying in exile in the settlement for sixteen years. Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Damien of Molokai on October 11, 2009 at St. Peter’s Basilica. It may seem odd that it should have taken over a century to canonize a man who devoted himself ardently to the care of the poorest of the poor, and literally spent his life in the imitation of Christ. A reading of Gavan Daws’ biography Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai in light of…

In a World of Miracles, We Can’t Look Away from Ourselves

Maybe “don’t cry, baby, don’t cry” is just another way of saying, “do not be afraid.”

On Education: 3 Counsels from My Little Plato

On my desk, I have a little bust of Plato. And every now and then I found it staring right at me as if it had something to say. My attempts to get it to finally speak always went unanswered; in fact, the silence was deafening. I almost gave up but recently something changed. Since I was introduced to The Republic in high school, the question “What would Plato think?” has always lingered in the background for me on any given topic, whether that be the cultural/political landscape of America in 2020 or the role contemporary education has to play in creating such a landscape. I’ve always sensed that behind those questions, Plato would ask me about education and its implicit view of human nature and reality. This doesn’t surprise me given that education is at the heart of his tome, The Republic. Knowing this, I opened my copy of…

“The Social Dilemma” and the Silent Carthusians

The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma—a film about the dark side of social media explained by the Silicon Valley innovators behind it—is a kind of public service for the digital age. Most of us talk about how addictive our smartphones are. We are concerned about the role social media is playing in the rise of outrage and polarization in adults, and isolation and depression in kids. Some might even already be aware of the mechanics behind all of this. But this documentary offers a full look behind the curtain to anyone who wants to see it—and it’s not pretty. One particularly impressive figure is Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris has coined the phrase “human downgrading.” Technology, he argues, is “downgrading our attention span, our relationships, civility, community, habits”—and all very much by design. The result…