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Art as Reverence

In my homily for last Sunday, I used the Impressionist painters as the springboard to discuss the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These French painters responded to the rise of photography by demonstrating that the impression or individual perception of the artist, especially in regard to color and composition, still would hold great value. In many ways the image of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Church’s long reflection on the Scripture passages that refer to Mary’s pondering of the Word of God within her.

Msgr. MCorkle gave this painting of Mark Twain to me that he had painted. I was to hang it in my classroom where I taught American Literature. I lived in Hannibal, Missouri at the time. The seminary was housed in what used to be an orphanage that was run by none other than Laura Hawkins who was the real-life inspiration for Becky Thatcher. Msgr. McCorkle lived in Hannibal for most of his adult life.

You may be wondering where I would come up with such an analogy? I can tell you that it was because of the excellent education I received at St. Thomas High School Seminary in Hannibal, Missouri, and it was my art teacher during those years in particular. Msgr. Louis McCorkle taught me art and art history for three years. I was on the faculty of the seminary years later with him for fourteen years. You may have read about Msgr. McCorkle in the Catholic Missourian last week at the occasion of his one hundredth birthday.

It was fitting that I talked about art last weekend as Msgr. McCorkle died on Sunday at Conception Abbey where he had lived for the past twelve years. I attended his funeral at the Abbey, presided over by Bishop McKnight, along with six other priests who were colleagues and/or former students of Uncle Lou, as we all called him. Also in attendance were about twenty-five other former students, some traveling from as far as Washington D.C.

You’ll be able to read more about Msgr. McCorkle in the issue of the Missourian that will come out later this week, but I’d like to say a few words about Msgr. McCorkle’s example as a teacher and mentor. I first came to know about Uncle Lou from my brothers who also attended the seminary before me. The three of them would bring home their paintings from their classwork. My brothers inspired me in many things, but seeing the artistic side of someone for the first time was a revelation. Having four older brothers left me often feeling like the weakling of the family. I still am the shortest of us. There was something about the act of creativity as represented by their paintings that allowed me to see them in a new light. It was an insight into vulnerability.

A work of art is always an exercise in humility. An artist makes an object that that is meant to be seen. It is a permanent record of your abilities, or lack of abilities. At my seminary high school, art was a requirement for your sophomore and junior years. That meant that Msgr. McCorkle would take on these classes of young men who by and large had no experience in art of any kind beyond kindergarten crayola. Msgr. McCorkle assumed that each of his students had a capacity to produce art. We went through all the various media that sophomore year: pencil, chalk, water colors, linoleum blocks, finishing with oils. By and large all of our work was terrible. But Msgr. McCorkle taught us all to look at what we did, no matter how poorly executed, and see the striving for beauty that each of us is capable of. Msgr. McCorkle treated his students with reverence and respect. And even the worst of our paintings deserved an ornate frame so we could give it as a gift to our parents.

I also had the privilege of teaching along with Msgr. McCorkle. I was amazed at this man, now in his seventies, embarking on a whole new chapter of his art: life-sized busts and figures cast in bronze. I remember the summer after my first year of teaching. Msgr. McCorkle and Father David Maher, another faculty member, drove to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to deliver the clay models that would become bronze statues. One of my summer vacations was a visit to Santa Fe where I had been tasked to visit with the foundry professionals and bring back samples of surface patinas that would be possible for these large bronze castings. It was a privileged entry into a world of artists in one of the world’s great art centers.

Msgr. McCorkle brought that same type of reverence for the individual to another major chapter of his life. He devoted many years of research into his family tree. He eventually published a monumental genealogy of the McCorkle clan, Of Viking Glory. I assisted Uncle Lou in this work with some technical support. He was making the transition from the word processing software Word Perfect to Microsoft Word. We had to ensure that all his footnotes, annotations, cross references and bibliographical detail transferred to the new software. I was so impressed as we cross-checked everything from his original interview notes, microfilm records, or page after page of photocopied documentation. I asked Monsignor why he would go through such trouble of such detailed documentation. He told me that the research material he had collected, sometimes only consisting of a photograph of a tombstone, often represented the only remaining witness to the life of one of his ancestors. He said that one day he hoped to go to heaven and see all these folks. He would be awfully embarrassed if one of them would say that he got the date of their birth wrong.

Msgr. McCorkle was a priest dedicated to the education of future priests. But he also was a hospital chaplain for many years. I must confess, I really discounted that part of his priesthood. I really admired him for his artistic talent. For so much of my life, hospitals and sickness were fairly foreign to me. Even for the first many years of my priesthood, I rarely was called to the hospital because I was mainly involved in education and vocation work. I had always thought of hospital ministry as something of an afterthought for people who really needed it. I had no idea how central ministry to the sick and dying was to parish life until I became a pastor myself. I value my time at Our Lady of the Lake especially because Lake Area Regional Hospital has given me such an opportunity to celebrate the sacraments of comfort, healing, forgiveness, and communion. My Thursday afternoon visits to the hospital, or the many late night calls to the emergency room, were privileged places to encounter Jesus Christ with the sick and their family members.

In the sacraments of the Church, Christ takes the things of this world and transforms them into vessels of his presence. Reverence is a crucial aspect of all the sacraments, both of the matter of the sacraments, such as the bread and wine, but also to the people who receive them. A priest and an artist are custodians of reverence. Each in his own way.

The first oil painting I ever painted. The subject is the boyhood home in Hannibal of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. It was a rite of passage for all sophomore art students. I’m somewhat embarrassed by the “A” Msgr. McCorkle gave me. 

In art class we studied calligraphy. I’ve always had horrible looking handwriting. Msgr. McCorkle taught me that I had within me the capacity to write something not only legible but beautiful. I took those skills to college with me and spent my first year of work-study writing the call numbers on the spines of books for the Conception Abbey and Seminary library. Those spine labels have been replaced by bar codes. When I saw this, I was sad. But I was also thankful that I had even a small part in the long history of the Church’s reverence for the Word as represented by the countless monks and scribes who poured out the knowledge from generation to generation through their fingertips.

Our calligraphy final project was copying a verse onto some rich parchment. The quote is taken from the prayers of Tuesday Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours: The talents of artists reflect your splendor, may their work give the world hope and joy. Msgr. McCorkle taught me that it wasn’t just artistic talent that reflects the glory of God and brings joy to the world. Whatever talent, no matter how small it is, was given by God to us for a purpose. Our missions as Christ’s disciples is to put that talent to good use in building the Kingdom of God.