Bernini, “David”

The site has undergone a basic redesign, though it is still haunted by Bernini’s David. There is of course a logic to this theme, though I have never explained it. I want to take a moment to spell out what I think “Catholic kung fu” might be, and how Bernini’s famous sculpture expresses it.

“Kung fu” is a silly way to name a serious website, and that is just as well. The strange apposition of opposites is something to which we ought to grow accustomed. The Chinese term kung fu – though associated with martial arts – in fact refers to any effort that requires patience and skill. It shares more with the Latin ars (art, skill) or studium (study, zeal) than it might anything implying battle. Being Catholic is not a legislated agreement of terms; it is a way of life, an art.

The ars of Catholicism is more than a simple discipline; its vitality is not found in itself, but rather in Christ Himself. I could list the popes, describe every canon law, name every sacrament, fill pages with the long history of the Catholic Church, and still I would not have given you what Catholicism is. I would have given you some of those things that make its life concrete, particular. The means by which the art is expressed. Still I would not really grasp the art, because the art is Christ – and Christ cannot be caught by anything, least of all His Church.

The heart of Catholicism is not its own; the heart of the Catholic is not his or her own. Christ’s heart is the center, the vital force that makes everything what it is. Give me all your theory – and I will match you with more – and still neither of us will have understood unless we see that living Heart at the center. Give me your cynicism – and again I will outmatch you – and still both of us will be blind unless we see.

It’s an uncomfortable place to be. To live with the center of one’s existence outside of one’s self, to live struggling to see where the Heart is. It means that one can never sit still. Real art never sits still. That is why it is a skill, a zeal, a discipline: because it does not sit still, or else it ceases to be. (What is a skill if it is not used? A zeal if not applied?) The Catholic cannot be content, cannot sit still. One must never be comfortable.

There is a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, driven by a single, constant, perpetual center: that divine-human Heart. Catholicism is a centripetal force.

This is why the ars of Catholicism is, in my mind, so well captured by Bernini’s David. The statue is all twisting movement and ferocity, a still statue that refuses to sit still. Light and dark sweep together to force the eye to move with David, coiling as he uncoils. All the strangeness and contradiction cohere and inhere through a profound inner unity, an inner stillness, that we cannot see unless we know the movement too.

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

– T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets