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Peter Stockland: Retreat combines worlds of art, faith

By 
  • January 28, 2019
Art4Dieu

Changing the current toxic cultural narrative around and about the Church consumes enormous Christian energy through a range of means and methods.

For Montreal’s Alisha Ruiss, a vital but often too overlooked approach centres on including players within cultural industries themselves — actors, singers, musicians etc. To that end Ruiss, a classically-trained singer, has organized an bilingual ecumenical retreat called CREATED: An Artists' Retreat, in collaboration with Art4Dieu this March. Her intention is to attract Protestants and Catholics who make involvement with the arts an essential aspect of their lives of faith.

The retreat will neither seek to foment yet more protest nor focus exclusively on introspection, Ruiss says. Instead, it will seek to provide artists themselves with courage, comfort and practical understanding toward making Christian faith and cultural creation twin halves of a seamless garment.

“It’s very important to me that it be embodied, that it not just be sitting listening to talks but that it be formation in how to enter into craft as a person who’s a believer.” 

Ruiss has been working on the retreat project for more than a year, fitting its organization into her professional life in musical theatre and jobs that must be taken between gigs. During a mini-retreat last fall at McGill University’s Newman Centre, the message coming from participants was the sense of isolation so many artists of faith feel. It’s a function of the nature of artistic life but also because they are believers living in a world aggressively dismissive of their belief.

“There was a common feeling of being alone in their respective fields and a need to break that sense of being so solitary, which comes through in the idea of witness. People need to hear each other’s stories in order to be able to connect their work to a sense of meaning. That meaning can get lost in the middle of just working on the nuts and bolts of what it is that you have to do.”

Ruiss has experienced the powerful solitariness of being an actress and singer in a place where competition for roles is fierce, life is a constant balancing act of art and mundane realities, and home can often seem very far away. Born and raised in Brantford, Ont., she did her voice degree at McGill, returned to Ontario in 2007, then came back to Montreal in 2010. Her French is fluent but much professional work comes through the city’s vibrant, close-knit, anglophone theatre community. The result is having to walk a careful line between her devout faith and being labelled troublesome by directors or others with influence over who gets what roles. She cites a small show she was in where the director insisted the performers pretend to receive communion and then insult the Host.

“We were supposed to pretend to take it off our tongues as though it tasted awful or was weird and make faces like we were disgusted by it. It was so uncomfortable because I couldn’t do it. That was a line I couldn’t cross: straight up mockery of the Eucharist,” she says.

It was not a great public moral conundrum such as abortion or euthanasia or clerical sex scandals. Yet it bore directly on her embodied relation to Christ and revealed in an almost chilling way the gulf of understanding between her art and her Church. The director, she recalls, had absolutely no understanding of why such an act, even as acting, would be anathema to a Catholic. It also took Ruiss back to debates she had with her younger self about whether it was possible to harmonize the theatre and faith.

She has since resolved that internal dialogue by coming to understand artistic discipline as prophetic calling.

“The call to faith and the call to art are complementary callings. They’re calls to tell the truth, the truth about joy, and how we see joy. That’s why it’s important the Church invest its time there. It needs artists not just because they’re nice to have around or for some transcendental ideal. It’s pragmatic. It’s the Church having a missionary spirit that is also beautiful.”

The March retreat then is not about pulling back from the world or faith or art. It’s a time for artists to gather in communion before going forward with their own renewed stories of the Church in the world.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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