Ever since medieval engineers discovered ways to open up the stone walls of their cathedrals, architectural glass has been among the glories of Western imagination.

The glass has not always been coloured. Classical Revival architects in the Renaissance wanted their churches and residential interiors lit by clear windows. The pioneers of architectural modernism followed suit — hence the handsome expanses of clear glass in such projects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s splendid Toronto Dominion Centre.

But the art of splintering light into the colours of the rainbow returned to architecture with Romanticism. That 19th-century movement in the arts saw the renewal of things the medieval glass-makers knew well: how to paint with light, how to shape and mould interior space with colour, how to fashion moods of devotion with symbols and images and abstract patterns.

Toronto artist Sarah Hall is today one of the world’s most talented inheritors of this venerable tradition. And with nearly a thousand works to her credit, she is also one of the most prolific living contributors to her art. Over a career spanning some 35 years, her highly expressive, richly colourful projects have been installed in churches, synagogues, schools and other public places, including an embassy in Ottawa and Toronto’s Scotia Plaza, across Canada and the United States.

A book that acknowledges Hall’s accomplishment has been overdue for some time, but at last it has arrived. It’s called The Glass Art of Sarah Hall and is published by Glasmalerei Peters, a German fabrication studio that has translated several of the artist’s complex designs into reality. This portfolio of 27 installations includes a brief introduction by architectural historian Karen Mulder and a thoughtful essay on glass, spirituality and Hall’s distinctive esthetic by J. S. Porter, a Hamilton, Ont., poet and essayist.

“The visual artist’s task is to renew — in a world of throwaway marketing images intended to seduce or numb — the viewer’s relationship with the ancient qualities of the heart by new pictorial means,” Porter writes. “Reconnecting with the sacred means revitalizing spiritual traditions that have borne transcendent light throughout human cultures for centuries.”

In Porter’s view — and he is certainly correct — Hall performs this task in an original and penetrating way. “Her windows,” he notes, “call us into reverence and contemplation; they evoke wonder and mystery.” They do so by presenting images deeply ingrained in the history of the Christian West — the Cross, the waters of Creation and baptismal Re-creation, the fire of the burning bush and Pentecost — in very fresh, vibrantly hued visual languages.

If Hall’s vocabulary of symbols and signs is usually traditional — whether the tradition she is working in is Christian or Jewish or other — her search for creative means equal to the job of communicating ancient meanings has taken her far afield from the realm of simply tinted glass. She casts prisms for inclusion in some works; she hand-paints, laminates, sandblasts and screen-prints her panes and fragments of glass. And in recent years, she has been especially interested in the possibilities for visual drama afforded by new glass products coming off the technological assembly line.

Hall first demonstrated the incorporation of photovoltaic cells in her glass art in 2005, for example, in a piece she contributed to Canada’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an international competition of solar-powered house designs held each year in Washington. This beautiful secular work was called Northern Light, and its cells produced energy that was stored and later used to illuminate the building’s foyer.

Her most ambitious handling of new materials so far, however, and the first permanent installation of photovoltaic glass art in North America, is the award-winning True North/Lux Nova. Fabricated in Germany, this lyrical, devout composition, illustrated well in the book under review, was designed for the façade of a 12-metre ventilation tower over an underground theological library at Regent College, a Christian studies institution on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. True North/Lux Nova stands in a park at Regent College’s heart, recalling Christian devotion with its inscription of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The religious theme of the piece is further reinforced by 12 crosses that shimmer against a cascade of silvery blue, violet and white. And this luminous tower of fused and etched glass also provides a memorable reminder of the peace that can reign between humankind and the environment: It declines to add to the burden already on the public electricity grid, and, instead, creates from sunshine (via embedded solar cells) the energy needed to power a column of light that glows by night behind the glass panels.

Leafing through this volume, I found myself thinking back again and again to a line from Porter’s catalogue essay: “She makes visible the usually invisible thrust of life.” Sarah Hall does exactly that, celebrating in new glass the old symbols by which we know God, life and each other.

Christ’s promise fulfilled in those who assumed the seat of Peter

By

In his inaugural homily in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict concluded, “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!’ ”

Indeed, the whole Church will look back to that day — that’s the new feast day for Blessed John Paul. For the feast day’s Office of Readings in the breviary, an excerpt from the day’s “be not afraid” homily has been chosen.

The “be not afraid” inaugural homily remains one of the electrifying moments of the entire pontificate, and John Paul repeated the exhortation to Christian courage and witness over and over for nearly 27 years. Yet to go back to Oct. 22 means more than words; there are striking images from that day too.

During the inaugural Mass, the entire College of Cardinals processed to the new pope to show their fidelity and loyalty. One by one they knelt in front of his chair and kissed his ring. Yet when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland for 30 years at that point, approached the new Polish pope, John Paul tried to prevent him from kneeling. He rose from his chair, and as the old cardinal kissed the fisherman’s ring, the young pope embraced him with profound emotion, kissing his forehead, kissing the primate’s ring.

Will the ‘many’ be counted?

By
Many Catholics are reading the Holy Father’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week, as spiritual reading this Holy Week. Does many mean all?

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI sheds light on a matter that English-speaking Catholics will encounter later this year. The new translation of the Roman Missal, which will take effect in Advent 2011, changes the words of institution, the words the priests says to consecrate the bread and wine, transubstantiating them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Week is a good time to examine that.

In the current English translation the priests says over the chalice, “... it will be shed for you and ‘for all’ so that sins may be forgiven...”  The new translation will say, “... will be poured out for you and ‘for many’ for the forgiveness of sins....”

The Resurrection transformed all our relationships

By
As I think back over the long winter now ending in Easter’s joy and promise, one spiritual event I took part in comes to mind with special urgency. The discussion, entitled “The Senses of Creation: Ecology and Symbolism,” happened one snowy weekend at the St. Mary of Egypt retreat centre, near Belleville, Ont. (This outstanding ministry is co-ordinated by Catholic Register columnist Mary Marrocco.)

The leader of the retreat was Gavin Miller, a biologist, ecologist and Catholic layman. Miller’s theme was humankind’s relationship with the realm of nature, as that ratio has been deformed, especially over the last two or three centuries, by motives of greed and exploitation long endemic in Western culture. This lethal link, however, is neither necessary nor inevitable. We can choose life instead of death, co-existence with nature instead of manipulation — if we are willing to view nature in the holistic perspectives opened in history by the Resurrection of the Lord.

The contemporary environmental crisis, Miller told us, is deeply rooted in an instrumental and utilitarian attitude toward nature that is typical of mainstream Western thought and practice. This impulse has a venerable history. Magic, for example, was the ancient bid to desacralize and conquer nature, to reduce everything to operational quantities.

Actors rediscover faith on set

By
Wes Bentley, the son of two Methodist ministers from Arkansas, said his involvement in the faith-based movie and the support of other cast members have helped him get back on the right path. (CNS photo/Motive)MADRID - Playing a character with no apparent redeeming qualities was a blessing that helped Wes Bentley regain sobriety after years of addiction and isolation.

The actor made the comments to journalists in Madrid for the premiere of Academy Award-winning director Roland Joffe’s film There Be Dragons about the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei.

Bentley, the son of two Methodist ministers from Jonesboro, Ark., said he grew up in a “loving, supportive, spiritually strong family.” Over time he said he “drifted into another world” where “things got very dark and lonely. I had isolated myself from everybody who cared about me.”

The first scenes Bentley was asked to shoot were scenes in which his character, Manolo, was 78 years old, on his deathbed and about to reveal long-held secrets to his son. In the film, Manolo grew up with and attended the seminary with St. Josemaria but left after one year and ended up becoming a spy for fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, tore apart families, as well as the country.

Another Salt+Light gem

By

My friends at Salt + Light Television are in the cable television business — or perhaps better to say, in the evangelization business, cable television department. The greatest profit I gain from their work though is not their TV programs but their special documentaries, available on DVD. I have about a half dozen myself, but there are more than 30 to date, ranging from devotional materials for Lent and profiles of religious communities to lives of the saints and current controversies.

On the last point, their documentary on the Venerable Pius XII and the Second World War is a signal service, dealing with the historical slander that the late Holy Father was indifferent to, or even complicit in, the Holocaust. Given that Pope Benedict XVI has entered the war over Pius XII’s reputation in full battle armour — declaring last year that Pius likely did more than any other person to save Jews — the material assembled in the documentary, A Hand of Peace, is essential viewing.

Faith fuels teen after shark attack

By
The film Soul Surfer hit theatres April 8. It tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, left, who loses an arm during a shark attack. (photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions)NEW YORK - The true story of a teenage girl who overcame a horrific shark attack to rise to the top of her sport is translated to the big screen in Soul Surfer (Tri-Star), an uplifting film about the power of faith and perseverance.

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a happy, ordinary 13-year-old living in Hawaii with her parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) and two brothers. The entire family surfs, but Bethany shows the most promise, winning competitions and gaining a sponsor.

When they’re not at the beach, Bethany’s family is often in church, where sermons are given by youth group leader Sara (country singer Carrie Underwood in her film debut).

Does D&P not get it?

By
Is the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P) indisputably committed to the Gospel of life? Is the pro-life cause as important as, say, their campaign against bottled water? Recent events in Ottawa have brought into question D&P’s pro-life commitment, and therefore the prudence of contributing money to its annual Share Lent campaign.

D&P is the “official interna- tional development organiza- tion of the Catholic Church in Canada” and has the support of Canada’s bishops in raising funds in Catholic parishes. D&P isn’t a missionary organization in the traditional sense — it does not do explicit evangelization. Rather, it supports “partners in the Global South who promote alternatives to unfair social, political and economic structures. ... In the struggle for human dignity, the organization forms alliances with northern and southern groups working for social change. It also supports women in their search for social and economic justice.”

Its vision and mission statements say nothing about God, Jesus Christ, the Gospel, Christi- anity, evangelization, salvation or the proclamation of the kingdom. In its own self-presentation it is indistinguishable from a secular hu- manitarian organization, save for its official fundraising activities in Catholic dioceses.

Is capital punishment on the table?

By
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper let it be known earlier this year that he was “personally” in favour of the death penalty, the opposition New Democrats and Liberals exploded like firecrackers.

But was Harper’s support for the culture of death really so surprising? He and his governing Conservatives had already tried to reverse an important pro-life orientation of Canadian foreign policy when they decided to end the practice of seeking clemency for Canadians facing capital punishment in other countries. (The decision was eventually rebuffed by the courts.)

The Prime Minister’s personal preference is also unsurprising in view of the fact that most Canadians appear to agree with him. Harper is a crowd-pleaser, and that’s what crowd-pleasers do: go with the polls.

Openness to grace makes reconciliation possible

By
Michael O’Brien, the leading Catholic novelist in the English language, has sent millions of words into print. He has painted numerous sacred images which tell their own stories, pictures being worth thousands of words. Yet the words he spoke on March 28 at Saint Paul University in Ottawa had an uncommon power, for they were a personal testimonial of grace.

“I am proud to say that I am a Roman Catholic. It is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful that we have a Saviour who dwells with us in this magnificent Church. This is our home. The Church is full of Judases, but it is overwhelmingly full of saints.”

Regarding the Judases, O’Brien knows of what he speaks. The artist was speaking as part of a panel organized by the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, Canada’s leading Christian think tank, and Conversations Cultural Centre, a project of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. The panel addressed the Indian residential school system under the title, “From Darkness of Heart to a Heart of Forgiveness.” The evening was sombre, with the weight of sin clearly felt, and also hopeful, with the liberation wrought by mercy also evident.

This time, it's right that the bombs fly

By
At the time of this writing, missiles and bombs launched by the United States, Britain and France are raining down on Libya, provoking yet another crisis in the political conscience of the West. We must ask ourselves hard questions. Is such military intervention by our governments justified in this instance? By what authority, and under what circumstances, does any sovereign power have the duty to attack another country?

Catholic citizens must also ask themselves what, if anything, in the Church’s social teaching prepares us to deal with the urgent possibility that many Libyans could be killed if the regime in Tripoli succeeds in crushing the current rebellion.

The set of principles for the conduct of just and justifiable warfare was crafted in the Middle Ages in a bid to govern international conflicts. The idea behind the doctrine of just war was noble and optimistic. It held that, in a fallen world where war is a constant fact of life, some semblance of civilization could prevail even in violent confrontations.