John Bentley Mays is a Toronto author and journalist. His award-winning journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail , National Post and Walrus magazine.



Enhancing devotion by painting with light

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.

    The Resurrection transformed all our relationships

    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.

      Is capital punishment on the table?

      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.

        This time, it's right that the bombs fly

        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.

          Personal animus comes through in artist’s nonsensical works

          Toronto artist Peter Alexander Por is an angry man.

          As I found on a visit to his controversial show of paintings and sculptures at Toronto’s Bezpala Brown Gallery (which ended Feb. 25), Por is angry, in a general way, with the mostly 20th-century tyrants who have killed millions of people and made life miserable for many millions more. Most of the 30 canvasses on display are crudely sketched portraits of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and other modern political monsters, emblazoned with the numbers of those who, Por claims, died as a result of their wars and persecutions. Though we have heard such statistics before, these numbers still have the power to stagger and amaze: Mao (4.5 million dead), Ayatollah Khomeini (700,000), Rwandan leader Theoniste Bagosora (one million), Pol Pot (two million), and so on.

            Hollywood keeps dumbing-down the demonic

            “What were you expecting?” the veteran demon-fighter Fr. Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) asks his young apprentice Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) after an uneventful exorcism in The Rite, now playing in movie theatres across southern Ontario. “Spinning heads? Pea soup?”

            At those lines, you could almost feel a satisfied smile go around the audience. The vivid allusion, everybody knew, was to The Exorcist (1973), Hollywood’s first and best attempt to do a film about Catholics casting out devils. It was director Mikael Håfström’s heavy-handed way to remind movie-goers of what was already, by that point, perfectly obvious: that The Rite is meant to be a serious contribution to that horror sub-genre, the demon movie, created by The Exorcist almost 40 years ago.

            It isn’t, but certainly not for lack of trying.

              Seeing humanity's place in the universe

              The Great Pavement in Westminster Abbey is one of the most beautiful and significant architectural decorations to survive in England from the Middle Ages. Designed and executed by Italian craftsmen in the 1260s by order of King Henry III, this splendid mosaic consists of myriad cut sections of coloured stone and glass set in abstract geometrical patterns into a dark limestone base. The materials are sumptuous: purple porphyry, green serpentine, yellow limestone, pieces of which had been salvaged from ancient Roman buildings and sculptures and brought to England specifically for this project.

              Everything about this royal commission speaks of its high importance. Its position is immediately before the abbey’s high altar, the key liturgical focus of the church. Its design, a series of interrelated orbs and triangles, was clearly intended to be, and is, an artisanal masterpiece.

                Don't pin the message on the messenger

                When the message is displeasing, shoot the messenger. That old saying came to mind when I was reading Fr. Raymond de Souza’s final Catholic Register column (Dec. 26) for 2010.

                The messenger who got shot, in this case, was Globe and Mail correspondent Michael Valpy, the lead author of a five-part series on the “future of faith” in Canada that ran in the newspaper before Christmas.

                  Christian realism energizes Narnia film

                  Hollywood has long been looking for a new blockbuster magic series to rival the commercial successes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the string of Harry Potter movies. When C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came to the screen in 2005, many observers thought that the studio bosses had once again hatched a winning idea for a long-running fantasy franchise.

                    We must encounter the Lord in Advent

                    Each year at this time, Advent seems to get lost in the shuffle.

                    The weeks before Christmas are bustling with things to do. We shop for presents, make trips to visit friends and relatives, attend concerts of seasonal music, put in appearances at the usual round of office parties and other sociable events. There is only one thing wrong with this happy round of activities: It inevitably distracts us Christians from engaging creatively with the wonderful truth of Advent as the Catholic Church has traditionally understood it.

                      Radical Islam despises immoral culture

                      Political Islam in the Middle East and western Asia comes in numerous colours.

                      On the peaceful, moderate end of the spectrum are groups such as Turkey’s parliamentary Justice and Development Party. The more culturally radical Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, but its anti-Western message still manages to garner great popularity at the grass-roots. Farthest out of the moderate Islamist mainstream are such movements as Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda throughout the Arab world, which advocate the violent overthrow of Muslim-led moderate governments and terrorist acts against them.

                        Projecting Christian truth

                        In his Oct. 24 Catholic Register column, Michael Coren reports that he has been deluged by e-mails from “people complaining about how some journalists use their Catholicism as a rather self-indulgent vehicle for their own secular politics.”

                        While not singled out by name in the column, I am clearly among the rascals whose writings Coren’s correspondents (and Coren) dislike. I am replying to this criticism here, because I believe that Coren’s column raises interesting questions about the nature and scope of Catholic journalism, and indeed the Catholic practice of everyday life, that deserve to be answered.

                          Tony Judt: A righteous man in an unrighteous age

                          The recent death of historian and essayist Tony Judt at age 62 has shut down a remarkable wellspring of straight talk about the modern world and its woes, and left-thinking people everywhere bereft of one of our time’s finest political and moral voices.

                          His books helped make Judt famous. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), for example, is a majestic best-selling survey that has, in the words of a reviewer, “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.’’

                          But it was the essays from the decades on either side of 2000, gathered into the outstanding book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), that earned Judt an international reputation as a fearlessly sceptical critic of modern political pieties. His best-known texts today, after the great Postwar, are surely his contributions on politics and current affairs to such journals as The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books, and especially The New York Review of Books.