Maybe it's a random thing to rant about, but I was disappointed with the first black smoke of the Conclave last night. Not that I expected it to be anything but black, but it just seemed to be a little over the top in its volume and blackness, billowing away long after everyone had gotten the point.
Back in the very early days of my formation as a religious, I was taught a doctrine about symbol and liturgy: 'rich symbols, reluctant pastors' it went, or something like that. The idea was that our faith was full of powerful, sensual symbols that were meant to carry all of their blessed significance precisely as created things. Baptism by immersion is to preferred if at all possible. Large amounts of oil should be poured on the heads of those to be confirmed. The bread for the Eucharist should look, taste, and handle like the bread people eat for natural nourishment. Unfortunately, it was said, pastors were reluctant, and in practice these symbols ended up reduced and mechanized, etc. I've written before about the moment when I came to question this doctrine, about the danger of putting too much show into things to cover up for a lack of faith or depth of spiritual sense under it.
I definitely had that fear when I saw the obviously augmented black smoke last night. It felt like a show to me, like something from the circus. I thought right away of the liturgical anxiety dream I once had in which there was a kid running a fog machine. And don't think that's such a strange thing; one of the first liturgical chores with which I was ever charged was holding a bubble wand in front of a fan at height from the assembly, so that bubbles might descend during the kiss of peace. Long story. And no, I don't wish to tell it.
It's a visual world we live in, a world of live video feeds and images that 'go viral.' And indeed, the Catholic faith is eminently suited to the human being as a visual creature, but the pious delights of the physical eyes are only a means to lift the eyes of the soul to the vision of God. Without a depth of prayer, a spiritual ground to stand on, human art in service of the faith becomes artificial, producing flashes in the spiritual pan that make for shallow hopes and brittle insights that lift you up for a moment but ultimately leave you even more confused and lost. In religious life we have certainly learned this the hard way; not, perhaps, with the fine arts, but with popular psychology and frameworks we think we want to borrow from the business world.
It is the joy and the right of the people of God to plunder the Egyptians, to take from the world what can be useful in the service of discipleship and proclamation, but we must remember that the gold thus plundered can all too easily end in up the fire of idolatry, forged into a Golden Calf.
All that being said, I have to give credit to the Vatican; the video of these recent great moments--Benedict XVI's last day, the beginning of the conclave up to the extra omnes yesterday--have been absolutely brilliant. As Fr. Zuhlsdorf likes to say of the Vatican's relationship with technology, 'we update our equipment every 75 years, whether it needs it or not.' But in all of this, beautiful video cuts and lovely camera angles and even smoke bombs, I pray that we have the depth of prayer and the richness of faith under it all such that it all means something.