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The road back from Xian airport felt dusty to my skin, even riding inside a comfortable bus for the US delegation. The pale sky seemed weighed down, thick with coal fumes from the nearby factories. Bicycles crisscrossed the road, even on the highways, farmers and workers somehow managing to swerve in and out, and from what we could see from the inside of the cool, air conditioned bus, their breathing seemed labored and resigned to the heat. We were on our way to Beijing, after an exhilarating day in Xian, visiting the terra-cotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty (211-206 B.C.).

Refreshing also were the conversations that I had on the bus, with fellow delegates from the President’s Committee on the Humanities and Arts (PCHA). I was there to represent the National Council, with Eileen Mason, the deputy director of the National Endowment for the Arts; Marc Pachter, the head of the Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian (expect our conversation will be a future Refractions piece); Irene Love, a world renowned archeologist; Henry Moran, the director of the PCHA; and Adair Margo, the head of the delegation and her husband Don. Bruce Cole, the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with his wife Doreen, James Billington, from the Library of Congress, and his wife Marjorie accompanied us. And then there was Ralph.

Ralph McInerny has taught for over forty years at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the director of the Jacques Maritain Center. You might know his name, or know of his fictional character, as he has authored twenty-six Father Dowling mystery novels. I found out that Ralph even came to read and sign books at the local Mysterious Book Shop right near my loft in Tribeca. A Thomas Aquinas scholar, I began to grill him with questions after finding out about his connection with Jaques Maritain; and to my delight, he was also a scholar of Dante (see my “Water Flames” exhibit, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.)

Maritain’s “Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry,” one of the A. W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts, given in 1952 at the National Gallery of Art, has been a seminal work for my journey of creativity and faith. I have carried it around with me since college, and this French philosopher/theologian has sown seeds of faith and an integrated view of art and theology into my life and my work. It is not surprising that the Maritain center at Notre Dame chose someone like Ralph who is equally versed in Aquinas and Dante, as well as the genre of mystery novels. Maritain’s theology recovers art and poetry from being a specialized category exiled from the intellect, into an indispensable, central catalyst of the mind. Maritain, in doing so, to the chagrin of many academics then and now, validates “the Virtue of Art.”

“The activity of the practical intellect divides into human actions to be done…and the works to be made; in other words, it divides into moral activity and artistic activity…Art is a virtue – not a moral virtue…Art is a virtue in the larger and more philosophical sense the ancients gave to this word; a habitus or ‘state of possession’, an inner strength developed in man…Art is a virtue of the practical intellect.” (Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition)

The “habitus” of an Aquinas scholar could include mystery novels, or to consider all creative activities to be a significant intellectual work. Whether art and poetry, a Sunday afternoon baseball game or gourmet cooking, we do not need to segregate art and creativity into a corner, an exiled “extra” of our lives.

Ralph confided to me, though, that he really began to write mystery novels as a side business; to put his kids through school. I told him that my wife is a mystery novel fanatic, and knew of his books. I, on the other hand, first “met” Father Dowling as Tom Bosley, in a TV mystery show in the Eighties. “They loosely based it on my novels,” he said in his jovial voice, “but paid me well.” Having a son at NYU, I nodded, knowing that a financial opportunity a purist may resist, a parent grabs onto for dear life. I began to even ponder what kind of a mystery novel I would write…”Murder at NYU” (a parent gets mysteriously murdered on his way to paying his son’s tuition)?

When we arrived in Beijing, it was Saturday. Ralph had asked one of our interpreters if there was a Catholic church nearby the hotel. They rushed about to find one, and they did, and found that they had a mass on Saturday evening. “If we rush, we can still make it.” Off they went, out of the VIP lounge at the airport, where we waited for our bags. He took one of our interpreters with him.

Later, I asked the interpreter, Jesse (a name given to her by her college English instructor), of her experience going to church with Ralph. She told me that she had a friend who got married there, so she recognized the place. She asked Ralph, though, what the difference between a Church and a Temple was. Not having gone outside of China, she really did not know the difference, she said.

How do you explain to a well educated Chinese, the difference between a church and a temple? Ralph told me that he began to explain, but the conversation soon turned to how she suddenly became a widow recently, losing her husband in a car accident. She had since become a Buddhist: “I before believed in utopia, now I follow in Buddah’s ways to find peace.”

Father Dowling, Ralph’s fictional character, would have found himself drawn to this conversation. Instead of asking probing questions about someone’s present, though, he would have found something in common with someone’s past first, especially in someone’s loss and anguish.

As an “archdiocesan marriage tribunal, specializing in the misery of others,” Father Dowling spent much of his early career counseling broken marriages. But then he found himself carrying their anguish in his heart, silently. “He began to drink…A final binge, a cure, and then, as though into exile, he had been sent to St. Hilary’s in Fox River, a city west of Chicago. Fifty years of age, a failure in the eyes of many of his friends, he had come to see this parish as the sweetest consolation. God is merciful.”

Reading Ralph’s books now, (purchased at the Mysterious Bookshop with my wife’s help) I realize his books read as an interior journey of faith and brokenness—to capture the real mystery hidden within the very heart of a human being.

As we traveled about China, I began to see China as a mystery, a beautiful mystery.

Here’s a country that would spend a third of their GNP on preserving Xian and the thousands of terra-cotta warriors buried beneath the tomb mount, but at the same time creating a dam to wash away an ancient village. China is a country that would re-build the main road in Beijing to Beverly Hills glamour, providing thousands of workers with jobs, but would force people into retirement at 55, to make room for younger workers, and then displace these younger workers in order to make room for the tourists as the Olympics open. Their parks were filled with the over-55 group of ex-workers, kicking around a feathered version of a hackey sack, playing and singing all day to pass the time. Here’s a country that is investing toward a huge cultural infrastructure, supporting their own artists both at home and abroad, but at the same time carefully censoring the internet, the news and the media. A country that would print Bibles domestically (not many Americans know that for many years they printed their own Bibles for Catholic Churches, but forbade the foreigners to carry them in to China), and yet persecute and arrest Christian leaders in rural areas. They also highly value harmony between people and nature, and yet have one of the worst pollution problems in the world. We asked one of the officials, while riding through the glitzy Beijing streets full of smog, if a marathon can take place in the polluted air: “oh, they will shut the factories for two months before the Olympics.” No other country can be so confidently matter of fact about moving 500,000 workers out of the region to make room for tourists. Today’s China can afford to do so, and has the governmental control to carry that out.

We toured the “Egg,” the brand new Performance Center in Beijing, and one of the delegates who has been involved in building arts centers like this in the US commented to me: “There’s no way we could do this…we don’t have access to enough concrete!” Touring the center, which seemed overly extravagant, even at the half finished state, we were told that the center will be done this fall… which prompted another comment: “There’s no way our unions would allow us to build so fast!”

Each day, The China Daily was delivered to our hotel rooms. We noticed that there were front-page articles about the places we were to visit, often on a specific issue we were to discuss that day. At the end of our tour, when we saw the “Egg” was the subject of a top article with headliner indicating that the construction was on schedule, we realized we were in a bit of a Truman Show. The Chinese could re-create a city in several years, build the largest performance center in the world in a short time, and control everything about how it is reported to impress a small foreign delegation. Shaking our heads, we all had to admit, however, that we were still quite impressed.

From their perspective, to be fair, the US, too, must be a mystery. We speak of freedom of speech as our highest humanitarian virtue, and our internet pages are filled with pornography and other explicit forms of dehumanization. We are a nation swimming with individual wealth, and yet have no national insurance and a high percentage of homelessness. We are an advanced nation of educational opportunity, and yet have one of the highest illiteracy rates in the industrialized world. We are a country of innovation, in technology and the arts, and yet the first time we broadcasted the Superbowl live to China, Janet Jackson’s famed “malfunctioning bra” incident represented us instead. We bicker about the cultural budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, when the budget remains tiny compared to other nations, and a mere half of a baseball player’s (Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees) salary.

And if you were to read China as a mystery novel, the opening chapter would be on the Cultural Revolution, exiling thousands of families into forced encampment. The trauma left deep wounds that still exist in the lives of people in China. The Cultural Revolution was their Ground Zero.

The vacuum that this Ground Zero has left in their culture, is now being filled by their fantastic drive to bring the world to the Olympics (’08) and then to the Expo (’10). The museums and arts districts are getting support and infrastructure, making even New York artists envious of China’s bourgeoning arts scene. On the way to Beijing, David Fraher of Arts Midwest, passed out a magazine article called “China’s New Creative Class,” highlighting “the next cultural revolution” from China’s creatives like Ou Ning (curator, designer), Lin Jing (furniture and ceramics maker) or Ji Ji (graphic designer). Apparently, the race is on for the creative domain as well, to see which culture can take the lead.

When we met and spent time with their Minister of Culture, Sun Jiazheng, we realized why they were making such a headway into a cultural development.

Minister Sun charmed us, a Renaissance man, who freely quotes philosophers and poets, and humanized every meeting by taking off his tie and his jacket, shaking every delegate’s hand personally. But it was his own poetry, shared at the banquet on the last day of our visit inside the Forbidden City, Jin an Fu Palace, that truly moved me. Our delegation head, Adair Margo, insisted that he share a poem he quoted at the table. He seemed reluctant, saying “such a sad poem should not be part of a grand celebration between two nations.” He explained that the poem was written after his friend, a Japanese author/composer and president of the Sino-Japanese Cultural Exchange Association, Ikuma Dan, suddenly passed away during his visit to China. He brought the poem to Sakuma’s gravesite in Japan, to read at the site.

April comes to Tokyo The cherries should be at the height of their bloom I’ve come to see the flowers But spring came early and they faded too soon

April comes to Tokyo This should be a glad reunion Friends from afar once more together Instead we stand bereft by your grave

Oh, honored colleague! The blossoms have fallen, but spring still comes in all its splendor You left with no warning; with whom can we share The fathomless depths of our loss?

Graveside Reflections, April 2002, from “Dream and Pursuit” by Sun Jinzheng

It would have been a courageous enough act to reveal such a personal journey in public. But his offering was even more daring to me because of the current tense relationship between China and Japan. Even a few days before, the Japanese papers were full of questions regarding Prime Minister Abe’s response to Yasukuni Shrine, a Japanese holy site where many war criminals are buried and honored, including those invading China. Further, the Chinese have demanded an inquiry into the forced prostitution of Chinese women by the Japanese military in the 19th Century.

In that setting, Minister Sun’s poem was not just a balm to soothe such historical wounds, but a principled reconciling act based on common humanity, casting light into the divide.

Art moves into the chasms of past injuries, inspecting and noting each detail of a heart’s wounds. At the same time, Art and Poetry can feed us the manna of hope to malnourished, distrusting souls due to abuses of the past. In the age of terrorism and fear, that is why we need poets and artists. Artists have the potential of creating in love, providing an imaginative vision for their culture, a holistic language to deal with a fragmented, oppressed past. The result should be an even deeper longing.

Thus, Jaques Maritain wrote: “Poetry is spiritual nourishment. But it does not satiate, it only makes man more hungry, and that is its grandeur.” That hunger cannot be filled by even the greatest of banquets in a Forbidden City. In Minister Sun’s poem for the Japanese composer, I felt a certain longing. There’s a mystery there, not a mystery of “who-done-it,” but a longing for a true Jin an Fu (a Place of Eternal Happiness), to finally resolve the irreconcilable brokenness within our hearts for eternity.

Mystery novels seek an answer for every wrongful death. But, really, every death demands an answer whether by murder or by accident. Jesse, our interpreter who met sorrow and death in her young marriage, began to search for peace in the midst of her tears. Father Dowling would always offer clues to such a journey, to re-discover the path home, not just to solve the crime, but for a spiritual home. For often, even in a mystery novel, the accidental turn of events can overwhelm the logic of the analysis of evidence. The Spirit of God, the true detective of our souls, searches via our creativity, a journeyer’s void within.

When Minister Sun read the lamentation poem, Jesse had to translate the poem impromptu. One of the assistants, rushed on stage with Minister Sun’s book in which the poem was translated to help Jesse. Jesse closed the book, gave it back politely to the assistant, and proceeded to begin to translate the poem with her eyes closed. Refracting in each word, carefully and tenderly given to us, both Ralph and I felt the weight of life and death. Father Dowling would have noticed that moment, too, as he, too, would peer deeply into the pain and sorrows of a poet grieving for a friend, and an interpreter grieving for a husband. That, more than even the splendid banquet, would reveal the mystery of our being, being transcribed and etched in our hearts, one word at a time.