One of the things I like to do when I’m away from the office is read. Perhaps that’s not a shocking revelation given my professional background. The piles of books in the home office my wife and I share are ever expanding. That can sometimes be a source of irritation for her, but I’ll eventually read most of them, at least that’s the theory.
One book I enjoyed while on vacation last week was “A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics.” It’s written by Sister Nancy Usselmann, F.S.P., who delivered a presentation in February at the Pauline Books and Media store in Manhattan, which I was fortunate to attend. I was interested to learn more and requested a review copy from Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Sister Nancy is director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. A biographical blurb cited her background as a theologian, media education specialist, speaker, blogger and film reviewer.
“A Sacred Look” is dedicated to her parents and to Blessed James Alberione, an Italian priest who founded the Pauline Family of religious congregations in the 20th century, “for inspiring the Church to be at the forefront of evangelization in a media culture.” Sister Nancy is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul.
I read the first part of the 152-page volume on a plane ride to California. My impending vacation may have distracted me, so I put the book down after about 50 pages. The trip home was a far different story. In my opinion, Sister Nancy’s writing hit its stride right about that point.
Chapter subjects include Catholic Cinematic Imagination, Pop Music’s Idols and the One God, and the Existential Soul of Pop Music. She delved deeply into many forms of popular entertainment, with specific knowledge, appreciation and detail. It might be the first time that I have heard a Catholic nun offer commentary on a song by Chance the Rapper.
Here’s a snatch from the beginning of the chapter on pop music. “People who know me know that I am a pop music junkie. I enjoy hearing a familiar retro song that brings me back to my teenage years and the memories that evokes. But I especially revel in listening to the creative new talents and songs that top the Billboard charts weekly, scanning all the genres of pop, hip-hop, R&B, country and rock. Music speaks to me like no other medium.” Sister Nancy goes on to say that music “like the Psalms in the Scriptures, gives expressions to people’s feelings and yearnings.”
She describes cultural mysticism as being about “a supernatural relationship rooted in our earthly reality.”
“When we enter into a profound experience of God we are not miraculously removed from our material existence…A true mystic reflects holistically on the cultural experience in which the body, mind and soul are engaged in this grace-filled encounter. This means that even in this highly sexualized culture, God’s truth can be revealed and lived.”
Sister Nancy leans more than a little on St. Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body, “which sees the human person as the place where God dwells and is present in humanity’s search for fulfillment and intimacy.” How can a philosophy about the human person give meaning to a culture seeking true love and bliss? She says the actor, philosopher, professor, bishop and pope pondered this question and others for years “especially when he worked with the young people of his time who were searching for meaning in human relationships.”
Sister Nancy was recognized with first-place honors for a first-time author for “A Sacred Look” in the recent Catholic Press awards competition. Her writing is vibrant, nonjudgmental and, to my mind, even courageous. If you want a book that may challenge you, broaden your horizons and improve your Catholic faith, pick up “A Sacred Look.”
Consider these final words from a section called Cultural Transcendence. “We may wonder: How can the popular culture’s artifacts have a transcendent impact on my soul…I believe it is because (media) have that unique artistic quality to go deeper than words or dissertations to concretize humanity’s longings for purpose and meaning and make them real in everyday circumstances…These media can even help us to live our faith better and challenge the culture’s nihilistic attitudes.”