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Stretching the Mind

October, 2002

STRETCHING THE MIND can be stimulating – when it is not too daunting to step beyond our own (usually self-imposed) limitations. Last November I was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Belgium, and, though I was at first inclined to turn down the offer, I decided, what the hell, the worst I might do is bore my audience for a half hour or so. My initial disinclination arose when I was informed of the title of the conference – "The Transformation of the Christian Churches in Western Europe: 1945–2000" – since I know relatively little about either the Church or its status in Western Europe. However, I was asked if I might specifically submit a paper on the relationship of art and religion and, the more I thought about it, the more the challenge intrigued me. My précis was accepted and I soon found myself in the throes of planning out an argument in support of my thesis, namely that art, in its historical evolution, had made an about face vis-à-vis religion. (The text of that paper, "Art: From Iconography to Iconoclasm," appears in this issue on page XXX.) The conference, a four-day international affair sponsored by KADOC (Catholic Documentation and Research Center) and held at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, featured some 27 speakers from about ten European Countries (3, including myself, from the U.S.), each delivering his or her paper in either English or French. Though, as I’ve noted above, my knowledge of church affairs is more than a little sketchy, I found the experience exhilaratingly mind-enlarging – if only because I had to dredge up my long-forgotten college-studies to try to grasp the gist of some of the speakers as they rattled off their arguments in French. Fortunately, the entire conference will be published (in English!) sometime in the near future and I will be able to go back over those portions I missed. My own contribution, in fact, was critiqued by Patrick Lateur, Professor of "langues anciennes" and Chief Editor of Vlaanderen, a Flemish art review. I look forward to reading his rebuttal when it is translated into English so that I may better understand his points of departure from my own viewpoint. Though language presented some difficulty – there were participants from Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, Great Britain, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands in addition to those from Belgium – there was no misunderstanding the camaraderie that arises from earnest dialogue – no matter how far a person’s stance might be from one’s own. The sharing of meals at the University cafeterias throughout the 4-day conference – and the elegant banquet held on the evening of the final Saturday – added to the conviviality of human interaction and exchange of ideas that, despite the central topic, kept cropping up between men and women of different disciplines. Historians, teachers, theologians, writers, sociologists, philologists – scholars all – freely joined in open discussion, most adding their own particular brands of wisdom and humor to whatever topic was on the table. To add icing to the whole refreshing experience, Leuven, a university-town, is a lovely little city, its medieval ambience and architecture (the town’s roots go back to the 9th century, the University back to 1425) a visual feast, while the food – Leuven is famous for its chocolate, beer, and mussels and its many outdoor cafés in which to sample them – simply a feast! One young waiter said with a smile, "We are well known for our French food and our German proportions!" A visit to St. Peter’s Church to see Dirk Bouts’ paintings of the "Last Supper" and "Martyrdom of St. Erasme" and a short side trip to Antwerp to see Rubens’ home, added a bit more icing. I would have lingered and would go back in a minute – but upon my return, I find that my desk overfloweth! Tant pis!

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