Father Lawrence Lew, O.P., tweets beautiful images. A Dominican priest, a friar, he is assistant Catholic chaplain for the Universities of Edinburgh, Napier, and Queen Margaret in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Dominicans are the Order of Preachers and Fr. Lew has made photos a distinctive part of his ministry. You can find his preaching in different forms on Twitter and Tumblr (where you can read his daily homilies for the St. Albert’s Priory and Chaplaincy) and Flickr. Fr. Lew talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about making use of social media for holy purposes.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: When did you take your first photo?
FR. LAWRENCE LEW, O.P.: I don’t recall when I took my first photo ever. I must have been a child aged around ten? Maybe younger? However, I consciously began to take photos of stained glass when I was a Dominican novice in 2005. Our Novitiate is in Cambridge, a town blessed with many beautiful chapels and churches, and so I was able to practice in the course of that year. My intention then was to take photos of Biblical scenes rendered in colorful glass in order to use them in presentations for catechizing children.
LOPEZ: You must have a most extensive filing system. How do you decide what you’re going to photograph and how do you know when you’re going to use what? How are you able to find it?
FR. LEW: I use Lightroom and I tag my photos according to themes and saints. However, I confess that most of the filing happens in my mind. I have a “photographic memory,” so I remember vaguely where things are. Some days I do have to search for an hour to find the right photograph, but I generally have an idea of what I want and where it is. Scrolling through the catalogue as I’m searching helps reinforce my memory of where things are located, and sometimes I add more tags to help me find them more quickly.
I’m always on the lookout for obscure saints and interesting Scriptural passages rendered in art. However, I don’t decide what I am going to shoot, as such. I photograph everything in a church, and am always keen to visit any church. Consequently, I currently have almost 120,000 photos on my catalogue that take up about 1.5 terabytes!
To help me decide which photos to post each day, I look at the liturgy of the day. Saints’ days are often the easiest, especially if I have an image of the saint. If not, I look at their writings and see if some image they use fits a photo I may have. Often I will post three photos a day. One will be the main image that is inspired by the liturgy or Scripture reading of the day, and then the others will be photos from the church or place where the main image is located. On days where I can find no photo to fit the liturgy, I will post other photos from my catalogue, typically of life and scenes from where I am currently based, which is Edinburgh.
LOPEZ: Is your social-media use of religious art another form of preaching?
FR. LEW: Yes. I am very conscious that the main reason I do this and am online is to preach the Gospel. As St. Paul says, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” The human soul thirsts for truth as she does for beauty, and so I see the use of beautiful art and images as a vital part of preaching God who is Beauty and who is Truth.
LOPEZ: What’s the greatest work of art you’ve set eyes on?
FR. LEW: Considered as a whole, I suppose the Sainte Chapelle in Paris or Chartres Cathedral both took my breath away. They are such fitting evocations of heaven, and, as beauty ought to do, they draw one out of oneself in a kind of ecstasy so that the soul longs for God and for Heaven. However, I suppose if one thinks of a more specific work of art, I would have to mention a recent visit to Rome when I was allowed into the Sistine Chapel on a private tour. We had a chance to contemplate Michelangelo’s art on the ceiling, and I recall lying on the floor of that chapel and just looking up at his work. The Last Judgment in that chapel, too, was most impressive, and I recall especially that the main altar crucifix stands directly in front of the mouth of Hell. One only realizes this when one is standing at the altar in the Sistine Chapel, and this positioning is not accidental, I don’t think. It moved me immensely to recall that the cross of Christ and the sacrifice of Jesus are what saves us and bars sinful man’s descent into eternal death.
LOPEZ: Sitting on your computer now, do you have some great meditative images?
FR. LEW: I have four virtual desktops on my computer. Three of them are actually just photos of my family and friends. The fourth is always a meditative image of some kind. Currently in Lent it’s a Crucifix located outside St. Dominic’s cell in the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. But this changes from time to time — I often like the image of a cloister or some such place of monastic peace.
LOPEZ: In a day when people have pictures that are an affront to human dignity on their computers, is it all the more crucial to show the beautiful?
fr. LEW: There is great beauty all around us, as all is made by God and is good. The problem is we see and yet do not see. As someone put it, the problem with pornography is not that we see too much of a person but that we do not see the person. Photography, I hope, can help someone to recognize the beauty that surrounds us. However, in an image-saturated world, I know this can be difficult because we can become immune to beauty. It’s rather like visiting the Vatican Museum. After a while I felt I needed to look at a blank space because there was just too much to take in. We all need this, I think, if we’re to see beauty again, just as we need silence in our media-driven, sound-filled world.
Insofar as my photos can lead some to contemplate beauty and the things of God, I believe this is due to God’s grace at work in their lives. My photos are just an instrumental cause in this work of “preaching” God’s goodness, truth, and beauty.
LOPEZ: Is there an art to taking photos? Can it be taught?
FR. LEW: Some professional photographers refer to having “the eye.” This means that some people have a natural gift for seeing good composition and images. I’ve been told that I have this gift. However, I think one can be taught to take better photos — if you look at my Flickr collection, you’ll see an improvement, I think, as I learned this skill. I have much more to learn, I think. One of the reasons I was first drawn to Flickr was that I enjoyed looking at others’ photos, being inspired by them, and I wanted to learn from what other people are doing. I think a photographer is seldom satisfied with his own work — I often think other people take far better photos than I do. Part of what this means is not just learning technical competence but learning to better see the world around us.
LOPEZ: What do you use to take your photos?
FR. LEW: I use a Canon 60D which is a digital SLR camera. I have a collection of Canon lenses that I use with this camera. I seldom use a tripod so I have to learn to steady my hands!
LOPEZ: How do you clinch the connection to the transcendent in art? And in particular, how do you do it in your art form of photography?
FR. LEW: Photography is literally writing with light. As God is light, there is a sense, I think, in which the photograph is a co-operation with the creative work of God. I find that photos which capture this light best immediately evoke the transcendent.
LOPEZ: When did you know you were called to the priesthood?
FR. LEW: One doesn’t know, as such, but one senses an attraction. In the first place, I was drawn to Jesus Christ and began to love his Church. I had grown up in a household where God was very present, but when I went to a Catholic school at age twelve I began to explore the Catholic faith, to look into theology and the history of the Church, and to get involved in the liturgy and devotions. When I was 14 or so, I began to hear about a need for more priests, and it was then that I wondered if I could help fill that need. However, it wasn’t until my final year in university that I thought seriously about this vocation.
LOPEZ: What made you want to be a Dominican?
FR. LEW: A love for truth and theology, and a desire to explain our faith to others.
LOPEZ: Does a Dominican have an especially important call in the West today?
FR. LEW: Absolutely! Men and women are always looking for truth, always asking questions. This is what makes us human. However, there is a saturation of words and information in our world. The Dominican has to attend to these questions carefully; sift what is good and true from what is false and erroneous. I often say that good questions deserve good answers, which is why Dominicans need to study and engage with people’s questions and concerns in order to help them seek truth. The problem today is that many people think that truth cannot be found or that it is relative. Pope Benedict XVI has addressed this issue many times and with great cogency and wisdom. As in St. Dominic’s time, I believe that people will be convinced of the Gospel not just by good arguments but by an authentic witness to a joyful Christ-centered life. And this is what we Dominicans try to do by God’s grace. In this work of holy preaching, then, I repeat my request made at my profession as a friar: I seek God’s mercy and yours.
LOPEZ: What is life at St. Albert’s like?
FR. LEW: Any religious life is marked by the patterns of communal prayer and fraternal life — meals, meetings, recreation. This forms the skeleton of our life here, around which is built up the flesh of our apostolic work as chaplains to three of Edinburgh’s universities. So, my daily life is concerned with spending time with students, preparing sermons and talks for them, seeing individuals for spiritual direction, and so on. I feel my ministry to youth and students is a great source of joy, and they keep me young with their enthusiasm, and keep me theologically challenged with their questions.
LOPEZ: Who are some of the great holy men and women of our past who can help us today?
FR. LEW: St. Thomas, of course, is a great Doctor of the Church from whom we can and should all learn. So many questions and erroneous notions and heresies which are repeated today are superbly addressed and answered by St. Thomas in his works. St. Augustine, too, is very important — I enjoy reading his sermons. I also enjoy reading the Desert Fathers, and an English Dominican called Gerald Vann. Among living holy men of our time, I would say that Joseph Ratzinger has been a tremendous help and influence, and I think his wisdom and insight has been largely undervalued by Catholics and Christians.
LOPEZ: What does America look like from where you are?
FR. LEW: I often hear it said that the Church in America is polarized. I wonder, though, is this is so uniquely American? To me the Church in America has both great lights and deep shadows, but that doesn’t make it any different from the rest of the Church. I think that the Church in America offers excellent resources online and in the media to help Catholics to learn more about their faith. The work of Fr. Robert Barron, for example, is most useful. I also appreciate the wonderful work of my Dominican brothers and sisters in the U.S.A., and their preaching online. However, it has to be said that much distraction and diversion also comes via the media, and much of this also originates in the U.S.A.
LOPEZ: What’s your advice to anyone who worries they’re distracted by social media? How can one sanctify the likes of Twitter and become holier through it?
FR. LEW: The Desert Fathers said that a monk can have nothing but can still become possessive about the one nail in his cell. So, too, anything good can be abused by us sinners. To use social media well, I think we have to be disciplined about the time we give to it, and to be accountable to another. Our community life as religious, I think, help us because we’re accountable to brethren in the form of our superiors. Pope Benedict XVI has written well about how we can and should evangelize the “digital continent,” so I think we should read and reflect on what he has said. Silence, as I mentioned earlier, is vital if we seek holiness, and we need to learn prudence in the use of the Internet. If Twitter becomes a series of knee-jerk reactions with insufficient reflection and prayer, then I think it will not help us to grow in holiness. Neither will it help if it incites gossip, back-biting, and uncharitable comments. Ultimately, growth in holiness means growth in charity. So, if we are to become holier, we need to ask if our use of media helps us become more loving, more giving, more like Christ in patience, wisdom, and virtue. If it hinders charity, then we should stop.
My photos, etc., are thus about preaching Christ and his Gospel; about a service to the saving mission of Christ’s holy Church. If anything I do hinders this, I will desist. For “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.