Bleecker Street in Lower Manhattan has been known for decades as a launching pad for New York's countercultural flights of fancy, and is thus the last place that one might expect to find an erudite lecture of any kind. And yet, on the evening of July 13, some two-dozen guests gathered there to hear the wisdom of a priest. Fr. George Rutler, the resident at a Hell’s Kitchen parish and a noted historian of the Catholic Church, had come down to the Black Box Theater within New York’s Sheen Center to discuss his book He Spoke to Us, which describes encounters with the divine through people and events.
Fr. Rutler’s ease at the podium helped resolve the visual clash between the bare, bohemian look of the space and the presence of a priest therein—he addressed his audience with a wit that evoked (and improved upon) the comedy shows that take place in similar theaters throughout Lower Manhattan. The best explanation for why the Sheen Center chose to host a book talk with a priest in their performing arts venue, however, can be found in the substance of the book itself. Fr. Rutler’s suggestion that God enriches believers while in disguise reflects the mission of the Sheen Center, which aims to promote the transcendent goods of truth and beauty in forms that its audiences might not expect.
The center, which bears the full name “Sheen Center for Thought & Culture,” debuted last September with the backing of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. William Spencer Reilly, Sheen’s executive director, summarized his plan for the center in his introduction to Fr. Rutler’s book talk. With a full calendar of lectures and performances in drama, dance, and contemporary and classical music, Reilly hopes to attract a broad swath of New Yorkers to the Black Box and the adjacent Loreto Theater. Each performance touches on themes that the directors intend to point viewers in the direction of Sheen’s expressed Catholic vision, without their subject matter being explicitly religious (Fr. Rutler’s lecture was a rare exception). A useful comparison for the role that Sheen hopes to grow into might be the 92nd Street Y, which was founded on Jewish principles but presents a more varied program of cultural events. With active involvement from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and a mission statement that contains cues to its values such as “we profess that life is worth living,” however, it is likely that Sheen’s religious texture will remain palpable, at least for those viewers who are somewhat sensitive to the touch.
Summer performances at the Sheen Center have been anchored by the Tender Mercies festival, which offers the Black Box as a stop for touring bands and poets, each of whom hails from a different corner of American folk culture. Upcoming features include the country guitarist Sam Baker and an Irish-inspired string band led by the violinist Eileen Ivers, both of whom have earned positive reviews from prominent critics but still project a casual mood that will suit the eighty-seat venue. The festival is named for the 1983 film Tender Mercies, which stars Robert Duvall as an alcoholic who recaptures the rhythm of life through his music. By the design of Sheen’s directors, many of the acts that will perform in the festival have a connection to the redemptive message of the film, such as Baker, who began his career in music after surviving a train bombing in 1986.
Fr. Rutler took a moment to mention the edifying power of performance before he concluded his lecture, saying, “music is the highest form of art, for in Heaven we hear the harmony of God.” Hearing that, one wonders if it could possibly be a coincidence that the Archdiocese of New York chose this moment in the life of the city to co-launch a performing arts center, as the substance at the heart of popular arts slips further away from the transcendent, and the Church possesses fewer channels than ever to connect with city dwellers. It is possible that the Sheen Center will never develop the broad reach to which its backers aspire, or that it will gain the ear of the city while but lose a part of its soul in the process by muting its religious tones. For the moment, however, Reilly and his fellow directors will continue their work—cheered by the enthusiasm that they have received from their audiences, and by their hope that they have enriched those audiences with something more than sheer enjoyment.