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Chris Fritton and Ric Royer's new catechism at Western New York Book Arts Center

Pages from Chris Fritton and Ric Royer's "The Baltimore Catechism."

Who Are We?

Typography artist Chris Fritton’s current exhibit at the Western New York Book Arts Center is his project called The Baltimore Catechism.

If you went to Catholic grammar school, you probably have substantial chunks of The Baltimore Catechism memorized. The original version, that is, the little blue-and-white-cover compendium of Church doctrine and dogma in question-and-answer format, geared to the instruction of young people starting from the time they were first learning to read. The likes of: “Who made me? God made me.” “Why did God make me? To know, love, and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next.” (From memory.)

Graphics in the original version were perfunctory and less memorable. Except in a few instances. The pair of milk bottles with milk with gray blemish spots in the one case, virtual milk blackout in the other, to illustrate the condition of the soul in states of venial and mortal sin, respectively.

The Fritton project consists of a complete redo of the catechism, with somewhat more existential questions, by and large, and sometimes somewhat bizarre answers, and graphics of a more cheerful and amusing sort. Strange and delightful little chick kids—human kid head, chick feet and wings, in Victorian-era dress from playsuits to tutus—the invention of some forgotten 19th-century graphic artist genius in a frivolous mood. Fritton got the chick kids off a website. In addition to using them as illustrations in the catechism, he has blown them up into a dozen large-scale woodcut prints, on display along with their corresponding print blocks.

The text of the catechism was a collaborative effort of Fritton and artist and poet Ric Royer, now living in Providence, Rhode Island.

A problem with the original version catechism—what robbed it of some of the vigor and dash a catalog listing of a few hundred religious doctrinal tenets would normally possess—was that the questions were not real questions as much as just set-ups for the cut-and-dried answer, the real point of the whole exercise. The new version questions are more actual questions, without ready answers: “Who are we? Who is the Other? What is bad? What is good? What is love? What makes me human?”

Or maybe no answer at all. For instance for maybe the toughest question of all: “Who is the Other?” No answer given. In line with a venerable tradition, going back to the early Middle Ages, of not answering this question, because it is unanswerable. No, further back, to the Book of Genesis.

Other answers range in tenor and tone from capricious to impertinent to flip, but often impart insight or information a more serious, straightforward answer would have skipped or missed.

For example, to the question: “How do we go on?” The answer: “We just do. It’s best to have a parka, some freeze-dried food, and plenty of water. If it weren’t involuntary, everyone would just give up…they’d just sit down, eventually lie down, and ultimately stop moving altogether.” A more cogent question, the authors suggest, would be: “Where is on?”

Another really tough one: “What makes me human?” Lots of theories and suggestions over the centuries, but no universally accepted answer. The authors’ answer: “Gravity. A couple of different kinds. Also, some sort of somethings that aren’t always there, but go away and come back again…” A core inconstancy as what it means to be human. Something to that.

Another tough one, the first question in the book: “Who are we?” The old version catechism would have talked about body and soul, the amalgam of material and spiritual. This version, a completely materialist/mechanist explanation. About meat and water, and wires and bolts. The mechanism is further described as “a series of pulleys and ropes.” Then a completely surprising statement in the materialist/mechanist context: “If it can rest, it’s not part of our constitution.” Kind of a non-sequitur, but also straight out of St. Augustine. His prayer/confession to the Almighty: “My heart is restless, until it rests in thee.” (The “if it can rest” statement possibly inspired by the pulley image, from the George Herbert poem, which is a total expansion on the St. Augustine formulation.)

All by way of saying, some remarkable stuff in this new catechism.

A full reading of the catechism will be given by the authors this Friday, April 5, at midnight at WNYBAC, an event denominated “Midnight Mass.”

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