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Michael Merschel: Michael Merschel edits books coverage for The Dallas Morning News.
Because of demand for tickets, Thomas Cahill's Arts & Letters Live talk was moved from the Dallas Museum of Art across the street to First United Methodist Church.
It was fortuitous.
The estimated 700 people who turned out tonight to hear the popular historian were probably hoping to hear a seasonally appropriate lecture on "How the Irish Saved Civilization." Instead, Mr. Cahill gave the Irish only a cursory nod and dealt almost exclusively with "Mysteries of the Middle Ages," specifically, the "playfulness and heightened sense of the visual" that he says defined the era.
There was nary a mention of green beer or pots o'gold on this St. Patrick's night.
Rather, he gave a presentation worthy of a collegiate art history class, showing slide after slide of works from European cathedrals, interpreting Christian iconography, recounting tales of figures ranging from Eleanor of Aquatine to St. Francis of Assisi.
And the reaction from the crowd, many of whom sported shamrocks or other green-tinged holiday wear?
An enrapt silence, punctuated only by hearty laughter. (And a stray vacuum cleaner, which, luckily, was shut down after only a few minutes.)
In the museum, this talk would have indeed seemed like a mere art history lesson. But in the 80-year-old church sanctuary, there was a sense of the sacred. (Even when displaying a text illuminated by a playful Irish monk who saw no shame in working the most earthy member of his anatomy into a playful self-portrait.)
As our story pointed out, Mr. Cahill was educated by Jesuits, all of whom must be delighted with his grasp of church history. Yet this was no sermon. This was a celebration of humanity, and of how Western culture came to embrace a God who had taken human form -- and how masses of humans learned to value themselves in the process.
As he summed up the spirit of the era: "If God has taken human flesh, Classical pessimism can be transformed into Christian optimism. If this human God has suffered and died and risen again, life is not a tragedy, but a comedy. And if these things are so, a certain playfulness, a certain lack of ultimate seriousness, even a certain silliness is at work."
At the end, Mr. Cahill dealt with questions in a way that was just shy of being abrupt. But the crowd, shamrocks and all, gave him an enthusiastic ovation, and lined up en masse to purchase his books.
Not your traditional St. Patrick's Day activity. But for those in attendance, a happy one.
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