And then there was Michelangelo’s David.

And I couldn’t speak. And I really don’t know what to write. Really.david-hand-760x970

In a crowd of Japanese school children and a host of other tourists and visitors, I was completely overwhelmed, completely overcome.

For all the things going through my head in those moments and the hours since, I come back to this one thing: Michelangelo represents the humanism of the high Renaissance, and every first-year Humanities student can list the characteristics of this movement–the celebration of human achievement, for one.

But in trying to take in this astonishing feat of human achievement, I was struck–am struck–by the power of art to make us more human, to make us more fully what we are meant to be, to make us beautiful.

Much more needs to be said about this, for sure, and in contemplating the David all day, I am exhausted and bereft of words. But this at least:

We don’t take in a profound work of art in order to possess its beauty but rather that we might  be possessed by beauty ourselves, that we might learn what it means to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.


With some free time today, I had hoped to make it to San Marco, a church and monastery-now-museum, where Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (mentioned in day two’s post) lived and delivered his fiery sermons to the citizens of Florence. More famously, the painter, Fra Angelico, was also a monk, and later the prior, at San Marco. Coppo_di_Marcovaldo._Madonna._1250-60_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_Florence.

Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder de Medici, Angelico’s art adorned both church and cloister–his crucifix on the high altar and his frescoes (along with those of other artists) installed in individual cells. And they’re still there.

One of the most iconic images of the Renaissance–Angelico’s Annunciation–is placed at the top of a staircase, its figures life-size, the landscape backdrop of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary very similar to the courtyard of the Florentine monastery.

Not that I saw this or any of the other glorious art of San Marco today. There were some unexpected delays and changes in plans. Another day, I hope.

But walking back toward the hotel, I found myself alongside the outer north wall of a church so non-descript that I wouldn’t have known it was a church, save for a small, modest sign indicating that it was Santa Maria Maggiore. I ducked inside.

And I had that experience that I’ve had several times already in this stunning city: Outward appearances can be deceiving. Not always, of course. When you gaze upon the Duomo or the Church of Santa Maria Novella, they are–in very different ways–imposing and impressive. You know, so to speak and to a certain degree, what you’re getting into.

But a church like Santa Maria Maggiore, plastered and de-plastered numerous times through the centuries, does not spill its secrets or flaunt its treasures. From a busy street one enters the quiet, dark interior and finds one of the most antique churches in Florence. Built in the 10th century, Romanesque and Cistercian, Santa Maria Maggiore has three aisles with pointed arches on square piers. There are striking paintings of two episodes from the story of King Herod, and the left chapel features a relief in gilded wood of Madonna and Child.

There is much more, of course, but this was all I could take in during the few minutes I had.

This brief experience today was about more than “never judge a book by it’s cover”–as true and useful as that old saw is. It isn’t despite plainness and simplicity that beauty often shines forth. It’s that the plainness and simplicity are always part of the beauty–of buildings, of people.

But it takes work to see that. We are hard-wired, perhaps, to respond immediately, to be moved viscerally, by the visually striking. And it strikes me, in this city of ancient and medieval churches, that American Christians often want the spectacular, the dazzling, the entertaining in their worship experiences, especially.

What is ordinary, what is plain or simple, what has been steadfastly unspectacular through the centuries–praying the liturgy of the hours, for example–seems manifestly uninteresting to us.

But in such plain beauty are secrets revealed, treasures discovered. If only we have eyes to see.

As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep

In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.

You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).

Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.

There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.

As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.

And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.

And you are grateful.


The planet Venus in last night’s sky. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus today at the Uffizi Gallery.

This work of art was like none other of its time. The first Renaissance painting to portray a nude woman in a non-Christian context–only Eve heretofore–The Birth of Venus was controversial from the start. Commissioned by Birth-Venus-Bott-LLorenzo di Medici, likely as a wedding present for a cousin (it would have hung over the marital bed), the painting barely escaped destruction at the hands of a zealous Dominican monk. During Carnivale of 1497, Girolamo Savonarola organized what came to be known as the bonfire of the vanities.  He ordered a house to house search of costumes, masks, wigs, cosmetics, musical instruments, and other objects deemed ill-suited for the devout. Also caught up in the banning/burning were precious manuscripts and various works of art. The night before the beginning of Lent that year, the great pile of “vanities” was set afire. Botticelli himself, who had been captivated by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, contributed some of his own work to the blaze.

But Venus survived.

To stand in front of this magnificent painting is to be overwhelmed by qualities that one does not encounter in most paintings in the Uffizi, or in Renaissance art generally, where subjects (and subject matter) are weighty and substantial and realistically rendered. (Notice the impossible postures/positions of Venus and the figures representing the Zephyr winds). The Birth of Venus is charming, graceful, lyrical, ethereal, delicate, and deeply sensuous. It celebrates human desire.

And to my untrained eye, it seems to be, ultimately, about beauty. It invites one to contemplate physical beauty, erotic beauty, not as voyeur, but in recognition of the truth that we are creatures who hunger for beauty, who are made from beauty and for beauty, and who must learn that all desire is a desire for beauty.


Wendell Berry

I knew her when I saw her
in the vision of Botticelli, riding
shoreward out of the waves,
and afterward she was in my mind
as she had been before, but changed,
so that if I saw her here, near
nightfall, striding off the gleam
of the Kentucky River as it darkened
behind her, the willows touching
her with little touches laid
on breast and arm and thigh, I
would rise as after a thousand
years, as out of the dark grave,
alight, shaken, to remember her.


A stunning sunrise over the city of Amsterdam more than made up for the lack of sleep on the flight from Washington, DC.  Unexpectedly, our flight to Florence was diverted to Pisa–too much wind on the ground for a safe landing. Also unexpected: exquisite views of the Italian Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Such spectacular grandeur, IMG_5407such ancient beauty. And then finally entering Firenze, as it is known in Italy, a city which in some ways looks like any other but in most ways like no other.

A late afternoon walking tour of the center city–brief glimpses of the Cathedral (God in heaven, the glory of every part of it), the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria–how will we bear the beauty of it all in the coming days?

As night fell, the sight of Jupiter in the east of the cobalt-blue sky. He stood brilliant, silent vigil over a sea of tourists and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain, which I’m not sure what I think about. It’s either much-loved or much-reviled, I hear. At first sight of it, Ammannati’s teacher, Michaelangelo, is said to have quipped, “what a beautiful piece of marble you have ruined.”

As we walk past the Galleria Uffizi (on the schedule for our second day), a classical guitarist plays “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the film The Mission and written by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. It is beautiful beyond words.

And then, walking back to the hotel, along the Arno river, Venus shines bright in the western sky, and I know that I am in love.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6the-adoration-of-the-magi-1510-1
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Lectionary for Mass

Welcome home, my child. Your home is a checkpoint now. Your home is a border town. Welcome to the brawl.

“Song of the Magi,”Anaïs Mitchell

They are as familiar as any in the cast of characters that make up the mash-up we know as the Christmas Story.

The “wise men from the East” in Matthew’s gospel join the shepherds and angels found only in Luke to populate children’s Christmas pageants everywhere. With tinfoil crowns on their heads and festive tablecloths draped over their tiny shoulders, solemn preschoolers reverently place wrapping-paper-clad boxes at the feet of makeshift mangers. Parents and grandparents sigh and chuckle. Video and still shots are posted to Facebook before “Silent Night” has been sung and happy applause has been rendered.

Christians high-church and low have ritualized these stories (even as they have conflated them) in this very recognizable and much-beloved form. And why not teach children (and others) in such ways—through embodiment, performance, spectacle?

But for those who may be weary of the inevitable kitsch of this rite of passage, and perhaps especially for those who wonder if the whole nativity narrative isn’t just another fairy tale, it’s worth noting how the story of the wise men in Matthew (and also of the shepherds and angels in Luke) is rooted not in cuddly cuteness but in the politics of domination and costly resistance to it. 

To read the rest click here.

I had the privilege of making a quick trip to East Tennessee this week to give the homily at Adoration, a contemplative, ecumenical service of Word and Table. We observed the Solemnity of All Saints.

Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm 24: 1BC-2, 3-4AB, 5-6
1  John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12A

Let us pray:

Great God of light,
as the radiance of these candles dazzles our eyes,
so may the light of your Spirit illumine our hearts and minds,
that we might behold your beauty—in word, in sacrament, in one another.

+ + +

When my two sons were about 8 and 12 years old, the younger one, Patrick, came home from school one day and announced to the older one, Drew: “I was named after a saint, and you were named after the past tense of a verb.” This is the same younger son whom I once overheard say to a new friend: “My mom is a doctor but not the kind who can do you any good.”

 Patrick is now in his 20s and he is still learning to live into his sainthood.

As are all of us. Each one of us.

And for some of us, we find this to be a daunting proposition: to try and live—whether or not we bear the name of a saint—into the vocation of sainthood. Because for most of us, sainthood suggests sinlessness, or at least a singlemindedness of devotion or piety or virtue that we could never muster.

We think about our lives that often seem so small. We regret choices we have made. Hurts we have inflicted. Friendships we have allowed to languish or worse. We consider how judgmental we can be. How petty or prideful or preoccupied with a thousand things other than the way of discipleship. We know that our faith is often shaky—something we can barely admit to ourselves, let alone to others, let alone to God.

And our calling is to be saints?

When Jesus speaks these familiar words in St. Matthew’s gospel—what we call the “Beatitudes”—he gives his first hearers and us something of a litany of sainthood:

Poverty of spirit.
A hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Cleanness of Heart.
Being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

These are the states of being, the conditions of life, the qualities of character that Jesus says are blessed by God. And blessedness here, the New Testament scholars tell us, means something like “happiness.” But this word, too, gives us pause: Happy are the poor in spirit? Really?

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, and it has defined happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is ultimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy.

At the beginning of the Bible we learn that the happiness we were created for is friendship with one another and with God, and at its end we have heard, this very night, of the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—that all of creation is destined for:

“A great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . “

This is the happiness we were made for:  to contemplate the beauty of God. John’s vision isn’t one of leaving anyone behind; it is the eternal adoration of God in the communion of saints.

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or make, something we earn or deserve, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness comes to us through grace. “The God who wants our good gifts us with the happiness we seek” (Paul Wadell).

Scripture also makes clear, from beginning to end, that the happiness we were made for is deeply social, ineluctably political. “Political” in this sense has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together.

Thus the Beatitudes—indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount in which they are set—are not a list of ethical mandates for the individual or a prescription for self-actualization. What Jesus blesses are not moral states he orders his followers to achieve—be meek! be merciful!—but the conditions of our shared life as we seek to flourish together in the goodness of God.

So for instance when Jesus says, “happy are those who mourn,” we know that he is not enjoining chin-up cheerfulness in the face of blinding sorrow. Rather, we have it on Jesus’ authority here that “in deep sadness human beings are in God’s hands more than at any other time” (Dale Bruner).

But there is another kind of mourner: the one who weeps with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). And here we might see Jesus as the one who makes known what blessed mourning looks like. At Bethany, Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus, and through his own tears, transformed the grief of his friends and the suspicion of his skeptics.

Blessed are those who weep with those who weep.

In our lives, we have the privilege of making a gift of our own tears as we attend to those who grieve—the wounded, the weary, the broken, the broken-hearted.

But in truth we find this to be a very difficult thing. Tears are profoundly intimate. They reveal our human frailty like almost nothing else. The grieving often suffer alone because they do not know how to receive the tears of another—their own can be bewildering enough.

And those who might offer comfort to the grieving by weeping with them are also often embarrassed by tears—their own and the tears of others—and at a loss with how to be so exposed and unguarded; how to simply be with another through unstoppable tears.

But “God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties [and] to make of ourselves a gift of unbounded love” (Pope Benedict XVI).

If genuine happiness is learning to be like God in goodness, then those who mourn and those who weep with them know something of the vulnerable heart of our good and gracious God.

On the feast of All Saints we are reminded, happily, that we do not go it alone on this journey of living into the blessedness, the happiness we have been called to, created for. The New Testament never uses the word “saint” in the singular. There are only saints in the plural.

In trying to live into the gift, the vocation, of sainthood—into the gift of happiness—we have the witness of other saints: beloved people in our own lives and the beatified, canonized saints of the Church, many of whose countenances surround us here tonight like the great cloud of witnesses they are in these beautiful icons.

Yet these beautiful, iconic witnesses to our faith are not persons whose lives are beyond our reach. As Dorothy Day once said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

We pray to the saints—or, rather, we beseech the saints to pray for us—not because they were perfect but because they weren’t—because they, like us, lived messy lives. They had regrets. They inflicted hurts. They struggled with pettiness, pride, a shaky faith.

Yet in the midst of their flawed, imperfect lives, they were men and women who relished life as a gift, and who realized that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away (William Stringfellow).

 + + +

A great American tradition on Halloween is to carve a pumpkin into a grinning lantern. We set it by the front door as a sign of hospitality to strangers and guests. According to our faith, offering hospitality to strangers and guests is a way to experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet where all of us will be welcomed into the presence of Christ and invited to feast at his table.

Tonight we, too, experience a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet as we partake of this holy meal set before us. We sup with the saints of the ages. And we sup with the saints beside us in this room even now.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2).

Until then, we have this meal. We have each other. We have the witness of those in whom we see the goodness of God, who show us what blessedness, what happiness, looks like.

With them, we are saints in the plural.




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