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    La Pietà and the cosmos

    Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, La Pietà (detail), 1499

    I have just come out of what was perhaps the most inspiring lecture I have ever attended. You have no idea how amazing it was. Believe it or not, it was about Michelangelo‘s La Pietà and the cosmos. It was also about John Calvin. It was presented with much verve and pathos by the irreplaceable David Pacini of Emory University. I will try to do justice to both the man and his lecture in this post.

    OK then. We have a problem, and the problem is this: We find ourselves, without even being asked, on this tiny planet, lost and wandering among the stars, in a universe ancient beyond words and large beyond imagination. What to make of it? And what to make of God?

    First, some preliminaries. Calvin, it turns out, is not the source of the hard-headed black-white theology of predestination as it is commonly understood today. The original source of that was Augustine and it was molded into its modern form at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Also, Calvin’s theology is strongly theocentric (that is, “God-centered,” as opposed to Luther‘s Christocentrism) and at the center stands a God that is definitely not of the Kind-Old-White-Bearded-Grandpa-in-the-Sky variety, or even of the Mean-Old-White-Bearded-Heartless-Bastard-in-the-Sky variety. Calvin’s God is not really anthropomorphic. This God is just too big and ultimate for that. This God is One; this God is the I Am that I Am.

    So, back to us little persons on earth. Here we are, going about our lives. Here we are, making plans for the future and thinking we’ve got things more-or-less figured out. Here we are, thinking we know which end of the stick is up. It’s all good.


    Well, maybe not. The truth is, we live within a terrible tension. On one side, we have — at times — a clear sense of being at home here in the cosmos. We belong, we have our people, we have our places, we know where we’re going, and what’s more, every now and again we rediscover a deep joy at the simple realization that we, our people, and everyone else are alive. On the other side, though, if we’re honest, we also feel a palpable sense of being alienated, of being displaced, of being pushed by external forces (or internal ones) into positions or roles that make us feel misunderstood and resentful. There is an order in the world that is out of your control and you’re just not fitting into it.

    An analogy: Have you, as a college student or adult, ever gone home to stay with the parents and siblings for awhile? Maybe for Christmas? Upon leaving for home you may say, I’m going home! Huzzah! But once you get there: ugh. The old order returns. And it can’t be helped. All of a sudden you are five years old and you and your siblings mechanistically fall back into old patterns and ways of being and it just can’t be helped. There’s nothing for it but to submit, because the harder to try to break the patterns the uglier things get. Yet without a doubt you are home. And there’s something infinitely good about home. It’s a nice tension.

    But it’s a tension we live with every day of our lives, on a larger scale and in an unavoidable way.  And it’s a tension that is usually hidden below the surface of our lives. We hide it because to see it face-to-face is life-threatening. As you will see.

    The point is, we are trapped in the universe; we can’t alter that. And just like at home, there is an ordering to the cosmos; we can’t alter that, either. What ordering of the universe is this, you ask? Well, it’s an interesting question. It is interesting mainly because of its answer. That answer is, according to Calvin:

    We have no way of understanding the ordering of the universe because our vision is distorted. With this distorted vision we see nothing but trivia, nothing but distractions, nothing but illusions. What we think is the most important thing is not the most important thing. That’s how it is; with this distorted vision the true ordering of the universe eludes us time and again. That is, we are lost, folks, because we’re blind. We do not know who we are or what we are doing. And we do not know what God is. Because we are blind and lost. And if we think we’re not blind and lost in this universe, then we’re really blind and lost. Sorry. There’s no winning this one.

    What to do? Can we ever get a glimpse of the order of the cosmos? And if so, how? Calvin’s answers to these questions are Yes, and Through the lenses of Scripture. No one, he proposes, can have knowledge of God through nature alone without Scripture. But, and this is an important warning, once we put those glasses on and see the universe clearly, look out. God and the universe, it turns out, are a lot more than we may have counted on.

    To show this, Pacini used not Scripture itself, but a work of art based on Scripture. That work is, you may have guessed by now, Michelangelo’s La Pietà. This is a work of sculpture that I have known about for years. I have never before thought much of it.

    Now I’m thinking a lot of it.

    Consider: what we have here is a mother holding her dead son. Do not think about the Easter story; do not bring your theological opinion to bear on this; do not presume to understand this: A mother is cradling her dead son.

    Consider next Mary’s appearance. Unlike all his other female figures, Michelangelo does not make this Mary tough and blocky, “a male with a few add-ons” (Pacini’s words). She looks distinctly feminine. She is also young, and quite frankly sensuous and fulsome. She looks for all the world as if she may have just given birth to her son, and not just witnessed his murder. She cradles him gently yet confidently. She is nearly radiant. Thus we encounter great tension in this work: sensuality and decay; birth and death; male and female; joy and sorrow. Looking at this we find ourselves simultaneously lost and at home. So what does this do to us, this apprehension of the usually-hidden tensions of our lives? Anything?

    Yes, something. Consider Isaiah 6.1-8:

    In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

    Please notice that Isaiah is not sitting around having a cold one with the seraphs and shooting the bull. No way. He is not a comfortable man. He is terrified and shaken, emptied out and fully undone. Moral: To see the universe’s order is to see the full face of reality, not to have a nice warm-n-snuggly romp with good old Grandpa God. To see the universe’s order is to see God as God is; it is to know in a face-to-face and direct way the deep tension between our being lost forever and our being securely at home; it is to know absolute loss and great hope simultaneously; it is to know oneself to be nothing yet simultaneously give over to God what one is: Here I am; send me.

    If you meditate on La Pieta awhile you may find yourself undone, like the prophet. You may find the great tensions of your life laid bare. Consider it: A blameless woman is opposed by the cruelest and most wrenching of life’s turns: the brutal death of her child. Yet in her bewildering grief there may be seen, if one looks closely enough, a making-new, the birth of an undying hope, the flowering of a great love. In this work we see that in God’s heartbreaking loss  — we are lost  —  God paradoxically becomes even more tightly bound to us. In La Pietà we see, face-to-face, a love that embraces the annihilation of the beloved, a love that grows bold in the heart of absolute emptiness. This is a love that cannot be understood.

    When we see La Pietà we see God’s love. That’s all I really want to say. We see ourselves as empty and lost and dead. Yet if we can bear to face that emptiness and dislocation and decay for a moment, if we can somehow hold back all the trivia and illusions and distractions we would so dearly like to fill ourselves with, we may come to see the truth. We may come to see ourselves and God for the first time. We may come to know just how completely at home we have always been, and always will be.

    Thank you, Dr. Pacini.


    Comment Pages

    There are 2 Comments to "La Pietà and the cosmos"

    • Cedric Lazlo says:

      In terms of science it seems as though we are beginning to get some handle on this order of the universe thing. Of course, I know a lot less about this than I would like. I once took an astronomy class and calculated the volume of the observable universe to be on the order of 4.7×10^83 tablespoons. This calculation left me feeling a bit floccinaucinihilipilificated in relation to the size of what we can see. But on the religion side, vis a vis this post, the laying bare of the tensions of life makes the previous calculation seem but a trifle. Thanks for putting things in perspective Paul.


      • Paul Paul says:

        You’re welcome, Unit.

        In the course in which you found yourself somewhat floccinaucinihilipilificated at the large number of tablespoons needed to fill the observable universe, did you perchance convert your result to dessert spoons (9.4×10^83) or to drops (1.3×10^86) or to yotta-acre-feet (5.6×10^51) or to zepto-jiggers (1.6×10^104)?

        The last of these I find particularly exciting.

        I offer these simply because I happen to have had them laying about the place. And I considered that your professor may be impressed with your conversion skills (even though they are mine). In any case, you should share these results with him. Even if you are no longer in this class — you spoke the course in the past tense — you may want to email your professor and show him what you and your colleague have done to expand the frontiers of astronomical science.

        Or you could just leave a comment on his blog, on the off-chance that he has one.

        He will be very proud, and may even recommend these results for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Or perhaps the Journal of Mind-Numbingly and Ridiculously Honkin’ Big Damned Space Numbers. His name first, of course.




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