May 5, 2016 Thursday: 6th Week of Easter
On Pentecost Sunday, May 12, 1972, Hungarian-born Australian geologist Lazlo Toth dashed past the guards at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, vaulted over a balustrade, and dealt fifteen hammer blows to Michelangelo ’s marble masterpiece, the Pietà . The art world was stunned and stood in horror. But wasn’t this an overreaction? After all, the damage was not extensive; the statue’s left arm was severed at the elbow, and the nose and left eye were chipped. A bottle of Elmer’s glue, a little restorative work, and things would be as good as new.
Such a glib reaction is an expression of ignorance and blindness . The amount of damage is not at issue but rather what was damaged. For when an object of immense beauty is marred, even by one unsightly mark, the effect is devastating. If the art world’s reaction of horror in the face of the damage inflicted upon Michelangelo’s Pietà is justified, how much more justified is such a reaction when God’s masterpiece, the human soul, made in the divine image and likeness , is marred in any degree?
We find such a reaction in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray . At the beginning of the story, Dorian Gray, an exceptionally handsome young man, has his portrait painted. It so captures the beauty of his youth that he begins to weep because he knows that as he grows older, his portrait will remind him of his fading youth. Dorian utters a mad wish that he would stay young forever and that his portrait would age and become a portrait of his soul. His wish becomes a reality. One night, several weeks after making this wish, Dorian arrives home, he notices that a slight alteration has occurred in his portrait.
There was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. . . . There were no signs of any change when he looked into the actual painting , and yet there was no doubt that the whole expression had altered. . . . He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that the canvas bear the burden of his passions and sins. Surely his wish had not been fulfilled. Yet there was the picture before him with the touch of cruelty in the mouth. . . . [The portrait] was watching him, with its beautiful and marred face and its cruel smile . . . the visible emblem of his conscience. . . . He got up from his chair, and drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it. “How horrible.” 13
Dorian’s reaction of horror is due to his realization that a touch of cruelty has marred his entire face. He realizes that his one act of cruelty has altered his soul, or as John expresses this reality, “[Just as] strokes of soot would ruin a perfect and extraordinarily beautiful portrait, so too inordinate appetites defile and dirty the soul, in itself a perfect and extremely beautiful image of God” (A.1.9.1).
The metaphor of sin as defilement contains a basic truth about human nature, namely, that every experience leaves its imprint upon the soul. Every encounter with the created order deposits a residue that is recorded in memory and embedded in our physiology. Just as our bodies can be infected if exposed to germs, so too can our souls be infected if they are exposed to certain stimuli.
John’s main point is as follows: if we are influenced by merely being exposed to or touched by something, how much more are we impacted when we touch something with our will in the heat of desire? We need to keep in mind that John is writing about the harms that our choices inflict upon our souls: “The voluntary appetites bring on all these evils ” (A.1.12.6). Like Dorian Gray, each of us is in the process of painting a self-portrait in which every choice we make is a brushstroke. For
Every choice I make is a brushstroke that I paint on the portrait of my soul. What daily choices do I make that contribute to either the beauty or defilement of my self-portrait?
Fr. Marc Foley OCD, The Ascent of Mount Carmel: John of the Cross