“The Calling of Saint Matthew”: When God Bursts In

Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew captures the birth of a vocation and an encounter between God and man. It reveals a dramatic moment in which two persons meet and two separate worlds converge.  With his characteristic realism, he visualizes a spiritual event and portrays the dynamism of a personal epiphany.

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The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, 1599-1600

Matthew, absorbed in his world of money and friends, is caught off guard. A ray of light illuminates the features of his surprised face.  He points towards himself to inquire if he is really the one being addressed by Christ.  He leans away from Jesus, but his legs seem poised to get up and move towards him.  We see tension and surprise before an unexpected and radical invitation.

Watershed Moment

This is a watershed moment in which Matthew’s life teeters between two possibilities. He must make a decision either to continue clinging to his money or to follow the beckoning Galilean. He is a tax collector; up until this point, his life has been centered on money. A coin is stuck conspicuously in his hat, symbolizing the privileged place that money holds in his thoughts.  With his right hand, he reaches for coins. If Matthew decides to heed the call of the austerely dressed Christ, he is going to have to give up something that has become central to his very identity.

There is another element in his life opposed to the possibility of him following Christ: his friends. They surround him and lean on him, almost protectively, forming a barrier between him and the uninvited visitor. The young man with the sword is about to get up from his stool, leaning towards Peter in a mildly aggressive manner. To follow Christ, Matthew will have to extricate himself not only from his internal attachment to money, but also from the external pressure of his friends.

The men in the left of the painting are a reminder of Matthew’s past — and of his possible future. They are hunched over their coins, completely oblivious to Christ. Their opportunity for a new, more meaningful life fades away as they continue counting silver. If Matthew does not respond to Christ, he will remain a sad miser like them.

Christ and Peter stand in stark contrast to Matthew and his companions. Their bare feet and simple clothing clash with the flamboyant colors of the tax collectors’ fashionable, 17th-century attire. Peter’s walking staff indicates their itinerant status: They are always on the move with no place to lay their heads.  If Matthew follows Christ, it will not be easy.  He will have to leave behind his luxurious lifestyle, stable income and even the benefit of proper footwear if he is going to be counted among the followers of this poor yet captivating man.

Christ’s Holiness vs. Matthew’s Worldliness

The contrast between Christ’s holiness and Matthew’s worldliness reflects contrasting elements of the artist’s life. Although his works depict saints and communicate profound spiritual realities, Caravaggio himself was far from angelic. His short life (1571 – 1610) was a paradox of great success and self-inflicted failure. Despite the popularity that he enjoyed among the Roman elite, time and time again his nasty temper and rowdy night life landed him in courts and jails. His misdemeanors ranged from consorting with prostitutes to throwing artichokes at a waiter. But the climax of his crimes occurred in 1606: he murdered a man in a violent duel. Forced to flee Rome, Caravaggio died of a fever four years later after a series of unfortunate events, much to the glee of his enemies and the sorrow of his admirers.

In the painting, Christ did not hold himself aloof from the worldly Matthew, but takes the initiative to approach him personally. God works through weak instruments. Like the rays of light in a typical Caravaggio work, God shines through the weakness of human nature and uses flawed individuals to communicate his own goodness to the world.  He used a troubled artist to create beautiful, spiritual paintings that 400 years later do not cease to inspire and awe. He used a sinful tax collector to write his Gospel.

Matthew has to make a decision soon because Christ is on his way out the door. Even as he calls Matthew, he is stepping away from the table, adding a sense of urgency to the moment. Christ is calling, but not waiting. His left hand is open and motions in the direction he is going, and his right hand points dramatically towards Matthew.

Human-Divine Encounters

In addition to the personal call of Matthew, this painting has a deeper meaning. It illustrates the new relationship between God and man made possible by Jesus Christ. Before the coming of Christ, there existed an infinite abyss between the Creator and humanity. It was traversable only by someone who was a part of both worlds, i.e. a God-Man. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, bridges this gap. A space of darkness, situated between Christ’s group and Matthew’s group, symbolizes this great divide. The darkness is bridged by the extended hand of Christ, the Light of the World.

Christ’s right hand is held very much like the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Ceiling.creation hands The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_hand_cropped

However, it points in a direction different from that of Adam’s: from right to left, just as the hand of Michelangelo’s God the Father. This combination illustrates Christ’s two natures. He is man, the perfect man, the New Adam. But he is also God, consubstantial with the Father. What Christ is doing in this painting is analogous to the creative action of God the Father. In Michelangelo’s work, God the Father is about to give life to the physically inert body of Adam. In Caravaggio’s work, Christ is about to give spiritual life to the spiritually empty Matthew. He is about to elevate him from his superficial tax-collecting existence to the fulfilling life of an apostle.

This masterpiece is also an iconic depiction of the human-divine encounter that takes place in every priestly vocation. When God reaches out to the called man, there is always a moment of decision such as this: Christ unexpectedly breaks into his life and he discovers, in an overwhelming instant of revelation, that Jesus desires him. This realization is often followed by the tension shown in “The Calling of Saint Matthew”: the call of the divine and the pull of the mundane; the beckoning of a new Friend and the clinging of old friends; the freedom of poverty and the slavery of greed; the comfort of daily routine and the adventure of following Christ. The called man finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war that only he can end. If he responds like Matthew, he will find what Matthew found:  the exhilarating joy of following Christ.

“The Big Short”, Dutch Still Lifes, and the Fleetingness of Wealth

The Big Short (starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt) tells the true story of a small group of investors who foresaw the 2008 crash and played it to their advantage by betting against the market. Their investments led them into the underbelly of financial America, and their lives were forever changed by the the corruption and the greed that they witnessed.

This latest addition to Hollywood’s growing list of Wall Street movies simultaneously shows the allure and the fleetingness of wealth. An important part of the plot takes place in Las Vegas where the main protagonists go to attend a conference in order to learn more about securities based on subprime mortgages. The entire city of Las Vegas, with its flashiness and get-rich-quick glamour, provides an apt backdrop as the main characters gradually become more aware that the housing market financial sector has become a virtual casino with traders betting recklessly on subprime loans. The evanescent nature of these traders’ wealth and success is highlighted by the gambling that surrounds them.

I watched the movie in Manhattan, blocks away from where some of the scenes were filmed. First-time visitors are often awed by wealth and power that fill the city, and and it is certainly easy to feel dwarfed in many ways by its massive canyon of skyscrapers, each of which is an impressive monument of financial success. Engulfed by such embodiments of capital, its easy to forget that all it takes is the burst of a financial bubble or some other calamity and the buildings will becoming nothing more than hollow shells.

Coincidentally, the same day I watched The Big Short, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent some time looking at vanitas paintings. This genre of Dutch still lifes shows beautiful objects in exquisite detail interspersed with disconcerting hints of their fleetingness. For example, this painting by Willem Claesz Heda shows expensive tableware and the leftovers of a rich meal, but disorder clashes with opulence: the silver tazza is tipped over, a glass is broken in the background, and items balance precariously on the edge of the table. The tasty oysters are almost all gone. A half-peeled lemon provides a metaphor of the luxurious life: it may be beautiful to look at, but it is bitter to taste.

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Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware Willem Claesz Heda, 1635

Overall, the painting effectively evokes a “party’s-over” feeling of dissatisfaction and regret: things are broken, food is gone, and a mess has to be picked up. Watching The Big Short, I got the same feeling, especially towards the end of the film when the market crashes and images of despair increase, one of them being the mass exodus of Lehman Brothers employees after the bank’s bankruptcy. Disillusioned and disgruntled, they haul their belongings out of the building while being told by a shouting supervisor not to talk to any of the press.

Two of the main characters take someone’s security card and go against the flow into the Lehman Brothers trading floor where they find post-apocalyptic desolation – empty desks and cluttered floors. In one powerful moment, they experienced the vanity of wealth: the mighty institution they had once dreamed of being a part of had been reduced to financial rubble. “This isn’t how I pictured it,” one of them says.

Like the Dutch still-life artists, Hollywood creates art that makes money by riding waves of popular sentiment. The 16th-century artists of Holland were appealing to sober-minded Calvinists and 21st-century producers of Hollywood are capitalizing on collective post-recession cynicism. Nevertheless, the truth portrayed in the their art is still universally valid and coincides with Scripture: wealth is fleeting.

St. Paul reminds us that “we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it” (1 Tim 6:7), and Jesus said “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). None of this is to say that wealth is bad in itself. Material possessions are good and necessary, but we must value them appropriately. We can and should enjoy the wealth that God blesses us with, but we should do so remembering its fleetingness and keeping our eyes are Heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Mt 6:20).

The Big Short ends with alternating images: mansions and tent cities, jet skis and eviction notices, celebrating yuppies and homeless families. This juxtaposition is vanitas-like insofar as it reminds how quickly one’s fortune can change. The background music of Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks drives the point home.

Thankfully, we know that as long as we build our lives on the solid ground of Our Lord’s teachings, we will be more than ready for whenever the next levee breaks: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25).

David Bowie, Shakespeare, Death, and Hope

For the past few months, I have been teaching religion class on Monday nights at a parish in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Recently, I found out that the church was right next to the home of the late rock-star David Bowie. Although I never saw him myself, I heard that he lived an unassuming life there, frequenting local cafes and bookstores.

Two days before he died, Bowie’s last album Blackstar was released. It is being described as his “sung epitaph”, his great artistic farewell. He produced the album knowing that his cancer was terminal, and it is full of themes of mortality and death, especially the song Lazarus. I watched its music video with a priest who remarked, “Here you see pop culture touching the eschatological.” Having watched it several times since, I find myself agreeing with him more and more: even in the somewhat pagan art of David Bowie, one can see a soul grasping for truth.

Haunting Awareness of Death

The Lazarus music video begins showing a frail David Bowie trapped in a dark hospital room.   The music is eerie avant-garde jazz, punctuated with ominous sax and trombone riffs. A dark figure under his bed reaches towards him as Bowie anxiously recognizes his approaching death: “Look up here, man, I’m in danger!”

The next scene shows a more energetic David Bowie in a room with a wardrobe, dancing in way that recalls the performances of his youth. He sits at a desk to write out his last creative inspiration, aware that he is racing against the clock. As time ticks away, he writes more and more frantically, just barely finishing before Death beckons and he exits the scene.

The video is packed with meaning, but what caught my attention before anything else were the numerous memento mori. The most obvious are the hospital room and the mysterious figure beneath the bed (a weird version of the Grim Reaper). Another is a skull that sits upon Bowie’s  writing desk. Also evocative of death is the dancing Bowie’s skeletal costume, as well as the way he jerks like a wind-up toy reaching the end of its short kinetic life. The most dramatic (in my opinion) is the coffin-like wardrobe into which Bowie closes himself at the end of the song.

Seen as a whole, Lazarus is itself a great memento mori, a vivid reminder of the certainty of death and the fleetingness of life. A man who had it all – fame, money, and glamour – recognizes and embraces the fact that he will soon lose it all in death.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628
Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628

 

Sic transit gloria mundi. 

Lazarus strikes me as a sort of musical vanitas, an artistic reminder that Death awaits everyone without exception, and thus all earthly things are “vanities of vanities.” In particular, it calls to mind a Dutch vanitas that I saw last week in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This work by Pieter Claesz (1596/97–1660), shows a skull on top of a book and a quill, recalling to the viewer the ephemeral nature of personal production. No matter how much or how well one writes in the book of his life, sooner or later, Death decides the final chapter.

In turn, the smoldering candle in the Claesz painting reminds me of  a great literary vanitas by Shakespeare, coming from the mouth of a desperate Macbeth:

 …Out, out, brief candle!/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.

Glimpses of Hope

Battling with terminal cancer, David Bowie must have known during his performance in Lazarus that “his hour upon the stage” was coming to a close. Like Shakespeare and the great artists of the vanitas genre, Bowie was well aware of the inevitability of death, and he expressed this awareness as only an artist can.

Most of us are familiar with Bowie’s life and know that, like many rock stars, he was was no paragon of moral virtue, and much of his art was morally questionable at best or downright blasphemous at worst. But despite all of this, he was nevertheless very human – he was searching for hope and meaning in a world that often denies both. Throughout his song, hopeful glimmers pierce through the darkness, especially the beginning and ending verses that serve as reassuring bookends.

The opening verse: “Look up here, I’m in heaven!”

And the final verses:

Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free!/Ain’t that just like me?

Bowie’s swan song expresses the very human angst that we all experience when confronted with death and the fleetingness of life, but it also shows the hope that the end of life is just the beginning of a better one. The title itself calls to mind the great episode of John 11 when Jesus Christ proclaims himself “the resurrection and the life” and raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

We can take heart from this artistic glimpse of hope that David Bowie left us, as well as from these words that his wife wrote on Instagram shortly before the news of his death broke: “The struggle is real, but so is God.”

“Divine Puns”: Learning to Hear God’s Voice in Coincidences

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that coincidences are spiritual puns, and in my own experience I have come to see that they do indeed make up a major part of God’s vocabulary. My life has been punctuated by numerous coincidences (some small and others astounding), and I have learned that many of them are heavenly whispers – invitations to slow down from the frantic pace of daily life and turn one’s ear heavenward. If you pay them attention, you will hear God’s voice quietly guiding you.

One such coincidence happened a few years back when I was trying to decide on a thesis topic for a master’s degree in philosophy – I was on the fence between writing on artistic beauty or on another theme. While deliberating in front of a computer one evening in my seminary’s look-out basement, I happened to glance up at the tiny window just in time to see it perfectly framing a beautiful full moon. The chances of everything aligning correctly for such a perfect picture right at the moment I looked up were extremely small, so it occurred to me that perhaps it was a sign to nudge me in the direction of beauty. I decided accordingly and launched on an analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics that proved to be a crucial intellectual adventure and one of the most worthwhile and enriching projects I have ever done.

Having learned to pay attention to coincidences like this one, I have been thinking and praying about a small coincidence that took place this past New Year’s Eve while visiting a friend in Utah. That evening, I watched Interstellar for the first time. One of the most powerful scenes of the movie is when the astronaut Joe Cooper leaves his family farm to embark on a mission from which he may never return. As he drives away in his truck, a male voice counts down the seconds as if he were about to takeoff in a shuttle, highlighting the fact that his journey into the unknown was already beginning as he drove his pickup between cornfields.

The coincidence came when the movie ended and my friend and I realized that it was exactly 11:59 – the last minute of 2015. As we counted down the seconds to 2016, it struck me that our countdown was not all that different from Joe Cooper’s. Every new year is a great unknown, and taking it on is always an adventure in itself.

After the countdown, we walked out into the frigid winter night to see the fireworks going off in the neighborhood. I recalled where I was a year ago that moment: on a seminary roof in Rome watching fireworks shoot up from piazzas all over the city. Little did I know that the unknowns of 2015 would bring me out of my religious order in the Eternal City back to the States and into the seminary program of Archdiocese of New York. God works in mysterious ways.

Living life fully is not forcing things to happen by ourselves; it is riding the wave of opportunities that God sends our way, and learning the recognize the coincidences and other signs that indicate them.

So what will 2016 bring for me? If all goes well, I will finish my pastoral year at St. Benedict’s Parish in the Bronx and move into the seminary in August where I will live full-time to complete the last three years of theology that stand between me and the priesthood. Besides that, only the Holy Spirit knows! Stay tuned to see.