How to Fight the Temptation to Self-Loathing

Of the twelve images that I spoke about on my tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Saturday, I received the most positive reactions to Jusepe de Ribera’s Tears of St. Peter. In this painting by the 17th-century stylistic descendant of Caravaggio, we see a remorseful Peter against a dark Good Friday sky entreating Heaven for his denial of Christ. The light and the composition focus on the repentant face of Peter, but there are some details that remind us of the hope and forgiveness that he is bound to receive: he leans against a rock, a reminder that he is still the Rock upon which Christ will build his Church, and the Keys of the Kingdom lie next to him – despite his sin, his dignity and responsibility remain.

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The Tears of St. Peter, Jusepe de Ribera

Two people betrayed Christ on the night of Holy Thursday and both regretted what they had done: Peter and Judas. Peter denied Christ three times, but when the cock crowed, he realized what he had done and wept bitterly. Judas betrayed Christ to the chief priests and elders, but when he saw that Jesus was condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver that he had been paid for the betrayal. Both hurt Christ, and both were remorseful. However, there is a big difference between the two of them: one despaired and the other did not. Peter repented and was eventually forgiven by Christ; Judas, on the other hand, did not trust in God’s mercy and ended up killing himself.

The devil tempts us in two different ways, both before and after we sin. Before the sin, he entices us with pleasure or gain. If we break down and sin, he employs a new type of temptation: he tempts us to hate ourselves for what we have done and to think that God would never forgive us.

The devil’s only goal is to destroy us and to take us away from God’s love. He uses whatever is at his disposal to accomplish this, be it enticement to sin or temptation to self-loathing. Sometimes, the latter can be harder to resist than the former. Even when we do repent and ask God for forgiveness, the guilt and self-loathing may linger. It is very important that we calmly and peacefully push away such feelings. Self-hatred never comes from God.

We have to realize that God’s love is so intense that nothing we can do can make His love for us any less. Jesus made that very clear to us in His Parable of the Prodigal Son. To resist the temptation of identifying ourselves with our past sins and of hating ourselves for them, we have to return to God’s love again and again. We have to put ourselves in the presence of Our Lord and bask in his unconditional love for each of us.

During the rest of this Holy Week, take time to attend the liturgies at your local in parish in which Christ’s Passion, Death, Resurrection – the ultimate manifestations of his love – will be sacramentally actualized and re-presented. As you participate in the liturgies, remember that Christ went through his Passion for you, and he would have done it even if you were the only one who needed it. As Peter did, you may feel intense remorse for your sins, but allow that sorrow to be gradually displaced by Our Lord’s intense love for you. Let His love and peace fill your heart.

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Images of Mercy

I just finished up my tour of religious art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I focused on images that have to do with mercy. Five were paintings of Christ, the Face of Mercy, and seven were images of people who had experienced the mercy of Christ in a special way: St. Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, and the Samaritan Woman.

At the end of the tour, I encouraged the attendees to take some time to be alone with Christ this Holy Week and to use these images to facilitate contemplation of his love and mercy. Below you can find the images that I used. They can also be found at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

These are high resolution images that should show up well on a computer, tablet, or smartphone when you click on them. I hope that you find them to be a good aid for your prayer. Have a blessed Holy Week!

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The Trinity, Agnolo Gaddi, ca. 1390–96

 

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Christ Crowned with Thorns, Antonello da Messina, ca. 1470

 

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The Meditation on the Passion, Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1490

 

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The Man of Sorrows, Michele Giambono, ca. 1430

 

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Pietà, Carlo Crivelli, 1476

 

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Saint Mary Magdalen Holding a Crucifix, Spinello Aretino, ca. 1395–1400

 

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The Penitent Magdalen, Corrado Giaquinto, ca. 1750

 

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The Penitent Magdalen, Georges de La Tour, ca. 1640

 

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The Denial of Saint Peter, Caravaggio, ca. 1610

 

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The Tears of Saint Peter, Jusepe de Ribera, ca. 1612–13

 

Nicolas Poussin (French, Les Andelys 1594–1665 Rome) Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, 1655 Oil on canvas; 49 1/2 x 65 in. (125.7 x 165.1 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Fund, 1924 (24.45.2) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/437330
Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, Nicolas Poussin, 1655

 

Benedetto Luti (Italian, Florence 1666–1724 Rome) Christ and the Woman of Samaria, 1715–20 Oil on copper; 15 × 12 1/8 in. (38.2 × 30.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund, by exchange, 2015 (2015.645) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/702752
Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Benedetto Luti, ca. 1715–20

Finding Peace During Holy Week

This Saturday, I am giving a tour in the European Painting section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme of my tour will be Divine Mercy and the first half will be dedicated to depictions of Jesus Christ, the “Face of Mercy.”

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“Christ Crowned with Thorns,” Antonello da Messina

I will be speaking about a number of beautiful paintings, but one in particular fascinates me: Christ Crowned with Thorns by Antonello da Messina (1430–1479). There is something about this painting that portrays the suffering of Christ more powerfully than the others. Antonello chose to highlight Christ’s emotional suffering, and perhaps this is what is so poignant about it. The sad and penetrating gaze of Jesus grabs the viewer and allows no room for indifference.

His pained and supplicating eyes captivate and draw us into his suffering. His face is swollen and his beard is plucked, and he presents himself to the viewer in a moment of complete weakness. The Christ of this painting is exposed and vulnerable, just as the words of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant foretold: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheek to those who tore out my beard.” (Isaiah 50:6)

In the midst of his suffering, Jesus looks at the viewer and pleads for mercy. He looks out at us as if to ask for some respite from his torment. Paradoxically, our merciful God is asking us for mercy. The same loving eyes that looked with mercy upon the Samaritan woman, the humiliated adulteress, and greedy Zacchaeus, now look out at us begging for us to return his love.

The two tears on his face say more than anything else in the painting. Yes, Jesus is suffering physically, but he even more intense is his emotional suffering. Thorns have drawn the drops of blood, but his friends have caused the tears. Abandoned by his closest companions, he looks out at us if to say, “Will you leave me as well?”

In this portrayal of Jesus Christ, we see our God in a disconcerting position of weakness. Yet, while he is completely exposed and vulnerable, his gaze remains firm. Even as his physical strength wains and weakens, his love for us remains strong. He will not waver as he bears the punishment of our sins: his love for each of us is too intense for that.

This Holy Week, take time to go to the local church or to a quiet place in your home and peacefully contemplate the face of Christ. Use this image or any other one that moves you. Look at him and ask him for one grace: to understand how much he loves you. He always answers that prayer, and in one way or another you will experience the peace that comes with knowledge of his love.

Resting in God: Finding Peace in Divine Love

A few years ago, I developed a talk on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, so I am taking advantage of this Year of Mercy to give the talk as much as I can. I have found that the painting offers an excellent way to unpack the beauty of Christ’s famous parable about God’s infinite love and mercy. Every time I give the talk, there is always some detail that strikes me in a new way. Most recently, it has been the way in which the prodigal son’s head rests in the bosom of his father. There is something very peaceful about it.

After so much time spent desperately seeking security and meaning in the fleeting attention of the world, the prodigal son has finally returned to his father and to the paternal love that was always there for him. With this beautiful image, Rembrandt gives us an icon of the peace to which each of us is called.

72newtesLike the prodigal son, we are all allured by what the world has to offer us. We all yearn for attention and love, and all too often we enslave ourselves to the unrealistic expectations of others as we search for this love and attention. Just as the prodigal son ran off to a faraway city, so do we flee to the virtual cities of TV and the internet to gaze at the dazzling riches and pleasures awaiting those whom the world favors. We watch the lives of celebrities and frustrate ourselves longing to be as loved and appreciated as them. We dissipate our time, energy, and peace striving to somehow get our own scraps of fame and recognition.  We model ourselves on those famous people and spend too much time and money trying to look like them.

All the while, God the Father is waiting for us with arms wide open. The love that we desire so much is actually available with unimaginable intensity in God. The love of the world is always conditional and fickle, but God’s love is infinite and eternal.

It is very important to rest in God’s love. We need to form the habit of withdrawing our thoughts and imagination from the distractions of the world and instead focusing on God. We have to allow ourselves to bask in his love for us. This requires time, but it will always be time well spent. Even if it is only 15 minutes a day spent in prayer or reading of Scripture or sitting before the Eucharist, God will respond generously to our efforts to rest in him.

Lent is a time to disconnect from distractions and to rest in God. Take advantage of these last few weeks of this holy season to ensure that you are spending time daily to calmly rest in the beauty and love of God the Father. 

Genesis, Picasso, and Biblical Truth

Let’s face it: the Bible is not an easy book to understand, let alone explain. It is a complex anthology of texts that span multiple centuries, diverse cultures, and three different languages. Some of its books are historical, others are poetic, and others are prophetic. Some parts of it make sense to our modern ears, but many parts don’t. Take Genesis, for example: was the world really made in seven days? Did it really only happen 5,000 years ago? Are we all really descended from only two people?

Atheists like Richard Dawkins love the Book of Genesis because it provides them with easy targets for their anti-scriptural jabs. They point at the huge amount of evidence for evolution, then they point at the biblical account of God’s creation, and say, “Really? You Christians believe that? Are you really that simpleminded?”

Sometimes we Christians can feel a little sheepish or insecure in the face of their accusations, but there is no need. If anyone is being simpleminded, it is those who refuse to try to understand the Scriptures in their richness and complexity. Rather, they choose to limit themselves to a their own faulty caricature of the Bible. Truly open-minded intellectuals would take the time to at least understand what the Bible actually is and how Christians read it, even if they choose not to believe it.

We Christians do indeed believe that the Bible is the true, but we do not (or at least should not) believe it as simplistically as critics love to claim. We know that biblical truth is the truth that God put in Scripture for the sake of our salvation, but that truth is revealed within the limitations of human language. Just as Jesus Christ, the Word-Made-Flesh, became man in a very specific time and place, and was conditioned by that time and place, so did God’s Revelation to man become inscribed and incarnated in human language in very specific and conditioning times and places. There is an inherent polarity and tension that must always be kept in mind by whomever reads Scripture, believer or non-believer: what is revealed and proposed as universal truth and how it is revealed.

Let’s look at the creation account in Genesis, for example. On one hand, we have a proposed universal truth (which we Christians believe to be revealed by God), and on the other, we have the unique literary way in which the truth is communicated. The underlying truth is that the universe was made ex nihilo by one all-powerful Divine Being. The unique, culturally conditioned way in which this is transmitted is a seven-day cosmogony that contains elements similar to the myths of Israel’s neighbors. This is the case because, as the Navarre Commentary on Genesis puts it, “The sacred writers of Genesis sifted through these myths and selected certain literary elements suited to the mentality of their contemporaries in order to convey the message of faith that they wanted to pass on, through their writings, to the people of Israel and, through Israel’s religious experience, to all mankind.”

It is important to keep in mind what is being revealed: the universe was created from nothing by one omnipotent Being. The Book of Genesis is revealing an objective truth, but not a scientific truth. Its writers were not trying to produce scientific theory, and Christians do not turn to Genesis for scientific explanations. Yes, we believe that it is inspired by God, but just as Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic, the language of his time and place, Genesis speaks the language of the people of the time of its composition. They did not speak of the creation of the universe in modern scientific terms, they spoke in mythical cosmogonies.

The Book of Genesis, along with all of the other books of the Bible, is a work of literary art and as such the validity of its message cannot be judged and criticized within the paradigm of contemporary scientific disciplines. Although certain disciplines such as philology and archeology can enrich our understanding how the book of Genesis was composed, they cannot go beyond that in regards to the universal truth that it proposes. As a work of literary art, it falls outside of the purview of science, and this in no way compromises the truth that is embedded in it.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine someone walking into the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and walking up to the Picasso masterpiece Guernica that depicts a the bombardment of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. After a few moments of inspection, he begins to laugh at it, and then he begins to laugh at those around him who are admiring it: “How can you even look at this? That’s not the way it actually looked!”

"Guernica," Pablo Picasso
“Guernica,” Pablo Picasso

Wouldn’t we consider that person to be ridiculously missing the point of Picasso’s famous painting? Yet, as absurd as such a reaction may seem, it is not that different from that of secular atheists who scorn the Bible and those who believe it. Just as it would be unreasonable to despise Guernica for its lack of photographic detail, so it is ludicrous to criticize Genesis for its lack of scientific accuracy. Both Guernica and Genesis are works of art and are thus conditioned by the inherent subjectivity of art; both contain objective truths embedded within the subjective experience of their respective artists.

The universal truth contained in Guernica is that war is horrendous and causes terrible anguish and suffering. Picasso chose to communicate this truth not through a photograph, but through his own unique style, and it may be argued that his mode of depiction captures the horror of war even more poignantly than a photograph could. His personal, unscientific, artistic way of communicating the truth in no way compromises it. The same can be said for Genesis: the unscientific and culturally conditioned way in which it communicates the truth of the world’s origin in no way undermines it.

Of course, atheists will object that the divine creation is impossible in the first place, but if they wish to prove that, they cannot do so by criticizing the literary genre used by the ancient authors of Genesis. The onus is on them to find the scientific experiment that proves the impossibility of a Divine Creator’s existence.

Good luck with that.