Friday, October 19, 2018

a monstrous weight

—December 20, 2014— 

One of the great beauties of St. Patrick's Cathedral is that the back doors are usually left wide open.
It's an extravagant gesture (and not just because it must add significant figures to the heating bill), they are flung open like an embrace, welcoming the City into the arms of the Church. They are New York's answer to St. Peter's colonnade; but instead of stone pillars lined with saints, they are gold monoliths flanking the entrance of all the saints and sinners who stumble into their sanctuary.

Through the open entrance, you can hear the bustle of Fifth Avenue, and catch a glimpse of the bustle of Christmastime in New York City outside. Most importantly, you can see the colossal statue of Atlas that stands guard in front of the Rockefeller Center. It is an imposing and impressive sculpture. The bronze titan's brow is furrowed, yet his body seems unbreakable, capable of bearing a globe on his shoulders without breaking a sweat.

If I were to worship a god, I would expect him to look like that—no, I would need him to look like that. If I were to lay aside all my own selfish interests and desires for another being, and declare that being not only lord of my heart, but lord of all the universe, I would want to imagine him vast, unconquerable, powerful: powerful enough to trample all my enemies, strong enough to carry me on his shoulders, powerful enough to be able to grant my every request.

Just opposite of Atlas, staring at him lovingly from the high altar of St. Patrick's, is a gloriously ensconced crucified Christ. Although the cross and corpus are gilded, the pathos of this image is not lost in the glamor of the material, or in its marble surroundings. The figure of Christ, so broken, so injured, so hurt—so very palpably, visibly wounded in his mission. He hangs on the cross, an image of failure, derided by the world. That is what love will do to you.

Fall in love, stay in love, and you will endure more slings and arrows than just the bright agony of a cupid's dart, whispers the crucifix.

They stand opposite each other, across the avenue and the nave: one god a giant in bronze, triumphantly bearing the globe on his shoulders, celebrating the success of human industry. And then, this other strange god of Christians: a broken man, bleeding to death on a cross, enduring all the evils that human industry can impose upon one slight figure. Atlas' gaze is powerful, penetrating. He seems so sure of his success. He seems convinced of his destiny: to bear the weight of the world without assistance, and to offer none to anyone else. He is untouched by the sorrow of the humans blundering about on the burden on his back and taking pictures by his pedestal. He is removed from them, and their lives—to him—mean nothing at all.

But the face on the crucifix is carved with sorrow because the evils that harm us matter. Our lives, touched with sorrow, with glory, with failures and with victories matter. They matter so much that a God more powerful, vast, and unconquerable than Atlas entered into them. This God was beaten by his enemies, as we will be. This God endured hardship and cold, insecurity and uncertainty as all of us do. This God was born not as a titan but as the most vulnerable of creatures: a human baby. This God's body, hanging there on the cross looks much like mine: fragile—oh so fragile—and pitiable. This God endured all this indignity to what end? For the small possibility that one day I might learn to love him back? What an unspeakable insanity.

If I were to craft an image of love, I would expect it to look just like that.  If I were to lay aside all my own selfish interests and desires for another being, and declare that being not only lord of all the universe, but lord of my own heart, I would imagine that face just as Christ's on that cross. His arms are open in a posture that Atlas seems to mimic, but can never fully imitate: outstretched in an embrace, in an offering—an offering of his own self—an an offering not just of strength or power, but of his very being.

When you are in love, you want to understand the other person's life: you want to hear about it—through a text, a letter, or a phone call, or even a dynamic story over dinner—but you know  that you have to get inside the experience to fully understand it or them.
If they like to knit, you don't just want to know about the latest scarf they're working on, but you want to know way the yarn feels slipping through their fingers; if they like riding horses, you want to know how the wind on your face feels galloping across a field; if they love their apartment, you want to know what the sunrise looks like from their window each morning. Love demands that we enter into the lives of those we love, not just admire them from a distance. It is messy, it is painful. Everything is clean and simple, like Atlas' strong, immobile figure, if we just watch from a distance.
But to enter into someone's life is messy. It will contort your body into a new shape that will look both like failure and like love.

So I stoop to kiss this crushed man's feet, so close to me—so reachable—and I sit back on my heels to adore a broken God whose mission was to be failure, that my failures may be an avenue through which I can come to know him.

His posture is the grammar by which I form my stammering words of love.

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