On a visit to Florence several years ago, my wife and I looked forward to a visit to the Accademia Gallery to see the crown of all Renaissance sculpture, Michelangelo’s David. What we were not quite prepared to witness was the context in which David, known as the “colossus” at the time, is presented. He stands at the end of a long hallway bathed in light, as if welcoming humanity to the end and goal of our journey. Tourists crowd around him much the way they crowd around the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, enjoying their moment in the presence of iconic art. Yet this is most certainly an idealized picture of humanity, standing in stark contrast to the reality of our fallen natures. By the time Michelangelo had completed the Sistine Chapel, he was mired in the pessimistic brush strokes of the last judgment, painting his own face into the faces of the damned.The good news is that the Accademia has created a balanced picture for us in its placement of the artwork.. Aligned along the left side of the same hallway leading to the David, as if to symbolize the incompleteness and struggle of human existence, stand Michelangelo’s “prison sculptures.”
They are incomplete works, perhaps intentionally so. Historians speculate that the sculptor was tempted to cast these aside as inferior or not worth the time or struggle. Yet, they remain both unfinished and preserved. To the cluster of tourists the prison sculptures seem to utter the message. “Keep going. Keep walking. Keep struggling to become who you were meant to be. The end is glorious. The struggle is worth it.”
Suddenly, I looked to the right and saw something that shocked me. It was an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s works. You may remember him as the “artist” who has created shockingly sacrilegious works for public display. What in the world were they doing here? On second thought, perhaps they needed to be there as a reminder of where I had been and where I could still go again with wrong choices.The Divine Comedy includes Inferno.
Let me explain. There are three paths we are faced with in recovery. There is always the path represented by Mapplethorpe. We can return to the active practice of our addiction. We know what that holds for us and where it leads. In our glorious journey into the light, we must remember that temptation is always close at hand. (Romans 7:21). We are not out of danger until the end.
The second path unites us with all who are disciples of Jesus, our attempt to emerge out of the unformed chaos of our lives into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13). Michelangelo saw his sculpting process as one that “released” the figures from the stone and it is a well known fact that even the David came from a piece of flawed marble, one that others had rejected. Sometimes we see so little progress we are tempted to quit. We think the flawed marble is all there is. But this “struggle to be born” is lifelong. It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19) This is the “agony and the ecstacy.” (Irving Stone) Sometimes we feel like throwing in the towel. But how much more in these times should we bend our torsos toward the light. But how do we do it? By seeking the strength only God can provide. We do this by staying connected, working our program, seeking inspiration from those who are staying the course and getting out of our private worlds into the light of fellowship.
The Renaissance dream of idealized humanity in this life faded because it failed to understand that we live “in hope” of a better world in which our bodies and the very heaven and earth itself will be remade. That is the purpose and destiny of the struggle we are engaged in now. Where we are heading is far more important and radically different than the struggle we are engaged in now. If we keep that in mind, then we will understand that “hope does not disappoint us.” (Rom. 5:5) There is not only a purpose in letting go of our pain. There is very destiny itself in the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ.
Jay Haug Executive Director Living Without Lust Inc.