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Starting Point

Distortion and weakness viewed up close


On the top of the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square stand enormous statues. They are very old and have been reinforced over the centuries. The stone is porous, and weather and smog have taken a toll on their finer detail. The weakness of hard stone shows. Even what is hard as rock gives way to more constant elements, like wind and rain. But the statues are nonetheless magnificent.

Recently, when one of our monks, Fr. Anthony, spoke about experiencing life from below and not from a position of power or high authority, those statues came to mind. The statues are so huge. They look out over the world, and when Bernini designed them, I wonder if he had that in mind.

Two of the statues are of Ss. Peter and Paul. They are right in front, in a position of prominence. Some years ago, I walked up to the statues and was even more taken by their size. I then noticed that they were not proportional, when looked at closely. They lean a bit outward, and the hands are very big. The heads are smaller. A friend told me that Bernini knew that if the statues were sculpted in normal proportions, they would look disproportional when seen from below. So he instructed his craftsmen to distort the hands and head so that they would appear normal when seen from a distance and from below. Such is human genius.

Both Peter and Paul were made of very human stuff, flesh and spirit resistant to being transformed into living beauty. We all know their faults. Stubborn, arrogant, blind, cowardly, weak, fearful. Like Bernini’s statues, when looked at close up, distortions are evident. Weakness shows. But from a view below, their power and magnificence fill viewers with awe.

We are called to give our lives to the hands of God, a God who fashions beauty from weakness, so that Paul could write, “When I am weak, I am strong.” And in his failures, Peter could better realize his love for Jesus all the more and tell him so three times.

We have our dreams of making something of our lives, of fashioning lives that when looked at from a distance of time or space look impressive. But it is the up close that counts, the areas where we are what we are -- weak, distorted a bit or a lot -- and to whom God puts the question, “Do you love me?” May we have the weakness to let go of our illusions and trust him and say yes, and let him fashion what he will from our tender and at times frightened lives.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000