caravaggio, plato, and seeing face to face

We were in Vienna’s art museum, and as soon as you walked into this Italian painters’ room, you could tell which three were his.  The first one was some commissioned scene of Mary handing out rosaries, and it was enormous. The people were beautiful. And as they reached up, their hands all congregated together beautifully and expressively, and their feet were dirty, and it was lovely.  The next, David and Goliath. He held the giant’s head (a self-portrait, again, by Caravaggio… the cad), but he didn’t look happy or victorious, like many of the other Davids. He was quiet, and pensive, and maybe a little sorry to have killed someone, or uncertain of his future.

The last was arguably the most beautiful.  Maybe beautiful isn’t quite right, since it was Christ being beaten and given the crown of thorns… but it moved me.  I started tearing up.  It was so bright and so vivid, and the shadows and the contrast were dramatic and striking, and the way Jesus just bowed his head, didn’t retaliate, and was just so filled with love

There was a girl with braided hair, curly and ribbon-bound, who had set up an easel and was just standing and painting. [I’d smelled her oil paints when I first walked in the room and felt, for a disorienting moment, that Caravaggio had just finished painting these works.]  And she was talented, too – it looked so much like the painting. But then again, it didn’t…

Although the forms were all the same, it lacked something.  The colors were dark and dingy compared to the brightness of the original, and there was an aliveness in Caravaggio’s work that the copy lacked.  It was so interesting.  In comparison, the copy wasn’t spectacular.  The longer you looked at it, though, the better it did look, and the more you saw its merit.  But that was shattered the second you turned your gaze back to Caravaggio’s, which shone with the mark of a master.  And I did that, and thought of the verse where we’re mere shadows, [1 Corinthians 13:12 – For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.] And of the very end of Narnia, when our world is proved to be a shadowy copy when compared with the next.

Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among the mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the glass there may have been a looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different — deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked like it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.

Last week we finished reading Plato’s Republic in one of my classes.  Now, Plato’s a little crazy.  I don’t agree with him on a good chunk of those writings.  But the section where he talked about the four realms of being and the Cave made a lot of sense.  This theory was explained to me in ninth grade as “if you have a stapler, the idea of a stapler is more real than the stapler itself”, so of course I wrote it off as stupid.  But that’s not quite it.

In Plato’s Republic, he talks about the four forms of reality.  “Forms” comes from the Greek word “ἰδέα” (idea), but I’ll call them “things” or “Things”.  Here is a handy diagram that I made.

Basically, realms A and B are the visible realms – physical things.  A is a realm of shadows, reflections and impressions of real world objects.  B is the objects themselves.  And you can’t really know these things, because they’re ephemeral and pass away as this earth does.  You can’t know them in a lasting way because they are mutable.

C and D, though, are Things.  Just as A is the shadow of B in the real world, the visible world is a mere shadow of the invisible.  These are Things that can be known because they are Things that never change.  Everything in the visible world stems from a greater Thing in the invisible – all good things stem from Goodness, and all beautiful things from Beauty itself.  There is something greater – a higher authority – from which the things in the physical world derive their value.  If you know things, you can try to figure out the larger Thing from these qualities, but you might not be able to.  But.  If you know the Thing, you will be able to discern the things that come from it and the things that do not.

Most people, Plato says, are trapped in this realm of visible shadows, but some can escape the Cave, where people watch shadows on a screen and think it’s reality, into the real world.  Even though he wants to stay there, he must go back down into the Cave in order to bring his fellow humans to the truth.

You probably see where I’m going with this.  Plato was so, so close with this theory of a higher something.  He just didn’t make that last step: when we know God, our eyes are suddenly opened to the true vastness of reality.  God is Goodness and Beauty, and so we can see these shadowy beautiful things in this world and know from Whom they stem.  When we try to cobble together aspects of his nature without knowing Him, we fail to reach God.  But God, in His unending mercy, pulled us out of the Cave and into the reality of His magnificence.  When we know Him, in His immutability, we’re then able to discern the things that come from Him and the things that don’t.

“Once they’ve been up there and had a good look, we mustn’t let them get away with what they do at the moment,” Plato says.  “Staying there… and refusing to come back down again to the prisoners”.   We have, in part, seen the Real World, the Higher Realms, the Caravaggios.  And now we must bring the truth of it back down to this Shadowy Place and tell the prisoners to sin of reality.

God is the God of all things visible and invisible, and eventually, we’ll be able to move from this world of shadows into his truth, life, and presence for eternity.  Further up, farther in.

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Read this: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17

 

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death

About a month ago, my father gave me a copy of my own will to read over before we left for my great-aunt’s funeral.  Suffice it to say, I did a lot of thinking about death that weekend.

It was a lovely service, but then came the moment that I always dreaded.  I hate looking into the casket and seeing the waxy, lifeless body of the person I had once known.  Their features are fixed in place, caked with a garish sort of makeup, and you can tell that there is no spark there.  “It doesn’t look like her,” I whispered to my father.  “That’s because it isn’t,” he returned.

That’s why I hate looking in there.  I understand why it happens, as a final farewell and to give closure to the grieved.  But you can tell when you look that something has left.  Everything that made up their personality, their tiny quirks, opinions, and Great Loves has gone.  Their soul has left that flimsy, mortal shell and entered into eternity.

A storm was brewing on our way to the funeral, ominous in the distance.  It split the sky into dark and light geometrics on our right, fading from black to white on the left.  We were in Oklahoma, and it looked very honestly as though some of the clouds would touch down.

My family was worried.  My brother hates tornadoes.  I turned to him and asked him what the worst thing that could happen was.  “Uh, we all die a horrible death?” he replied.  I met his eyes.  “Is that all?”

Because for the believer, death does not hold the same dreadful power that it once did.  It’s a crossing over from one dimension to the next – the vehicle that takes us (in a Narnian vocabulary) to Aslan’s Country.  “Death opens a door,” says C.S. Lewis, “out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

We no longer fear death, because all it can threaten is a better life than the one we have known here.  Eternity with God lies on the other side, and it is magnificent.  As someone once pointed out to me, life on earth is as close to hell as the Christian will ever be.  And if life here is so beautiful even despite the decay and depravity of this world, can you imagine what heaven will be like?  This world is but a dim reflection of the next, and eternity is being in God’s presence forever.

Just as we need not fear the consequence of death, we can also have faith in its timing.  And that’s scary, too, because there’s so much we want to do here, so many people we’re connected to, and so much life we want to live.  But I have realized this: if God takes me, then He will be even more glorified in my death.  If I die tomorrow, it simply means that my time here is finished and that my work here is done.  As long as there is still breath in my lungs and blood running in my veins, I have a mission.  The only reason I am still alive right now is because God has not finished with me here.

This summer I was driving my friend back to her house, moaning as we hit our third red light in a row.  She answered, “Maybe God just wants us to spend more time together.”  I laughed.  “No, seriously,” she said.

I think I forget how much of my life God has planned out.  He is a God of big pictures, but He is also a God of precise details.  There are so many reasons why we could have hit those lights.  What if we would have gotten in an accident if I’d gone through – and died?

I wondered then with shock – how many times has God saved my life without me even knowing?  How many details, breaths, or decisions could have resulted in my death had they been even slightly different?

My mortality stares me in the face at times like these – at funerals, during car rides, at night when I stare up at the shelves above my bed.  But I can stare back, unafraid and unangered.  I do not despair at death because I know that there is life beyond its threshold.  And it hurts, and the grief is almost too much to handle, and we don’t understand why God has Death take our loved ones when He does.  All I can say is that He knows better than we do.

One of the reasons that I love The Book Thief so much is that its narrator, Death, is not depicted as evil, but as tired, sad, and haunted by humans.  Death is only the messenger, and he is an old friend.  He tips his hat in my direction and I nod in his, knowing that he does his job without spite.  He takes each soul and carries it gently at its perfectly ordained time. I watch him pass, and he acknowledges me, and I know that when the day arrives when he comes for me, my work here will be finished, and I will have nothing to fear from him.

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Read this: 

“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”

“Crossing the Bar”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

the internet (and other drugs)

I’m just going to admit that I have a problem, here.  I realize the irony of this in that I’m posting it on the internet itself, but WordPress isn’t really the culprit as much as Tumblr or Facebook or any of the other mindless sites where you scroll and scroll and scroll until you realize that several hours of your time have suddenly disappeared.

But when my first thought is of a technological escapism and I beeline right to my computer, that’s bad.  That borders dangerously close to an obsession and smacks of the beginnings of an addict.  The more time I spend on these things, the less creative and thoughtful I become.  And that’s certainly an issue.

I realized yesterday that the Internet, when not used for checking important emails, researching information, looking up assignments, or thinking about things (mostly, WordPress falls here), is much like the soma of Brave New World, or like any other drug.

Soma makes you vacuously happy.

Soma makes you think of nothing.

Soma takes hours of your time and leaves you with nothing in return but lethargy and a deadened mind.

Soma prevents real thought.

Soma prevents you from becoming the sort of person who changes the world.

The Internet is soma.

So I can’t follow TV shows obsessivly or continue polluting my spirit with hours of the Internet that begin to weigh me down.  Because you can’t see life through a TV screen.  You can’t change the world or understand the eternal while constantly shackled to Tumblr or Facebook.  I shouldn’t waste what little life I have on nothing that really matters.  It’s draining me.  It’s taking my soul, little by little.  And I hadn’t done anything to stop it, because I’ve been too busy taking the freaking soma.

The Internet is the drug that steals your time, your individuality, your mind, and the things that matter.  I have to stop being a Delta and live.  And I’m going to need the help of my sin-and-death destroying Savior to do that.  I can’t do it on my own – I desperately need Him for everything in my life.  But I’m up for less Internet.

Tell me your thoughts!

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Read this: Any book.  Any classic that touches your soul.  And think.  And have an adventure.  Because I need to do all of the above.

the power of words

Swiped from the pages of my journal after reading The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak.  If you’re looking for something to read, pick this up.  Please.  It’s totally worth it.  It’s about a girl, Leisel, who lives on Himmel Street in WWII’s Germany with her foster parents.  And Death is narrating.  Think about that for a second.  Alright.

I think

that maybe for the first time, I truly understand the power of words.  I rarely cry at movies or books, but by the time I finished, tears were leaking out my eyes, puddling down my face, screwing it into a twisted, sad shape, giving me the taste of salt.

Death was narrating, too.  What a concept.  But he wasn’t a cruel grim reaper.  He was merely a messenger of souls.  I envisioned him as a quiet, sweet, tired young man, simply dressed in a brown suit or something similar, carefully picking up each soul as his duty required and cradling the souls of the children in his strong arms.  Death wasn’t the enemy, here: it was other people, or even yourself.

I just have to digest this book.  It was darned good, and I can’t interact with others right now.  I just can’t.  I’m always like this after books and movies.  After good books and movies.  I always need time to process and let them filter through my soul, certain pieces lodging there, getting stuck, shaping me later… Sometimes I do forget things I’ve read.  But they always resurface, reflected in other works with the same eternal themes, tickling my memory again and reminding me that they will never leave me.

And I read them again, and I feel the same feelings of love and distress and pain and beauty, and they return to me like old friends, reminding me where I was geographically and as a person the last time I read them, speaking to me again as I notice new things or am reminded of my favorites.  I read it differently, with a fuzzy omniscience or feeling of visitation, and it takes me in once again.

I still feel like crying.  What is wrong with me?  Why do I feel like this so much and so deeply?  Why do the characters move me and become so real?  Why do I get stuck in each story so much that I need time afterwards to get myself back out, readjust, shift back into the world of the living, move myself from printed words of ink on pages to a world of flesh and blood?

I have to.  I cannot live between pages.

Each time I read something good or travel somewhere new, I feel like a part of me always stays there without my knowledge.  Or maybe a part of it stays with me.  In any case, words are powerful things, and we must use them carefully.

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Read this: The Book Thief http://www.amazon.com/Book-Thief-Markus-Zusak/dp/0375842209/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325268961&sr=8-1