The Terrible Beauty
Here’s how his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, records the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi with the crucifix, now famous, but then hanging forlorn in the crumbling Umbrian church of San Damiano. He write that Francis
was walking one day by the church of San Damiano, which was abandoned by everyone and almost in ruins. Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences (visitationibus pulsatus insolitis) and discovered that he was different than when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him, “Francis,” it said, calling him by name, “go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.”
In his recounting of the same incident, St. Bonaventure writes,
Impelled by the Spirit he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed (non modica fuit in orando spiritus consolatione repletus). While his tear-filled eyes (cumque lacrymosis oculis) were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, if falling completely into ruin.”
Bonaventure used Celano’s text as a resource for his own, but his Francis, being filled “with no little consolation” and having “tear-filled eyes” is easier to comprehend than Celano’s speaking of Francis “being shaken by unusual experiences.” Both but friars want us to understand that, before any voice was heard, Francis was deeply moved, or, as Thomas of Celano puts it, “he was different than when he had entered.”
What happened? Did he look on the cross and, perhaps for the first time in his life, perceive the pain that it depicted? Or did its beauty move him? Calling something so terrible “beautiful” may seem strange, but it’s said that when the Italian renaissance sculptor Donatello first saw the crucifix, which Filippo Brunelleschi had made for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, he was so moved by its beauty that he dropped the basket of eggs he had been carrying. Is that what happened to Francis? Looking at that crucifix, was he overcome by the pain, moved by the beauty, or drawn into the love that gathered the twain into one?
The story of Francis encountering the San Damiano crucifix wonderfully illustrates what the great Jesuit theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan called “the Law of the Cross.” What was that?
When Lonergan pondered our salvation, he rejected the idea that the Father causes it through any act of external intrusion into history. For Lonergan salvation isn’t something God accomplishes without our cooperation. God certainly doesn’t declare our alienation to be at an end because we’ve killed the Son. On the contrary, God saves us through our being drawn by love into the cross of Christ. The knowledge of the Son’s gift upon the cross compels our conversion, because it calls us to love. Lonergan defined conversion as “otherworldly falling in love.”
We’re meant to look upon Jesus, as Francis did in that Umbrian chapel, and fall in love. And having fallen in love, as any lover knows, the entire world is changed. Just as Donatello was overwhelmed by the beauty of Brunelleschi’s crucifix, so Francis fell in love with the man he saw on the San Damiano cross.
Of course, Donatello eventually picked up what was left of his eggs and went on with life. The only change was his supposed vow never to compete artistically with Brunelleschi. Donatello saw a beauty that altered his art. Francis saw one that compelled his love, and, having fallen in love, it changed his world. And, because Francis fell in love, the world itself has been changed.
In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard (Mt 21: 33-43), the Father sends the Son, expecting that he will be received in love, that his mere presence will be a pivot. The irony is that it doesn’t make any difference in the parable, but it’s supposed to make all the difference in real life. In the parable, they aren’t moved by the beauty and love of the Son. They murder him. We did the same in human history, but if Lonergan is right — if Francis is any guide — the terrible beauty of the cross is meant to quicken the coldest heart, to sear it with a love that “rebuilds my church,” one that literally renews and redeems the world.
Terrance W. Klein
Cross posted with "The Good Word."
The crucifix is meant to be shocking and terrible. It is meant to jolt us to a decision as to whether we owe that innocent victim something or not. Whether we ought to do something for Him, with Him...or not.
A man hanging on a cross is a demand for our attention. A man floating off one, happy and healthy demands nothing. He's OK. He's fine. We're allowed to look elsewhere. But not so with a dirty, wretched figure who is vulnerable, weak, and in the grips of that one experience we all must face: death.
Now, 10, 20 years ago when the Risen Christ crucifixes were the new fad, the above paragraphs were shouted down as bigotry and prejudice by folk supremely confident that their "improvement' would usher in a new age of joyful, happy, optimistic Catholics somehow enraptured by love for Jesus. In those parishes there have been a notable drop off of numbers, both attendance and youth wise.
Good intentions that are not based on the proper anthropology and theology are doomed to fail pastorally. We knew better but let them steam roll us.
Never trade a terrible beauty for the merely "nice" to look at.
I read this article upon returning from a hospital which has the San Damiano cross in the lobby. I often pray on a similar copy during Taize (at the parish with the Resurrection Cross). I suppose it would be called ''iconic,'' these days when everything from the Wall at Fenway Park to Lady Gaga is thought to be iconic of something. But when they call something ''iconic'' these days, it's pretty close to saying ''cliche.''
Art is in the eye of the beholder, and the provocation for repentence is somehow in the heart of the repenter. Whatever starts the process will be dear to the repenter, whether its theology matches Mr. Lyons' requirements or not.
We agree that the article is a deep and thought provoking essay about Francis and how it was love for the crucified Christ that spurred his "social justice" outreach. He didn't hate the rich or love the poor because they were rich or poor....he loved both because Jesus died on the cross for us all.
And that is surely a needed lesson for all ages.
So why did I not just say so and instead go "off" on picking a fight over artistic taste?
Because given what we agree on with respect to the power of the crucifix and the experience of St. Francis which is perennially valid in all times..... it begs to be asked and wondered about why, when, and where did the risen Christ take the place of the crucifix?
Given that we agree a crucifix is more thought provoking, why did we ever dump it in favor of the less impactful 'risen Christ's?
This is called "let's apply what we learn from an excellent article' to commentary on our social milieu even at risk of making people feel uncomfortable.
And remember: we've been told for 45 years that it's OK to be made uncomfortable. It's a sign of maturity is it not?
If it is St. Peter Damien he lived from 1007-1072 and is known as the “Doctor of Reform and Renewal” working to stamp out Simony, other Church scandals and helping to rebuild the Church of his day and beyond. Clearly Jesus chose the ”right” place so to speak, commissioning St. Francis to rebuild his Church which was “falling into ruin.”
Francis thought the Lord meant to get rocks, or bricks and mortar and rebuild the broken down Church of San Damiano and that’s what he did. But his mission which he gradually came to understand was infinitely more complex and to this day continues! Pope Innocent III who subsequently approved the request of the Little Poor Man from Assisi to “preach the Gospel” while living the life of humble, simple beggars, (mendicants) did so after seeing in a dream a little man (Francis he came to realize) holding up the tottering columns of the St. John Lateran about to collapse.
I’ve not had the privilege of looking upon the original San Damiano Cross, but even reproductions are stirring! Actually looking upon any Cross with the mangled Body of Jesus attached, or even just a Cross, makes the heart beat fast as imagination relives the horror!
Yes, it is “The Terrible Beauty” reminiscent of the “Suffering Servant” imagery of body disfiguration, “nothing comely (beautiful, handsome) in him” as Isaiah wrote. As a Secular Franciscan I thank you for the “stigmatizing” article, which left me repeating one of Francis’ favorite aspirations,” “Who are you most sweet God and who am I, a poor, little worm, your servant!” Once again the “Suffer Servant” imagery comes to mind about Jesus in Passion “a Worm and not a Man!” as Isaiah pictured him
The Lord proclaimed - and present - in the Word is the Risen Lord ... not simply crucified but risen! I believe that the image of the Risen Lord with the background of the Cross is an artistic representation of our belief that Our Lord is both crucified and risen. We proclaim during our celebration of the Eucharist: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!"
Before the Edict of Milan in the early fourth century, Christians didn't even use the symbol of the Cross to identify themselves; they used the fish, because, for them, the Greek word for fish, 'ichtus', was an acronym for the Lord they worshipped: Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Savior. Only later centuries and other influences, led Christians to focus solely on images of the Crucified Christ.
The Crucifix of San Damiano is, artistically, an icon, and as such, it is not simply a painting or an image, but rather conveys a much deeper theological meaning.