Wednesday, 24 April 2013
With thanks to Albino Luciani - the smiling Pope.
Four Paintings in the Old Castle
Dear unknown painter,
‘I have not been able to discover your name; but your four pictures, hung in that corner room of that old castle, illuminated by little Gothic windows, caught my fancy. Their artistic quality seemed scant to me; but their moral significance was persuasive and made me stop and think.
The first painting represents childhood. A sailboat has just left the harbour. In the middle of it a boy is sitting, looking idly at the play of the waves. He can sit there, he can be idle, because facing him, firmly at the tiller, there is an angel. Behind at the poop, there is a dark figure, true; but he is asleep and shows no signs of waking up.
The second painting represents adolescence. The boy in the first painting is now a young man; standing, he casts a curious gaze from the boat toward unknown distances, where he imagines there are endless beauties. The tiller is still in the angel’s hand, but the waves have grown rougher, and the dark figure is no longer asleep: his grim eyes promise no good; they are yearning for the tiller, and they herald attacks.
The third painting represents maturity. In the boat now, there is a man, struggling with all his strength against the hurricane raging in a kind of witches’ Sabbath; the sky is dark; the man is dark; the tiller is in the hands of the dark figure; the angel has been relegated to the background.
In the fourth painting, an old man is seated in the boat. The storm has calmed down, the harbour is in sight, the sun gilds the waves. The angel is steering, and the dark figure is firmly in chains.’
‘I agree with you, dear painter, that our life is a voyage, with a point of departure and one of arrival: our twentieth, fiftieth, sixtieth years are only intermediary stations between these two extremes.
But there is this also: whereas we know our precise distance from the point of departure, our distance from our destination is completely unknown. How many years still? We are acquainted with many fine people; they know all about design and mechanics, English and trigonometry; but nobody knows this little matter, this insignificant detail of the years that remain to us. The spirit feels a shudder run through it and makes a declaration: “The years may be very few, it may be only a matter of months or of days. Lord I will not waste a minute!”
There is an even more worrying problem. Two harbours exist: Heaven and Hell. Only the first is desirable, the greatest of good fortunes. Will we arrive there? Here is the problem. All others, compared to this, are nothing. “I was rich, I was famous, I had a splendid career. All this is nothing but disaster if I do not arrive there. I mean at that first, blessed harbour!”’
‘I agree with you that to be good one must struggle, especially in certain, more difficult moments. It is true that two opposing forces fight for the tiller, that is to say for the guidance of our life. It is true that holiness is the fruit of conquest and of victories won day by day at sword’s point.
It is all true. Paul VI wrote: “We are not in conflict with weak and fragile human beings, but against …….. the cosmic dominators of this murky world, against the spirits of evil roaming through space.” The Pope, just recently, reminded us of this truth.’
‘I agree with you that a tactic must be used: the tactic of human passions. Dante describes it when, at the beginning of his journey, he finds the way barred by three wild beasts: the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf.
The leopard, which, swift and light, shows no quarter, is sensuality: it takes advantage of everything to extinguish in us the tastes and joys of the spirit and to kindle desires that are not good. We sense it everywhere, at our heels, and it would be capable of discouraging and humiliating us, if we did not have the help and the protection of God on our side.
The lion, “its head high”, represents pride, which aims, in fact, at heads, seen going off high and erect, while, below, the body swaggers, the belly, as one walks, is thrust forward. But there is no reason to be so proud.
In the time of Giuseppe Giusti there was the president of a court; he preened himself when he presided; he wore a top hat and set it on a chair during sessions. But one day somebody sat on it by mistake and the poet fired his shaft:
"They have broken a president’s top hat;
Luckily, inside it, there was nothing!"
Oh, certain characters march along, top hats on their heads, even in front of God, people who know everything, non-conformists, self-sufficient folk, protesters! But what then? Underneath? What does all their knowledge amount to?
The wolf, lean and filled with desires, could be worldliness, which devours us with endless engagements: visits, examinations, competitions, business affairs, sports events, performances. We allow ourselves to be engulfed by these things as if by an abyss.
And God? And our soul? They become two minor, secondary matters, which we glimpse now and then like distant dots, to which we grant a few instants, rarely and rapidly, with a sudden and absurd reversal of values.
‘I agree with you that the forces of good unleash the counter-offensive with a tactic opposed to that of the wild beast. Fortunately!
For sensuality the tactic of 'the void' is valid. Yes there are moments when God creates the void in us. We realise that certain things are unworthy of us, insufficient, they do not sate us.
This year, 1973, is the centenary of the birth of Trilussa. He once wrote:
There is a bee which lights
On a rosebud:It sucks it and flies away …….
All in all, happiness
Is a small thing.
Very often, besides, it is not a question of happiness, but only of fleeting pleasure. Often of unhappiness. One feels a kind of toothache, as a voice shouts: “Go to the dentist!”
Saint Augustine, referring to the time when he was seventeen, leading a debauched life, confesses “rodebar, crucibar” --- I was gnawed, I was tortured in those years; that was not life, Lord! “Talis vita, nunquid vita erat?”
Saint Camillus warned himself and others in this way: “Doing evil one feels pleasure, but the pleasure passes quickly and the evil remains; doing good costs an effort, but the effort passes quickly and the good remains!”
For pride one wants the Gospel, which is very clear on this point: “Put yourself in the last place”; the Lord lived among His Apostles as “one who serves”; and taught: “You ought to wash one another’s feet ….. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”’
‘Friend painter, you have managed, with your paintings, to strike some response in my spirit. It was a pleasure for me.
Too bad that now a sorrow begins. “What?”- you will ask.
I will tell you in confidence: it is a suspicion that I may have irked my readers. Some will have found me romantic, ingenuous, and out of date, thinking about castles; others will have broken off their reading as soon as they caught a whiff of “moralism”.
One of the many risks of my job.’
(Ack. ‘Illustrissimi’ by Albino Luciano – ‘Letters from Pope John Paul I’)
On August 26, 1978, Albino Luciano was elected the 263rd Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, in one of the shortest conclaves in Church history. He was 65 years years old, and adopted the name of John Paul I. Thirty-three days later, he died unexpectedly in his sleep. He will always be remembered as the smiling and unpretentious Pope, who radiated a Christ-like spirit of joy. From 1969 to 1978 he was Patriarch of Venice, during which time he wrote a series of articles and letters addressed to famous personages, living and dead, factual and fictional, all of which encompassed the spiritual frailty of mankind, but always compassionate and pastoral in content, and always expounding Christ’s love for those seeking Him. These letters and articles were published over a period of time in the Italian Press and subsequently reproduced in book form after the Pope’s death, under the title of ‘Illustrissimi’.