Part 2 | Our Complex Human Inheritance
Last week looked at being secure in God’s promise. This week we turn our eyes to a reverent acceptance of the way in which He often mediates that promise: human beings. Most “good Catholics” love a good Caravaggio. The realism of his paintings is so acute. We love the vivid, relatable expressions on our favorite saints, and Caravaggio’s stark and symbolic handling of darkness and light. Perhaps he’s so sensitive to those realities because his life reveals an affinity to both.
A Rabbit Trail About Caravaggio that’s Worth It, I Promise
The man known now as Caravaggio was born on the feast of the Archangels in the late 1500s, and named after St. Michael. By age six, he’d watched his father and a set of grandparents contract fevers, vomit profusely, and develop black lumps on the neck and armpits. They would die of this outbreak of the bubonic plague. His mother and young brother had died by the time he was 21. After being involved in a murder—the first of several—he fled his hometown. Caravaggio’s early patrons contracted him for typical still lives and the Roman mythology of the day. But it was his later paintings, his deeply poignant religious paintings, that would make him notoriously famous.
Caravaggio’s choice of models—beggars and prostitutes from the streets of Rome—drew controversy and charges of blasphemy. He might have had a male lover, or perhaps that’s historical revisionism. In his spare time, he got into drinking bouts and violent scrapes. Eventually, he killed one of his model’s pimps in an illegal duel. The state allowed a bounty to be placed on his head. Literally, his head. It was the original “capital” sentence. Someone could kill him, cut off his head, and collect the bounty. I am not making this up (see here, here, and here for various accounts of his life).
He spent a few years on the run, continuing to paint for various patrons who took him in. He painted Judith Beheading Holofernes, David with the Head of Goliath, several versions of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, and a Crowing with Thorns in the following period. I suppose he had his possible fate on the mind. He joined the religious community the Knights of Malta, but had the honor stripped when his past was revealed. Eventually, his Roman friends obtained for him a papal pardon. Before he could enjoy the fruits of his new freedom, Caravaggio died of a fever or malaria or succumbed to the results of gradual lead poisoning.
Insert low whistle here.
This is the man whose art adorns so many churches and nice Catholic retreat booklets. This is the man whose tortured work continues to inspire thousands, millions, to a deeper encounter with God.
The Tarnish on the Gold
Personally, I really like the doctrine of original sin. It just makes so much sense. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved by watching TikTok" (Orthodoxy, chap. 2). Ok, he didn’t say the TikTok part. The rest of the quote is real. You get the idea.
It’s wild, really, the way God lets things play out. There’s a radical goodness and loveliness to the created world, including us. Yet there are these “fatal flaws” in all of our heroes’ journeys. Sometimes we know exactly why they’re there—like in the blockbuster business of reinventing villains. Other times, they’re so lost in the murk of daily experience it takes a long time to grow in self-awareness (if we ever do).
And here’s the kicker. Baptism cleanses us of original sin. Hard stop. Yet even in the baptized, God still allows consequences of original sin to occur (c.f. CCC 1264). One of which is “concupiscence,” an inclination towards sin. Our inheritance, even within the blessed realm of grace, is a mixed bag in this lifetime. As St. Paul puts it, “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). When we think of this communally, even the images Jesus uses for the Kingdom of God are not clean, tidy images. There’s manure in a sheep pasture and dirt in a vineyard. You wanna be a fisher of men? Fish smell.
Our human inheritance, our temporal inheritance, is necessarily complex. When we look at ourselves, our families, our churches…can we be ok with earthen vessels and dirt on our hands?
“All the Generations that Went Into Our Making”
“Every person living is…himself; and in order to make the raw material of himself what it is, innumerable different experiences and different influences have been used…heredity, environment, infant and child experience, opportunity, education or lack of education, friends or lack of friends, and countless unpredictable things that we misname accidents or chance…the mystery of all the years and all the people and all the gathered memories, both of individuals and races…to some these ages of experience and memory have handed down gifts of health and sound nerves and a buoyant attitude to life; to others gifts of mind, talents, sensitivity. Some are endowed with a natural Christianity; others inherit dark and terrible impulses and crumbling weakness, fear, and neuroses…Each one of us—as we are at the moment when we first ask ourselves: 'for what purpose do I exist?’ is the material which Christ Himself, through all the generations that have gone to our making, has fashioned for His purpose.” | from The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander
Talk about an inheritance! Caryll Houselander, a 20th century lay spiritual writer, understood the complexity of the human experience. From my ancestral family, I inherit qualities (in many cases) currently impossible to scientifically identify. These traits are intangible and utterly real at the same time. Some of us learn enough of our family history to see the trace of generational traumas and blessings, and efforts both at rebelling from or repairing a dissatisfying inheritance. From recent generations, I inherit—at least by nurture—a sense of gender roles, the nature of love and affection (and to whom and how it’s offered), and the meaning of a good life.
So many things shape our story. Plenty of psychologists have tried to map certain story markers on LGBTQ persons. You may have heard them: smothering mothers, aggressive or absent fathers, bullying for being atypical, sexual abuse. These are real. They are the heritage of a great many someones. Yet so too is every possible relational dynamic. Learn your story. Compare notes with your siblings. Seek out what’s shaped you.
The Church’s Both/And
Catholics value tradition. Our inheritance is rich. Every priest and bishop follows in direct succession from the original twelve apostles. Trembling human hands offer the sacraments, making symbols more than merely their words or their sign, but truly making present what is signified. Rich liturgical traditions thrive in both Eastern and Western churches. A heritage of scholarship preserves a treasure of writings and biographies of saints from every walk of life. This is our inheritance.
Yet every generation inherits from the ones before it. Who will inherit the debt for the COVID relief bills and the environmental damage wreaking the globe? Our children and grandchildren. In the Catholic Church, we are reaping what previous generations sowed. We’ve been tossed across the political spectrum by first the strictures, then the liberalities of the 20th century. No revolution appears ex nihilo. Unless from the hands of God, nothing comes from nothing. We experience the gaping wounds left by toxic power dynamics. We endure lethargic responses to crises, the dilly-dallying in fear we’ll get something wrong.
But we always get something wrong.
Here’s what Catholics believe about the Church. We believe God prepared the Church over time, intending for it to be a place of communion for sinful believers.
“God, however, does not make men [and women] holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased him to bring men [and women] together as one people” | Lumen Gentium 9, hereafter LG
We see this hinted at in the Garden of Eden, in God’s command to literally make a family. A community of faith is foreshadowed in this history of Israel and their covenants with God, in all their stops and starts. Then Christ “inaugurates the kingdom of heaven on earth.” Through His preaching, appointing of apostles, and institution of the sacraments, Christ is establishing the Church. He institutes the New Covenant ultimately through his sacrifice on the Cross—not perhaps, the episode we would have written if we were in charge. With the Holy Spirit being poured out at Pentecost: “the Church [is] equipped with the gifts of its Founder and […] receives the mission to proclaim and spread among all peoples the kingdom of Christ.” (LG, 3-5).
But the Church is still a work in progress. “The Church…will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven” (LG 48). We’re moving towards that goal together. This “work in progress” is reflected in a key reality—we recognize that the Church is both visible and spiritual. The Catechism points out that the Church is simultaneously: “a society structured with hierarchical organs AND the mystical body of Christ,” “the visible society AND the spiritual community,” “the earthly Church AND the Church endowed with heavenly riches” (c.f. CCC 771, emphasis added). This is part of the mystery—a mystery we sometimes struggle with painfully in our fallen world.
It’s a mystery we inherit. We inherit the both/and of our families, our Church, and the whole of human society. If we’re going to live honestly, we need to acknowledge that.
Lord, What Must I Do?
It’s one thing to observe these things. It’s another thing to live in their tension and strive for virtue all the same. Just ask Caravaggio! Here are some postures that might help:
Acknowledge What’s Gone Wrong
Even if you don’t bear responsibility, to take up a title—Catholic,” “American,” “[insert last name here] Family”—is to take up its inheritance. This can be levied as an accusation against people using recent incarnations of LGBTQ terminology. “Gay? Don't you know that’s an effort of several decades to co-opt personal identity?” Yet many of us breezily wear our own complicated inheritances on our sleeves. No matter our adjectives, no matter what people-groups could claim us, we must acknowledge the imperfections. And, of course, we as individuals have may have sinned. If we've made choices that frayed relationship, that continued unhealthy historical patterns of relating, that wounded someone seeking solace in the Church, we must repent and recommit to the Gospel.
Celebrate What’s Gone Right
Pardon the doom and gloom, there’s plenty to celebrate too! Identify the good that has been passed on to you, and be grateful to God for it! Steward it. Enjoy it. Savor the fruits of thousands of years of interconnected choices that led you to this little moment of joy.
Resolve to Do the Best You Can
Remember, we’re living in the both/and. This won’t be the “best” in the order of perfection, given the limited realities of human beings. Maybe the “best” of worn-down today isn’t the “best” of well-rested yesterday. Still, let’s resolve to surrender it to all to God, and to pray for the grace to truly see one another as unique, unrepeatable inheritors of a complex inheritance
I’ll close with some words from my favorite book by another complex human, Henri Nouwen:
“We truly need each other to claim all of our lives and to live them to the fullest. We need each other to move beyond our guilt and shame and to become grateful, not just for our successes and accomplishments but also our failures and shortcomings…we must dare to say: ‘I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment.’ This gratitude which embraces all of our past is what makes our life a true gift for others…and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.” | from Can You Drink the Cup?
Questions for Prayer & Discussion
How do you see patterns of the human experience in Caravaggio’s story? How do you relate to it?
What has been your education on original sin? How does it play into your understanding of what it means to be human?
How did your family of origin impact your perspective on sex, love, gender roles, and the meaning of life?
How have you been impacted by the “visible” and human aspects of the Church? How have you been blessed by the visible/human or divine aspects of the Church?
Of the three postures listed at the end of the blog, which come easiest to you? Which are most challenging? How do you want to grow as a result of this prayer and/or discussion time?
This blog made possible by: cool evenings on the patio, the scent of oregano on the breeze, birdsong and roofer’s banter; revisiting one of my high school deep tracks, “Oh My God” by Jars of Clay; pictures of Eden Invitation members, reminding me what this month is really about.