Doodling on Caravaggios: America’s Identity Crisis

It was a casual line in a casual conversation with a casual friend.

Catching up one morning last week, she mentioned that her sister now had two babies. Which is good.

She then mentioned more babies were hoped for. Also good.

Then, she said it. “I’m not sure when the next baby will come along, but she’s got four more on ice.”

“Four more on ice.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. Like I said, casual conversation, casual friend.

But, because I’m me and utterly incapable of not being me, I looked her in the eye, and said something about sympathizing with women desperately wanting to conceive, but then added how the thought of all those little persons, forever frozen, broke my heart.

“It makes me so sad,” I told her. “I can’t help but wonder who they are, who they’d be, or how they’d delight us and surprise us.”

After that, the conversation moved on. But I couldn’t forget the words: “Four more on ice.”

“She doesn’t know who she’s talking about,” I told myself. “She doesn’t know who those ‘four more’ are.”

That afternoon, waiting in an airport, I scanned the news.  More on Gosnell. More on same-sex marriage. More on guns. More on war and crime and poverty. More on the culture wars and men and women not getting married and the hook up culture and STDS and…again, all I could think was, “They don’t know who they are. We don’t know who we are.”

And we don’t.

Pick an area of human life, any area—marriage, family, sexuality, politics, the economy, faith, philosophy, science, education. It doesn’t matter which one, because whichever one you pick, wherever you look, you’ll find a crisis. And for as different as each crisis may be, at their core, at their root, you’ll find they all have one crisis in common: a crisis of identity.

As men and women, we don’t know who we are anymore. It’s not just that we don’t know Christ. It’s that we don’t know us.

We don’t know what it means to be the image and likeness of God, to be men and women, mothers and fathers, bodies and souls. We don’t know our own dignity. We don’t know our own beauty. We don’t know that every word we speak and every gesture we make has the potential to make visible the invisible God, to reflect his glory and his love.

Somewhere along the way, as a culture, we forgot that. We also forgot that each and every person has their own particular witness to bear, their own particular truth about God to reveal.

Which means we’re walking around not seeing that each of us is an unrepeatable work of wonder, that no one else in all of time will image God quite like we do, and that when we silence the witness of any one of us—inside the womb or outside the womb—we’re losing more than a person. We’re losing a glimpse of God that no one else can or will give.

But again, we don’t see that. We don’t see any of it. So we don’t live it. We don’t live it in politics. We don’t live it in the workplace. We don’t live it in relationships.

We give ourselves away to people we shouldn’t, when we shouldn’t, in ways we shouldn’t. We speak cruelly and thoughtlessly. We pursue things that don’t matter—money, power, fame, sensual pleasure and sensual goods—at the expense of the things that do matter—family, friends, our souls, our God. We turn our backs on others, we advocate for legislation that enshrines lies about who we are in law, and every day, in a hundred different ways, we fail to pour out our energy, our love, and all our blessings for the good of others.

We also stab newborn babies in the neck, ignore inconvenient truths when it serves our political pets, and detonate bombs that take the lives of innocent boys.

But how do you tell people that? How do you help them see? How do you get them to understand that when they’re freezing embryos or aborting babies or abusing their bodies, they’re doing something infinitely worse than juggling pottery rescued from the ashes of Pompei or letting children doodle on Caravaggio canvasses?

Truth? There is no one, sure-fire way. You pray for a miracle. And you do your best to heal your own blindness—reading the Scriptures, studying the saints, receiving the Sacraments. You let your own vision be shaped by grace. You learn the Theology of the Body.

Then you live it. You live what it means to be the image of God. You live the truth of your masculinity or femininity. You become a spiritual father or a spiritual mother. You treat everyone you meet as a gift, as the beautiful, precious unrepeatable work of wonder that they are.

In other words, you treat them like the Person they image. You treat them like Christ: You visit them when they’re in prison, feed them when they’re hungry, and clothe them when they’re naked. You also smile at them in the grocery store, choose not to cut them off in traffic, and refrain from flipping them the bird when they don’t do the same. And you hope, as you do it all, that love catches, that dignity is contagious.

Ultimately, loving as God calls us to love isn’t brain surgery. Being who we’re called to be isn’t astrophysics. But it starts with knowing—knowing how we’re called to love and knowing who we’re called to be.

That’s where our culture has it all wrong. And that’s where we’ve got to get it right.

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  • TCL

    It’s like I was reading my own thoughts, only more well-written. We’ve divorced ourselves from classical Scholastic metaphysics; and this pitting of the body and soul against each other is the practical fallout. I suggest, meekly as a 24 year old woman, that there is plenty of identity-crisis, isolation, and despair. I also humbly plead for fellow Christians to understand the importance of this false dichotomy between the body and the soul present in our culture, and that one of our main tasks will be to heal and marry some of these divisions. Visit a college campus. We’re told there is no God, just particles and meaningless design(!): no wonder the culture aggressively and willfully asserts mistaken concepts of self-worth. No wonder Catholics are seen as cruel; we’re understood to be undermining an individual’s self-worth. But, it’s not that Catholics are “better”, it’s just that there is an incomprehensibly beautiful Truth, and we are the earthen vessels. *We’re* not better; it’s *Christ* who’s better. Chesterton once said something along the lines that true love begets blood, and sham love ends in common philosophy.

  • Clare Krishan

    Perhaps you could start by not focusing on how much they differ from you (“they’re doing something infinitely worse than…”) and how they much agree with God?
    Your Carravagio-teaser premise assumes an interloquitor who finds Pompei or Carravagio and that oeuvre venerable (those of us familiar with the artwork on Pompei’s brothels may beg to differ with you) but what if your logic has no such premise for it to be proposed rhetorically? What grammar (subject, tense, object) do you speak with to engage your freezer-Auntie acquaintance in your next encounter?
    If your concern are her developing nieces and nephews, you’re already twice-removed from the agents who can remedy that: their parents and their doctors. How about praying for their conversion of heart? In the meantime, be prepared, have the contact info at hand for snowflake baby adoption. And next time spare us the grandstanding about identity crisis that makes Catholics look hard of heart and out of touch. Sinners can repent when they encounter a loving offer of support AFTER God’s gifted them with the soul-piercing grace of compunction. If we wield the lance or javelin we can be tempted to usurp God’s judgement out of season. In conversation re: IVF, state the cost-effective Catholic PaulVI Center nanaPro hormonal adjuncts to normal conjugal relations (cheaper faster better) and ask if the couple knew about them? Introduce a query: why would physicians promote costly alternatives and neglect informing re: cheaper ones? Then let the penny drop where it may – self interest above patient interest may play a role, duh? The logical, rhetorical, grammar has to be: the Catholic Church cares about couples and kids, including broken or damaged families and this is how we do it: the Logos proposes Love – the Bridegroom is betrothed to his Bride the Church. Man only has the power to dispose of other human beings, like those frozen embryos. Perhaps the shock of recognition of the loving grammatical rhetoric will move heart first so that the mind can follow the logic?

  • http://facebook Mary Tremonti

    Amazing truth. Treat each day with gratitude it’s God’s gift to you.

  • Maggie

    Very well said. Having been blessed once in my life to spend time with a Nun who had figured this out and made all around her feel special. Sometimes I smile, for what looks like no good reason, when thinking about her . This usually happens when someone is acting very badly. I find myself wondering what God had planned for either of us with this encounter. At times it has calmed a situation and I find myself thinking, perhaps sometimes small miracles may be enough for some days.
    Some days’ I am able to make those around me feel special, some days’ I cannot ,but I always try.

  • BenM

    “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” – Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)



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