Imprisoned by Marble


Only an artistic genius could produce, in a single lifetime, some of the greatest-ever works in the classic categories of painting, architecture, and sculpture.

The Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo was just such a genius.

Think of his painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , the extraordinary dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, and his monumental statue of David.

After first-time visitors in the Galleria dell’ Accademia museum in Florence devour David from every angle, they gradually notice there are other Michelangelo statues in the corridors – specifically The Prisoners, four larger-than-life sculptures that appear to be unfinished, even imprisoned by marble.

Scholars have named the figure above/below Atlas.  He is reminiscent of the primordial Titan of Greek mythology whose job was to shoulder the entire world.

Some have expressed regret that Michelangelo never got around to finishing these masterworks.

Others are certain that he did, in fact, accomplish exactly what he intended.

The Prisoners, they suggest, depict the human struggle to exist, to self-create, to be liberated from whatever might hold us back.  One art historian has said these figures emerge from the marble “as though surfacing from a pool of water.”  It is the epic challenge of human rebirth, of claiming our true destiny.

During the Renaissance, it was as if humanity was standing on its tiptoes waiting to see what incredible things might come next.

Five hundred years later, most people who live in the West (Europe and North America) are far more cynical about humanity’s struggle for freedom.

Two world wars, weapons of mass destruction, and totalitarian regimes have dimmed our hopes that the human race is on the verge of a Golden Age.

In fact, the extraordinary struggle of Atlas – carrying the world on one’s shoulders, and wriggling free of all limitations – now belongs to just one person.

That person would be you.

According to our culture, you have to create yourself.  You have to figure out your own identity and call – who you are and what you’re supposed to do.

Traditions, community expectations, and religious teaching used to provide guidance for that overwhelming task.

But such resources, formerly valued as priceless treasures, are now widely considered optional.

What you really need to do, according to the voices of modern secularism, is be who you want to be, not what others expect you to be.

So look inside your heart.  Assess your deepest feelings.  Dare to dream your own dreams.  As Gail Sheehy puts it in Passages, “It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning.”

Our identity and role, in others words, turn out to be gifts we have to bestow upon ourselves.

Why does this all-important task fall to us?  According to secularism, there’s no one else “out there” to bless us.

Which means…you better not blow it.  There’s a lot at stake here.

You’re going to have to be amazingly bright.  And stunningly beautiful.  And witty.  And fun.  Yet somehow humble and self-effacing at the same time.  It’s all up to you.

Good luck with that.

For most people, striving to create our own identity, struggling to invent our own meaning, and discerning what we’re supposed to be doing every day feels like carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.  Which is why the Good News of Jesus is so startling.

The core message of Christianity is that you don’t have to create yourself.  Someone has already done that.

Instead of pursuing the impossible mission of blessing ourselves, we are free to experience the wonder of the very Someone who is able and willing to bless and transform our lives.

If the old Gospel song is right, we could put it this way:

He’s got the whole world in his hands.  Therefore you don’t have to try and carry it today.

— Authored by Glenn McDonald

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