|Atlas Prisoner, by Michaelangelo|
Thursday, December 6, 2018
102. The Divine Nature - Till We Have Faces
Michaelangelo was responsible for creating some of the most beautiful artwork and sculpture ever produced by man. Not only was he a masterful artist, but the layers of meaning and symbolism that he embedded within his works are nothing short of genius, demonstrating an understanding of deep and concealed mysteries. As one writer explained, "Michelangelo believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful figures already contained in the marble. Michelangelo’s task was only to chip away the excess, to reveal. He worked often for days on end without sleep... One can clearly recognize the grooves from mallet and pointed chisel on the marble surface used in this initial stage. Unlike most sculptors, who prepared a plaster cast model and then marked up their block of marble to know where to chip, Michelangelo mostly worked free hand, starting from the front and working back."
One series of four sculptures by Michaelangelo is known as the "Slaves" or the "Prisoners", which are half-finished sculptures of male figures. They are examples of Michaelangelo's practice of "non-finito" (or incomplete). Symbolically, these sculptures portray the eternal struggle of man, developing into his true self, or of the spirit, becoming unfettered from the material bonds that hold it imprisoned.
One of these sculptures is known as the “Atlas Slave” or "Atlas Prisoner". The head and most of the face of this male figure have not yet emerged from the marble, nor his feet. He appears to be carrying a huge load or weight on his head and right shoulder. It seems as though the weight of the stone could easily crush him if he were to give up the struggle. In fact, the sculpture seems to convey a battle of both internal and external forces pushing and pulling the figure, both holding him back and pushing him forward simultaneously. As a result there is no sense of balance, stasis, or equilibrium in the figure, only change, transformation, metamorphosis, and emergence. There is a fierce struggle to remove from the figure that which is extraneous and of the physical world in which it is encased, fighting to break free in order to become a complete, whole, or perfect figure, or for it to fall back into the stone entirely and remain without form and void.
How similar are we, our spirits of great potential and eternal worth, yet now encased in the physical matter of this world? In our current (e)state, perhaps only a portion of our Divine Nature is manifest, the rest hidden or trapped, imprisoned or a slave in some way or another. Invisible to all except for the Master Artisan, who sees beyond the physical appearance and knows the potential within. He uses no mold to guide His work as each figure is unique and requires individual attention. He hammers and chisels, sometimes flaking off little bits delicately, almost dust, and at other times He sloughs off huge chunks of un-needed stone and lets them smash into pieces on the floor. Sometimes these blows are indeed surprising, "I thought that piece was to be my hand," and the figure turns out to be quite different than what was imagined. Ultimately, the figure cannot release himself from the stone as he is forever trapped and limited by the prison in which he finds himself. "You are from a lower estate. I am from the heavens. You are stuck in this world, and I am not of this world. Because of this I said to you that you will die burdened with sins. If you do not believe that I am sent by the Most High God, bringing light and life with me, you will die burdened with sins" (Testimony of St. John, p.14).
Full freedom and perfection require the Master Artisan to perform his labor, to reveal what lies within. Only a Master Artisan can work so perfectly so as to bring about the perfection or perfecting of His subjects, and thus reveal their Divine Nature. And what are these hammerstrokes? He respects and honors our agency and will not interfere, we are not forced. However, this world allows for the manifestation of illness, pain, loss, relationships, consequences, trials, tests, conundrums, deceit, and temptation. How we respond to these manifestations determines what is revealed about us. We respond in love, faith, charity, kindness, humility, submission...our Divine nature is manifest....we respond in fear, despair, cowardice, pride, anger, resentment, blame, rebellion...our raw and fallen nature is made more manifest and we remain encased in the stone which binds us.
There are no two figures alike, and the labor He performs is thus different for each of His masterpieces (which you are becoming). However, this work of the Master Artisan can at times seem unfair, bizarre, and even cruel. It can hurt and there can be great loss. It can lead to anger, pain, resentment, and even fear of the Master Himself. Orual, the veiled Queen of Glome and lead protagonist of CS Lewis' book, Till We Have Faces, had for most of her life turned against the gods because of her self-perceived ugliness, the horrible experiences she had endured at the hands of her family and caretakers, and the punishment and cruelty she believed the gods continued to heap upon her, which included the loss of her beautiful sister, who was Orual's whole world. Orual recorded in the book she kept, which documented her grievances against the gods: "Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one." And at another time lashing out at the gods "But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dream and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish them to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's bluff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?"
However, after a series of visions depicting key moments in her life, rather than being punishments and abandonment, she learns to see the divine purpose in those experiences, as designed by the gods to bring about change, understanding, new perspective, love, and even true beauty (quotations re-arranged by me, with some commentary): "The Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is. We call it the wrath of the gods... And mother and wife and child and friend will all be in league to keep a soul from being united with the Divine Nature...(me: He comes to divide) This age of ours will one day be the distant past. And the Divine Nature can change the past (me: new perspective). Nothing is yet in its true form... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face-to-face, until we have faces?" Until we, like Atlas the Prisoner, have been transformed and reshaped by the Master Artisan, our true face revealed, then we can see face to face. He is working to bring us to that point.