“So how do you measure the worth of a man / In wealth or strength or size / In how much he gained or how much he gave / The answer will come, the answer will come to him who tries /To look at his life through heaven’s eyes” -“Through Heaven’s Eyes” Prince of Egypt
All semester, I’ve just felt lonely. Why, when I look at such great things, surrounded by such interesting, beautiful people, do I feel so lonely, I asked a friend in an email. It just goes with the territory, she explained. Seeing new things just makes you feel lonely. Don’t worry about it too much.
But the loneliness plagued me everywhere I went, and I couldn’t shake it. It latched on for dear life and wouldn’t let go. I traveled to the far ends of Europe, to Barcelona, to Berlin, to Delphi…and it tailed me all the way. Go listen to Mike Posner’s “Save Your Goodbye” and maybe you’ll get an idea of how this loneliness both hounded me and haunted my thoughts.
Giving up plugging into my mp3 player for Lent gave me a lot of pure, unadulterated time for thought while sitting on the class trip buses shuttling us around Greece for ten days, and instead of not worrying about being lonely, I grappled with it. The typical, “Oh, I feel so small and insignificant when I look at Grecian vistas and the Parthenon and the Mediterranean Sea because they are so big and so great and I am not,” lent me little satisfaction. I don’t feel humbled or insignificant or small. I feel lonely and too complex for my own articulation and entirely alone in the vastness of the universe. I’ve read about this rapidly expanding universe and how much it contains and how complex it is. I felt like that. I felt like the universe, expanding to absorb these experiences and their greatness. I felt like the universe, utterly incomprehensible. I felt like the universe, containing so much stuff but so much emptiness as well.
Sorry to get all angsty, I’m just trying to convey how difficult a loneliness it was.
I kept grappling with it through spring break, through 12 silent train rides through Austria and Germany and mountains. The loneliness and I trudged through Holy Week, too. And then I found it, the answer. I found the antidote to my loneliness.
If you only get to do one thing in Rome (granted, I still haven’t been to Villa Borghese), go straight to the Vatican Museums (grabbing some melone gelato on the way, because that’s important, too). In the Pinacoteca, in the Leonardo da Vinci room, drink in the sorrow Bellini portrays in his painting, Lament over the dead Christ. There is the suffering and the haunting and the loneliness and the helplessness. Mingle that image with the other breathtaking works of art: Laocoon and Sons, the Belvedere Torso, the Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice Amphora, the Raphael frescoes in the Stella della Segnatura. Let the portrayals of the struggle of human activity remind you of your own struggles. Then let the Sistine Chapel convince you your struggling is worthwhile.
Bellini’s Lament over the Dead Christ
Nothing can prepare you for the Sistine Chapel. My mind was quite literally blown apart; I had been meditating on loneliness so long, it had become a pattern of thought, and the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s genius ripped it to shreds:
As I ignored the calls of “No foto” and “Silenzio” and drank in the colors and the emotion and the story, I saw the universe. Michelangelo & Co. depicts salvation history: from God forcing apart light and dark, to the creation of Adam, to the fall, to the flood, to the narrative of Jesus Christ’s life, all the way into the future and the end, depicted in The Last Judgement fresco that spreads across the wall behind the altar. There I was, somewhere painted into the soaring, beautiful figures. Before I had felt unable to articulate my struggle with loneliness. Good thing Michelangelo used his paintbrush to articulate THE human struggle 500 years ago, and I could now clearly see that I am part of something bigger. I matter. My actions, like those of all the characters on the ceiling, like those of everyone surrounding me in this sacred space, echo in eternity.
Part of The Last Judgement
And that’s The Antidote. I’m not alone, because I’m a part of this epic and all epics that insist upon the importance and weight of human actions. Mattering trumps the loneliness. But it’s more complex than that; the fact that I matter means the loneliness that is a part of me also matters, via uniting the suffering of loneliness with the sacred suffering of our Lord. No longer are reminders to “Offer it up!” marked as condescending or annoying; they are reminders of The Antidote.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” Catholicism is like a mountain; it gives you a chance and a direction. Even better than a mere mountain, it gives you the means as well: a wealth of knowledge, sacraments, heroes in the form of saints. To top it all, the Church insists that climbing the mountain is what I was made to do, and it is vitally important. I get to help others learn how to struggle upwards. I get to struggle with purpose instead of aimlessly.
“No life can escape being blown about / By the winds of change and chance / And though you never know all the steps / You must learn to join the dance” -“Through Heaven’s Eye’s” Prince of Egypt