One sultry summer night in college, my husband and I, newly married, were invited to visit friends at their duplex, which was in a collection of Victorian houses facing a courtyard—one of the many quirky housing options for students in our corner of Texas. Heading across the courtyard, we passed a balcony where a shadowy figure was smoking a cigarette. He shouted down to us, “You there! Come and see my paintings!” Peering up in surprise, we recognized an acquaintance—a friend of a friend, really. This fellow was a fixture at the local coffee shop—slim built with wild, long dark hair and a New York accent that was striking among the Central Texas drawls. Let’s call him Justin. Though we had never been formally introduced, he had recognized us and was insisting that we see his art.
What compelled us to obey? Good manners? Curiosity? I can hardly remember. But I know we didn’t hesitate and started climbing the stairs. Wondering if we had somehow found ourselves in a Central Texas version of Brideshead Revisited, our Anthony Blanche-esque host showed us inside. I had heard that Justin was a painter and, having pegged him as a free-spirit who would experiment with all the latest modern trends, we expected something bizarre.
And we couldn’t have been more mistaken. Entering the bright apartment, we gasped in wonder. Before us was a floor-to-ceiling painting of the Crucifixion of St. Peter, as startling as a Caravaggio—and as beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. In the center of the enormous canvas was St. Peter, his feet in the air, being nailed to a cross while upside-down. Overwhelming darkness contrasted with dazzling light shining on his naked flesh as he was martyred. The size of the painting, the unexpected brilliance of it, and the grotesque beauty left us speechless. We realized we were in the presence of the most talented artist either of us had ever met.
Justin, to my great surprise, was equipped with a degree in theology, and painted sacred art almost exclusively. He felt a deep love of beauty. After he walked us through his works in progress, we stumbled out into the dark Texas night, quite disoriented. What had just happened? Had we imagined it? From that night forward, we were friends. Justin would drop by our apartment to talk late into the night. We would attend his parties of unrivaled Italian food paired with far too much wine. One such gathering in particular became legendary in our social circle as it was held in the apartment of a famous contemporary Christian music artist’s daughter. She was overseas at the time, and I’m not entirely sure who had keys to the apartment. It was the most raucous party we’d ever attended and managed to end with a pair of shoes floating in a chocolate fountain. Justin was arrested that night for drunk driving. When I saw him next, he told me about praying the Rosary next to an intimidating cellmate who was “wrapped up in a blanket like a burrito, like a burrito, I tell you, as I was going through the beads!”
Rumor had it that he’d gotten a girl pregnant. “I’m a good Catholic boy, so no protection,” he told me with pompous self-deprecation one morning as we were standing in line waiting for coffee. A few months later, I saw him again at a party and asked if his baby had been born. “Yes and no,” he said mysteriously with a smirk. “The child has indeed arrived,” he said, waving his hand with the endearing affectation of Sebastian Flyte. While ordering his “quad-vodka,” he went on to explain, “But turns out he’s not mine; he’s Marco’s, you see,” as though I should definitely know the Marco in question. I didn’t. I wasn’t sure what the proper response was to this news, so I said, “Oh! I’m sorry and . . . congratulations?”
At this time, my husband and I were disgruntled Protestants, increasingly attracted by our love of beauty to the inherent beauty in the Catholic faith. Justin, by contrast, was a self-professed bad Catholic, hanging onto his faith by the thinnest of threads—one that had finally snapped by the time we had entered the Church and moved away. A few years later, happily Papists and back in Texas, we messaged Justin over Facebook about getting together, but it never happened. A few weeks later, he was killed in a tragic car accident.
The next morning, I went to the coffee shop where we had run into each other all the time in college. One of his best friends sat down at the table next to me. It turned out, he had been with Justin in the hospital overnight as our troubled friend slipped away. As we wept together, he said he prayed with him and for him, trying to remind Justin—unconscious from his fatal injuries—of the graces and mercies in which he had once believed.
I do not know the fate of his soul. Occasionally, though, I will attend the Latin Mass wherein the first chapter of the Gospel of John is always read at the closing. Each time I hear it, I think of Justin. He would grandly recite those verses in Latin when inebriated on wine slugged right from a coffee mug—his preferred vehicle for alcohol. As the priest pronounces these same mysterious, beautiful verses, I pray for Justin’s soul. I pray in the hope that he is embraced by the All Beautiful who, through Justin’s love of beauty, pointed him toward The Great Artist.
I pray for God’s mercy, for Mother Mary’s care, and I thank God that I got to know Justin and experience the dazzling beauty of his work. St. Peter, crucified upside-down, pray for us.