A sixteenth-century painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (forever known as Caravaggio for his hometown in northern Italy’s Lombardy region), shocked and scandalized his society. Using prostitutes, criminals, and the homeless as artistic models for saints, his techniques were considered unorthodox, if not offensive. His personal life was a shambles marred by a haughty swagger, mounting debt, and violent (if not murderous) outbursts that made him a fugitive from the law. He would die fevered, outlawed, and alone on a sweltering beach outside of Porto Ercole. Caravaggio was broken.
But when he painted, it was sublime.
A twentieth-century novelist, Evelyn Waugh, could be difficult. His wit could bite, his critiques would scathe, and his friendship could try one’s patience. As a father, he proudly bragged that he saw his children “once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes.” As the story goes, during the dark, deprived days of World War II, Waugh’s wife wondrously obtained three bananas intended to treat the children. Upon discovering them, Evelyn—fully in front of his hungry children—peeled them, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate every last bite. Evelyn Waugh was broken.
But when he wrote, it was glorious.
A twentieth-century essayist, Hilaire Belloc, was a pugilist. Engaging in brilliant but fiery debates he made many admirers and even more enemies. The intellectual (and atheist) luminary H.G. Wells despaired that “debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm.” At one point in Wells’ disagreements with Belloc, he insisted that “I admire him beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan viciousness that bars him [from being welcome at my table].” Hilaire Belloc was broken.
But when he wrote, it was exquisite.
What was it about these three men? They were so complicated, so troubled, and so broken. And yet, when they lost themselves in their art, there was some inexplicable apprehension of the divine that somehow escapes the rest of us. Perhaps it is well explained by Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and Hilaire Belloc’s The Four Men (among so many of their other extraordinary works). These works gently testify to the sublime that breaks forth from the gritty, the touch of God amid the trenches of life. Could these works have come from less complicated, more orthodox figures?
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
St. Paul once groaned for the relief of “a thorn in the flesh.” But God answered, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” St. Paul continued, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-11)
And about our brokenness, G.K. Chesterton added,
The great strength of Christian sanctity has always been simply this—that the worst enemies of the saints could not say of the saints anything worse than [the saints] said of themselves . . . Suppose the village atheist had a sudden and splendid impulse to rush into the village church and denounce everybody there as miserable offenders. He might break in at the exact moment when they were saying the same thing themselves.
In an age that is profoundly binary about justice—a mean, often unforgiving justice where you are in or you are out—Caravaggio, Waugh, and Belloc challenge us. They force us to acknowledge something good in the midst of the troubled. And this amalgam of divine and devilish is not only apparent in the works of these three men; it is there when I consider my own worn and aging face in the mirror. I am dignified, but broken. I am saved, but a stumbling work in progress. A miracle with a touch of a curse.
In answer to a question asked by a British newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K Chesterton simply wrote,
Me too, Mr. Chesterton.