When you enter into the Basilica of St Peter in Vatican City, one of the first works of art that you notice off to the right is that of Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, his depiction of the Blessed Mother holding our Lord after He has been taken down from the Cross.
This sculpture was the only work of art that Michelangelo signed, and here’s why.
© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange
(Fr Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and is currently in residence at St. John Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, while he completes a Canon Law Degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at [email protected])
Now, how might we acquire this virtue of humility? I should like to make three suggestions to help us in this endeavor. These three suggestions are as simple as the first three expressions of politeness that every child is taught: 1) please, 2) thank-you, and 3) I'm sorry.
Firstly, please: devotion to the saints, that is, asking for their prayers. The saints are all models of humility for us and powerful intercessors in Heaven. James 5, 16 says that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” Well, no one is more righteous than the saints in Heaven, so we should not neglect to avail ourselves of their prayers and example. The saints are the heroes and role models our children need today, not actors and athletes. The saints show us Christ, most especially, our Blessed Mother. She can help us to make her great fiat our own. “Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.”
Secondly, thank-you: remembering to make prayers of thanksgiving. We often pray in times of distress, and we often pray when we want or need something, but how often do we say a prayer of thanksgiving after we get something? For example, most of us probably say grace before meals, and, more often than not, we probably use the Church's beautiful traditional formulation, but the Church also has a formulation for grace after meals, which is equally beautiful, but which is very rarely ever heard: “We give Thee thanks, Almighty God, for these and all Thy benefits, Who live and reign for ever and ever; and may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
And what of the greatest banquet that we attend every week, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb? Many of us like to come early to prepare ourselves for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It's certainly understandable when families with young children run late and are not able to do that. But how often do we remain after Mass to give our thanksgiving for having received the Bread of Life? Do we even remain until the end of Mass? Or do we choose to follow the example of Judas Iscariot, who, of course, was the first person to leave Mass early? Perhaps St Thomas More should be our guide in this matter, who when he was summoned out of Mass by the King of England, replied, “I shall come to the audience with my earthly king after I have finished my audience with my heavenly King.”
Prayers of thanksgiving remind us that what we have been given is a gift from God. Even when it's something that we may not think we want or need, giving thanks changes our whole perspective about the gift.
And thirdly, I'm sorry: making regular use of the Sacrament of Confession. This beautiful sacrament forces us to make an examination of conscience, to look deeply, personally, and honestly into that mirror, and then to do the most humbling act that God requires of us, to swallow our pride and expose our naked, sinful soul to another human being; and through that humble act, we're able to experience the depth of God's mercy and love.
I heartily recommend these three simple steps for anyone who wishes to grow in the life of virtue.
The Pietà was the first great work that Michelangelo did in Rome. He was only 24 when he finished sculpting that masterpiece, so he was still an unknown artist at the time. As the story goes, Michelangelo didn't like people to see his work unfinished, so he had the habit of working “behind closed doors.” When the Pietà was finally unveiled and placed on display, Michelangelo would stand in the crowds to hear what people had to say about it. Well, all the great artists instantly recognized that it took great skill and talent to sculpt such a masterpiece, so they all wondered who could've done it. When Michelangelo told them that he did it, they didn't believe him. They looked at this 24-year-old child and told him that he could not have possibly created such a masterpiece. This was the work of a maestro, a master sculptor, not a child. Needless to say, Michelangelo was not happy about their incredulity. So one night he snuck into the basilica, and, in the middle of the night, etched his name on a sash across Mary's chest. Michelangelo soon realized the sin of his actions and never again signed another piece of work.
Now, what sin did Michelangelo commit? It was the sin of pride. And not only did he commit the sin of pride, but he committed it by putting his name across the chest of the Blessed Mother, who is the Church's model of humility. Remember, it was our Lady's great fiat, “Let it be done unto me according to Thy word,” the humble submission of her will to that of our heavenly Father's that brought the Divine Son into the world. So we can understand the guilt that kept Michelangelo from signing any subsequent work.
Humility is often called the mother of all virtues, because it is the virtue that opposes pride, which is the mother of all vices. Pride was the original sin, the sin of Adam that caused the fall of man. But humility, the virtue that God demonstrated in becoming man, frees our will, our intellect, and our heart to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that we may recognize the way, the truth, and the life that will lead us to our heavenly reward; for as the psalmist tells us: “A humble and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn”
But what is humility and how might one acquire this important virtue in one's life?
Well, let us journey, once again, into the Basilica of St Peter. As one walks through this magnificent church dedicated to the Rock, one will see all around the basilica monuments and mausoleums of the great popes in our history, of the great successors to St Peter. Each monument will usually have a depiction of the pope it's honoring, either sitting on the Chair of Peter, or kneeling in prayer, or in some other stately posture, and he will always be surrounded by different allegories of the virtues. These are the virtues most closely associated with that particular pontiff.
Now, the allegories are giant statues of women, each representing a different virtue. The allegories are always women, of course, because, as we all know, the Church has always revered women, most especially our Blessed Mother, as paragons of virtue.
It's quite paradoxical, though, because the root of the word virtue is the Latin word vir, which means “man”, not the generic man, but the male (not postal worker) man — Which means that to be virtuous means to be manly in the truest and most noble sense of the word. But, of course, we men tend to be wimps about our faith, we tend to be wimps about living the life of virtue, so we turn to our female counterparts to be the models of virtue for us.
Hence, in St Peter's, we see Lady Charity, who's nursing a great big fat baby at her breast, and sometimes with other great big fat babies hanging on her legs. The babies are so big and fat because Lady Charity is constantly giving of herself to feed them. We see Lady Truth, who has the sun on her chest with its rays emanating forth, because the truth lights our way. It's so blindingly bright and clear to those who are willing to look at it. We see Lady Fortitude with her helmet, sword, and shield, ready to defend her faith and uphold her virtue in the face of all temptations. And when we come to Lady Humility, curiously enough, we see her holding a mirror in her hand.
Now, why is Lady Humility holding a mirror? Isn't it vanity that leads one to spend an excessive amount of time before a mirror? Well, yes it is when one uses the mirror only to look at one's external self. Lady Humility is holding a mirror because true humility comes from introspection, from honest, interior self-examination. It's through deep, personal, honest introspection that we realize, firstly, how sinful we truly are, secondly, how it's only by the grace of God that we overcome our sins, not by any merit of our own, and, thirdly, that every gift and talent we have comes not from ourselves, but from our heavenly Creator. This reality is what Lady Humility sees when she looks into that mirror, that is what humbles her, and that is what should humble us.
Every single one of us has special gifts and talents, but no matter whether they come in the form of athletic prowess, beauty, wisdom, or intelligence, no matter whether they come in the form of material gifts or spiritual gifts, they are all still gifts freely given to us by the grace of God.
Humility isn't hiding or not using whatever gifts we may have. That, more often than not, comes from the sin of sloth. We all remember what happened to the servant who buried his master's talent in the ground . He was harshly rebuked, because “to whom much is given…much will be required,” says the Lord (Lk 12, 48). So we're not to hide those gifts and let them go to waste. Humility is acknowledging our gifts and talents, not necessarily publicly, that is, not showing them off, but acknowledging them to ourselves and to our heavenly Father who gave them to us, and using them always for His greater glory, not our own, desiring only the reward of heaven for ourselves.
Humility is a virtue that's rarely understood, much less extolled in our society. We live in a culture that teaches us, “If you've got it, flaunt it.” That's why today's fashions are so immodest, why pride and vanity are advertised as virtues. As I drive around, I often see these rainbow banners telling me to celebrate “pride,” which is, of course, one of the seven deadly sins. That's how far we've distanced ourselves from the Christian virtues. You know, I knew we were in trouble the first time I heard someone on the radio, before millions of people, say “I'm too sexy for my body.” Talk about 'vanity of vanities'.