Michelangelo’s “Moses” sits in Rome, Italy, at the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli. The statue demands attention for its size, craftsmanship and, principally, a face that is strong and fierce with a piercing gaze.
Throughout my Catholic Studies Rome Semester, art history Professor Dr. Ralph van Bühren encouraged our class to practice being passive in front of art, to let ourselves learn from and be moved by the piece that was present. I experienced this for the first time standing in front of “Moses.” Without even thinking about it, the statue came alive. Moses was staring at me as much as I was at him. And, while he was revealing himself, he was also revealing more of me to myself. During the following weeks, I returned to San Pietro in Vincoli, drawn back by the intense gaze of this magnificent sculpture. Moses’ gaze did not change but awaited my return, unmoving, in a quiet church tucked away in the middle of the eternal city.
During this period, I was reading The Beatitudes by Simon Tugwell in a course taught by Dr. David Foote. In The Beatitudes Tugwell writes:
“So long as we are constrained by whatever factors, into being something other than what we are, we are unfree. But what we are is what God says we are. So long, then, as we are other than what God says we are, we are a lie and in bondage. And there is nothing that can save us except that original truth of God’s creative word. And surely it is precisely in this word which lurks at the core of our existence, that we must learn to see what we are, as in a mirror. But seeing what we are in God will also and inevitably show up what we are, existentially, in ourselves. And that is, for most of us, a disturbing eventuality. This is why most of us just peep and run. But if we can peep and stay there, then the truth of what we are will become effective in us, we shall become doers as well as hearers, and we shall be blessed in our doing” (Tugwell 85-86).
To live in reality is to learn to confront ourselves, as in a mirror, so that we can become free. “Moses” helped me do this. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “Go, call your husband and come back” (John 4:16). He won’t speak to her until she brings that which she wants to hide most and of which she is most ashamed. Only then will she be able to have the living water Jesus promises. Just like her, I need to be able to confront myself and let Jesus have what is keeping me from being free. He won’t take it but asks me to freely give it away to him and, like Tugwell says, only then will my doing be blessed because only then will it be free.
In the final weeks of the semester, I would sit in the Bernardi Campus chapel at night and sing “Be Thou My Vision” with my heart as still and as open as it could be. As I continue to reflect on my experience, this song has taken on new and deeper meaning. It is not that by cultivating God as my vision I become good. The truth is that we are already good, created that way by God. Because of this, I am already God’s vision and turning my eyes to him is in response to his loving gaze.
Dr. Foote pointed out something I will never forget: If God ceased to look at us, we would cease to exist. Who we are, who we always have been, and who we will be is God’s vision.
This brings me to my encounter with “Moses.” I lift my eyes from the floor to his torso, and finally, to his face. I force myself to hold his gaze and even though I am staring at a statue, I find
it difficult to look at him. As I look at his face, I see myself and I cannot hide. The human heart longs to be known, but it is also afraid of what might happen when someone really sees us. We do not believe someone will stay gazing. We find ourselves stuck in the tension I felt standing in front of Moses – desiring to hold this gaze but finding it almost unbearable. But, just as the statue cannot look away, neither can God. His vision is surer than marble and not because he is under compulsion, but because his love demands it. He longs for us to look up and meet his gaze, because it is what we were made for.