Becoming Unknown

When I visit a museum, which I did many times during my sabbatical, I never know what will strike me as meaningful and significant. While in Florence, Italy, last month with Suzanne and our son, Sam, we spent most of a day in Ufizzi, considered one of the world's greatest collections of Renaissance art. Moving deliberately from gallery to gallery, I came across two rather small and obscure paintings. By their placement, they were not well known works, and there were no crowds blocking my view.

What struck me about the first painting was its backstory. No one knows who painted this portrait and the subject of the painting is unknown as well. Yet, critics have long agreed that it is masterfully done, the work of true genius.

I thought about the young man in the picture. What was his story? Was he a priest or a poet, a merchant or a statesman? A wealthy nobleman or a common peasant? Royal blood? Who knows? And that's just it. No one knows.

And what about this anonymous artist, with no credit or praise, no attribution? Yet, his work has been displayed in the finest of museums for over two hundred and fifty years. This artist made his contribution to the world and disappeared without notice or recognition, without fame or fortune. How strange and out of step with his contemporaries and with us as well.

Living as we do in a world where enormous egos run amuck, craving the spotlight, the headlines, the fat contract, who would ever willingly remain in the shadows, unnoticed, unappreciated? Must we always grab the mic, reciting our accomplishments, extolling our imagined greatness? Or can we just let our life's contribution speak for itself? Can we not offer up our best work to the glory of God and leave it in His hands? Maybe it's not about us. The man in the picture and the man behind the man in the picture help me find perspective.

The second picture is titled, "St. Augustine in His Study," by Botticelli, c. 1490-1495. It is quite small and was intended for private devotion. Notice the discarded scraps of paper on the floor, "intended to convey the difficulty implicit in translating divine inspiration into words." No kidding. I feel your pain, Auggie.

I find it strangely encouraging to know that even the old saints, giants who wrote towering theological works, threw a fair amount of wadded up paper on the floor. Their first drafts sucked, just like mine, but they prayed and persisted, over and over, until the blessing came. May it be so for all of us who dare to translate divine inspiration into words.


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