A guest speaker recently featured The Calling of St. Matthew in chapel. The Calling is a painting by Caravaggio, an Italian painter of the late 1500′s. This particular painting by Carravaggio holds for me a deep personal significance. The chapel service felt as if God spoke personally. Have you ever experienced a moment when God spoke personally? I am not sure if God always speaks personally. I do know that I relegate much of what he says to the general. In general, my life needs to change. In general, I should go apologize to someone. I think that God speaks all the time to us, but He does so in a way more akin to a letter than a sermon. A sermon is delivered to a general audience with general themes. Nothing wrong there. But, God, I really think, speaks personally to everyone. The reason I say this is because when I really slow down, when I really discipline myself daily to slow down enough to the point I am able to listen, I hear God speaking personally. My problem is that I rarely slow down in my everyday routine of life. My best times of hearing God have been outside of my usual routine: a summer camp, a trip out of the country, etc. Right now, in my usual routine, I am not taking the time to slow down. God has noticed and offered me a letter of sorts during this recent chapel service in the form of a masterpiece by Caravaggio.
My first introduction to Carravagio was also the first time I had ever truly appreciated a work of art. Until this point, I didn’t “get” art. It was some time around the first private lesson of my short lived vocal performance major. My vocal mentor was Bill. He was always Bill. Never Doctor or Professor. If you had Bill for anything you called him Bill. That day, I walked into Bill’s office afraid. Not of Bill, but of daring to pursue what I loved. I felt I didn’t belong. I felt I was breaking some rule of society which said, “You must not major in the arts. Ever. However, should you choose to do so, you will never be good enough to make any money. So, remember two things. First, don’t expect to do well. Second, keep your day job.” Recently, I have realized I was and am breaking those rules, but they weren’t rules set up by anyone to whom I should be paying any attention. You shouldn’t listen to those people either. This post is about who deserves attention.
I entered Bill’s office with a heartbeat far above normal. Bill greeted me with a smile. In my memories, Bill’s smile is always in motion, habitually chewing gum. The practice gave him enormous masseters. “Seth. Hello. How are you?”, he accented each phrase with staccato. “Seth” to acknowledge my personal presence. “Hello” to welcome. “How are you?” because he genuinely cared for his students’ well being. I don’t remember what sort of account I gave for my personal well being. Probably a lie about how fine I was. “Sit” was his next word. I sunk into a couch made comfortable by at least years of use. It was the kind of couch people get rid of for something which better complements drapes or matches some color scheme, both of which are terrible reasons for offing a couch like this. We talked again, probably about how he runs his lessons. Next, and what I can actually recall from our meeting, he introduced me to the two paintings he had in his office. The first was the aforementioned Caravaggio. The other was a painting by Tintoretto depicting St. Mark rescuing a young man from shipwreck. Perhaps another time we’ll meet Tintoretto.
Bill stood me in front of The Calling and he said, “Seth. Look at this painting. It is one of my favorites. If you should ever go to Rome, you must see it in person, I really can’t even begin to describe to you what it’s like to see it in person. It’s really, just… Look. In life, we are given a call, whether it is to sing opera or dance or whatever. At first, that call seems a burden and indeed it is, because we know that above all things we have to answer it. Look at Matthew”, here he pointed to the young man with his head held halfway between avoiding a glance and meeting a gaze and continued, “Jesus, to the far right is pointing at him. See how Matthew responds? The whole room is looking at him, trying to direct attention away from themselves. ‘Matthew? Not me, Matthew is that guy. He is the one you are looking for.’ The critical moment is here, it is right now for Matthew. His weights and measures are figuring how on earth to respond to Jesus. On one side, the call is infinitely heavy. He cannot lift it himself. He knows this. It has been his greatest fear to be called in such a way and yet also his deepest longing. Now, his dream is staring at him with the eyes of God, and Matthew is afraid. But, there is another side, the side to answer to this calling, to accept all the pain and hardship and joy inevitable in such callings. With this calling, though, Matthew would truly become himself.” Bill then addressed me, “Seth. It’s the same for you. You are here at this school. You have decided that, maybe, you have been called to sing. Whatever that call becomes for you, Seth, you must answer it.”
Bill’s advice went to my core. My dream was singing. I was afraid. Here was someone affirming the ache in my heart for something more. And yet, after that semester, I gave my dream up for a lost cause. Life got hard for a time and I gave up. I thought God was stealing away my dreams. Over time, I changed majors and eventually changed schools. God, though, had not stolen anything. Instead, through a long story and a variety of circumstances, God showed me JBU.
For the past two years God has revived my dreams and soul. He took a handful of embers from the depths of my being and cupped those ashes which had all but gone out in His warm potter’s hands. He brought them close to His face so that the faintest of orange hues lit up small glints in His eyes and He breathed. He breathed to bring those ashes of dreams and hopes back to flame. His breath was neither too hard, lest He put out whatever heat was left, nor too soft, lest His breath do nothing. Just a steady breathing of life back into my soul. If I stop and slow down, I can hear the call again, though it has changed some. I am not sure what exactly the call is, but I know I am in the right place.
God speaks personally when I slow down enough to listen. When I busy myself needlessly, sometimes gracious God speaks anyways with an exceedingly personal touch. Has anyone ever given you a perfect gift? Something given to you that doesn’t just increase your material wealth but says something about who you are? So it was for me with the painting in chapel. The Calling of St. Matthew reminded me that I am free. Free to dare to dream and follow that which God has for me. Since answering the call, trying somehow to follow God, life has not grown any easier. Actually, the opposite. Life has never been harder for me than it is now. But, there is a difference. The blessings and the light have grown all the brighter. Matthew could have stayed comfortable and wealthy at his money table. He could have turned away from Jesus. But, he didn’t. He chose otherwise. I am not inclined to believe he missed the tax collector’s life.
I have had moments when I turn away and moments when I answer. Though answering almost always seems a greater burden, I have found answering God’s call to be more of a relief and a joy. I am a senior in college and honestly, I am frightened when I think about post-graduation life. I don’t know what I am going to do or to what exactly God is calling. I haven’t had to make a big decision in some time. But, despite all of my anxieties, I have an anchor. I am listening.