It is interesting to me that the things I find most beautiful and most inspiring in life are the things that are the most abstract.
Especially because I have a type A personality, and I am always spending most of my energy trying to be a good student and a good Christian who looks good.
Lately, as I spend every free hour of my time preparing for the hardest exam of my career (the USMLE Step 1 board exam tests everything I have learned in medical school over the last 2 years), I find myself taking breaks where I search for inspiration. Here’s what I keep coming back to: pieces of abstract art with strange quotes by Brian Andreas.
Not only do I love the bizarre drawings with asymmetrical and obscure-looking people, but I love the quotes, with their simplistic yet ringing truths. It struck me this morning, as I woke to look at these again, just how much my soul longs for abstract truth rather than the rigid structure and rules I tend to live by.
Get up as early as possible every day. Go to the gym every day. Never skip a day of class. Mark as many things off the checklist as possible. Study, study, study. Go to mass on Sundays. Avoid “bad” foods. Stay below a certain weight. Always wear makeup (maybe that’s the South talking…). Don’t watch too much trashy television because it’s better to fill your time reading classics. Try to blog on a schedule (thanks Aunt Maggie, for reminding me that the point of writing is NOT to stick to a schedule). Always aim for self improvement.
While I know that these rules have gotten me where I am today in my career, I am beginning to realize they are all manifestations of self criticism and a pathological need to control myself in every way possible. Though I may be very good at doing this, that doesn’t make it the right thing for me.
I think this art speaks to me for two main reasons: first, the abstract and imperfect nature of the drawings. The people are lumpy-bumpy and asymmetric, with misshapen appendages and flamboyant outfits. They are different colors and shapes and sizes and often anatomically incorrect. Sometimes they look more like animals than people. But they don’t apologize for looking unlike supermodels. They don’t even apologize for looking unlike what we deem that humans “should” look like. They are just people, and they are different but they are also filled with color and variety and striking beauty. It’s almost like they represent how we saw the world when we were children-when we were innocent and pure. Everything was strange and beautiful, and no one looked wrong. It was all the way it was supposed to be.
The second thing I am drawn to in this art is the nature of the quotes. Some of them are slightly comical and some more serious. Some are very simplistic and literal, while others are a little deeper and metaphorical. But they all convey some type of truth that is very honest and real and human yet easily forgotten in this crazy world. And it seems that me that the underlying emphasis is on our need to give up rigid rules and the need to control and to fully live and deeply love.
The other artist I am most inspired by, for several years now, is Richard Rohr, the Franciscan Catholic Priest whom I often quote. Every time I take the time to read his meditations or books, I am taken aback by his interpretation of Christ’s words and mission.
Today, I read:
Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).
“If you keep the law, the law will keep you,” we students were told on the first day in the seminary. As earnest young men anxious to succeed, we replied, “Yes, Father!” We knew how to survive in any closed system. I’m afraid we spent so much time in that world that it became the whole agenda. Canon Law was quoted much more often to us than the Sermon on the Mount before the reforms of Vatican II, and now the young priests are being taught in much the same way as I was. A strong emphasis on law and order makes for a sane boarding school, or an organized anything, for that matter. I really get that. It probably made it much easier for the professors to get a good night’s sleep with one hundred twenty young men next door. But it isn’t anywhere close to the Gospel. The Gospel was not made to help organizations run smoothly. The full Gospel actually creates necessary dilemmas for the soul much more than resolving the organizational problems of institutions. Fortunately, the Gospel is also a profound remedy for any need to rebel or be an iconoclast.
We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.
How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.
We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another—offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life.
Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.
I can’t really say this any better than Richard Rohr did. I can only say that I am now realizing the message here about our ideas and obsession with laws and rules and the truth that is found in love and acceptance is the same message that is in the artwork I have been looking at….maybe the world or God or my own heart is trying to tell me something.