I’ll bet that many of you, like me, are fans of “The AntiquesRoadshow.” For those of you who don’t know the program, people bringtheir treasures to experts who tell them how much they are worth. Oneof the first things that a regular viewer of the show learns is thatrefinishing a piece of antique furniture destroys much of its value.Apparently, collectors value the signs of wear and tear and the patina ofage that accumulates on old pieces through the years. Wouldn’t it begreat if it were the same with people? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if peopleappreciated the beauty of the signs of wear and tear that result from ahuman life well-lived? That’s certainly the way it should be. One of myfavorite writers, G. K. Chesterton, remarks on the willingness of people totravel 5,000 miles to see the ruins of an ancient building, but they won’tbestir themselves to go next door to visit an ancient neighbor. InJapanese art, there is a principle called “Wabi-sabi” that holds that thingsare never more beautiful than when they are coming into existence orgoing out of existence. That is why, if you are a photographer, an oldbarn that is falling into ruin will often make a far more beautifulphotograph than a barn that was built ten years ago. But in our society,where there are countless television programs about cosmetic surgery,and people take snake venom treatments for facial wrinkles, the beauty ofthe old is not appreciated. It’s as if we are all “Wabi” and no “Sabi!”
I’m reminded of one of the lesser-known plays of Shakespeare,Coriolanus, which is set in Ancient Rome. Coriolanus is a great general.His friends want him to stand for political office. In order to be elected,he needs to win the approval of the Roman populace. His friends tell himthat in order to win the support of the people, he need only stand beforethem and show them the scars and wounds on his body, acquired duringyears of defending the city in battle. This idea has special significance forus in the United States, so close to Independence Day, when we think ofall of the wounds and scars, visible and invisible, that people havesuffered through the years in defense of the freedoms that we enjoy asAmericans. I think we all agree that those wounds and scars are, in asense, beautiful, because of the love and sacrifice that they represent. Ibelieve that not only battle scars, but all of the evidence of a life welllivedthat marks us as humans has a similar beauty. After all, whilesomeone who reaches middle-age with a face seemingly unaffected bythe passage of the years might still warrant the attention of a fashionphotographer, a face lined by years of care, compassion, grief, andlaughter, is worthy of a Rembrandt.
One of my most precious memories associated with the Eucharist isrelated to Fr. Tony Lauck, a priest of my order who was a fine sculptor.By the time I knew Fr. Tony, he was quite old, and had spent many yearstrying to give visual expression to the love of Christ. When he presided atMass, it was a great privilege to see his sensitive artist’s hands, nowclearly the hands of an old man, hold the bread and wine. It was anoccasion of surpassing beauty.
In India, they tell the story of a scorpion that had climbed out ontothe end of a branch. The branch was over a river. The river was in flood,and the water was rising. It was clear that the scorpion was about todrown. A holy man came along and saw the scorpion. He determined tosave it, so he climbed out onto the branch, and reached out to thescorpion. The scorpion stung his hand, but the man didn’t give up. Timeand again, he reached out to save the scorpion, and time and again hewas stung. Finally, the man said to the scorpion, “Why do you keepstinging me, don’t you understand that I’m trying to save you?” Thescorpion replied to the holy man, “You are trying to save me because thatis your nature. I am stinging you because it is my nature to do so. Justbecause you are acting according to your nature as a holy man, whyshould I stop acting according to my nature as a scorpion?” This story isinteresting in a lot of ways, but what strikes me about it is that the marksleft on the holy man’s hands by the scorpion stings are beautiful, becausethey betoken what is truly human about him, what is holy about him.
In our reading from Galatians, St. Paul claims, “The marks on mybody are those of Jesus.” If we accept our Lord’s invitation to spend ourlives laboring for the Kingdom of God- if we trust God enough to allowourselves to be vulnerable to the hurting, sometimes hurtful, people Godsends our way- then we will be wounded. We will be scarred. But ourwounds, like Paul’s, will be the wounds of Christ. And they, and we, willbe beautiful. This is the way to holiness. It is a way characterized byunshakable hope and profound joy. If we follow it, the clearest mark uponus will be the mark of the peace of Christ, which we celebrate in ourSunday Eucharist.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”