Mark Twain, quoting a contemporary, once commented on the work of a famous German composer; for him, Richard Wagner’s music “is really much better than it sounds.” That quip came to mind when reading about the work featured on this week’s bulletin: the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci. (I know: my third da Vinci reference.) The scene of the angel Gabriel delivering the divine message to Our Lady was one of the most oft-depicted Biblical images in the Renaissance. Several critics have attributed the supposed “flaws” of Leonardo’s execution—poor spatial perspective, the “vacant” expression of the Virgin, her seemingly elongated right arm, the visually distracting garden wall, etc.—to the relative inexperience of a still-apprentice artist. Walter Isaacson even remarks, without a hint of irony: “On careful examination, however, the picture is not quite as bad as it looks.” As bad as it looks? What does that even mean? Speaking as a layman, my reaction is quite the opposite: the image seems so…perfect. If this is what it means to be “flawed,” we all should be so lucky…
On second thought, perhaps the very limitations of an artist’s early effort recommend it all the more to the occasion we mark this weekend, namely, the installation of a new pastor. Doubtless, the flaws of his performance will, like a young painter’s shortcomings, be manifest before long, if they aren’t already: his difficulty in “balancing” priorities, his “vacant” response when addressing new challenges, his arm that seems to “overreach” from time to time, his lack of focus, especially when compared with churches “beyond the wall” of Roslyn, etc. One hopes that, just as history had patience with the “errors” of a Florentine artist, or God—with the questions of a young maiden facing unique circumstances—the good people of St. Mary’s will be no less generous with their new priest.
The fact that the Annunciation is the first of the joyful mysteries is not lost on me. It is, for all its unknowns, a moment of seemingly endless possibility and divine invitation. Just so, the will of God continues to unfold in the life of our parish. Along the way we will undoubtedly experience the touch of tragedy, but only then can we appreciate the sublime moments of grace and love that are also in store for us. And would the delight they bring be nearly as intense if we could anticipate them? We must constantly be ready to accept the gifts of God, the Source of Goodness, and Wisdom, and Beauty, whenever they come to us.
In the meantime, given human weakness and imperfection, the advice of the saints is worthy of consideration. As St. Ignatius remarks at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, it “is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.” To discern God’s will, whether in one’s personal life or that of a religious community, is simultaneously a fascinating and (almost fiendishly) difficult task. The presumption of goodwill, however—itself the sign of God’s grace—has the effect of binding us together and smoothing out our rough edges. Let us pray for a gracious approach to the adventures that lie before us.