PILGRIMAGE: Tuscany, Italy—Recognizing Jesus by Albert Holtz

Awareness of God’s Presence

Tuscany, Italy—Recognizing Jesus by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

My head is full of images of gondolas and canals, arched bridges and flocks of pigeons.  I’ve spent the last few days living with my brother Benedictines at the island abbey of San Giorgio in the middle of the bay of Venice.  But now I’m on a train heading south to Tuscany.  I changed trains a few minutes ago in Florence and am taking a half-hour ride out to the ancient monastery of Benedictine nuns in Pontassieve, where I’ll be staying for the next four days.

I glance out of the window and – wait a minute!  I’ve never been anywhere near this part of Italy before, so why do I have the distinct feeling that I know this place?  Those odd cypresses that look like great green feathers are familiar, for example.  So is the little river that winds among castle-topped hills until it’s lost in the distant blue-gray haze.  Then I realize what’s going on: I’ve been looking at these scenes my whole life in the backgrounds of famous paintings.  Those great Florentine artists are so familiar that we call them by their first names – Michelangelo, Rafael, Leonardo.  Their paintings are so much a part of our religious imagery that we take it for granted that Mary visited Elizabeth in an Italian villa with cypress trees in the background and that both women were dressed as Renaissance ladies.  I look out the window again half expecting to see the Angel Gabriel suddenly appear on that marble terrace over there unrolling a long white banner, “Ave, gratia plena!” in front of a young Virgin.  On the road in the distance I search for the exotic procession of camels carrying the three wise men and their gifts to a chubby Florentine bambino lying in the courtyard of that big farmhouse near the tracks.

The little train rattles along hillsides that are covered with vineyards and topped with towers, and follows the banks of the Arno past fallow fields, exhausted little garden plots, and genteelly decaying farmhouses.

The painters show deep theological insight when they place the great events of salvation in familiar landscapes close to home.  People looking at the paintings will have the impression that these great mysteries are happening right in their own territory.  When an artist paints an Annunciation scene, he makes sure to let us glimpse through an open window that this is happening right here in the town where he is painting.  He wants us to recognize the familiar hills, the little bridge, and the city walls.  When the shepherds come to visit the manger, the artist places the stable in his native Italy, in a spot just outside of Florence.  Jesus, the painter is telling us, is born in our own midst.  When Christ preaches his sermon on the mount, he stands on a hill with the familiar bends of the Arno in the background, speaking to people who look like typical townsfolk of Tuscany.

These artists help us to do what Saint Benedict in his Rule asks his monks to do: “Always be mindful of the presence of God.”  This mindfulness of God’s constant, continuing presence in our lives is sometimes called the “fear of God.”  It doesn’t mean cringing terror, but simply a clear awareness of this God who is present everywhere.

Dozens of chattering high schoolers pile onto the train, enlivening the dreary grown-up atmosphere with their rowdy laughing and loud kidding.

And then I realize something: the message of the great Italian masterpieces has gotten completely turned around.  Ironically, for us citizens of the New World at least, the pictures do just the opposite of what their makers intended.  They now encourage not the constant mindfulness of God’s presence, but rather what Saint Benedict calls oblivion, forgetfulness.

These paintings assure us that God’s great deeds were done in some place far, far away.  Bethlehem, where God became flesh, is an unreal land of feather-shaped trees and castle-topped hills!  The Christ child grew up in an idealized village in Tuscany – certainly nowhere around where I live.  If the Way of the Cross winds through a quaint Italian town with a wall around it, then Jesus isn’t likely to show up on my street in downtown Newark.

Some of us would prefer to forget that Jesus is present everywhere with his power and love, because that Jesus also has a way of making demands on us.  We’d prefer God to be elsewhere, at some safe distance.  If we keep Jesus slightly alien, we won’t see him at our supper table or in our workplace.  We won’t have to hear his voice challenging us.

Across the aisle, the young mother holds her baby on her lap.  At her feet is a diaper bag, and on the bench beside her is the baby’s half-eaten cracker.

What would people think of a painting of Mary playing with Jesus not on an Italian hillside (which is somehow quite acceptable) but on the seat of a passenger train?  Somehow it doesn’t fit: Mary and Jesus don’t have anything to do with the real mothers and real babies of today.  God’s love doesn’t walk among us the way it did for Rafael and Michelangelo.

Benedict, who assumes that God is present everywhere, won’t let the Lord be confined to churches, convents, and Vatican City – or even to some Renaissance landscape in Tuscany.  He won’t let God’s great works be limited to “elsewhere.”  If we accept that Jesus healed lepers in Judea and in fifteenth-century Tuscany, we need to see him at work also in our own hospitals and sickrooms.  If we can pray with great devotion in front of a painting of a Christ who is suffering and dying in the streets of some Italian village, Benedict wants us also to recognize him dying with heroin in his veins in the back alleys of our own cities.  For Benedict it is decidedly not “somewhere else” that God works wonders.

Pontassieve.  I shove myself and my suitcase down the aisle and squeeze through the knot of friendly teenagers smoking in the vestibule.  They watch me climb awkwardly down the steep train steps.  I land with a jolt on the platform in front of a handsome young man with long black hair who is waiting for the next train.  I get a funny feeling as I look at him: hmmm – where have I seen that face before?


Where have you met Jesus in your life recently?  In what kind of person is it easiest for you to recognize him?  When is it hardest?  Where are the places in which it is easiest for you to sense God’s presence?  Where is it most difficult?  Ask the Lord to help you during Lent to cultivate a sense of the divine presence in that one person or place where it seems most difficult.


Sacred Scripture (Exodus 3:2-5)

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 19, “The Discipline of Psalmody,” v. 1)

We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked.

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