I returned to the National Gallery this weekend for another museum meditation. I wanted to sit with a piece, grounded in my body and breath, and see where it took me. I had previously stuck with the safe terrain of flowers, but thought I’d look at some of the religious masterpieces, even if they are loaded with their own personal and historical baggage. I soon found myself in front of Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
I’m not much for hagiographies, but the basic outline is Catherine was martyred for converting Egyptians to Christianity sometime in the 4th century C.E. She was due to be tortured on the wheel but it ‘miraculously’ broke, granting her a reprieve. This was to be short-lived as she was beheaded soon thereafter. There goes this being inspirational.
Still she has her followers and Raphael gloriously rendered her moment of peace and possibility after the divine intervention. After a brief mental detour obsessing how this resembled a 1982 JCPenney and Olan Mills staged shot of my mother and I, I gave myself over to the painting.
I spent a lot of time breathing with her. Listening. Seeing. Moving through the landscape. Seeing the reflection of buildings in the water. Actions and Reactions. Consequences expected and unexpected. Fair and Unfair. Farmsteads throughout the hills. Lives going on regardless of what has happened to her at that wheel.
Catherine was temporarily freed and bathed in a light of inspiration and understanding. In my worldview I don’t respond to this being Divine in the conventional Christian sense – as in someone granted her a favour. To me it holds power if I see it as internally generated. She herself changed her life.
She speaks to me: I have a second chance. I have another choice. Beyond suffering and before death I can live in this light. I can be free. I can be at peace. No matter what bullshit has come before. No matter what’s coming down the pike. Now is what matters.
Alright Adam, don’t get ahead of yourself. Girl gets her head cut off. And an art historian, guided by religious symbology and conventional interpretation, may tell me I’m off my rocker. But still I allow myself my own unfettered dialogue with Catherine and Raphael.
So what if she’s going to die. We all are. No matter how much we try to perfect our bodies they will fail us one day. Catherine will die pretty gruesomely quite soon. But in this moment she is bathed in gratitude and peace.
In the bottom left corner a little white wisp of a dandelion stands in its solitary glory. So vulnerable to a breeze or a child’s romp in the grass. Ephemerality itself, ready to take to the wind. Everything is temporary. Life happens in a blip.
We all suffer. We all have our wheels. We all have a wagon-load of baggage that probably broke off that damn wheel of torture of due to the unsustainable tonnage.
But we can free ourselves. We can give ourselves second chances over and over again, as much as necessary, when we change our perception of all that we experience. No matter what it entails. Seeking a framework that makes sense to me, I heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s sweet voice resonate through me:
“If you want peace, peace is with you immediately… If I could not be peaceful in the midst of danger, then the kind of peace I might have in simpler times is meaningless. If I could not find peace in the midst of difficulty, I knew I would never know real peace… If you truly want to be at peace, you must be at peace right now. Otherwise, there is only “the hope of peace some day.””
Our choice to heal, to be enlightened, to forgive, to move on, to be kind, begins now. Even if it seems like the worst possible time.
And then Pema Chodron:
“Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future. In other words, if we’re going to be more cheerful in the future, it’s because of our aspiration and exertion to be cheerful in the present. What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.”
Alright, Catherine. Share your light. Let this moment last a while.