(for Bill Milhomme)
“I’ve been searching all my life,” Martin said. “Integrity.”
His spiritual director leaned forward. This was just what she’d been working toward. Martin had begun direction at the Center four weeks earlier, just as Lent had begun. At first he had merely intellectualized everything, rationalized his life. “But how do you feel?” his director would ask him again and again. “What are you really looking for?”
“Integrity?” she asked him.
“Oh, maybe that’s not the right word for it, I don’t know,” Martin answered. “I want things — something – to be what it says it is. No phoniness, no fake images.
“I’m not looking for perfection. I know that’s not possible. I’d settle for the least possible gap between what’s said and what is.
“I’ve spent most of my life deeply involved with my Church, searching for integrity, wanting to serve it. I didn’t expect the Kingdom on earth, just for people to mean it, to want to mean it. To take the gospel seriously, not to go through the motions. And what did I find? Careerism. Clerical professionalism, amateur humanness.
“Then teaching school. God, what a joke that was! They call it education, but it’s three-quarters baby-sitting. You can’t tell the truth. You’re expected to pass almost everybody along. And I taught art — watercolor in a riot zone! Still, they’d jiggle the SAT scores, pluck out a survey or two, and pronounce everything rosy.
“And even in my own art. I try. I try so hard to get it right, to close the gap between what I see in my mind, what I feel, and what’s becoming on the canvas. Sometimes I come so close, but . . .
“That’s all I really want. For something to be what it seems, to bridge the gap. No distance.”
His director sat back. “Have you ever seen our art collection?” she asked. “It’s quite good.”
That wasn’t what Martin had expected — it caught him off guard. “No . . . no, I haven’t,” he said.
“I think we’ve talked enough for this session,” his director said, pushing back her chair. “The gallery is down this corridor and to the right. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
If she hadn’t stood at her office door watching, Martin probably would have just gone on home. As it was, he started down the hall a little angry. He had just told this woman what he had never told anyone before. Why hadn’t she responded? Was she belittling him and his search?
In a black mood, he opened the gallery door, and . . .
Pow! The strength and loveliness of the Center’s art nearly overwhelmed him. Never in his life had he seen such beauty all in one place. He had expected the collection to be solely religious, and many of the pieces were. Still, they were unusual. In one corner, Richard recognized a work by the very young Picasso, called “Christ Forgiving Satan,” in another a Durer print of the newly risen Christ as the gardener, a straw hat tipped jauntily to one side of the head.
But there were plenty of non-religious pieces as well, at least they seemed non-religious. Each of them did possess that inner power, that glow. Several of Hermann Hesse’s watercolors were among them, as well as the mysterious Keltic knots and swirls of Deidre McCullough. A shadow so real as to both warm and cool the heart seemed to spread across the stones of an Italian tower in a Tom Martino landscape.
Over against the far wall of the room, Martin caught sight of a particularly interesting painting. He had seen it somewhere before, he thought, or something very like it. It showed the crucified Christ, suspended in dark space above the world. But there was no cross per se; Jesus hung there in space, arms extended, with nails floating in front of his hands and feet.
Martin stared at the painting a long time. It was almost perfect, he thought. He himself had made several attempts at a crucifixion scene — all failures.
The painting seemed to mesmerize him, for as he watched, it seemed to dominate the entire room. It was growing larger and larger — or else Martin was being drawn deeper and deeper into it. Soon — he didn’t know how or care — the young artist was floating right beside the crucified Christ.
He was so close now, he thought to himself. So close. He could feel it — integrity, rightness. It was pulling him closer and closer to itself. “God, finally,” he said to himself.
Still something was not quite right. There remained a gap of meaning, a wedge of some sort between himself and . . .
He couldn’t stand it! He was so close! He put back his head, raised his arms to heaven and cried out loud.
He started to move again. He was afraid to change his position even in the slightest, afraid to break the spell. With arms extended and head thrown back, he slowly drifted about the crucified figure, until the two men were back to back, suspended over the bright earth.
Closer and closer the two pressed together. Martin could feel Jesus’ struggle to breathe; the blood from his scourged shoulders ran down Martin’s back. It was terrible; it was beautiful. It was both together. Together.
And then Martin heard a great, ringing crack and, a micro-second later, a horrible pain flashed through his arm. A nail had been driven through Jesus’ wrist and into his own.
Again, that thunderous sound, and again the pain — in his other wrist, his feet. It hurt — my God! It hurt beyond imagination. But yet . . . there was purpose to it, a reason. No posturing from the cross, no pose. Not a drop of blood was futile; not one agonizing gesture that didn’t lead a symphony of worth.
Martin could feel Jesus’ head turning toward him; he moved his own as best he could.
“No distance,” Christ said.
Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, teaches Humanities at Nichols College, Dudley, MA. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His novella, Everything We Want, was published in 2018 by Bloodstone Press. A poetry collection, The Realm of Blessing, will be published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press.