The Pieta

Step 10 of the 12 Steps of AA:

“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

We talked about this step last night at a meeting. Step 10 speaks of the necessity for the recovering addict (or anyone for that matter) to periodically step back from themselves, and examine which of the old habits, ideas, or self-misunderstandings which got them into trouble in the first place, may be re-forming themselves. Which of those old, easily-defaulted-to behaviors or thoughts might be ready to reach out and grab whatever weak link in one’s recovery might be revealing itself anew? It’s a good thing, obviously, to know about, and a group of like-minded others can help one to more ably do that.

Some of us were remembering incidents in which we were confronted by someone or something outside ourselves in a way that was self-revealing, sometimes jarringly so. I remembered two pieces of art, both seen when I was only 17-18 years old, that did that for me in a way that I can still remember. Michaelangelo’s Pieta, and Picasso’s Guernica shook my understandings of how the world might be perceived in ways that I had not known it was possible to perceive the world. They were both doors of discovery that I could not stop myself from entering, nor that I could make practical sense of once I had entered.

pieta

The Pieta, Michaelangelo, 1498-99, St.Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I saw this in the Vatican with a tour group in 1967. I was one of a few teenagers in a group of adult construction company owners and their wives who had gotten free trips to Europe for buying backhoes from a particular implement dealer in Ohio. Since 1972, the Pieta has been on display behind bullet-proof glass and must be viewed from twenty feet away, because of a hammer attack that year by a crazed man, Laszlo Toth. But in 1967, there was no protective glass, and the Pieta was there- ten feet in front of us.

I saw it and forgot who I was. It was not a spiritual experience in the sense that I was overwhelmed by Mary’s sorrow or Jesus’ death. It was an experience of encountering Beauty in a form I had not known was possible. This was marble, caressed into fingernails and upper lips. This was rock, tapped gently into folds of cloth, and pressed-upon skin. This was cold stone, fashioned into eyes brimming with tears, freshly pierced wounds, and pulsing veins.

The tour group continued on to whatever-it-was that was next be seen. I stayed because I had no choice. I saw tonnage that was ethereal and floating. I traced the edges of Mary’s robe with my eyes until I could see the cloth moving in her shudders. My eyes filled with tears that I didn’t understand and knew I would not be able to explain or share with anyone. (Not that I wanted to, anyway; this was the kind of brand new emotional reaction that I worked to hide even as I could not.)

It was a personal inventory that was forced upon me- a realization of something about myself that I have never (thank God) stopped getting used to. I learned that it is not the tour group that needs kept up with, it is what I am seeing and experiencing, right here and right now, that is the most important thing. It’s taken me all of the forty years since then to put that revelation into words, and I could regret those decades of inarticulation. Instead, I choose to be thankful for finally being able to understand why, in retrospect, I always felt apart from the crowd up ahead, and wanting- all the time- to know more, more, more about (it seems) everything I ever saw that reminded me of the way Michalengelo was able to make marble sing.

Tomorrow: Guernica

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