The following is a reprint from All Saints Day, 2007. I decided to reprint it when I realized I couldn't improve on it.
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. (1599-1600)
I have always loved the look of stunned surprise on Matthew's face: Who, me?
And the guy next to him looks just as surprised: Who, him?
The tax collector???
Matthew, the tax collector, is in a dark room, with a bunch of men involved in a filthy, materialistic act: counting money. It's his job. The tax collector was more like a loan shark in those days, and worthy of resentment, if not outright hatred. He is sitting in a room with lowlifes, in short, men like himself. He is scrambling for his livelihood, one bright, shiny coin at a time. One of his compatriots is focused totally on the money, and ignores the light from the door; the only light in the painting.
He is being singled out. But the One singling him out is not, this time, the main subject of the painting. Matthew is, as he points to himself, the accompanying disbelief and shock clearly written on his face.
Which leads us to ask the obvious question: Why has He chosen him? Frankly, it makes no sense.
The painting has stayed with me throughout my life, since I first saw it. It has robbed me of sleep as often as it has comforted me. I have felt the echo: Who, me?
If you feel that a door was opened, light suddenly shown on you, and God Himself pointed to you, even for a millisecond, then you know the feeling. You know the feeling of St Matthew. You point at yourself, your shock eclipsing all else in that stretched-out, single moment in time: Why am I being singled out? It makes no sense.
And the people next to you, can be as incredulous as the man sitting next to Matthew: Who, her?
This painting was brought to us by a common brawler, in fact, a murderer. Caravaggio was not a nice guy:
I like to think the sentiment is his, the feeling of having been called and not having a clue why: Does He know who I really am? Yes, He knows. That's why you've been called, because He knows.
An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle some three years previously, tells how "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. In Malta in 1608 he was involved in another brawl, and yet another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. By the next year, after a career of little more than a decade, he was dead.
For several hundreds of years now, we've been getting a twisted message, and it needs to be put right. Those of us who responded to this phenomenon (the bright light shining on us, the finger of God pointing and singling us out), believed we were not good enough. Our calling must be a mistake, or a delusion. For example, look at all of these people who claim to speak to God personally; they get all kinds of messages, and spelled out in E-N-G-L-I-S-H, too. Why can't I have some of that? If you've asked, you know that no answer is forthcoming, it is something you have to find the answer to, like a complicated word-problem. It is your life's work, to discover why. But first, you must believe. You must overcome the shock and the disbelief, the finger Matthew raises to his chest. All around him, the disbelief, and all around us, the same disbelief.
You may hear, for instance, that you are not truly called if you are a woman. (Lookit that room, all guys.) You may hear that you are not truly called if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered. You may hear that if you live in the wrong country, pay taxes to the wrong emperor, live under another creed or ideology, then no, it doesn't apply to you, and you must have been mistaken. The secular and nonspiritual world reduces the painting to The Baroque Period, and doesn't appreciate that some of us feel punched in the gut by it. Well, they say, it's because it's Art.
No, it is because the brawler, who felt unworthy, put a spiritual truth in the painting, for US, who also feel unworthy. He painted that for us. It was a tremendous gift, from another who was chosen, and didn't understand why. He is saying: this is what I can do, I can illustrate this feeling in my heart, with color and shadow. Now, you must go forth and do whatever YOU can do. Whoever and whatever you are, you must spread the Truth to all nations.
If you aren't sure what that Truth is, then you need to find it. You are charged with the truth, which will set you free.
And on All Saints Day, the day the Church formally honors saints, I have to remember that. ALL SAINTS: Tax collectors, publicans and sinners. I have to remember the people the Church has deliberately closed out. I have to remember all of the people who hate me. I have to remember everyone in the world, made in God's image, who have felt the strength of love and redemption in their life.
It's hard to do. I'd rather just count my money in the dark and be left alone.
But after you are singled out, it's impossible to forget, regardless of what comes after. That is what the eyes, the expression of Matthew tell us. It's not about you, anymore. Come, He said, I will make you fishers of men.
Have a great All Saints Day.