Friday, June 12, 2009

"Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection"

Erica and I went to the art museum a few weeks ago. One of the exhibits was called Paint Made Flesh. It featured works of mostly contemporary artists, who deal with what it means to be a material, fleshly being, complete with emotions, memory, sexuality, etc. One of the themes that was examined again and again was that of vulnerability. This painting by Eric Fischl especially caught my eye. The painting is (to me) haunting and beautiful. The old man stands naked and alone, obviously frail and vulnerable. The artist gives it the apt title "Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection." The painting invites the viewer into this reflective act; even though most of us are not as visibly frail as this man, we all face frailty and vulnerability. It is essential to being human.

We are vulnerable in so many obvious ways that it seems superfluous to even mention them. Our futures are not certain, our health is not a guarantee; we could lose people we love, or goals that we've worked hard to achieve could fall apart. In spite of our culture's best attempts to hide behind money or technological advances or U.S. military strength (could we call it a collective false self?), it seems that every now and then we are jarred out of our illusion and reminded of our vulnerability, whether by the events of 9/11, a financial crisis, or swine flu. Notably, vulnerability so often leads us to lash out at others before they hurt us: so much violence is justified in this way. This violence includes not just physical manifestations, of course, but the ways we close ourselves off from the other. If we recognize that we are all frail and our lives are in God's hands, we might be less likely to resort to such defense mechanisms, making us more open for dialogue with each other.

Another obvious element of vulnerability is that it is essential for relationships, including our relationship with God. We even talk about "skillful" vulnerability in our rule. Love is always a risk, of course, and it's not possible without opening up to the other. Our relationship with God seems to continually confront us with this reality, whether it's the vulnerability of sitting in silence, taking a sabbath (when there's so much that needs done), or embarking on a new and difficult journey in life. It seems to me that engaging in the spiritual life is to continually come to terms with this reality. The process of stripping away our false self and all of its defenses confronts us with our naked vulnerability; this process is often enough painful but ultimately healing.

The painting reminded me how important it is to come to terms with my own human vulnerability. Ultimately, vulnerability is a reminder of what we've all said countless times about the spiritual life: it is a gift. Our own actions and intentions matter, but a contemplative relationship with God always requires God's initiative. I am reminded that God made us vulnerable for a reason, and that it is essential to being human; I think the spiritual life encourages us to come to terms with that.


RC said...

John, this is very insightful and beautiful. And very true. Thank you! I'm strenthened and encouraged in my spiritual journey by reading this.

living stones said...

The picture moved me, and I deeply appreciated your thoughtful reflection. Rickey and I have just returned from NW Florida where we both helped care for and interact with our increasingly frail parents, so I was particularly struck by your insight, “violence includes the ways we close ourselves off from the other.” My mom is in significant pain, yet she is determined to handle things her way. I’m practicing “letting go” of my desire (need?) to help (control?). As you wrote, “If we recognize that we are all frail and our lives are in God's hands, we might be less likely to resort to such defense mechanisms, making us more open for dialogue with each other.” Part of my prayer includes keeping the door open for dialogue with my mom. More importantly, the other part of my prayer includes cultivating a tender spirit on a daily basis because I know I'm frail. Thanks so much for sharing a reflection with such a valuable focus! Blessings, Anna

Paul Corrigan said...


This painting you shared with us, in the context of your comments relating it to our spiritual journey, is certainly beautiful and haunting.

Thanks for this!


S. Price said...

Thank you, John. As I grow older I am increasingly aware of how fragile, frail, and vulnerable human lives are. I am guilty of closing myself off from others in self-defense. The painting speaks truly. I am put in mind of Rich Mullins' song, "We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are." Here's the chorus for those who may be unfamiliar with the song (or Mullins) and a link to the lyrics:
We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

Daniel said...

John, thank you for this reminder! I have been thinking about community a lot lately, and this is key! Thank you for your honest reflection.

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