I Thought I Knew Him

The Suffering Humanity of Christ
Briton Rivière, ‘The Temptation in the Wilderness’, 1898

We were still very new to the faith when my then-fiancée, Rachel, bought Magnificat’s 2018 calendar and proposed we hang it on our kitchen wall. Neither she nor I had been raised in the church, and our largely secular upbringings had left us skeptical if not disdainful of Catholicism. The Catholic funeral of Rachel’s grandfather, just ten months prior, had begun to change that. We started attending Mass. Rachel signed up for RCIA, and I reluctantly followed suit. Eventually, we grew so bold as to kneel in humility and pray together to the Lord.

The Magnificat calendar would be the first religious item to grace the walls of our illicit premarital home. This caused me some consternation. It was one thing to take a shine to the Gospel. It was something else entirely to proclaim it above the dishwasher. Finding yourself can feel eerily similar to losing yourself, and both inspire tremendous amounts of fear. I felt that fear as we nailed the Magnificat calendar to our kitchen wall.

My own path to belief would not come from a single epiphany, but instead grew out of little openings into extrasensory understanding. The start of February delivered one of these micro-revelations to me, as Rachel flipped the Magnificat calendar from January’s Christ and John the Baptist as Children by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to February’s The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Rivière.

In that painting the Son of Man slumps alone on a rock in the empty desert. He steadies himself with his palms placed at either side. His downward gaze masks his face. The sun sets behind him, and a single star shines just above his sunken head. The whole painting seems to tremble and glow.

Christ grapples with both the fact of a human body and the presence of a human mind.

 

To see Christ like that for the first time was, for me, disarming; the painting robbed me of the tools I had used to ignore or dismiss him. Foremost among them was a conviction that I already knew Christ, and that he offered nothing for me. I thought I knew him because I had seen my grandparents’ crucifixes. I had toured great European cathedrals. I had laughed at television’s enlightened caricatures. I thought I knew Christ, but all I really knew was a cliché.

Rivière’s painting contained none of the usual baggage, and thus contained all of Christ for me. Stripped of everything I knew about him, I could finally set about knowing him. I could see the creator of the universe take on human form and experience his creation as we experience it.

When the Word took on flesh, he took on consciousness, too. In Rivière’s painting, Christ grapples with both the fact of a human body and the presence of a human mind. He’s all alone there, as Thomas Merton put it, in a “sterile paradise of emptiness and rage” lorded over by the devil. He spent forty days there, staving off temptation, discerning his way toward a tortured end. The cross is as psychic as it is physical.

That resonated with me. I have never been spat upon or flogged. Nobody has pounded wrought-iron fasteners through my flesh. It has been easy for me to intellectualize away Christ’s bodily passion. But I have known psychic pain—torment more spiritual than physical. So it was comforting for me, especially in the trying winter of my first Lent, to understand God as intimately familiar with the human mind, with how it can fold in upon itself in doubt, confusion, and fear. I may never fully understand why a benevolent God permits suffering, but I am steadied by his firsthand experience of it.

Months passed. Magnificat curated more beautiful paintings above our dishwasher. Previously, they would have stimulated only my academic sensibility. Now I find in them something raw. Christ, for me, is no longer a cliché held at arm’s length, but someone real, someone with whom to cultivate a relationship. My conversion has been an exercise in reduction—as much about dislodging default assumptions as it is about embracing a revealed truth. To encounter Christ today, I have to cross a desert of my own ironic detachment.

Rachel and I were received into the church at Easter and Pentecost respectively. We were graced with yet another sacrament at our nuptial Mass on the Feast of St. Clare. It was indeed a year full of grace, and we are settling into a happy new life together. But on bad days, when things do not go my way, whenever I ask why God has forsaken me, it steadies me to know that He wondered the same thing, too.

Published in the March 22, 2019 issue: 

David J. Unger is a writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Point, the Atlantic, and elsewhere.

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