The Weight of the World

With God in New York City
John Singer Sargent, Atlas and the Hesperides, ca 1922-25 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Standing by the altar of St. Patrick’s, I look up and onto Fifth Avenue. The Cathedral’s titanic bronze doors are flung open in an extravagant gesture of welcome, inviting the avenue’s commercial hubbub into the sanctuary. Tourists circulate through the bright narthex, standing off with vigilant ushers over verboten coffee cups, reflexively snapping photos. A co-mingling of the profane and divine.

Across the avenue is the colossal bronze Atlas that guards Rockefeller Center. His muscular form fills the width of St. Patrick’s doorway. Frozen in his ascent to a podium, he hefts the sphere of the heavens, dotted with astrological symbols. I find him an aspirational image—a form to be grasped at. Atlas’s cosmic burden may be a punishment, but his sentence also seems to offer benefits. I idolize his ability to stand outside the universe, to contain its chaos on his back: to be singular, unattached.

Directly behind me hangs a small Christ on the cross. The baldachin of the cathedral’s main altar soars in front of the crucifix, cross and corpus upstaged by splendor. This god is not a titan but a helpless creature, thrown into the world. And the world has left him in pretty rough shape.

*

I am afraid of disappointment, both the receiving and causing of it. In a city that ignores human limitation, this helpless Christ is an unwelcome reminder of the inevitability of letdown.

Christ dives into our history, his arms open in fearless embracing.

I imagine an ideal mother; the image may be an illusion, but it exerts real force. My real mother tests the limits of the clock to teach coding, sew ballet costumes, and care for her husband and six children—four adult, two still in high school. She works overtime to keep from failing the many to whom she promises herself. But the ideal escapes her—her limitation inevitably leads to my disappointment. There’s a too-long list of phone calls that I have aborted in bruised frustration. Sounds like you’re busy, I’ll call back later.

Disappointment is infectious. I know my mother feels its sting: both for upsetting me, and for modeling how to renege on a promise to be present. Do as I say not as I do is the desperate prayer of parent, teacher, friend. Please be as I would be, not as I am. But in a birthday phone call to my sister, I cut her short in a rush. Hey, sorry, I’m underground, getting on the train now, can I call you later? Unlimited availability eludes me, too. The gap between who I need you to be for me and who you are is a mutual pain.

In For the Time Being, Auden’s Mary wrestles with the fear of disappointing her divine infant:

What can you discover / From my tender look but how to be afraid?
What have you learned from the womb that bore you / But an anxiety your Father cannot feel?

Disappointment is the inevitable side effect of loving human beings with wounded histories, fragile psyches.

Rather, he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave
being born in the likeness of men.

“The likeness of men” means “disarray.” What can I be to the people I love but the vehicle of inherited limitations and imperfections?

“The likeness of men” means slogging through Manhattan February slush and riding the 1 train from Wall Street to 145th, clutching what little dignity I have to resist shoving the commuters in front of me, and carrying bags overloaded with books I optimistically thought I would read that day, up five blocks and several flights of stairs to my apartment—and I am met by no one. The world is already dark at 5 pm, and I call my mother; she does not pick up the phone. It’s a ripe hour for self-pity in a small apartment whose Ikea mirrors are still not mounted on the walls.

“The likeness of men” means me, who now wanders from the apartment to the Hudson, to the circular terrace on Riverside and 152nd, which is perpetually littered with cigarette butts and smashed beer bottles. Aristocratic in design, this terrace is a weed-incensed hangout where one twenty-something opens up her breviary to David’s angstiest psalm. In the likeness of this terrace, I find the shape of my life—dictated not by myself, but by the humans who populate it.

*

Salvation, for our god, did not mean recusing himself from human love. Jesus, too, had a mother and the entangled inheritance of family. Jesus also chose a happy inner ring of confidantes—the people to whom he entrusted his life and mission.

They betrayed his trust. The abandoned God hangs on the cross, disappointed. His limp, defeated body is the portrait of someone I do not want to be: someone whose life was dangerously tangled up in others’.

Atlas’s punishment does not risk this disappointment—he carries his globe without breaking the hermetic seal between your life and mine. The world is a monstrous weight he shoulders alone.

But Christ’s body, made of fallible flesh, abandoned by fearful friends, bears the weight of a shared world not as punishment, but salvation. He dives into our history, his arms open in fearless embracing, an eternal emptying for you, for me.

Renée Darline Roden is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame's Master of Theological Studies program, currently working as an editor for FaithND and as a playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in America, Howlround, Church Life Journal, and the Bushwick Starr.

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