Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (John Paul II , Gaudium et Spes 24)
A few years ago, I heard the story of Peter Cropper, a violinist who was given the honor of performing on a 258 -year-old priceless masterpiece—a Stradivarius violin. However, on the night he was to play, as he hurried onto the stage, he tripped and fell on top of the violin, breaking the delicate neck of the instrument completely. Violin craftsman Charles Beare offered to attempt to repair the instrument, even when everyone deemed it an impossible task. After countless hours spent meticulously mending and glueing, Beare presented the violin to the public. It was restored with astonishing precision, to the point that no trace of the damage could be found. Cropper was given another chance to perform with the violin, and when he played, many claimed it sounded even more resonant than it had before it had been broken.
What makes something a “masterpiece”? A masterpiece is an artist’s greatest work. A piece that truly showcases all of his skill, all of who he is as a craftsman. A masterpiece is an artist’s life’s work. The depths of his very self that he chooses to share with the world.
Human beings are God’s ultimate masterpiece. We are made in God’s image and likeness. Every encounter with another person is an encounter with God himself. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (The Weight of Glory).
It’s amazing that God chooses to draw near to us and call us his masterpiece even though we are so weak, so fragile. As it says in James 4:14 “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” In the blink of an eye, any of us could lose our lives.
Yet isn’t it this very fragility, this vulnerability, this temporality that adds more value? Consider a man-made flower vs. a living flower. Even if one were to intricately craft material to look, feel, and smell like a real flower, others would eventually discover its inauthenticity through the fact that it would never die. What makes the actual flower more beautiful is that it holds life.
How vulnerable, how breakable is each person. How deeply we each crave to be accepted, to be loved, to be delighted in. It takes courage to reveal one’s true self, and in those rare moments when those around us take the risk of showing us a part of themselves, it is up to us to embrace them. It is precisely when we are cradled in our vulnerability that we begin to be redeemed.
The story behind Michelangelo’s David sculpture further exemplifies this concept of redemption. It is a world-renowned piece of art, a masterpiece of masterpieces. Yet this masterpiece had humble beginnings as an unwanted block of marble, neglected for 25 years before Michelangelo finally got his hands on it. The marble had been thrown out and deemed unusable due to the unusual skewed graining and various imperfections. But Michelangelo saw the beauty inside the marble, so for two years he carved and chiseled, working tirelessly to set David free.
In the same way, when God looks at us, he sees our hearts. He sees the wealth of beauty deep inside us that we overlook. God doesn’t add on to us as if we are not enough, as if we need to become more to be lovable. Instead, he chips away, patiently. He chips away at the layers of dirt and grime that we’ve tacked onto ourselves in our futile efforts to find happiness. He sees the good, the beauty inside each of us, even when no one else does. Even when we don’t believe it is inside of us. He is the Master Sculptor. God is always giving us his blessing. “Benedictio” (bene=well, dictio=speak), God is always speaking well of us. He loves us because we are his sons and daughters.
A Gift of Ouselves
In light of the way God sees and loves us, St. Pope John Paul II’s words in Gaudium et Spes, “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself,” take on new meaning. To become a sincere gift of self to others does not mean to only offer ourselves when we deem ourselves presentable or at our best, but rather, to offer ourselves as works in progress. We can only give from what we have. God desires to use us for who we are, not for who we wish we were.
Practically speaking, to become a sincere gift of self to others, we can keep three points in mind:
- Know ourselves
In order to become a gift, we must know what we have to offer. This includes both our strengths and weaknesses. Though our weaknesses may be a source of shame or embarrassment, God can, and often does, use these weaknesses to bring glory to himself. Examples abound from the Bible: Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, St. Paul persecuted Christians. In the words of St. Paul from 2 Corinthians 12:9-11, “…when I am weak, then I am strong.”
One concrete idea for growing in the knowledge of ourselves is attending a retreat, especially a silent retreat where Adoration will be offered. It is most often away from the chaos of daily life that God reveals to us the most intimate parts of ourselves.
Another idea is to incorporate praying a daily Examen into each day. More information on how to pray the Examen can be found here: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen
- Constantly be striving to improve
Though knowing our weaknesses is important, we cannot resign ourselves to mediocrity. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “you were not made for comfort; you were made for greatness.” In the spiritual life, there is no standing still. We are constantly either moving forward towards God or moving backwards away from him. Thus, in every choice we make, we have the option of growing in sanctity. What this looks like for our daily lives is setting tangible, realistic goals for our spiritual lives. For example, we may commit to increasing our daily prayer time from five minutes to 15 minutes or going to Confession once a month instead of once a year. By taking small steps each day towards God, we will gradually become who we were made to be, which is to say, we will become saints. During this process, we will be able to offer more and more of our truest selves.
- Percentage, not an absolute quantity
Finally, God calls us to give from what we have. The objective quantity of the impact we have is less important than the percentage of what we have been given that we are using. In the Parable of the Talents, the master did not rebuke the servant with five talents for not having as many talents as the servant with ten, but rather, he praised him for using all of his talents. Similarly, Jesus praised the woman who offered two coins in the Temple because she gave all she had, even though it was a small amount.
God calls us to be faithful with what we have. The world judges on appearances and accomplishments, but God judges the heart, whose work is often unnoticed or unappreciated. To truly become a gift of ourselves, we must learn to live hidden lives of service.
Just like the Stradivarius violin, no matter how terribly we have been hurt or broken, if we let him, if we give him a chance to be with us in our pain, to love us through our lowest points, God will heal us and make us even more resonant than ever before. Just like Michelangelo’s David, God sees the good inside of us and invites us to let him free us.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In some translations, the word “workmanship” is translated to “masterpiece.” Even out of the scum of the world, even out of someone who has been rejected, cast out, deemed worthless, God can make a masterpiece.