Some years ago, on Pentecost Sunday, a very disturbed man by the name of Lazlo Toth walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, armed with a steel hammer and raging vengeance, delivered fifteen blows to the upper portions of Michelangelo’s magnificent statue, the Pieta. “Sono il Christo!” he shouted – “ I am the Christ” – as he all but laid waste to a treasure that was the embodiment of beauty itself.

Over the ensuing years, long after a team of craftsmen had painstakingly restored her to her former elegance, a friend of mine, an art historian, made the observation that while it was good to have her back, she was not the same. Not only did she bear the scars – though barely perceptible – she now bore a different history. As he put it, “now, her history is not only of magnificence but of madness,” and with it, the lingering thought that beauty is as fragile as evil is persistent.

The story of the Pieta’s birth, death and restoration has a fabled quality to it; a sort of Aesop on a dark day. Everything seems to be representative – if in extreme – of some piece of the human condition. If Michelangelo is symbolically the divine expression of our goodness, Toth is, symbolically, the depths to which we are capable of sinking. The unnamed craftsmen who tend to her, who bind her wounds, symbolize our desire to mend our destructive ways. The time that was given over to that repair is the time of exile, when we are separated from the divine form. And those who come back to see her again, scars and all, remind us that for all our imperfections we are still seekers of the good.

It is our pattern I think, to live in this tension defined at one end by our highest aspirations and at the other by our lowest inclinations. We all have a little Michelangelo in us, as well as a little Toth, and on most days and in most instances we fall somewhere between the two. We aspire to the good; we make our fitful strides toward it, however bold or timid. Sometimes we even touch it, and then we slide back, slip and fall over our own indolence or indifference. We settle into a status quo.

But God does not settle, God summons. This is what I call the God of second chances; the one who, despite our persistent failings, calls us back to those higher aspirations. Remember that ancient Israel was dispersed into exile as a ransom for their sins, but even there they returned to their faith in a God of second chances who subsequently returned to his faith in them. Peter denied Christ three times but still became the cornerstone of the early church, and Paul was a persecutor of that church but went on to become its greatest advocate. There are a lot of prodigal sons and daughters among us, people who leave, return, and perhaps even leave again, but are always welcomed back by the God of second and third and fourth chances. In the words of Gandhi, “we are drops in the limitless ocean of God’s mercy.”

We need God’s mercy because so much of the time we are prodigals; wanderers in exile somewhere between good and evil, looking to draw closer to the God who offers the second chance but easily distracted, discouraged, or enticed away.

Exile is our place of separation. It is the void in the basilica where the sculpture once stood; less the presence of evil than evil’s aftermath – the absence of the beautiful. We are not tortured so much as we are alienated, distanced from the pure and the good. (Indeed, ex ile literally means “to wander away.”) I think of exile as a place where competition is king, where the grandeur of our desires is commensurate with the poverty of our values. In exile, yesterday’s David aspires to be tomorrow’s Goliath, little league managers run up the score because even nine year old kids should know now how tough the world is, and a good parking space is worth a fistfight. If I am middle class and live in exile I care more about the lushness of my lawn than about the pesticides I use to keep it that way, and I don’t mind if my next door neighbor is as jealous of my yard as I am of his house, which is larger than mine. I go to church to hear sermons about how the gospel ratifies my beliefs rather than shapes them, how the poor will always be with us, why masters must be good to their slaves and wives subservient to their husbands. I read an ad in a magazine that invites me to save a child’s life or turn the page. I turn the page.

What ultimately matters though is not how far we have wandered from the good and the beautiful or even how we got there but what we will do with our newfound circumstances. Think of Adam and Eve; when they were cast into exile they were told that life was going to be very different, and very difficult, but they got on with things. They fended for themselves, found their way, learned how to survive, and, began a family to which we are all heirs. To paraphrase Aeschylus, people in exile must feed on the dreams of hope.

Our own coming back, our restoration, our pursuit of the good could be triggered by something obvious or sublime. It might be the birth of a child or the death of a parent, a cautionary tale told by an old friend, or a lesson we learn on a uniquely profound study retreat. Or it could be brought on simply by the gradual realization that the pleasures I once aspired to with such singleness of mind have begun to lose their luster, and so one day I decide that I would rather love my neighbor than have him envy my lawn. Whatever the medium through which God comes to us, the message is the same. It is to return, restore a sense of balance to our lives, a sense of gratitude to God for what we have and generosity to others for what they don’t. In Judaism the term is Tikkun Olam, which means to “repair the world,” and is the notion that the world is like a broken vessel, and each good deed that we do puts one shard of that vessel back where it belongs, so that if enough good deeds are done the world will be restored.

I think of the men and women who so painstakingly restored the Pieta, who were able to return her from exile and give her back to the world. Their labor, their tikkun olam, was mighty, and their task was excruciatingly slow. Each one had to have the touch of a surgeon and the patience of a saint. But more than this, each one had to live with the ambivalent feeling that on the one hand they were bringing lost beauty back to life but on the other theirs was an imperfect, incomplete work; beauty destroyed by rage is replicated but not duplicated. And this is our eternal dilemma; God’s perfect love finding us in our most imperfect world.

We are a people of flaws and scars; we know how much God loves us, but will always be tempted to reach for something beyond the substance of that love. This is nostra pieta, our pity. It is not just that we welcome God’s restorative grace, God’s second chance; it is that we need it.
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