Blog Template Theology of the Body: Salvadore Dali on the Freedom of Christ

Monday, February 18, 2008

Salvadore Dali on the Freedom of Christ

A Lenten reflection presented at the Catholic Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Friday.

I am humbled to be able to share with you tonight about a sculpture that has meant a great deal to me in my understanding of our Lord: Salvadore Dali’s sculpture entitled “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The sculpture is a simple image, originally modeled in wax and then cast in pure gold by Salvadore Dali after his conversion and return to the Church in 1949. The sculpture was inspired by another piece of art on which Dali meditated: a drawing by the same name, which was attributed to Saint John of the Cross himself, and housed in the Monastery of the Incarnation at Avila.

I first encountered this little sculpture years ago on a hot summer’s day in Florence, in some crumbling Medici establishment turned art museum. I had rounded a corner following a journey through the Pitti Palace, where one becomes overwhelmed with thousands of images of Christian martyrs bearing the instruments of their torture; in fact, that day was my first introduction, in art, to the images of St. Catherine’s wheel, the knives that flayed St. Bartholomew, the arrows that pierced St. Sebastian, the image of St. Lucy offering her gouged eyes to heaven. In contrast to this myriad celebration of the martyrs, and the instruments of their offering, Dali’s sculpture seems to hover- weightlessly and freely.

The first thing that strikes you about this gentle weightlessness is that here, in contrast to other iconography, there are no instruments of martyrdom attached to the body. As a study in the pure freedom of form, Dali’s sculpture hearkens to two of his paintings: The Crucifixion, of 1954, and Dali’s painted depiction of Christ of St. John of the Cross, of 1951.

In both of these paintings, we find the same utter freedom of Christ’s body; we look at his hands and his feet, and we see that there are no nails for binding Him. The Cross itself is suspended in mid air, and Christ seems merely to align himself with it, as though He were bound only by some mysterious gravity that we cannot see.

These images are beautiful, as Dali intended them to be; the story goes that Dali, like St. John of the Cross, had been experiencing dreams about Christ, and wished to depict “a Christ who is beautiful, like the God who He is”- or, perhaps, he wished to depict the Christ who is human, the utterly attractive Jesus of Nazareth who was a vigorous young man about my age. And indeed, our Lord was a young man. I imagine that Jesus laughed a lot, and that he was beloved by His friends, and that His eyes sparkled with the joyous secrets that He shared with His mother- and with His Father. But Lent is a time when we recall that our natural affections for this attractive Jesus will fail Him every time; now, He is hung on the Cross, an ugly instrument of bondage, torture and shame.

In this regard, Dali’s sculpture is a radicalization of his vision of the beauty of the crucifixion; here, there are no ugly instruments. There is not even a cross. Rather, critics have noted that the image conveys a sense of the flame of Christ’s own divine love rising up to consume the offered sacrifice of His body; or, as Dali describes it, Christ Himself has become His Cross.

The idea conveyed is one of unconstrained freedom.

To me, the thought of a totally free offering is the most terrible aspect of Christ’s Passion. You see, I really cannot stand the idea of torture. I can’t watch it in films or read about it in books- I will literally faint. As a child, I wanted to avoid all thought of the agony of the crucifixion, but it was the agony in the Garden that really got to me. To think of having options in the matter, and yet to choose freely a terrible pain was a paralyzing prospect to me. It would be so much better and easier, I thought, if one did not have a choice; surely the greater agony is in offering your assent, or in willing the pain that will assault your body. I thought about this a lot as a child, partly because I was raised with stories of child martyrs who confessed Christ, and thus freely chose confinement and tortures. I thought about this with regard to going to the dentist for various involved surgeries that I had when I was very young. (My dentist was something of a Spartan who did not believe in much anesthesia). For me, the worst part of each ordeal was not to consider before hand the dentist’s needles or probes, nor even having to endure the procedure itself; no, the most terrible part was the point at which my mother would drop me at the curb outside the dentist’s office before the procedure and say, “go on in and tell them you are here for your appointment while I park the car.”

That was the most dreadful part; having to walk myself into certain pain of my own free volition. How I wished for someone to strap me in, to carry me on, to force me to assent passively to whatever would come next; but there was never any such luck. No: I had to walk in and present myself. Surely we have all faced something similar- the dreadful moment when we freely choose something that will hurt. The freedom of the decision makes it worse, and indeed is often the worst part- the dreadful anticipation. And knowing the dread of such decision myself, I could never fathom the dreadful freedom that our Lord endured before His crucifixion.

How did the omniscient and omnipotent Lord of the universe, with our nerve endings, and our stomach, choose this? What is the agony involved in giving your consent and bidding your torture to begin, when you are omnipotent? Knowing that our Lord could have called a legion of angels to change everything at any moment, my childish prayer went something like this: “Jesus, how did you get yourself to the cross? And once there, how did you stay put?” I put this quandary into a little poem when I was in high school:

Whenever you are ready, they said to me. No one dragged or pushed or persuaded; there was just the long road, and the hill to the cross, one step after another. But once you got there, Lord...once on the cross, how did you stay on?

So Dali’s images provokes me: when you have nothing to restrain you, nothing to compel you, nothing to hold you in place, how do you consent to your own suffering such that it continues one moment… after another… after another, each moment a willful decision?

St. Augustine expressed it this way:

For He who was manifest as man, was hidden as God; and He who was manifest suffered all these things, and He Himself arranged them all… Who can thus die when he pleases, as Christ died when He pleased? Who is there that thus puts off his garment when he pleases, as Christ put off His flesh at His own pleasure? Who is there that thus departs when he pleases, as Christ departed this life- at His own pleasure?

...So how did Jesus, in utter freedom, approach His cross?

The history of Christian theology resounds throughout the ages with a clear answer. With respect to His divinity, of course Jesus walks to His cross in such perfect freedom that nothing is needed; no instrumentality, no compulsion. Commensurate with the classic notions of God’s unchanging, perfect, undivided and underived self-sufficiency and freedom, Dali reminds us that God incarnate needs nothing, reacts to no exigency; in Anselm’s terms, the creative and cherishing Being who supports and surpasses all, who surpasses and fills all things, who is highest and best and greatest of all existing beings, from and through whom all other beings gain their existence, and in whom we hope, does not need a cross to hold in place His self-offering, as Lord and ruler of all, for the sins of all. As Augustine taught further, Christ’s suffering on the cross can only be rightly understood in terms of the free, self-sufficient power of His Godhead, by which He was raised from the dead on the third day; we see how freely He laid down His life for us when we recall that He had it in His power thus to take it up again. In the medieval period, St. Bonaventure similarly equates this divine freedom with the total power that is both hidden and revealed in the act of Christ’s total suffering: “Truly it is clear, how inexplicable (is) the fortitude of Him, whose infirmity was so strong.”

His infirmity on the Cross was so strong: with respect to His humanity, united to such perfect freedom and such utter power that He makes a cross of Himself, the young man from Galilee is in mortal agony. And here the question arises for us with greatest compassion: He is a young man with sorrows and fears, and a body. How does He muster the human will to offer Himself, moment by moment while He remains utterly free? How did He focus His mind? How did He pray in order to endure His cross? The answer could be useful to us, since we are told that we too must take up our crosses and offer ourselves totally to the Father; but the fact is, we are not told how. We are just told that Jesus did so, by His own human and divine will, with nothing to force Him or to bind Him.

Here again, our tradition cherishes the role of Christ’s human freedom in His offering.

A spiritual director of the fourteenth century wrote a series of Meditations on the Life of Christ for Lent, and he suggests that we imagine the point of crucifixion not as Christ being stretched out upon His cross with great submission, but rather that we think of Jesus eagerly embracing His cross by ascending a ladder to its center, where He voluntarily turns Himself around stretches out His arms to be nailed, first one, and then the other, saying to the Father “Behold, I am here; I accept; I offer myself to you for those whom you gave to me; for the love and salvation of mankind, it pleases me.” It's as though Christ were seizing His own agony. The same sentiment was expressed even earlier by the second century martyr Polycarp, who refused to be bound to the pyre at which he was to be burned, proclaiming with joy that on Christ’s example he expected that the grace of God would enable him to remain on the pyre unmoved, without being secured by nails.

For me, Dali’s sculpture portrays the Passion of Christ in its entirety. Perhaps when He was a child, Jesus of Nazareth had a foreboding of His crucifixion; He assents. The response that the human heart longs to make to the Father is yes, as Jesus would have heard from His Mother. Jesus is the vigorous young man who turns His face to Jerusalem because He yearns over her; and then, at the last hour, He assents to the Father in Gathsemenee, such that the suffering to come is to be understood as Jesus’ own will. Shall I say to my Father, deliver me? I shall not; for this reason I have come into the world. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord. The events that follow are voluntarily embraced by the one on whom they fall, for the joy that is set before Him, and we see Jesus going to His dreadful death for our sakes, as though He were running to it, as though He would make a cross of His own body if there were no other cross to hold him at the end.

The death that Jesus chooses on Golgotha is a voluntary death at every moment, and involved an ongoing, agonized decision, made moment by moment, so that we might be reconciled to God. Jesus not only chooses Golgotha at the outset; He chooses to endure it.

Augustine taught that Christ thereby showed His deriders that He was the Son of God; and having allowed Himself to be lifted on to the Cross, He does not come down as they challenge Him to do, although He could. The Cross does not constrain Him. Rather, He bears with His insulters when they challenge Him, throughout His pain, because His cross is taken not as a proof of power, but of profoundest patience. In Augustine’s words, "there He cures your wounds, where He long bore His own; there He heals you of death eternal, where He vouchsafed to die the temporal death. What a death is this, which slew death!"

This is the Son of God, who has come to restore our fellowship with the Father; this is God, suffering with respect to His humanity. C. S. Lewis puts it this way in The Problem of Pain:

“ self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm of all creation and of all being. For the Eternal Word gives Himself in mortal sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified on Calvary He did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces what He had done at home in glory and gladness. From before the foundation of the world, Christ surrenders begotten deity back to begetting Deity, in obedience.”

Indeed, there is no cross that can hold the Son of God. There is no cross that is necessary. He makes Himself the sacrifice; and He is held in place for His offering not by nails or stakes or weakness, but rather by constant free decision at each moment on His cross, because He loves you. He really loves you.