The Ugliest Painting in the World

The ugliest painting in the world hangs in the window of a shop around the corner from my home. I can’t keep my eyes off of it.

Parzival
The Ugliest Painting in the World

There’s something so compelling about it. I can’t decide if it’s mere mid-century kitsch, or an earnest attempt to grasp at spiritual themes of transcendence, duality, and grandeur just beyond our reach. The antique store owner has optimistically labeled it a “surrealist” depiction of good versus evil, but to my eye there’s nothing surrealist about it. It’s a straightforward depiction of the climactic scene of Eschenbach’s medieval grail romance, Parzival. Here, at the climax of his quest for the sacred chalice, the hero battles with a mysterious dark knight from a far-off Islamic kingdom whom he cannot best. In the battle, one’s sword breaks and the other is wounded, so the knights lift their visors in respect only to discover they are in fact half-brothers, sharing the same knight as their father. “I was against my own self,” says Parzival. In that instant of self-realization, Parzival’s name appears on the grail. He becomes the new Grail King, re-uniting East and West as the two brothers return to the Grail Castle together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since reading the start of my friend Mark Pulver’s excellent blog sequence about midlife. In it he explores his personal spiritual growth in the framework of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” It contends that, rather than a single trajectory through life, the spirit is actually shaped around two distinctly different tasks, necessary for two distinctly different phases of life. If the first half of life is best characterized as a “survival dance” of finding one’s place,  then the second half of life entails a “sacred dance” wherein that place, great or small, is made sacred and significant as the soul comes to terms with who it is and who it is preparing to leave behind. The difficulty many face, it seems, can stem from a refusal to adapt, to continue seeking satisfaction in the skills and rewards of the “survival” phase, when in reality the “sacred” part of the journey requires something else entirely. The mid-life crisis, in short, is neither more nor less than being “against my own self.” Mark writes:

Here, society might trivialize my mid-life experience and tell me that I’m just afraid of getting old, that there is no second journey, and that only a tune-up is needed. It tells me to keep shoring up the container, maybe install some additions, buy a new car for the garage, and keep moving up the ladder with sound and fury… But I can assure you that more feathers in my cap will not do real the trick here. Don’t be fooled–there really is a second journey. My recent experience says that a second journey is beckoning me right now with a very different set of concerns and questions and ideals. I find this very exciting. To become fully who God created me to be, I need to realize that maybe I’ve been building my “stage” for a second kind of performance. Maybe the first half of ascending and building was just preliminary work for the real act of life where I can serve others more on a decent first-half platform. 

I’ll be curious to learn more about Rohr’s two spiritual phases in Mark’s blogging. It reminds me of my favorite first line: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”

That was Dante was writing about the midlife experience as far back as the 14 Century. And it’s important to note how he tackled it: not in the soft language of “spiritually,” but in the solid, worldly imagery of “religion,” trekking upward from Hell, through the perfecting ascent of Purgatory, before he could finally achieve Paradise.

As a younger man, I was especially drawn to all that primal, symbolic Christianity in things like Parzival, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Beowulf. All that Joseph-Campbell-Hero’s-Journey stuff makes a lot of sense when you’re a young knight seeking life’s adventure while keeping an eye out for signs of the grail and all the mystery it entails in the years of the survival dance.

Today, however, midway through my own life’s journey, it is the last part of Beowulf I find most compelling. Long after the monsters have been slain, one final adventure remains, the least adventurous and therefore the most challenging of all: the king has to die so his people may live. 

In other words, it’s about coming to terms with lack of fulfillment, finding what’s holy in “this is all I will ever be.”

I think being religious – in my case a Catholic coming from the Anglican tradition – can help with this experience in mid-life for three reasons:

  1. It tempers reality with hope – Faith teaches us not to confuse fulfillment with fullness of life. When embraced as a discipline, Western tradition encourages us to deem our life and body as nothing more than “a grain of wheat” being planted (John 12:24). That life, and the many real concerns of its first half in particular, is confused as an end unto itself is a flawed vision, like one’s own reflection seen “in a mirror dimly” (1Cor 13:12). What if mortality really is just preparation for REAL life?
  2. It suggests God has a way better perspective on our value than we do – Let’s face it: life makes us feel little. Especially in Silicon Valley and the tech economy, the great idolatry of our age is the cult of the exceptional self.

    And it is not that we aren’t exceptional. It is that so many dare not be anything other, no matter the cost. To be religious is to challenge that whole line of unexceptional thinking. We are of infinite value because we are so very ordinary and uninspiring. In the end, even the most “iconic” among us will show ourselves to be quite unexceptional, seemingly less worthy of human or divine acclaim than common sparrows, sold for two pennies. That’s the good news. “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mat 10:29-31).
  3. It brings a context of meaning to unfulfillment, suffering, and even pain – The religious mind strives to experience all pain like childbirth; it is a way God tries to make more of us. Paradoxically, it is so-called religious people who are least equipped to handle it themselves, or encourage others who are suffering. “It must be God’s will,” they say in response to tragedy, or that he “works in mysterious ways” or “never gives us more than we can handle.” If they’re really scared, they’ll send you a postcard about footprints. But a serious embrace of religion in the West reveals remarkable clarity of thinking on this point. Far from platitudes, we have our own unique twist on the detachment typically attributed by Hollywood to Yoda or Eastern esotericism. When challenged to explain the unearned suffering of a man born blind, Jesus’ almost dumbfounded response was “that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). Unfair? Proof of a God who is ultimately unloving, and therefore all human belief in him must be manufactured? Well, maybe, but I’d contend the fact that suffering is spread around may be evidence to the contrary. The truth, regardless of motivational speakers, is that we are all equal opportunity sufferers. In the immortal words of William Goldman in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The “spiritual” answer to that is to “come to terms” with one’s own suffering. The “religious” response is to recognize it is universal, and to let God make something of it. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves.” (Rom 8:22-23)

That is why although Dante’s Inferno gets all the recognition, it’s his Purgatorio I find the most beautiful. It is The Empire Strikes Back of the Divine Comedy, the middle chapter of a trilogy, bringing all the ideas of Episode I together and improving them, without quite resolving them. Much like Purgatory itself, one of the most misunderstood gifts of the Western religious tradition. To quote Saint John Paul II (canonized today), Purgatory is the “condition of existence” where God “removes… the remnants of imperfection.” 

If that’s all too Catholic, then Protestants can think of it as the kind of maturing faith the Apostle Paul was writing about when he said: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ… for this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.” (Col 1:24-29) Or if you’re Buddhist, consider it a bardo.

It’s only as I’ve entered midlife myself that words like this, or Purgatorio or the end of Beowulf, start to make sense. I heard that passage described once like being a kid helping your mother make cookies. She doesn’t REALLY need your help, but always gives you something to stir. Now replace suffering for the dough, and God for your mother, and you get the idea. If faith is really a connection to somebody real, then some of that suffering gets poured into our bowl for us to stir. If we do so intentionally, then the cook can make something of it. 

Which, circling back to Richard Rohr and my friend Mark, is what midlife can be about… if we choose the hard work instead of the easy answers. If we can believe that the spiritual journey is in fact a process, then everything – from our lack of fulfillment to active suffering – can be an opportunity to enter the condition of purgatory now, as life sands down our own jagged imperfections for our own good, and that of the world we will some day leave behind.

And therein we find strength and purpose to endure. Like a bad painting.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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3 thoughts on “The Ugliest Painting in the World

  1. Very well written, Chris. I am not in the same phase of life but read with great interest. I liked the mother-cookie analogy. And regarding the painting–it looks like the same artist who created paintings for the film Mickey Blue Eyes. Take a look at the second paragraph following the excerpt. And keep up the great work.

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