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Friday, November 11, 2011

Simply Art

I do some volunteer work at my parish, feeding the people in need. The space used for this purpose is called "Day Room", as it is open from 9 o'clock in the morning to 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It is crowded all day long with Mexican moms and their children, whereas American customers show up at lunchtime. Adult men are not allowed to hang around before or after the meal, except for one man, who is treated like a member of the family by all the women who volunteer at church. He's 67 years-old but looks 97, thus awakening that maternal instinct that good women feel for old people. His name is Paul, and he shares his apartment with Francis, a 77 year-old black woman who takes care of him. They are the most peculiar pair of individuals I've ever seen. Except for the fact that she's blind in one eye and toothless, Francis looks like a teen-ager in her jeans and colorful t-shirts. Perfect posture, lean muscular body, she runs around the Day Room tirelessly, carrying weights that would give a back-ache to most men of her age. Paul instead, ten years younger than her, moves cautiously leaning on a walking stick. All I know about him is that he was married and has two children, but bipolar disorder and drug abuse ruined his life. I have a hard time understanding him, because is voice is reduced to a hoarse whisper. He doesn't seem to have enough strength to breath, yet once in a while he shamefully walks outside and lights a cigarette. He's dreadfully pale and thin. There is something ethereal about him, as if his body were just a shred that hung on to life.

But sometimes, half-way through the morning, Paul does something incredible. He sits at the table and Francis, who already knows what he wants, places in front of him an exercises book and a few colored pens. He opens the book, grabs a pen with his callused hand and start drawing a flower. His flower is nothing but a green stem with a small sphere on top, which he colors in red, blue or yellow. And then he starts all over again, drawing another flower. Soon many pages are filled with those small colored spheres balancing on their thin stems. Now and then one of the women lays a hand on his shoulder and says:
"That's nice, Paul!"
He smiles and turns the pages, looking for the prettiest flower that he could show her.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…"

The beauty of Paul's act consists precisely in its poverty. It reminds me of an event that happened in Italy in 1973, when I was a junior in high school (Liceo of Art). During a visit to a mental institution in Trieste, two artists run into a woman patient who was sketching a horse. Drawing some lines, she divided it into six compartments and drew something else into each one: a flowerpot, a duck, a pot, a house, a tree and a Pinocchio. She said that the horse was named Marco, like the old horse who carried back and forth the dirty laundry and was about to be sent to the slaughter-house. That's how Marco Cavallo (horse in Italian) was born. Run by the two artists, for two months the laboratory welcomed hundreds of patients. All were invited to write and draw on large white leaves of paper. They told stories, organized shows and finally built a big blue horse in wood and papier-mache, talking about how to save the old Marco from his horrible destiny.
Marco Cavallo laboratory turned upside-down once and for all what was left of the old order and discipline which had reigned in mental institutions for centuries. But in my eyes, Paul's flowers represent something even more moving in their simplicity. They depict his poverty of spirit, which is necessary to open our heart and mind to the love of Christ. My son, who is an atheist, confuses poverty of spirit with naivete and even stupidity. Instead, it's the factor that allows us to realize that our faith doesn't come from within, but from without, and in order to embrace it we have to be open to the Mystery that is engaging our being.
Acknowledging this was fundamental to my conversion, because it helped me understand that I wasn't deluding myself.


Writing is, to me, a constant reminder of Jesus' presence in my life. I am certain that I couldn't do it on my own, whereas, when I paint, I rely on my technique. I have struggled to master it, and I've never had the feeling that my ability to paint was a gift from God. But maybe that's because I was a painter before I converted. I don't need inspiration to paint, all I have to do is call for my sense of aesthetics. There is no poverty of spirit there. But when it comes to writing, I have to place my trust in God. In fact, I never know if I will ever be able to write again. My inspiration comes from without, and not only that: If I'm looking for a quote or a book that might clarify what I'm trying to say, it systematically appears before my eyes like magic. For example, here is what happened when I was writing my book. Part of it is about Jesus' journey through Palestine, so I wanted to include some descriptions of the landscape. I thought about looking it up on the Internet, but I never did it. One day I was at the Public Library, browsing the "memoirs" section. I randomly picked up a book from the shelf, and to my amazement it was about a woman writer who had taken a trip to Israel! Now, what are the chances for that to happen?
The white page is the place where I encounter Jesus, which is synonymous of encountering my soul. Leaning down to me, He helps me probe into my "I".