Mistakes and what they teach us about God's Grace. 1) Cecilia and the Art Restoration
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Hespeler, 14 February, 2016 © Scott McAndless
1 Corinthians 1:18-31, James 3:1-12, Matthew 7:1-11
n the summer and fall of 2012, the attention of the whole world was suddenly captivated by the events that had taken place in a small town in Spain with a population of less than 5000. In this town of Borja, it seemed, somebody had made a mistake. It wasn’t just your everyday, run of the mill kind of mistake either. It was a mistake that was so big that it was like nobody could look away.
In that town there was an ancient Roman Catholic Church and in that church there were various pieces of artwork such as you might find in such churches. One of them was a fresco that had been painted in the early 1930’s by a visiting artist.
The painting was a traditional piece of very common Roman Catholic art called the “Ecce Homo,” which is Latin for “Behold the Man.” It is a depiction of Jesus, crowned with thorns as he appeared before Pontius Pilate just before being sent off to be crucified.
The fresco was quite beautiful (in the traditional manner of such pieces) when it was first painted, but by 2012 it was not in good shape at all. Due to dampness in the walls the paint was fading and flaking away and it no longer looked at all as it once did. The poor state of the painting particularly saddened one of the members of the parish – a very devoted woman over the age of eighty named Cecilia Giménez. She knew that the parish did not have a lot of money to take on an expensive restoration and she was an amateur artist. She decided that she would take on a restoration of the artwork all by herself.
It was the results of Cecilia’s work that got everyone so interested. Armed only with her faith, her best intentions and limited talent, she pretty much botched the job. People criticised her and blamed her for what was clearly a terrible mistake. Cecilia took the criticism that was leveled at her so hard that she went and hid herself in her house – cutting herself off from community and church alike. She was deeply hurt, though, some would say, not without some good reason because, well, look at what she had done.
I think, therefore, that the story of Cecilia Giménez is an excellent place to start our journey during the season of Lent thi
I find the contrast between the work of the original artist and the work of Cecilia to be interesting. Both of them described the work that they did as an act of devotion. The original artist, in his own words, said that Ecce Homo was “the result of two hours of devotion to the Virgin of Mercy.” I take that to mean that the man was visiting the church – a church that was devoted to the mother of Jesus and to her mercy – and decided to donate a couple of hours of his time for the creation of a piece of art.
Cecilia, for her part actually made a very similar devotion. She saw a piece of art in a very bad state of repair and, in an act of devotion that she saw as dedicated to the Virgin Mary, she set out to repair it. And she put in the time in the effort – actually more time and effort that the original artist had done. There was no fault in her effort or in her desire – only in its execution. She simply did not have the level of training and experience that the original artist had had. But which one’s devotion was more acceptable in the eyes of the Lord? Did the artist’s devotion have more value because of his skill and training? Or did Cecilia’s pure heart count in the eyes of the Lord?
So this story gives us an excellent example of the problems that are created by our focus on mistakes. Mistakes cause a lot of damage, but I’m not talking about the damage caused by those well-intentioned souls who sometimes make mistakes. I’m talking about the damage that comes out of our reaction to them. Think of Cecilia. She was absolutely devastated by the reaction. She withdrew from the church. She hid in her home refusing to come out of it. She became a virtual hermit in her own town. It was personally devastating to her.
She said that she did not understand. She had only been well-intentioned. She had acted openly and not hidden her work in any way. She felt targeted and deeply hurt. I’m not saying, of course, that the people who were criticizing her didn’t have any justification. She had effectively destroyed an irreplaceable piece of art. What’s more, it would be almost impossible to calculate the monetary value of what could be called her act of vandalism.
So I’m hardly trying to suggest that her critics were wrong to say what they did. But, just because you can justifiably say something, does not always mean that you should say it? And does it mean that you need to say it in a way that hurts a person? That is an important question in any context, but I would suggest it is extremely important in the context of the church. The church is supposed to be, after all, a place of grace.
I’m not sure how grace-filled the people in that church were. But I do know one person whose grace never fails. And that is the most interesting part of Cecilia’s story. Cecilia’s mistake and the reaction that her neighbours had is not the end of the story. Today there are very few people in Borja who are angry at Cecilia. You see, there’s a reason why we know the story of Cecilia even though it just happened in a small town in Spain. We are living, after all, in the age of the internet and, thanks to the internet, a small event that takes place in a small town can sometimes come to the attention of the entire world. And that is what happened with Cecilia’s painting. Suddenly her picture was everywhere. At first, it is true, everyone was just laughing at her and her story. What a fool they all said.
But then something else started to happen. I’m sure that, at first, it was just a lark. People said, “Why don’t we go to Borja and see Cecilia’s artwork for ourselves? Why don’t we go and have a laugh and take selfies there and post them on the internet?” But then, before you knew it, it became a thing. Everyone started doing it.
And soon, this minor town that had been teetering on the brink of economic collapse had an amazing tourist industry on its hands. The town’s economy was saved and it wasn’t the only thing to revive. The little church also started to charge a little fee for people to see it and take their selfies. It seemed as if Cecilia had saved both her town and her church from possible extinction.
And then there was the work of art itself. No, the art critics never learn to love it or anything like that. But at least some of the observers noted that the piece of art made them think and feel in ways that the traditional art of the Catholic Church had never done. Some noted, for example, that, while the original artwork depicted Jesus lifting his eyes towards heaven, in Cecilia’s work, the Saviour turns his eyes towards you. Perhaps Cecilia had managed to make at least some people think a little bit differently about their Saviour and hers. Art, after all, doesn’t always have to be beautiful in order to help us to see something meaningful that we never saw before.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explains what I think is the great principle that is at work in the story of Cecilia and her art restoration: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
You see, we all think we are so smart. We have our plans and our strategies and they can often be very successful. Someone could have come up with a plan, for example, to revive the economy of the town of Borja. In fact, there actually were some such plans in place. And some highly paid consultant also could have been brought in to revitalize Cecilia’s parish church. Such well laid plans could have brought about many good things. And, of course, God does sometimes bless such plans because God wants towns and churches and people to do well.
But if the town was saved by some plan that was brought forward like that, who would get the glory? I’ll tell you who: the planners, the designers and maybe the politicians who paid for the project. That is, according to the letter to the Corinthians, why God likes to step in and shower with blessings the Cecilias of this world – the people who may try to get it right but often get it wrong. That way, not only is the blessing bigger and better than what anyone else could have planned for, it is also abundantly clear who the glory really belongs to.
It just seems to be God’s favourite way of acting. That is probably why no matter what we plan for in the life of the church, it never quite goes exactly as planned. At least, I’ve never seen it. We may make our plans and bring in our consultants and get to work and yet you can be sure that, at some point, some little thing will just go wrong and threaten to blow the whole thing out of the water. But here’s the crazy part: later, when you look back on it, you will realize that it was that moment when it all went wrong that led to some of the most helpful outcomes. It is another case of the foolishness of this world being more effective than all the wisdom and the planning of the wise.
We have a kind of a mistake-o-phobia in the church, it seems to me. We are too afraid of making mistakes and so sometimes avoid even trying something that might be a little bit different. Recognizing that God does bless and even prosper the mistake-makers is something that can set you free to try new things without any fear of what you might get wrong because that is how God wants you to live.
The other way our fear of mistakes comes out is in the criticism we heap upon those who do make mistakes – the Cecilias of the world. And you know how devastating that was to Cecilia. It almost destroyed the woman. And, since we all do make mistakes, that leaves us all vulnerable to such criticism. It can do so much harm. And it can so easily change the environment of the church from a place where we build each other up to a place where we tear each other to pieces. That, I know, God doesn’t bless.
So God sends mistakes into our lives and into our churches and into our towns and he loves to use them to challenge our assumptions about what really matters. Next time you make a mistake – or the next time you see someone else making a mistake – take it as a challenge. God is asking you to imagine what great thing he might have in store for you, or for the church or for some other worthwhile project, in what you or somebody else just got plain wrong.