A Paint-By-Number Jesus

A truly great painting transports us to another place. We’re swept away by the colors, the light and shadows, the subject and the setting. Abstract art can do the same thing as we are pulled into the canvas through form and void, color and contrast. Beautiful things are beautiful because they reflect the beauty of God as their source. Even not-so-great art or music or poetry yearns toward the beautiful, as if it too hungers to reflect some small bit of God’s uncreated Beauty, however flawed. 

Which brings me to those paint-by-number kits which used to be popular many years ago. You can still find them sometimes at craft stores. They have a printed cardboard “canvas” with a sort of coloring book outline of a subject, along with a few numbered paints and a brush. Match the paints to their numbered spots on the canvas, and voila, you’ve just painted a kitten. Kind of. The art you make bears a resemblance to a real painting. If you squint your eyes. And if the lighting is poor.  

It makes me wonder about the folks who make these kits. Of course, today it’s probably all done with computer software and scanners. But back in their heyday, an artist would look at a “real” painting and translate it into the outlines you follow to paint-by-number. They saw the real thing, the beautiful thing, and then made a kind of approximation of something beautiful—that anyone could copy. What started out as “The Mona Lisa” would become a kind of shallow, muddy copy of a painting of a woman with a silly grin. It’s still recognizable if you’ve seen the original, but it’s not Leonardo’s vision of the mysterious Feminine. You might like the paint-by-number version you’ve created. You might even love it. And if you’ve never seen the original, you might even think yours is amazing. With nothing to compare it to, you look at your painting and it satisfies you. You show it to your friends. You’re happy with it.

And then, one day, you’re in Paris, at the Louvre. You walk around the corner and there on the wall is a smallish painting with a crowd of people in front of it. You can’t see what the painting is, but you’re curious to get a glimpse of it since so many other folks are interested in it. You wait and wonder. The crowd ahead of you thins and you finally see what’s on the wall. “The Mona Lisa”. La Gioconda. The Lady. Her smile beckons. The light from her eyes enchants you. She seems to look right into you, and she draws you in and captures your imagination. It points you to the Source of all beauty, which is what great art does. It’s transformative.  

Now, after gazing on the original, you can never again look at your paint-by-number version in the same way. Now you see all its shortcomings. What once seemed “enough” just isn’t anymore. The colors seem flat. There’s no depth; no sense of a living woman inviting your contemplation. Her mysterious smile looks more like a grimace. No, once you’ve seen the original, nothing less can capture your heart. And who could blame you? Millions of people over hundreds of years have encountered the original and been just as captivated and changed as you find yourself now. When it’s real and true and beautiful, you’re drawn to it. You know it. You recognize it as the real thing. And there’s no going back to a copy of the original, no matter how you might have once looked upon it with love.

This was my journey to the Catholic Church. Growing up as a Baptist, I loved our little church. I loved the music and Sunday School and all my friends there. I learned to love Scripture in that church. I treasure those years. But the Catholic Church offers so much more and, indeed, something unique—the Holy Eucharist. The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our living Savior. Like Saul, “something like scales” (Acts 9:18) fell from my eyes and I was transformed by His grace. How could I go “back” to anything else once He revealed Himself to me in the Eucharist? How could I ever be satisfied with less than the fullness of my Lord and my God in the Most Blessed Sacrament? There are many reasons I cling to my Catholic faith, but it was and is, the Eucharist that saves me. The Holy Eucharist isn’t a symbol or a memory or a paint-by-number version of the Last Supper. The Eucharist is He, the Living Christ.

“God dwells in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”

             —-St. Maximilian Kolbe 


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. frjuanvelez
    Mar 14, 2016 @ 14:08:07

    Only Beauty Itself can satisfy the human heart.


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