A Reflection from James’ Sabbatical

On my second Sunday back at St. Michael’s, I led a Forum about my sabbatical, and someone asked me if I had any surprising insights while I was traveling. Great question! I told this story:

San Damiano cross

While I was in Italy, I went to Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. I wanted especially to see the original San Damiano cross, an icon that spoke to St. Francis in a vision when he heard God asking him to rebuild the Church. The San Damiano cross is one of the most highly reproduced images in Christianity and can be found in multiple sizes at any Catholic book store. It’s a cross of the Resurrection; so rather than standing crucified, Jesus appears having just stepped from a dark, empty tomb which stretches behind him on the horizontal bar. The middle of the cross is wider than a straight vertical line, and makes room to include some of Jesus’ friends and followers crowded around him. His arms are outstretched, not in crucifixion but in a gesture ready to receive the world which wounded him.

I’ve always loved this icon, and I wanted to see the real thing. A friend told me it was in the museum attached to the Basilica of St. Francis, but I didn’t see it there. My Italian is also very limited, and I had a hard time asking for help in seeking it out. I spent my entire day in Assisi looking for the true San Damiano cross to no avail, all the more frustrating as countless copies of it stared out from the numerous gift shops lining the street. Finally I found a clue, a brochure from the San Damiano chapel in English which pointed me to the side chapel of the Basilica of St. Clare. I had half an hour before I had to run back down the hill to the train station, so I practically ran to the chapel. When I rounded the corner, I saw the icon hanging above the altar rail and a few people sitting quietly in the pews, and my eyes welled up with tears.

There was something different about the original icon, and I can’t quite put my finger on what that was. Part of the tradition of iconography involves one iconographer carefully and faithfully copying the work of those who have come before, and I imagine that some faithful artist had rendered the version of the San Damiano cross which gets used for mass production. It must be, because the original looked completely different to me than any one I had seen before. The only way I can describe it is to say that Jesus just looks more generous in the original. He has an expression on his face which seems so tender and so kind and I think that is part of what prompted my tears. The Jesus in the copy of this icon that gets shared most widely looks gaunt and severe by comparison. And it seems like nothing can compare to the loving gaze of the one I saw.

For me, this experience has become a metaphor for what it’s like when we settle for a copy of a copy of a copy of the real thing, something which happens frequently in religious life. We tell the same story over and over again sometimes, or we rely on what we’ve heard and gotten used to. Then sometimes the real thing bursts in and takes our breath away and reminds us of what we’re really working with, a God who is love fiercer than anything else we can conjure in this world. Lately, when I speak of “disarming poor theology.” this is part of the work I’m talking about. Questioning some of the images and ideas about God we’ve gotten used to so we can dig a little deeper and find ourselves face to face with the real thing.

— the Rev. James Joiner, Associate Rector