The Triumph of Trivial Distractions…

When Jay and I were younger, before we had children and a mortgage, we took the money we’d been saving for a down payment on a house and we went to Europe for a month.

We wandered around, finding hotels when we got to a new city and seeing all the things we’d read about or heard about or, in my case, had just started teaching about–that we could afford to get to. To be clear, that really only included Western Europe (except Spain, they were having a ground transportation strike. An older Welsh man tried to convince us that this was normal and happened in the US, too, but his only evidence was that air traffic controllers went on strike sometime in the ’80s and we didn’t know what he was talking about).

So we ate cheese and chocolate in Paris and had good beer in Munich and discovered gelato in Italy. One of the places I was most excited to see was Rome. Not just because of the aqueducts and the Roman roads that made my history geek heart soar, but also because of the art. I couldn’t wait to see Raphael and da Vinci and Michelangelo.

You can’t take pictures inside the Vatican Museum so this is me in the Coliseum on that trip. Those are the lovely tickets to the museum that I saved because we used to make scrapbooks before there were digital cameras and the internet. Also I was blonde for some reason.

On the day we toured the Vatican Museum we waited in an incredibly long line that wrapped around a large portion of the perimeter walls of the Vatican. It was crazy hot and there were very loud American teenagers in front of us, one of whom was wearing track pants that said “juicy” on the rear end and I thought, “that might not be the most appropriate outfit for touring the home of the Pope.” Sadly, Jay and I don’t speak any languages but English well enough to pretend we weren’t American so mostly we just tried to edge farther away from them in line.

After moving through room after room of priceless art in what used to be the papal palace we entered the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling is perhaps the most famous series of Biblical scenes–most people know that moment of God reaching out a finger to meet Adam and deliver the spark that ignites the soul of mankind.

But the image that caught my attention was the The Last Judgment painted behind the altar. Michelangelo created the ceiling toward the beginning of his career and the far more frightening and overwhelming Last Judgment toward the end. It showed hundreds of nude figures engaged in the battle for the immortal souls of mankind with Jesus at the center. Michelangelo himself is painted into the work as a flayed skin.

I loved it.

Picture of The Last Judgment I totally stole from the internet

When I would teach the Renaissance to 15- and 16-year-olds, I always pointed out that the nude figures had caused quite a controversy (because saying nudity to a room full of 10th graders makes them pay attention). And although Michelangelo was following the Greek and Roman tradition of nudes (which he also did in sculptures–think the statue of David), critics condemned the use of nudity in this painting and eventually many figures had loincloths painted over them so as not to offend those critics.

The other day, Jay and I were watching a TED talk about the Sistine Chapel…you know, as we are wont to do. Art historian Elizabeth Lev gave a passionate overview of Michelangelo’s work and if you’re at all interested you should take the 17 minutes and watch it. Around minute 13:40 is when she gets to the part about the nudity controversy in The Last Judgement.

It’s during that segment that she spoke a phrase that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. When she described the cover-up job done to make the nude figures more palatable to the critics, she refers to the entire conflict as “a triumph of trivial distractions over his great exhortation to glory.”

I made Jay pause the video and go back. There was plenty to wrestle with in the painting: Does the raised arm of Jesus bring any comfort or just some good old fashioned smiting? Are the saints and angels rescuing people from hell or are those people crying out for God or is there even a difference if the end is finally actually here? Rumor was that the pope fell down and acknowledged his unworthiness when he saw it (no clue if that’s actually true or not).

But instead of dealing with challenging thoughts concerning the struggles of the human condition or mankind’s interpretation of God and expressions of faith, the naked people is what got the press. Veeeerry early press as the printing press was still relatively new, but press nonetheless.

The triumph of trivial distractions over the exhortation to glory.

How much does that phrase sum up our current political climate? Our current religious climate? Our over-scheduled and tech-filled lives in general? Will there one day be some historian using such a phrase to describe the years in which I lived most of my adulthood?

I just spent 3 minutes watching a trailer for Ice Age: Collision Course, also known as Ice Age 137. Why did I do that? They’re woolly mammoths. I KNOW how this ends. And I’m sure I’ll get to enjoy this artistic treasure when it comes out in a few months due to the whining of my kids. I don’t need a trailer for more information.

I cannot in any way account for the amount of time I’ve spent on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter because it’s become a weird sort of default while waiting in lines or, more embarrassingly, at red lights. But these are the obvious trivial distractions in my life…these are the ones I’m aware of caving in to when my mind is sleepy and wants brain candy.

My bigger fear is this: what other things in my life will look like trivial distractions the further I get from them?

When Biagio da Cesena, the pope’s Master of Ceremonies and outspoken critic of the nudes in The Last Judgement, complained about Michelangelo’s use of nudity I bet he thought it was a good use of his time. Maybe there were crazy nudes everywhere in Rome in the 1540s and he was just trying to keep his city clean. Maybe he was worried about distracting the future popes and cardinals to come (no one else was allowed in the Sistine Chapel at the time). Maybe he just found Michelangelo to be personally offensive.

But he wound up ignoring the pain of those descending into hell, the concern on the faces of the saints and angels, and the awakening of the dead in Christ. If he really wanted to point out perceived flaws in the painting he could have called out Michelangelo for using just as much imagery from Dante as he did from the Bible. Instead, he harped on the nudes and got painted into hell by Michelangelo for his efforts. In fact, his,,,um…”bathing suit parts” are tastefully covered by the mouth of a snake.

Biagio as Minos–another picture I stole from the internet

Whether or not Biagio was justified in his criticism isn’t really my point. My point is that it was the easiest topic to fixate on, to spread information about, and to argue over. My point is that discussion was bogged down on one small aspect of the whole to the detriment of everything else. He spent his time and energy on a topic that, in the end, didn’t really matter all that much.

Do you know what I talk about with people the most? Summer camps for the kids, places we visit, upcoming projects for the house. Occasionally I get into political discussions or talk about a movie I’ve seen. These aren’t bad topics. They’re things I’m doing in my life and things that have to be done.

But am I missing my exhortation to glory? Am I allowing my to-do list to triumph over the call to love my neighbor? Am I sinking into the safety of my ordered life while the battle for justice and freedom rages around me unseen?

I’m gonna go ahead and say yes.

What are my trivial distractions? What could glory look like? What might my imaginary future historian about this moment say if we all try to find out? What if we attempted to look around at the lives of others without jealousy over our carefully culled social media presentations? What if we stopped obsessing over raising perfect children or getting perfect bodies?

Let’s not be known as a generation of people who allowed the triumph of trivial distractions to overcome the exhortation to glory. I think we can do it. 

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