A Return to the Sistine

I wonder if anyone else has felt that way in the Sistine Chapel.

Late in the evening, our group completed its private tour of the Vatican Museums. After stepping beneath the Last Judgment into the Capella Sistina, I pulled my music from my gray Pacsafe bag and placed myself in the back row of the choir. I stood in front of the altar beneath the pendentive of the brazen serpent.

When you’re in the Sistine Chapel, you can’t see the world outside of it. You enter into a space unchanged since the fifteenth century, except for a few details: red velvet ropes on brass stands partitioning off areas, signs banning photos, artificial lighting, and the Last Judgment loincloths removed at the order of Pope John Paul II (Michaelangelo’s figures were originally nude, but covered over with loincloths after public controversy and accusations of pornography; John Paul had many of these loincloths removed as part of restorations completed in 1994). These changes aside, you enter a chapel in which Michelangelo painted for years, which has debuted the names of popes for centuries, and which is considered a masterpiece of artistic and religious history.

I felt slightly disgusted by it all. I wondered to myself, in feelings of frustration, “What’s the point?” In the chaos, abuses, misunderstandings, lies, deceptions, apathy, harmful presumptions, manipulations, power mongering, and divisiveness throughout the Church, I wondered: what is the point of an extravagant chapel painted for those in power?

Many have felt similarly. In the midst of scandals, abuses, and extravagances by Church leaders during Michelangelo’s own time, reformers pulled works of art from churches in his hometown of Florence and destroyed them. They smashed stained glass windows and burned books. In 1497, the Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola incited a great “bonfire of the vanities,” a public burning of thousands of creative works condemned as “occasions of sin.” The loss of art during the Reformation period is incalculable. I wonder if Michelangelo had these burnings in mind as he worked on the chapel forty years later. I wonder if some would advocate burning his chapel today.

I have never felt the Church weaker than in the last few months, but not for the reasons you might think. My approach to the abuse crises has been one of resolute response. I’ve worked with a group of Twin Cities young adults to coordinate a prayer vigil, presentations, discussions, and a letter to our Archdiocese with recommendations for change. I remember commenting to my partner on how I didn’t know exactly what I was doing or whether it would be helpful but that, in these crises, I felt full of purpose.

The work was good. It was hard, but it was good. Then the heaviness came.

C.S. Lewis has written how no doctrine of the Faith seems so weak and unreal as one he has successfully defended in a public debate. A doctrine you are tasked with defending seems to rest upon your shoulders. The self-aware Christian knows he is weak. The more such a Christian takes upon himself “responsibility” for the Church, the weaker and more unreal the Church becomes (both for himself and for others). Lewis writes:

“That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality-from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help – oremus pro invicem.”

For me, the heaviness didn’t necessarily come with responding to the crises. It arrived with the sound of praise. As people shared with me how our work offered them hope, or how what we were doing was good and important and necessary, I felt the weight of the Church coming upon my shoulders. The reality of the Church became more humanized, and in the times when I felt that I was doing the necessary “work of the Church,” I also felt the anxiety of an institution in crisis. I felt the institution diminished into something that could be placed on my back.

My namesake, St. Christopher, carried Christ across a river without knowing it — he did not understand who he carried; he only understood that he must carry the boy. But I was told that I was carrying Christ, and I knew I was not up for the task. The more I was praised as a sort of savior in these crises — even if a minor and local one — the more anxious I became about an inability to overcome them, and the less real the Savior Christ and His Church became for me.

This intertwined with my struggles to carve out a space for me to live as a gay Catholic. I wonder: how can I play a central role in the Church, when the relationship between my sexuality and many influential Catholics (both personally and publicly) often feels quite tenuous? I am not your St. Christopher. I don’t know what my place in the Church is. I don’t know the extent to which I am permitted a space. It’s all very confusing.

So there I was, angry in the Sistine Chapel, during an experience of a lifetime: an opportunity to sing with a choir in that sacred space.

And let’s add another layer to the confusion: during the worst period in my life, a breakdown in a relationship with a friend and lover of years, I had given that friend a small image from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. The image is from the lower left portion, where a man standing on a cloud lifts a couple below him with a short rope. If you look closely, you see that the rope is actually a rosary. I gave the friend that image, along with a rosary I had made for him and had prayed with during the most tenuous times of our relationship. That relationship is dead.

My cynical side wants to recommend: don’t pray for those you might not love, and certainly don’t share with them the things you should want to love in the future. Now attached to that string on the wall is not only Michelangelo’s couple. For me, when I look into those faces of The Last Judgment, I can see him and another dangling at the end of the string, reminding me of many things I once thought that we were in the Church. I did not want him there with me that evening, but he’s stuck in that chapel, and it makes me want to hate the space.

In 1972, a man claiming to be Jesus Christ took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta, smashing Mary’s nose, an eyelid, and a hand and an arm. If I thought myself Jesus Christ, I might have done that too. I might have taken a hammer to that wall. But there was no need. My anger came up because so much of the Church has already been attacked by the Church with a hammer, by all the Jesus Christs who claimed to be doing things as Jesus Christ. I saw the Sistine Chapel as a Catholic after the smashing, after all of the things done “on behalf of the Church” to “protect” the Church and to live up to some image of it. Even the rejection by that friend had been communicated in a letter ending with “in Christ’s peace.” I don’t know who that Christ is, but he still makes me want to vomit. I don’t need my own hammer, because the deed has been done. Though, if I’m being honest, I’ve been that Christ too.

But like so much in the Church, the Sistine Chapel offers you many things all at once. Great art should not be experienced in a single viewing, but should be returned to many times. And it should always be looked at more closely.

I came back to that space after so much change in my life.

In college, I was a student of Aquinas. I loved Aquinas for his Summa, and I loved the Summa for its clarity, for the clear structure and bright distinctions. I thought that I could find in the Summa the secrets of the universe and the roadmap for my life. I thought when Aquinas called the Summa straw, that perhaps he was kidding or exercising some sort of piety at which we should politely roll our eyes. I thought that if I studied and studied, the Church and the world would become clearer and clearer. Instead, it’s become more and more complex. Even Church teaching hasn’t been what I once thought it was. I discover time and time again how wrong I have been about what Church teaching is, how what I understand to be teachings are often just presumptions based on how we live and think today.

The Sistine Chapel demands such discovery: the more you study it, the more vibrant and deep and mysterious everything becomes. It can’t just be one static first sight. My return to the chapel was strange.

Last September, rehearsals began for an ecumenical project started by a lay Lutheran couple. The two hoped to promote ecumenism between Lutherans and Catholics through the commissioning and performance of sacred music. They commissioned Kim Andre Arnesen to compose a work, “So that the World May Believe,” which he dedicated to Pope Francis. They then raised money to send a choir to Rome to debut the work at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

We began our rehearsals just a few weeks after Pennsylvania’s Grand Jury Report and the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick came out. Oddly enough, the work commissioned by the Lutheran couple helped to sustain my faith as a Catholic. During rehearsals, the work reminded me that Christians are not only called to respond to evil in the world, but that we are called to create and share things that are beautiful. We must remind the world and ourselves of beauty. I couldn’t hold up that music on my own, and I couldn’t really comprehend it. I could only participate as one among many necessary others.

These lay Lutherans sent our half-Catholic choir to Rome, and organized the evening for us to sing in the Sistine Chapel. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I was given the joy of entering into a great work of sacred music with dozens of other voices. Rehearsals provided a meditative and creative relief from the burdens of American Catholicism, a sort of retreat and balm of the soul to provide nourishment and strength. They helped to remind me that we do not simply aspire to justice and response to crisis; we must work for beauty, for a culture of creativity, a culture of life. If we allow ourselves as Catholics to dwell solely within and around the crisis, we will be trapped within its culture of death.

And I thought again. Perhaps this is what the Sistine Chapel provides. Abusers and power mongerers and manipulators and deceivers will always rise up in the Church. But they will come and go. What will remain are the beautiful creative things artists (life-givers) leave for the rest of us. And people will come to see them, hear them, draw life from them. The Sistine Chapel welcomes five million visitors every year.

So there we were, a choir singing in the Sistine Chapel. Beside me, one whom I love began to cry. He could hardly sing a note. His experience of the space is only beauty, and for that I am glad. Through him, against the backdrop of his being, I am reminded of what that place is. I think this is why we are called to love. Because those we love remind us of love, and of beauty.

Leaving the Sistine Chapel, I turned back. At first glance, the Last Judgment seems like a swirling mass of chaotic bodies moving up and down. There’s a reason why Irving Stone titled his autobiographical novel on Michelangelo The Agony and the Ecstacy. That was the Church Michelangelo saw and conveyed. An image of the Church today, I thought. A couple is pulled up by rosary beads; another is dragged away by demons; a snake bites down on a papal courtier’s genitalia. Michelangelo’s skin is held up purely by the power of another, drained of its own strength. People yell and push and pull and fight. Nothing is static. Anyone could go anywhere at any minute.

And yet there are themes, and the longer one stays, the more one sees the structure of the space. Anne Lamott has written how “there is ecstasy in paying attention.” So as the other choir members began to file out of the chapel, I stood back and tried to pay attention. In the painting, no one stands alone. They all help and hinder one another in turning to and from the central figure, Christ. Everyone has a response to that Person. No one is permitted apathy. So in that space, so in life, from Michelangelo’s time to today.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

One thought on “A Return to the Sistine

Leave a Reply (but please keep it respectful. See the comment policy on the "About" page)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s