I’m always interested in words and was delighted to learn something entirely new about a word I’ve used often. I’m assuming that if you are reading my blog, you are a word-lover too.
On a recent eight-day retreat I attended (on Zoom), the first teaching focused on the word “sincere”. If asked prior to this, I suppose my meaning of the word was something like “I really mean it” or “what I’m saying is true” or even “from the heart.” But I learned on retreat that the older meaning is “unbroken”. And that meaning has a story.
In Roman times, potters were so good at fixing broken pots with wax that from the outside one couldn’t tell there had been cracks in them. But if one looked inside the pot, the wax was apparent and one knew it had been broken before. In those times, sincere meant literally, “unwaxed” and thus literally “unbroken.” Such an unexpected etymology of this word!
When I apply that meaning to the spiritual journey, being sincere means that the way I present myself on the outside is no different from what is true on the inside. Sincerity then is being authentic. No brokenness of saying one thing but meaning another. No false flattery. No trying to be other than that which you really are. Some would add “Warts and all.” But I could also say that it’s harder sometimes to tell the truth about yourself “no matter how beautiful it is.” (A quote from spiritual writer, Macrina Wiedeker.) It is another way of saying that when I’m sincere I’m truthful. Yet that is only half the meaning— it is truth with kindness. As one teacher said, “It’s soft honesty.”
I am taking this meaning of the word, “sincere” now as almost a divining rod that guides my words and actions when I am aware. Am I really being sincere when I say that? When I choose that? When I think that?
That inquiry brings me home to myself. A long journey for the soul, but one I’m sincerely willing to take.
In the last post I knew I was going to “shoot some darlings” from my first draft of my memoir. It turns out a huge chunk of what I consider my first pilgrimage will have to go. The excerpt below is a memory I love so much but just doesn’t fit into the next draft. But I always promise my “darlings” I won’t thrown them away, but use them in another way. So this is that venue. As a little backstory, I traveled with my college friend, Julie after we both finished our graduate school programs but just before we took our first jobs. We depended on the famous book in 1974, Europe on $10 a Day (and we did it). The last month of our three month trip was spent in Italy; our favorite city of the whole trip was Florence or Firenze as it is called in Italy. (Why is it different? Paris is Paris?) We were having lunch with some new Italian friends who were excited to tell us about their city.
“Have you seen the David,” one asked.
“No, but we will tomorrow,” we replied.
There was a pause and incredulous look. “Not seen the David yet,” he said. “Oh then you have not been to Firenze. The David, he is alive! You can look at him from one side and believe you see him. But then, you look again and he sees you. You look from another side, and he is different again. And yet his eyes will follow you, will draw you in, will ask you why, will hold all sorrow, all joy. He wants to speak to you and you will want to answer. It is magnifico.”
I remember thinking that not only he, but everyone at the table spoke of this marble statue as a living person, not a sculpture that was 500 years old. It only heightened our anticipation of seeing one of the most famous sculptures of Michelangelo Burranoti.
We went the very next day to the Accademia Gallery. But before we even reached the door, I had a profound moment. A small slit in the shade into the museum radiated a white light. Stopping, I saw the white light was emanating from my first glimpse of The David. It captured me from the corner of my eye, just a moment’s glance—and yet it stopped me in my tracks and held my breath. I was no longer aware of my body; I was completely taken by this striking white figure in marble that exuded light. They were right. He was alive. I hurried to see him more fully once inside the museum. As instructed by our new Italian friends, I spent a long time gazing at him from all sides. It was as if he knew all the stories of all time, and all the ways one could fail, falter and yet rise again, could love and trust God and then fall back, depending only on one’s own reason and strength. The David could look at each of us and commiserate with our human condition—and yet in all of it, so much beauty.
There were four other statues by Michelangelo in the Accademia; four figures writhing as if trying to free themselves from blocks of rough cut stone, yet still bound. They were called by some, “the Slaves “or by some “the Prisoners.” The brochure from the Accademia says, “It is claimed that the artist deliberately left them incomplete to represent their eternal struggle of human beings to free themselves from their material trappings.”
These rough and incomplete sculptures came from large cubes of marble maybe 4’ by 4’. Unlike the mesmerizing influence of the perfect and polished David, they were still compelling. I could almost feel their pain, their struggle, their desperate need to break free. The accademia guidebook writes of them being the “non-finito” or uncompleted statues of Michelangelo.
I felt a little unsteady after leaving the Accademia. No art work had ever affected me so deeply. Art was not something that was of value in a hard-working farming community. And I hadn’t pursued an interest in it while taking classes that would lead to a job that would make me money. Without knowing it, I held a belief that art was for the dreamy and uncommitted. And perhaps for anyone who chose to live without financial resources. Certainly Michelangelo was not well paid. Yet I began to open to what it meant to be an artist—the passion, the commitment. A commitment to create beauty. To see beyond the familiar self to what potential lies beneath.