You are God's Masterpiece.
“You are a masterpiece”, he said. He was prodigal when he said that. Prodigal means excessive, immoderate, excessive, wasteful. He said it all the time to me, and to lots of other people I knew, and he meant it. “You, Jimmy, are a masterpiece!”. I loved how he used the name my family called me.
I first met Tom at Fordham, when I was a young Jesuit studying philosophy. He worked on the grounds crew, and you could often find him around Edward’s parade, the huge green carpet of grass the lies in the center of the campus. Tom would be picking up trash left behind by adolescent sophomores on Friday night binges, or painstakingly painting the wooden markers that fenced in the turf. In his green uniform, he was like an old car that starts up reliably every cold morning—always there with his gentle smile and firm handshake. How was it possible for such an old man to squeeze your hand so powerfully when you met him and bade farewell to him? You are a masterpiece, he said with his eyes, his smile, his strong hand upon your own.
I loved meeting him, especially because I was in a time of my life when I was trying to put it all together, pondering big philosophical notions and the uncertain direction of my life as a Jesuit. Tom represented a kind of grounded, lived wisdom, and more than that, he was the very definition of gratitude. He didn’t have to say it, you could just sense it pouring out of him. And everyone felt the same way: you walked away from talking with him and knew that he was grateful for everything you were, good and bad.
I’m not sure if he told everyone his story, but I felt blessed to hear him tell me some of it. He was the prodigal son that no father ever dreams or desires. He did it all, walked away from his family and friends, followed the allure of the world. He admitted to his extreme selfishness, and described a plunge into every imaginable depravity, and his family was devastated. At his lowest, his father passed away. He couldn’t go to the funeral. And what he remembered, what haunted him the most were the words his father said to him all his growing years: You are a masterpiece. God has made you, Tom, a masterpiece, and don’t you forget it. That was the turning point. He put aside the drugs, the sex, the all-out surface living, determined to live up to the identity his father never failed to see in him. The prodigal father who never let him forget what he was made to be.
My afternoon conversations with Tom deeply affected me. When I met him, he was an old man, and he deeply loved the simple life that had been given to him. He found peace and fulfillment in the God who had made him a magnificent masterpiece. He wanted me to know that as a young Jesuit I was on the right track. He told me never to doubt it.
I have searched long and hard about my faith, and about what we all want in life. I believe that God is the object of all human desire, no matter how earthy and unholy that desire might seem at times. This implies that everything we desire is actually contained in God. The Psalms tell us that God is the object of our desires, Jesus tells us that it is in God that our deepest hungers and thirsts will be satiated. And so we pray, without perhaps ever really being conscious of what we are saying: My soul longs for you in the night. You, Lord, alone, can fill my heart. You, O Lord, are my all.
But is it really God that we are longing for in the night and aching for in our desires?
Do we really believe that God is the real object of our desires? When we look at all that is beautiful, full of life, attractive, sexually alluring, and pleasurable on earth, do we really think and believe that this is contained in an infinitely richer way inside of God and inside the life into which God invites us? Do we really believe that the joys of heaven will surpass the pleasures of earth and that, already in this world, the pleasures of virtue trump the sensations of sin? Do we really believe that faith will give us what we desire?
Oftentimes it doesn’t seem that we do. Oftentimes we struggle to turn our attention towards God. We find religious practice and prayer more of a disruption to life than an entry into it, more a duty than an offer, more an asceticism than a joy, and more as something that has us missing out on life than entering into its depths. In most of us, if we are honest, there is a secret envy of those who recklessly plumb sacred energy for their own pleasure, don’t we? Like the Older Brother of the Prodigal Son, we mostly serve God out of obligation and are bitter about the fact that many others do not. This side of eternity, virtue often envies sin.
But, but. If we are honest, we know the truth, don’t we? God is better looking than any movie star. God is more intelligent than the brightest scientist or philosopher. God is more witty and funny than the best of our comedians. God is more creative than any artist, writer, or innovator in history. God is more sophisticated than the most-learned person on earth. God is more exuberant than any young person. God is more popular than any rock star. And, not least, God is more erotic and sexually attractive than any woman, man, or sexual image on earth. Everything that is alluring on earth is inside of God, in even a richer form, since God is its author.
Here is what Tom, the magnificent masterpiece taught me. So many things can overwhelm us with their stunning truth: a beautiful person, a sunset, a piece of music, a work of art, youthful energy, the innocence of a baby, your friend’s humor, a glass of wine on the right evening, a stirring in our sexuality, or, most deeply of all, a fundamental sense of the uniqueness and the magnificent masterpiece of our own lives. We need to honor those things and thank God for the gift, even as we make ourselves aware that all of this is found more-richly inside of God and that we lose nothing when virtue, religion, and commitment ask us to sacrifice these things for something higher. Jesus, himself, promises that whatever we give up for what is higher will be given back to us one hundredfold.
On the day I completed my philosophy studies at Fordham, I went looking for Tom. I wanted him to know how much he mattered to me, to my pursuit of who I wanted to be. I also had a gift for him. It was a carved wooden plaque, of four words. “You are God’s masterpiece.” When he unwrapped it, he began to cry. “Yes, yes,” he said, through his sobs. Five years later, I received a call. Tom has passed away. At his wake, there was the plaque, sitting right on top of the casket. He was a masterpiece. And so are you. So are we all.