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Imagination for your contemplation

Jon Schommer | Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pope Francis is a sinner.
I know this because he said so in a recent interview with America magazine where he explains who he is by saying, “…the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
The Pope illustrates his self-reflection by describing the Caravaggio painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew.’ (Look it up!) In the piece, Pope Francis sees himself in the hesitant Matthew, singled out by Christ: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
While the whole interview is interesting, the Pope’s appeal to a work of art in an attempt to communicate his being struck a particular chord with me. By holding up this image, Pope Francis is inviting me to enter into a conversation with him. As we contemplate together, I try to both understand what the Pope is saying about himself and reflect upon what I understand about myself and my own experience.
Pope Francis is not using this form of communication arbitrarily. He was being asked to describe himself to the whole world in a few lines of text. How can a person describe all of the experiences, trials and joys that make him who he is using only words? Words alone are inadequate. But Pope Francis’ use of art to illustrate his reflection gives immense depth to his words. It allows us to dive into his meaning in its relation to his life and relevance to ours.
The question the Pope is asked reminds me of the question frequently posed at the beginning of the school year: “How was your summer?”
This is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I have participated in two Summer Service Learning Programs (SSLPs) and one International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) through the Center for Social Concerns. In each of these summers, I encountered a different community of people who are marginalized and experiencing injustice in some way. Through these encounters, I formed relationships that gave me many lessons to ponder about life, love and dignity.
But, as you can see from that somewhat lifeless sentence, when asked the “summer question” it is really hard to describe these kinds of experiences in a concise and meaningful way. This is especially true if your response time is limited to the five minutes before class as you run from the dining hall to DeBart. Oftentimes we are forced to simply answer in one-sentence or one-word responses and the experiences become neatly filed away into the obese list of items to add to our resumes once the career fair rolls around.
The inability to communicate the meaning of our experiences can also lead to a hopeless feeling of isolation. It is very easy to look around at the Notre Dame population and be fooled by the façade of perfection we like to put around our lives. After spending a summer encountering the brokenness of others and my own brokenness, it was suffocating to enter an environment where everyone around me pretended to be fixed. Last year, however, I found space to breathe through song.
During my summer in Kolkata, India working with the Missionaries of Charity, I wrote five songs that became the handholds I used to climb the “summer question” mountain.
Through music and lyrics I found a way to convey to my friends an image of the people I encountered, the brokenness in which I was immersed and the joy I experienced during those nine weeks. I found after I played for people, they sounded back to me their own experiences with this sort of beauty and we started a conversation. We learned more about ourselves and each other.
This is the genius of the Pope’s use of art. Through an image, we can encounter each other in our brokenness and vulnerability, tapping into the depths of our experience. This is how we grow as persons and as a community of persons.
So, I invite you all to make like the Pope and find some book, painting, song, poem, sculpture, etc. with which to contemplate your experience. Then share that contemplation with another person.
If you are looking for a sharing space, come join the campus group, Voice, for a monthly homemade supper and conversation in Geddes Hall. You can email me at voice1.nd.edu for more information.

Jon Schommer is in his fifth-year studying Civil Engineering and the Program of Liberal Studies. He lives off campus in an intentional
community made up of Notre Dame students called the Peace House. He has three couches on which to crash, two ears with which to listen, and much food to share if you find
yourself in need of anything. He can be contacted at jschomme@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.