After four years, Michelangelo has reached the end, and now Jonah, whom he has reserved for last, dangles his bare feet over the Sistine’s void, sharing his precarious aerie with a dead fish, two cherubs and a vine. A marvel of foreshortening, he reclines on his arm and eyes God, still arguing petulantly that he is not the man to undertake such a harebrained job, lacking both talent and inclination. His fingers point in opposite directions, one to the threat of Nineveh and Rome, the other to the safety of Tarshish and Florence, regarding his own death as a small price to pay to make a point. Yet as the fresco dries to stone, he gazes beyond the gap between his intractable pique and God’s intractable grace, dumbfounded at the resplendent vault arching above a city at peace.
In Religious Ed a nun once told us, “You should always make the sign of the cross before and after you pray. The first gesture opens God’s wavelength; the second shuts it off.”
I wonder if the sister knew how many nights I would lie in bed, panicked, wide awake unable to remember if I had signaled “Roger and out.” Odds or evens—heaven or hell. I crossed myself without stopping, hoping to land on evens or at least to interrupt the feed before memories of Linda Ursoni’s blouse and her fully developed fifth grade breasts bubbled forth from the back of my pubescent mind.
Even as an adult, I find myself playing the same game, while hoping that someday I might cross myself one last time and be done with it, but the deep need to hide always follows— in the name of the Father, and of the Son . . .
You will be blessed if you ever catch a glimpse of their plain feathers, the gray of slate shingles in the rain, and their bright black eyes shining with every good secret they will never tell. They preferred the thickest brush along our creek bed and what was overgrown around the abandoned shed. My grandfather as he lay dying recalled the hidden catbirds from his childhood, how they sang in the thicket of an empty house every morning as if their hearts would break, as if they knew the treasures of heaven lay in every clear note they tendered to the world.
Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives that began in the living room and petered out in the yard. She said they were not precious. But my dad whispered. He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand. In a delicate furious bouquet.
These Yorkshire fells and dales appear ever to be falling away, toppling from Emily’s wuthering heights into wide accommodating valleys carved by Derwent, Calder, Ribble and the rest then trimmed by flocks of patient sheep that crop the slopes and shoulders round toward that verdant jeweled Jerusalem folk hereby love to sing about.
Up here, along the tops, however, driving tight along the teetering edge, mad vertigo hangs you out there in the balances, suspended in that stomach-clutching space between this summit and the next, flung far into the spinning turn, the terrible excellence of things.
Might it be that way also at the end, nothing all that dark and dreadful, but a life-demanding climb, agonizing to be sure, all the gasping way along and up some looming harsh escarpment grasping toward the final summit where, at last, you stumble forward into emptiness to find everything . . . all at once?
Study war no more
Mar 18, 2011
Michael Izbicki grew up in a nondenominational church in California. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of a sense of duty to his country during a time of war. At the naval academy he began to doubt whether the career to which he had committed himself could be squared with the tenets of just war doctrine. He got in trouble when he responded no to this exam question: "If given the order, would you launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?" After a four-year legal battle, the navy discharged him as a conscientious objector. Izbicki may have to reimburse the service for part or all of his education (New York Times, February 22).