Saint Luke’s feast day was a few Fridays ago. In additional to writing his Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke is the patron saint of artists, for the simple reason that he’s believed to have been the very first Christian artist. The earliest icons, showing Christ and Mary, were thought to have been painted by Luke, and that’s why iconographers are so careful to take themselves and their own artistic vision out of the equation when they write icons. In their minds, they’re simply copying the original portraits of Our Savior and his mother.
In the middle ages, artists organized into Guilds of Saint Luke. When an artist wanted to be considered a master, he had to submit a masterwork to the guild. Often, these masterworks show a scene in which Saint Luke, sitting at an easel, paints the Virgin with the infant Christ sitting in her lap. The painter himself is sometimes pictured as well, but always in a subordinate role – cleaning Saint Luke’s brushes or performing some other menial task.
Learning about this got me thinking about the idea of mastery. Obviously, if Christian artists and other craftsmen were trying to attain the status of “master,” the idea of mastery can’t be entirely foreign to the Christian church. But how often do we think of our spiritual lives as leading to some goal, some master work? Would it change the way we thought about our faith if we had some distinct purpose in mind when we went to church or prayed privately during the course of our day?
A Christian masterwork could be anything, really. When I was working in a hospital for a summer I had a friend and mentor who was an elderly Roman Catholic priest. He and another priest had a spiritual practice of meditative walking, which they did in downtown Chicago. As they walked, they tried to open themselves to the world around them, the sound of street traffic, sunlight cutting its way across the buildings. One day, as they were walking through a park, they encountered a man who was assaulting a woman. Without hesitation or fear for their own safety, they interfered and protected the woman. I consider this their master work.
The one prerequisite to producing a master work seems to be humility. Medieval and renaissance artists were often arrogant fellows, but they subordinated themselves in the paintings they made of Saint Luke. My friend the Roman Catholic priest could only help the woman who was being attacked because he’d been humble enough to try to make himself truly aware of the world around him.
I found myself thinking about humility this past week, when I served as chaplain during the Stand Down for Homeless Veterans in Columbus. This is a yearly event where agencies and companies and politicians gather in the Veteran’s Memorial to provide gifts and services to vets who are living on the street. Humility was the prevailing ethic of the day. Danny, one of the chief organizers, told me what he tells all volunteers, that the men and women who came through the door were veterans first and foremost, and that we wouldn’t dwell on the fact of their homelessness. Ask them about their service, not about their poverty. This seemed very humble to me, this willingness to concentrate wholly on the dignity of the people we would meet.
But an even greater humility belonged to the ROTC cadets who lined up by the door. These were high schoolers in baby blue shirts and neckties. As the veterans came in, they stepped forward to push shopping carts, carry bags, and guide the men and women through the Memorial Hall. I watched them and thought about the fact that in five or ten years these kids will be leading troops in combat. That day in the Veterans Memorial they were engaging in a kind of training in humility. A good officer has the humility to set their own needs aside in order to look after their troops. Because of this early training in humility, these young people may, someday, be capable of a masterwork in leadership. They may, through their attentiveness and caring, be able to save the lives of those who serve under them.
If I were to describe a spiritual path to Christian mastery, the first station would be humility. No skill can be learned, no human relationship truly established, until we learn humility. Without humility, we are deaf to the voice of God in our lives, and blind to the needs of those around us. This, I think, is why Jesus so clearly values the tax collector in Saint Luke’s parable, the one who prays “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” It’s not because Jesus wants us to demean ourselves. Jesus wants us to be like him, a spiritual master. But the first step on the road to mastery is humility, the ability to set ourselves to the task of cleaning Saint Luke’s brushes and not assuming that we already have the skills to create a masterwork.