Give Me a Sign


On his journey to the Underworld, Odysseus consults with the Theban seer (mantis) Teiresias, who tells him, “And I will tell you a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking.”  (Odyssey xi:126)

I don’t know about you (actually I think I do know about you), but my own thinking has a lot of lost stuff in it.  It’s kind of like the warehouse in the last scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the box it being placed who-knows-where.  A new thought comes in and is immediately dropped into the flowing stream of other thoughts.  The updated to-do list, the catalog of likes and dislikes, opinions, prejudices, all the Heraclitian river of stuff.  It would take something pretty special not to get lost in that.  But there are these special moments….

Perhaps the main thing about the new thoughts is that they are based on words.  And as a word guy, I would think this should not be a bad thing, but in an important way it is.  It really takes something from another dimension not to get lost: something visual or that communicates without words.  I was telling someone yesterday about an experience I had in Florence a number of years ago.  I had gone there as most people do to try to learn something about the Renaissance, that magical eruption of creativity and beauty that happened in the 14th and 15th centuries, and then just as suddenly faded away.  (Okay, not so suddenly–Savonarola, and his fear-based theology had a lot to do with it.  Also the dissipation of the Medicis.)

Raphael, The Granduca Madonna, from the Pitti Palace

Anyway, I had done some homework.  The guiding force of the Renaissance was the realization that each person–high or low, noble or commoner–has the spark of the Divine within, that we are all in fact particles of God.  This is what the ancients had taught, and this was what was (re)discovered by Ficino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Pico, and all the rest of the great souls who came together at that time.  So I was in the Pitti Palace, a quite huge and forbidding edifice across the Arno, and I was following their guide book to the wonderful paintings of saints and figures from the Bible.  I got to the last room, where there were paintings of the Virgin Mary, possibly this one by Raphael, looking youthful and serene and yet somehow sadly aware of the fate that would befall her baby.  Just below the paintings sat a young woman, probably a college student working as a guard.  And she and the Madonna had the same face.  I learned more about the Renaissance in that moment than in all the reading I’ve done about it before or since.

Also I recently had the experience of listening to a CD of a song, a musical performance that made me weep.  It was a song about forgiveness, about letting go of “old memories,” and seeing people for what they really are.  I won’t say what song it was for fear that you will try to seek out the same experience I had–it’s not the song, it’s the truth that comes through it, and that can come through almost any song if you are open to it.

I’m trying to express this in words, but it was really the meta-verbal realization that made these experiences so powerful, and long-lasting.  And this is the power of art, whether it is a painting or a poem or a piece of music–to cut through our thinking and give us a direct glimpse into the fabric of the universe.  That a young Florentine woman could be chosen to be the image of a saint.  Or that a song could be a vehicle for forgiveness.  Signs that will not get lost in our thinking.