The journey of faith
by Brian Radcliffe (revised, originally published in 2011)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To encourage us to consider the idea that faith is a journey of discovery.
Preparation and materials
- Have available some images of Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà and the means to display them during the assembly. Examples could include:
- the whole sculpture, available at: https://tinyurl.com/y7oh8wl2
- a close-up of the faces, available at: https://tinyurl.com/yasuk9fn
- The northern Italian city of Milan is famous for many things: it is the financial hub of the country, the location of the Monza Formula One racing track, the venue for one of the world’s major Fashion Weeks and home to both AC Milan and Inter Milan – highly successful football clubs that share a stadium.
Milan is also the place where tourists can view Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper, centrepiece for Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. Hidden away in one of the city’s museums is another famous work of art. It is a marble statue consisting of two figures: the Virgin Mary and the dead body of Jesus Christ. Such a composition, where Mary mourns over Jesus’ body, is known as a Pietà. Michelangelo’s version is known as the Rondanini Pietà.
- Show the images of Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà.
Closer inspection of the sculpture reveals some rather odd features. First, there appears to be a detached arm, which rises from the base of the statue, but forms no part of either of the two figures. Second, the side of Mary’s head shows features of a second face. Finally, whereas the legs of Jesus’ body are finely detailed and smoothed, other parts of his body are roughly hewn. It is an unfinished piece of work, but unfinished in an unusual way.
- The Rondanini Pietà was begun by Michelangelo in the 1550s. What we see now is the statue as it had been developed by the time of his death, in 1564. In the first version of the statue, the body of Jesus was held away from Mary, with a space between the two figures. Mary’s head is turned away as if she can’t bear to look. This version was almost completed when Michelangelo decided that he wanted to portray a much closer relationship between mother and son. He therefore obliterated the original head and shoulders of Jesus, leaving an arm hanging, to be dealt with at a later stage. The new head of Jesus was carved from Mary’s right shoulder, cradling the body, and her head was remodelled so that she is looking at him. However, Michelangelo didn’t manage to complete this radically changed version before he died.
- Michelangelo’s view of the relationship between Mary and her son evolved during that decade. It wasn’t static. The development of the statue illustrates the changing thoughts and beliefs of a man who knew that his life was drawing to a close. Did the new closeness of the figures come from a deeper and closer faith relationship? We shall never know, but the statue gives us a powerful example of a faith journey.
- There are some people who portray religious faith as a ‘before and after’ procedure. They paint a picture of a moment when a person crosses the bridge from unbelief to belief. Before crossing the bridge, that person may have been full of doubt and confusion, but this is left behind as they cross the bridge to faith. However, many people’s experience of faith is more like that of a journey. We may have many questions to ask and answers to explore; we may find it easy to believe in a God when things are going well, but more difficult to do so when times are painful.
- Maybe Michelangelo’s Pietà can provide a more helpful illustration. We see the evidence of a man on a journey of faith even in his later life: his thoughts and beliefs were still evolving. A journey is rarely in a straight line at one continuous speed. We slow down and speed up, depending on road conditions. We take diversions and sometimes, we get lost and have to turn around. Sometimes, we travel in company; sometimes, alone. Sometimes, we’re not even sure about the destination we’re heading for. Does that mirror your experience?
- Jesus used the image of a journey in one of the descriptions he gave about himself. He said, ‘I am the way.’ It’s as if he imagined people like you and me struggling on our journey and offered a map. It still needs interpretation, but it may be a good place to start. Where are you on your faith journey? Jesus, and Michelangelo, encourage us to keep travelling.
Time for reflection
Spend a moment considering the following thoughts. You may wish to turn them into a prayer.
– Be thankful for people who have listened to your doubts, anger and fears, and who have tried to travel the faith journey with you.
– Be sorry for the times when you’ve caused others to have doubts.
– Make a plan to take some action that arises out of today’s assembly.