The Mysterious Power of Perception

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by Fr. George Rutler  •  •  February 8, 2020   

The Holy Spirit helps us see like Simeon

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Luke the Evangelist is the patron saint of artists because he paints pictures with words. In describing the scene of old Simeon in the temple encountering Jesus, Luke wrote that he "took him up in his arms" (Luke 2:28).

An Old Man and his Grandson, ca. 1490
by Domenico Ghirlandaio

That word picture of an old man holding a 40-day-old baby, reminds one of the 1490 painting by the master Domenico Ghirlandaio, of a grandfather and his grandson embracing. The old man is anything but beautiful, save for his smile as he gazes at the angelic boy. The grandfather's problematic nose is "warts and all," as the bleak Oliver Cromwell instructed his own portraitist, Samuel Cooper. For noses, it competes with that of the vaudevillian Jimmy Durante who, incidentally, was married in 1921 in our sister parish of Holy Innocents.

That juxtaposition of old age and youth bonded by love is the leitmotif of the encounter in the temple. But by what power of perception did Simeon recognize the infant Messiah? You might ask the same of the 17-year-old St. Joan of Arc when she entered the Chateau of Chinon in 1429 and recognized the disguised future King Charles VII.

Good teachers discern potential in the classroom, like St. Albert the Great seeing in his student Thomas Aquinas, mocked as a "Dumb Ox," a future Doctor of the Church. But to discern the Messiah in diapers requires heavenly help, since prodigy is not greater than divinity.

God comes to us often in obscurity, through unexpected events and persons, rather than through celebrities. Famous people come and go, often through the passing of fashion. In the second century, Plutarch compared the celebrities of his Roman days with the heroes of classical Greece; but who today remembers Cleomenes, whom he matched with Camillus, or Philopoemen compared with Poplicola?

There are natural intuitions, such as St. Albert recognizing in the clumsy young Thomas Aquinas, the future Doctor of the Church. But Simeon and his accompanying prophetess Anna, like Joan of Arc, had their eyes opened by the Holy Spirit.

God comes to us often in obscurity, through unexpected events and persons.

Albert Schweitzer was a hero of my youth and one of the most revered figures of the day. Now he is as remote in present consciousness as Jimmy Durante. He left us an image of the Messiah that Simeon would have understood: "He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: 'Follow thou me!' and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is."

Father George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the archdiocese of New York. His Sunday homilies are archived. He has authored multiple books, including Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom in Anxious Times and his latest, Grace and Truth. Individuals may donate to his parish.


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