Waiting for Gabriel
“One tries to cure the signs of growth, to exorcise them, as if they were devils, whenreally they might be angels of annunciation.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gifts from the Sea
Each morning leaving their cells and each evening returning to them, the monks of the Cloister at San Marco made a small pilgrimage to the Annunciation. The cloister’s monk-artist-in-residence, Fra Angelico, painted his fresco of the mystery-charged encounter between woman and divine messenger at the top of the stairway leading from the small refectory to the second floor corridors of cells.
Ascending to the scene five hundred years later, I pondered several things in my heart. Because the fresco throbbed with detail, because the soles of my feet felt the tickle of the feathery leaves in the walled garden where I could have been standing just outside the portico of their tete a tete, and because I saw the mixture of solemnity and curiosity in Mary’s tucked chin and lifted eyes, I wondered what it would be like to be a woman approached by an angel on a day when all the ordinary things go on as usual--the sun popping over the horizon and the little red and white flowers opening their faces to it--yet everything is altered forever by the entrance of the winged one, the dark rainbow bands of indigo, scarlet and saffron fluttering behind him nothing to the words he has released into the room.
And I wondered about the monks who passed this moment each day on their ways to meals and prayers for four hundred years. How would it shape one’s daily life to live in the midst of such a moment? I almost wrote “a frozen moment,” but there is nothing cold or rigid in their poses, not in the angel’s bow of reverence or in Mary’s echo of that bow, her cloak still fluttering at the hem from the wind of his wings, her wrists and his crossed before their torsos like wings at rest. What might seem possible in this life if I were reminded of that moment as frequently as I am, say, of supersized burgers and Toyotas by the billboards I encounter on my daily rounds?
Fra Angelico also painted a smaller fresco for each monk’s cell: another Annunciation, a Nativity, the Transfiguration, and other scenes from Christ’s life, along with a host of Crucifixions (these in the novice’s cells) and several Resurrection vignettes, including a touching rendezvous between Christ and Mary Magdalene outside the tomb, the Noli me tangere. Angelico intended his paintings to be instructional devices and regarded himself as a humble tool in God’s hand. While his artist peers adorned the ceilings and walls of great cathedrals where thousands would admire their work, ballasting their reputations, this monk preferred to work within the narrow enclosures of his monastery. How could I not believe in that humility, knowing that he painted each of these smaller frescoes for a primary audience of one—whatever monk occupied the cell in which it breathed its colours? And standing alone in the doorway of each cell, how could I fail to be moved by his beautiful industry, not take it personally? How could I not allow myself to be worked over?
I liked imagining Angelico going about his day’s work--preparing the plaster and mixing the colours from powdered earth pigments each morning, instructing his helpers. Each day he would work in one small section of the fresco, covering only that area with the plaster. This area was the giornato, the day’s allotment of plaster, for in creating frescoes the paint is applied onto wet plaster and becomes one with it, much the same way that our lives and souls become inseparable from what we paint onto the surface of our days.
Visiting the cells, I wondered how differently one might face each day if one awoke to Mary Magdalene reaching out to the risen Christ as opposed to waking beneath Christ’s limp body hanging from the cross, rivulets of blood still flowing from it. How was it decided who slept where? The novices’ cells were all Crucifixions. Even walking down that corridor was painful; how was it for them, I wondered, young and away from home for the first time, to room with such suffering? It almost seemed a kind of hazing. Perhaps, however, they were given the Crucifix as their nightly companion as a mercy--a way of reminding them that there is greater suffering beyond homesickness and lonely nights, that pain such as theirs leads to redemption. Perhaps daily commerce with that image allowed them to begin to consider pain—their own and others’--a lingua franca.
But what about the others? Did they sleep their entire lives following their novitiate under a single image? Did the monks ever vie for a particular cell? Did they rotate? Did they dare to allow themselves to covet their neighbour’s quarters? Were particular images selected for certain monks because of some attribute of faith it was deemed they needed to cultivate? Or was it simply a matter of what cell was available when it was time for a novice to evacuate what I called the Corridor of Crucifixions? Even though this had been all-male territory and no one lived there anymore, I found myself picking out the cell I would have chosen if choice had been allowed, an exercise in imagination like the ones my sisters and I had reveled in whenever our family went house hunting.
Each house became our own as soon as we walked inside, my sisters and I racing past the living room and kitchen to find “our” bedrooms and imagining the new lives these new rooms would engender. Was it like that for the monks? Did they imaginatively insert themselves into the rooms within rooms of these frescoes, see themselves transforming in their presence?
Cell three would have been my choice, the one with Angelico’s most minimalist Annunciation, far simpler than the more public one in the hallway. A waif-like Mary kneels in a room that is bare but for the compassionate-looking angel facing her. Both figures cross their arms before their hearts, as if to contain both fear and wonder. At least it was the cell I would have chosen for that moment in my life. Having recently felt compelled to worship in a Christian church after a twenty-year sabbatical from Christianity, my heart had fluttered with the same confusion I read now on Mary’s face. I too was bewildered by what had seemed a calling.
* * *
There must be hundreds of Annunciations in Florence. I counted four by Fra Angelico in the Cloister of San Marco alone. I knew I couldn’t come close to seeing them all, yet each day I trooped out to at least one church or museum, pockets jingling with 500-lire coins for the vending machines that let there be light on the paintings. I saw Annunciations by Martini, Botticelli, Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Fiorentino, del Sarto, Baldovinetti, Leonardo, and da Forli. Each time I approached one, my spirit hushed. In my mind I heard the lines from my favourite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night”: “Fall on your knees./O hear the angel voices.” If I could make my soul quiet enough, I thought, would I hear the words quivering in the gold-leafed air between the figures, perhaps hear beneath them Mary’s heart beating as swiftly as a dove’s?
Each day over the last five hundred years, despite whatever horrible things human beings were doing to one another all over the surface of our planet, here in Florence the angel Gabriel has been whispering words of hope to Mary, imploring her participation in a miracle of redemption. And she has been pondering, answering, assenting. Regardless of what has gone on outside each painting’s perimeters, horrors too often sanctioned or even sponsored by the Church that had commissioned many of these works, a contract was being made between the human and the divine. However much ugliness there was in the world, in hundreds of squares of light an angel’s wings settled their rainbows into stillness and an invitation was dropped to the earth.
While I had walked among Angelico’s frescoes, my friend Martha had attended Mass in the church of San Marco. I checked my watch and realized that it was almost time to meet her in the cloister garden downstairs. In the hour we had been apart, I had been living in what I imagined eternal time to be like. So focused had been my attention on these corridors, the frescoes, and the questions they raised, that everything else had become blurred, suspended in time. I rushed down the tiled stairway, turning to look up one last time at the angel and virgin who lived always in that stillness.
Walking out into the cloister, I felt the cool sunlight of early spring brushing my cheek. Here I was, alive in Florence, in Angelico’s world, in Mary’s world. The sun had not yet climbed the cloister walls when I had arrived. Now it was an hour higher in the sky, and through the clouds it directed a beacon onto a calla lily whose one white ear filled with light.
* * *
As a girl I liked to play in the two adjoining vacant lots down the street. They comprised the last remaining wildness in our housing development, a place where tall weeds, craggy trees, and bare dirt reigned. Our parents discouraged us from going there, which lent it the allure of the forbidden. An aura of danger lurked there as well because of stories we had heard concerning the neighbourhood bully Buddy Joe who, it was rumoured, tied kids to trees there and burned them with flaming sticks.
Occasionally, when there was no one to play with and I could muster the courage, I went there alone. I didn’t know the word pilgrimage then, but I remember feeling something of that anticipation and sense of intention as I entered the shaded path between old elms and hickories. Not that I expected a revelation from God. A simple hello from the squirrel freezing on a branch overhead was all I hoped for. I wanted to be recognized by the birds, squirrels, and rabbits as somebody special, a kindred spirit, one who would understand them if they spoke to her.
Was that what appealed to me in those paintings? Was I seeking a vicarious thrill by way of Mary’s selection by the divine? Had I always secretly waited to be surprised one morning by an angel in my living room? Well, why not? Girls are raised on stories of being chosen. Princes, angels—what’s the difference? One tale ends in Heaven, the other in its fairy tale equivalent, the palace. Teenage girls of my generation were forbidden to call boys, or at least strongly coached against being the pursuers. It was our lot to learn the subtler methods of pursuit, most of which involved making ourselves as attractive as possible and putting ourselves in the way of whatever boy we chose to be chosen by. I have blamed fairy tales and the culture they both reflect and perpetuate for our dependence on men, especially as adolescents and young women. But now I wonder if some part of me—the girl waiting for recognition from her furred and feathered friends—wasn’t waiting for Gabriel and settled for being chosen by mortal men.
I have been in love with being chosen, perhaps more than I ever have been with any of the men who chose me. So is it any wonder that Gabriel’s “Blessed art thou among women” would hit me where I live? When I had imagined returning to the Christian fold, a major stumbling block had been that I didn’t feel the kinship with Christ as God in human form that I felt that I should. Like most girls who were serious readers, I had spent my childhood and adolescence imagining myself into the role of the male protagonists of the novels I read, trying to ignore the fact that I didn’t think, act, or look like them, trying, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, to force a fit by cutting off the psychic equivalent of a toe or a heel. One of the reasons I had left the church in my twenties was that I simply couldn’t do that anymore. Now, however, I thought about the monks passing by the Annunciation each day, pondering the pact that God made with humanity, that God attempts to make each day with each of us. The human representative in this scene is Mary. So weren’t the monks busy imagining themselves across gender lines, too? Perhaps that is why I respond so warmly to the Annunciation. Mary is the universal human in that moment. She is Everyman as woman.
I have been angry with God at one or two devastating junctures. If God is so good, I thought, why doesn’t He come and save us when we need it? How could God have allowed the Holocaust, not to mention the myriad demented ways we torture one another each day? How could God allow earthquakes that take thousands of innocent lives or even my toddler son’s eye injury? I have been offered the weak tea of theological explanations. In times of crisis and in pain’s aftermath, they have seemed flimsy excuses indeed. But looking at Angelico’s Annunciations, trying to read the struggle and joy in Mary’s face was turning my heart. Each morning, through these frescoes, mystery and divine love are whispered into the world and humanity has been given its chance to say yes. Perhaps it isn’t God who has failed us, I thought, but we--God’s hearts and hands--who have failed to bring Her fully into the world, to pull God through our very cells, to suffer and strain and bring forth the good, to fully participate in the ongoing miracle of creation by whatever means we possess. Such were my thoughts after viewing Angelico’s revelations in clay and pigment. I liked thinking that, despite my life in the world, I was perhaps thinking thoughts similar to those of the long dead monks as they viewed his Annunciation—that each day, like they, I am called to be a gateway for the arrival of the sacred in our world.
In The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work, Kathleen Norris quotes Simone Weil:
The effective part of [our] will is not effort, which is directed toward the future. It is consent; it is the ‘yes’ of marriage. A ‘yes’ pronounced within the present moment and for the present moment, but spoken as an eternal word, for it is consent to the union of Christ with the eternal part of our soul.
Norris goes on to say, “In seeking any covenantal relationship we must be willing to say ‘yes’ long before we have a clear idea of what such intimacy will cost us.” I had some idea of the cost of regaining an intimacy with Christianity, with the God of Christianity. At the very least it would cause me the grave discomfort of doubt, for I knew that once I entered the territory of even the most fragile faith, doubt would be my constant running buddy. I had my fears of what the other costs would be—that I would lose my credibility with friends and colleagues, that I might lose friends altogether, that I might even lose my self as I had defined or imagined it. I knew that letting myself be called back into the fold wouldn’t be a matter of saying yes once and for all; it would have to be a daily assenting.
In my vocation as a poet, I was familiar with the practice of daily faith-building. Each day my writing called me, its voice trumpeting clear and insistent through the cacophony of competing responsibilities. Too many days I turned away, convincing myself that my paid work as a teacher, my duties as a mother, friend, and wife, were all I could handle in that 24-hour span. But in reality, while these demands all required my time and attention, what kept me from writing was a failure of faith. The crippling fear that, if I climbed the stairs to my study, sat in my flowered writing chair, lit a candle and took up my notebook, nothing might come. It was a real enough fear. Sometimes the angel didn’t show. But if I kept the faith, kept saying yes by showing up on the mornings I had set aside for writing, she usually kept our rendezvous.
If there is one thing Feminism has taught me, it is to be active rather than passive. Mary has been reviled by some feminists because she is perceived as passive, as being chosen rather than choosing. But that moment between her and Gabriel is charged with choice. It is the moment suspended between yes and no, and that is what makes it so compelling to me. If the angel doesn’t come to me, I must go to the angel, which I guess is what I did when I went looking for Mary and Gabriel in Florence. And it is what the monks were doing as they paused coming up the stairs, inserting themselves for Mary. Perhaps, unwittingly, despite fear and doubt, I too had been looking for a way of saying yes.
"Waiting for Gabriel" is an excerpt from Judith Sornberger's book, The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany (Shanti Arts, 2015).
Judith Sornberger’s most recent poetry collection Practicing the World was published by CavanKerry Press in 2018. Her full-length collectionOpen Heart is from Calyx Books. She is the author of five chapbooks, most recently the prize-winning Wal-Mart Orchid (Evening Street Press). Her memoir The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany was published by Shanti Arts in 2015.
Sornberger has taught creative writing in many venues, including prisons, colleges, and universities. As Professor of English at Mansfield University, she taught poetry and creative nonfiction writing, as well as creating and teaching in the Women’s Studies Program for 25 years. As Professor Emerita, she enjoys a life of writing, reading, and teaching Tai Chi.
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