Detail of the David sculpture in Florence, Italy. AdobeStock

Successful Preachers Strive to See as God Sees

How we can learn from Michelangelo to beautifully and artistically express the Body of Christ in our preaching

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Everyone agrees that our society is polarized. Most say it is more polarized today than ever before. Perhaps. Certainly, polarization that grips society affects preachers. Indeed, as the director of the Institute of Continuing Theological Education (ICTE), a sabbatical program for priests in Rome, I meet priests from all over the United States and beyond. A common concern among priests is how to preach in our polarized society. They often speak of feeling torn between being accused of “watering down the truth” and “being too harsh or political.”

In the rift-riven world in which we live, preaching beautifully is more important than ever. Pope Francis has said in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that preaching and indeed, “every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis)” (No. 167).

In an age when too many public speakers are satisfied attracting listeners who agree with them by pointing to the ugliness of those who do not, the Church needs preachers who strive simply to make truth attractive. Often, this means avoiding the trap of argument to focus on the beauty of truth, which is in everyone.

The work of evangelization requires preachers who listen to goodness in everyone God has created. Pope Francis acknowledges in “The Joy of the Gospel” that “differences between persons and communities can sometimes prove uncomfortable” (No. 131). However, he immediately goes on to say that “the Holy Spirit, who is the source of that diversity, can bring forth something good from all things and turn it into an attractive means of evangelization.” The space between being accused of watering down the truth and being too harsh or political can even be a creative tension for preachers as they seek inspiration from the Holy Spirit who “alone can raise up diversity, plurality and multiplicity while at the same time bringing about unity” (No. 131). Indeed, this is a demanding task made possible by preachers who think of themselves as artists exposing the truth beautifully.

Preaching Beautifully

Michelangelo’s David, referred to as “the giant,” obviously isn’t pocket-sized! But for the preacher who has stood speechless under David and overcome by its beauty, it serves as a handbook highlighting the importance of preaching beautifully. Through his David, Michelangelo proposes a revolutionary way of seeing, which is instructive for preachers. Recalling the awe felt in the presence of the sculpture of David offers instruction on how to see to preach beautifully. This instruction should be carried with us every time we prepare to preach.

Michelangelo’s sculpture is not the only statue of David in Florence. Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known simply as Donatello, completed his David in the 1440s, some 60 years before Michelangelo. Similarly, around 1475, Andrea del Verrocchio was commissioned by the Medici to complete a bronze statue of King David.

Michelangelo knew both statues, which present David as what the Greeks called an ephebe — that is, a youth ready to begin military training. However, neither presents David as having yet begun. Donatello’s statue holds the fallen Goliath’s sword, which is nearly taller than he is, and we are left wondering, “How did this kid manage to pick it up?” Verrocchio presents David’s body as spindly; his ribs even show. His arms are scrawny. His legs are skinny. These portraits are certainly faithful to Scripture. After all, “when he sized David up and saw that he was youthful, ruddy, and handsome in appearance, he began to deride him” (1 Sm 17:42). Both artists emphasized David’s youth to declare that despite David’s unprepared body, it was God who saved the people of Israel.

Neither Donatello nor Verrocchio present David as God saw him. Purposefully, they present David as humans saw him, so as to present God as the unseen hero working through David’s unprepared body. Saul is, indeed, hesitant to allow him to face Goliath because of his lack of military training: “You are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth” (1 Sm 17:33). David seems only to possess stories of bravado about how he had killed lions and bears while guarding his father’s sheep, where he has been kept busy, rather than fighting for his country like his older brothers and other eligible young men in the land. Indeed, Donatello and Verrocchio present Scripture literally through their statues of David by presenting him as others saw him.

What God Sees

Michelangelo’s David, however, proposes a revolutionary way of seeing the young man. He does not present what the people around David saw, but what God saw. Michelangelo does not present David as a boy unprepared for battle, as Saul, his brothers and everyone else in the story saw him. Rather, David is presented as a fit and confident young man. Michelangelo presents David as God saw him.

Michelangelo’s David is no ephebe. Rather, he possesses a well-trained body that declares confidence. His muscles are well developed and are exhibited. He wears not a stitch of clothing, as do Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s versions. David is so confident in the God who saves that he stands completely nude and vulnerable in the face of Goliath. He is as unashamed in his confidence in God as he is in the body he displays. Gazing at David’s beauty, it is possible to see beyond appearances and to see something of what God saw when Samuel went to the house of Jesse, his father. “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The LORD looks into the heart” (1 Sm 16:7), Scripture says. We see something of David’s confident heart when we gaze at Michelangelo’s depiction of him. We see as God sees.

Today, especially, preachers are needed who see as God sees. Pope Francis credits this way of seeing to Jesus’ success as a preacher, since he “looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 141). Evangelization is served by preachers who look beyond appearances, even appearances of sin, to see the Body of Christ manifest in the congregation, as well as in the bread and in the wine.

To See as God Sees

Preaching beautifully, in a way that sees as God sees, does not necessarily mean telling a good story. Recent research debunks the common assumption that a good story can bring listeners closer to the position of a speaker when speaking on a controversial subject. This research has shown that stories told to persuade listeners to view controversial issues in the same way as the speaker merely cause them to become more set in their contrary opinions. This should not disturb preachers since it merely underscores that preaching is not about persuading people to see as the preacher sees. Rather, preaching is about helping people see as God sees.

Pope Francis suggests that the preacher is an intermediary between the congregation and God. “In the course of the homily,” he says, “the hearts of the believers keep silence and allow God to speak” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 143). If stories told by the homilist are perceived as being manipulative or self-serving, the congregation will not understand that God is speaking to them. Moreover, preachers should be careful about the stories they tell in homilies lest they be perceived as serving their own perspectives rather than God’s.

To see as God sees means that, in humility, we acknowledge that no one, including the preacher, can see exactly as God sees. After all, God sees all things. As creatures, we are limited. We see only partially. Yet, we do catch a glimpse. Indeed, it is possible for us to catch a glimpse of God’s beauty that is in every person and is all around us, especially, in the celebration of the sacraments.

To see as God sees requires us to resist lingering over the ugly consequences of human nature in our preaching and, instead, to describe the best impulses. Preaching is about shining a light on God’s presence, even in our human nature. It is about helping listeners identify this presence in themselves. Yes, sin exists in the world and affects all of us. But it does not have the last word, and it is not even the most important word since God’s Son became one of us and we are his body. Successful preaching in an age of polarization describes the beautiful body that God sees, not the ugly one that we so easily recognize.

Michelangelo has given us his David as a reminder to see as God sees. He took a marble block from the city of Carrara and visualized David not as everyone else saw him but as God saw him. We are given congregations full of flaws and divisions … and even hearts of stone. We can learn from Michelangelo as we strive to describe beautifully and artistically the Body of Christ that we see in people each and every day.

FATHER EDWARD LINTON, OSB, is a Benedictine priest and monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Professed in 1985 and ordained in 1991, he currently serves as director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education (ICTE) located at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome.

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Insight from Pope Francis’ ‘Joy of the Gospel’

 “Another feature of a good homily is that it is positive. It is not so much concerned with pointing out what shouldn’t be done, but with suggesting what we can do better. … Positive preaching always offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity. How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!”

— Evangelii Gaudium, No. 159.

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