Elaine Pagels on Faith


“Is faith necessary to receive the wisdom of religion?”

“I don’t think so at all. Faith is a particularly Christian preoccupation. Protestants talk about it more than Catholics do. If you talk to a Buddhist or many Jews, it’s about practice; it’s about what you do. If you take something like the Torah–“You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall honor your parents”–there are very specific ways of acting, and that’s what really matters. It’s about justice and mercy. Buddhism is about the practice of compassion and generosity; it’s about seeing reality the way it is and attempts to do that through meditation. It’s about how you act, what choices you make.”

Michelangelo’s Pietà


Michelangelo’s Pietà

Previously published as “Michelangelo’s Pietà,” Christianity and the Arts, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Fall 2001), p. 24.

It was the summer of ’84, the American dollar was strong, and this was my first venture to  Europe. I found her and didn’t even know I was searching for her. Mysteriously she crossed my path one day in Rome. I should confess though–at this point in my life, I am an uneasy Protestant.

I have been warned about Mary; and yet, I am drawn to her. But I was different back then. Standing before Michelangelo’s sublime interpretation of the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica–there she was. Until then, for me, Mary was a point of division between Protestant and Roman Catholic worship, a theological construct to propose or denounce. I was really there to see Michelangelo and his High Renaissance masterpiece. More secular than sacred, Michelangelo tempers his grand and majestic vision with a sensual grace. I was struck immediately, though, by the simple elegance of his vision. The folds and the flows of the garments articulate the irrepressible tragedy and rhapsody in a single, holy moment.

I noticed that this Pietà is not about the grand war between good and evil but rather the simplicity of human passion. She is not concept but rather flesh and blood. Flesh and blood crossing flesh and blood. Here before me was a mother and her son. For the first time in my life, I began to gain an intimate glimpse into the private saga of Mary and the incomprehensible death of her child. She tenderly bows her head with eyes closed, or at the least, eyes downcast. Is this a gesture of reverence? Of humility? Of grief? Does she bow her head to this moment or the God of this moment? Michelangelo’s rendering spurred my perennial question, “Where is God?” I began to understand that she is a trace of my answer. On the cross, God turned away from the suffering son, the crucified God. Mary, the mother of Jesus, with arms wide open, embraces her son of sorrows. Arms full of the death of God. Holding the rejected son–rejected by God and human alike, Mary holds her child not only with arms but also with the strength of her body.

And yet, her body slumps. If she is holding him up, who then is holding her?

On Mary we can see no tensely defined muscle–merely graceful folds. With Christ, we encounter a dissonant vision. His body, almost nude and fully exposed, ripples with muscular vitality. Who has truly died in this scene? Can child die and mother continue to live? There is complete acceptance of her misery, but then, her left hand stretches out to supplicate the Father who abandoned her son. She will now be the mediator; the human strand between the all-Powerful Father and every human loss. We look upon her as one who ascends, as one who rises above suffering. But she remains there in the darkest hour. And she embodies the presence of compassion. She is the only human to suffer the death of God and the loss of her son in the same moment. Perhaps her grief IS her faith and so faith can leave grief alone.

Who better than Mary to intercede on our behalf? That day in Rome I walked away a different man, a different son. Mary rounds out the picture of redemption for us–we can retain our deepest sorrows and still yearn toward the all-powerful Father.

Michelangelo’s Pieta

The Light Is Clear In My Eyes: Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria: Day One

“Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.  For three days he was blind.”

After an intense few days traveling from Beirut to Latakia then Yazdieh and Mharde and then a few days in Homs we awoke in Old Damascus to soft, warm sunlight. Many of us on the team had only dreamed of Damascus, and here we were here waking in one of the loveliest hotels in the world, Beit al-Wali. And this would be our home for the next four days.


After breakfast we began our morning walking through the old city. Immediately it was obvious that Damascus evokes Jerusalem. Homes centuries-old, fabled stone streets and narrow, clamorous streets. With our able guides–Nuhad, Bashar, and Tarek–we set off to see the sights.

The morning was dedicated to the Apostle Paul. We made our way to the Street Called Straight, Paul’s destination in his state of blindness. We passed shuttered shops, elegant homes and ruined homes, and it seemed that we were the only ones on the street. Our guides told us, “Before the Syrian crisis this street would have been full of people and tourists from around the world.” Now we had the city to ourselves.

Turning left on Straight Street, also known as the Roman Decamunus Maximus, we could see a good portion of the ancient city East and West. It was difficult to take it all in because of the whirl of times and eras, nationalities, religions, and cultures. Damascus is a not as much a destination as it is a nexus.

We were met with groups of young people going to school, and they stopped and joked with us even though they didn’t know English, and most of us didn’t know Arabic. But of course we could still communicate, and they were thrilled to know that we were Americans, and we were there in Damascus. “Welcome. You are welcome here.” How many times had we heard this in Syria from just about everyone we met, and here we were hearing it again in Damascus.




As we approached the renowned but tattered Eastern Gate, we turned left into a narrow and so beautiful street–Ananias. Of course this street is named after the Ananias spoken of in Acts, “The Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” This street ended at the tiny St. George chapel, and we descended 5-6 meters below to a cramped, shadowy grotto. This is traditionally viewed as the place where Paul regained his sight. The deeper we descended into the dark chapel the quieter we became. We found a small space lit warmly with candles while a few devotees prayed or sat quietly in the muted light.


As soon as we left the chapel we went from the sublime to the monetary stopping to shop in Tony’s Anania Oriental Gifts where Nuhad and Marilyn helped us bargain and purchase some lovely gifts. Across the street we drank coffee and tea in a wonderful little cafe owned by an old friend of some of the team members.

We returned down Anania street and headed back to the Bab Sharqi (the Eastern Gate) this time to exit and walk along the ancient walls of Damascus paralleling the busy modern road. I have seen innumerable walls and ruins but nothing like this. The walls of the city are a random patchwork of ancient stones, a kaleidoscope of eons. In some sections I saw Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk, and Ottoman splayed in random patterns. My dear friend, Father Khalife tells me that the most impressive walls remain unseen and below the ground. We finally made our way to one of the most treasured sites in Christendom–the gate that commemorates Paul’s clandestine escape from Damascus. Ironically, Paul entered Damascus blinded by a brilliant light, but he would leave in danger under the cover of darkness. And lowered in a basket. The great apostle, the founder of Christianity, is let down by others in a basket, in the dead of night, only to disappear for years.

Entering the gate we found a simple but elegant Greek Catholic Chapel memorializing Paul’s departure. While we were there we learned that the Christians here ran an orphanage. While standing in the courtyard we were greeted by church officials leading children who greeted us with big smiles and shy curiosity. “Welcome. You are welcome here,” we heard once again. We could see the trauma in the children’s eyes, but there was light still, and the priest and nuns cared for them deeply. I wanted to stay and take photos and talk to them, but we had to move on.

For years now, I have watched the news about Syria on television and asked repeatedly, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” I found some of my answer here, in that courtyard, in the broad daylight of one of Paul’s darkest moments. In the midst of Syria’s dark night, there are priests and nuns and pastors and leaders and volunteers caring for these abandoned children and bringing hope where there is no hope. Millennia later, the apostle of the basket is caring for these most vulnerable.


We continued our walk through Damascus by heading back to the Bab Tuma (Tuma’s Gate) toward the Syrian Multimedia Youth Team (or SMYT) led by the kind and talented Badih Koudmani. We met him in his artistic space and viewed his presentation and heard his vision for Syria and its youth. Once again we were able to see the imprint of the Outreach Foundation because this is just one more organization supported by Outreach. I received more of my answer: there are people doing something in the midst of chaos. Christian brothers and sisters, though worlds apart, unite in a common vision.

After an afternoon rest, we had the honor of meeting the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church based in Damascus–Ignatius Aphrem II. Most of us had no idea what to expect, but we were quickly relieved to discover a kind, warm, affable man who spoke directly to us and answered our questions with alacrity.


But then something remarkable happened, something I shall never forget. In many ways this capped our remarkable day tracing Paul. The patriarch, within a few minutes of our meeting, mentioned that there was someone else here and perhaps we could meet him. He mentioned his name, but I had no context. Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf was visiting. Bishops Sharaf. The Bishop of Mosul.


He entered the room and sat a few seats down from the patriarch. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He said nothing, but his presence was solid and reassuring. He has this strange eternity in his eyes as if he has seen things most humans have never seen. The Bishop of Mosul? I couldn’t believe it. While we sat there with him in Damascus what must be going on in Mosul as we spoke? What this man has been through. What this man has seen. How many modern Christians have stared into the dark and glimpsed the deepest human abyss? I dare say, the Bishop of Mosul is one.

Then it happened. Coffee was served to everyone. As the patriarch was talking, and we were asking, the Bishop of Mosul was watching something intently to my right, his left. He waved the assistant over and whispered in his ear. What on earth? The Patriarch’s assistant left the room and returned with another cup of coffee. My friend and colleague, Ron Gatzke, had been missed. But the Bishop of Mosul caught it. He saw what we all missed.

Silly, I know. But this vision of the Bishop will not leave me alone. Who sees such things? Mosul is a burning hell on earth, and the Bishop was returning the next day, but he saw the tiniest lack and cared for those within his purview. Once again, I received another answer to my question, “Why doesn’t somebody do something?” He does–he’s here–the Bishop of Mosul. Down to the smallest detail with the least of these.


Given God’s resolute absence, the church is alive and thriving in Syria. Our brothers and sisters there remind us that true faith is possible even in the midst of darkness.

Faith is blind if faith is only bright light. Paul, on his way to Damascus to destroy the church, is blinded by the light, and it is within in this darkness that he begins to see what is real and true. The destroyer of the Church leaves Damascus as the founder of the Church. Paul, in Damascus, becomes the embodiment of “invisible things confounding the visible.” Sadly and inexplicably, Syria has seen some of its darkest days. But this day in Damascus reminded me that, in the Christian Gospel, darkness is not destruction. Death is not the end. Because darkness traces the light just as absence evokes presence.

“Why doesn’t somebody do something?” They are–they are there. And they see.

“Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.”