The Greeks thought heroism and beauty belonged together. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and many myths are full to bursting with beautiful heroes doing beautiful things—and ugly things, but still doing them beautifully. They demanded that their heroes be beautiful, which is why so many statues and busts commemorate the politicians, leaders, and wealthy men of the day as models of physical perfection—even when we know them to have been dumpy, hook-nosed, or puny in real life.
God has never worked like that. He almost seems to prefer to choose unimpressive people as his representatives. David may have been “ruddy” and “handsome,” with “beautiful eyes” (1 Sm 16:12), but he was still a simple shepherd, as was the prophet Amos; Ezekiel’s outlandish physical prophecies would hardly qualify for Mr. Universe talent routines; and if the apocryphal Acts of Paul are to be trusted, Paul was “small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs.”
Pope Francis gives an interesting insight into this dynamic in his 2010 book On Heaven and Earth. There he speaks of Moses as we see him in Exodus 3, in all the splendor of his vocation and all the banality of his ordinariness:
Moses meets God when he is eighty years old, having already grown a belly; he tended his father-in-law’s sheep and all of a sudden, a burning bush, astonishment. He says, “I have seen God.”
Pope Francis’ Moses is delightfully prosaic: a potbelly hanging over his belt, still huffing and wheezing from clambering up Mount Horeb, looking a bit ridiculous leaning forward with his hands on his thighs trying to catch his breath—and then he sees God. This is the man God has chosen to deliver his people from slavery. Not a Hercules with a chiseled jaw and a silver tongue, but a potbellied old shepherd with a stutter and a checkered past.
In the Church, we meet many more potbellied-Moses types than strutting-Hercules types. God generally chooses to put his treasures in flawed and even broken vessels, and that is how he invites us to encounter him. This is a mystery. Surely, we think, more people would come to God if his beautiful message wasn’t so often sullied by flabby, ugly messengers: boring preachers, short-tempered confessors, impersonal bureaucrats, tacky musicians, ideological liturgists, and on and on.
But if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we too are often limp, wheezing, and potbellied in our faith. The ascent up Mount Horeb looks daunting and exhausting; and besides, talking to burning bushes is sure to mean more work for less pay. So we stick to our routine on the lowlands, confident that we can be Herculean messengers of God without needing to prove it to anyone by scrabbling around on mountaintops. And meanwhile, it’s just possible that those flabby-minded weaklings around us are thinking the same way about themselves and us…
Yet that potbellied Moses really did lead the Israelites out of Egypt; a crotchety curmudgeon like Jerome became a saint; and even people with spectacularly bad taste can get into heaven. God does not leave us alone in our mediocrity. The reality of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us is unveiled when we begin to recognize that God bestows his grace in and through imperfect vessels (including ourselves). God does not love me because I am beautiful, or because I am a spiritual hero: anything of beauty or spiritual heroism that I possess comes about because God loves me, because he comes to vivify my flabby spirit and free me from the hobbling weight of my sins and pettiness. What matters is not my spiritual athleticism: what matters is that I have seen God.
This is an invitation to mercy, of course—recognizing that others are as limp and frail as I, and that we all desire union with God at some level, however clumsily we may be pursuing it. But there’s more to it, as well. God didn’t just want the Israelites to have mercy on poor, potbellied, stuttering Moses; he wanted them to follow him, to see God’s grace in him, to allow him to bring them into an everlasting covenant with God. God invites us to encounter him as he dwells in others, not in spite of their weaknesses, but in and through their weaknesses. Moses has seen God, and God dwells in him; perhaps God desires to astonish me with the light of grace that pours out of the cracks in that broken vessel. If I see that light, if I am astonished, then I too have met God; I too have been taught love by one of God’s potbellied heroes.
Image: Potbellied Hercules. Photo by author.