Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"...and the souls of the wounded cry out for help"

The Fire in the Borgo is a painting from the workshop of Raphael, commissioned as decoration for the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (click to enlarge). It depicts a fire in the Borgo neighborhood of Rome in the year 847 CE. According to legend, Pope Leo IV contained the fire by invoking divine intervention from a Vatican balcony. That's him in the background of the painting, beseeched by a crowd of wailing women, while in the foreground general misery reigns.

The fire is contained. Further misery averted. And once again God has demonstrated his power in the world -- and, incidentally, confirmed the authority of the popes.

"Nothing almost sees miracles but misery," says Kent in Shakespeare's King Lear. It is a particularly profound observation. Never do we so earnestly call upon the divine as when we are in need. In fact, it is hard to recall any instance of a supposed miracle that does not spring from a sense of helplessness. What could be more natural? It is surely no accident that the most secular countries in the world are those with the greatest measure of economic well-being, health care, and general tranquility. If our lives were bliss, we would have little use for an interventionist deity.