When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. (Mt 27:3)
41 million! That’s the number of tiles (tesserae) in the mosaics which cover the walls, arches, domes, and vaulted ceilings of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the Roman Catholic cathedral in the Missouri city of the same name.
41 million! I head that number several times from the volunteer docent who guided my daughter and me, and several others, through the cathedral a few days ago. 41 million tiles, nearly all no bigger than 1/4 inch square, put in place under the watchful supervision of (if not personally by) two immigrant mosaicists (a father-son team) over an 76 year span from 1912 to 1988.
41 million! They are assembled into pictures of prominent persons in St. Louis city history, stories of the life of St. Louis of France, portraits from Hebrew history, of saints of the church and of angels of heaven, scenes from the life of Christ, verses of scripture, Celtic knotwork (with dragons!), Moorish tracery, floral designs. One could spend days in the cathedral and not really see all of the mosaic art it contains.
41 million! We followed our guide through the narthex (where St. Louis’s life is portrayed), down the center aisle of the nave (as she pointed out the important events of the city’s history depicted on the walls), up to the crossing (where the arches are decorated with saints and angels in scenes of judgment, justice, and mercy). As she told us about the mosaics, her narration fairly dripped with her pre-Vatican II spirituality: she punctuated her descriptions of the artwork with “prayers we used to say before 1960,” and her criticism of recent popes’ appointments to the cardinalate (too many Asians and Africans, not enough Americans). We decided to leave the tour group.
41 million! An interesting fact, that number, but hardly the point of mosaicists work; they weren’t installing 41 million tiles – they were creating a whole cathedral full of scenes, pictures, and designs. Our docent’s focus on the number of individual tiles detracted from appreciation of the overall beauty of the work. Lovely, those old prayers, but a new sort of Roman Catholic church had emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Our docent’s focus on the ancient forms seemed to have blinded her to the renewal of the faith. Perhaps there are some American prelates who should be made cardinals in the Roman church, but that tradition declares itself universal and recent popes have tried to live into that be broadening the international scope of the college of cardinals. Our docent’s focus on national ecclesial pride distracted her from the comprehensiveness of her tradition.
Was that Judas’s problem? Was he focused on some narrow aspect of Jesus’ program and unable to see the whole picture? Is that why he was surprised that Jesus was condemned, why he sought to undo what he had done, to give back the 30 pieces of silver?
30 pieces or 41 million pieces, old prayers or foreign prelates, details can distract us from seeing the whole scene; we “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The common idiom “the devil is in the details” is usually cited to encourage us to pay attention to detail, but perhaps it is a two-edged sword, perhaps there is a Catch-22 in paying attention to detail. When we don’t, some small overlooked problem can catch us up. When we do, we miss the big picture.
What was Judas’s detail? What detail did he overlook? Or was it a detail he paid too much attention to? What was Judas’s detail?
What is mine?
The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.