I imagine that there are very few people, if any, who actually enjoy being criticized. Who, after all, wants to be told that what they say, do, or think is somehow incorrect? Yet, for us fallible mortals, criticism is inescapable because we are error-prone and often in need of correction. Even St. Peter was criticized by St. Paul “to his face because he clearly was wrong” (Galatians 2:11); granted, solidarity with the first pope does not make it any easier for us to accept criticism. However, while they can admittedly be hard to swallow, there is a beautiful theology of criticism that can make them more palatable.
But, before I continue, I would like to make a brief distinction between “criticism” and “judgment.” Judgment is the condemnation of the person himself, which only God has the authority to do. Criticism is the correction of error, hopefully in a constructive and charitable manner. Therefore, when we are criticized, that criticism does not make — and should not be “felt” to make — any claim on our personal dignity.
The theme that I will develop — person as sculpture — is one with deep Scriptural and Classical roots. It begins in Genesis, when God “formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). Later in the Old Testament, acknowledging our base substance and our exalted Creator, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:7). Here we understand the basic dynamic of the human person, that of ongoing formation. Made from dust and turned into clay, God forms us, like a potter, into a beautiful sculpture.
The Gospel gives testament to this theme in the miracle of the man born blind. To cure the blind man, Christ “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on [the man’s] eyes” (John 9:6). This clay added by Christ, the divine potter, formed the blind man into a more beautiful sculpture. Thus by slight adjustments does the artist perfect his work.
The formation of a person is ultimately a work of art, and some types of art must be fired. “For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation” (Sirach 2:5). As the ancient sage cautions, humility is earned in the crucible of humiliation, and every criticism is a small crucible unto itself. Crucibles are inherently uncomfortable, trying, or painful — so too are criticisms. However, accepting criticism is an integral part of the processes of forming, shaping, refining, and polishing the human person.
Each of us should consider ourselves and others to be works of art in progress, unfinished statues. Though we are reluctant to do so, we should acknowledge that criticism is an efficacious tool to better form the statues of our respective lives. For, as Plotinus wrote, “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine” (Enneads 1.6.9). We are called to ongoing formation, to continuous perfection of our statues. Sometimes, however, we do not recognize the small features of our statue that detract from its overall beauty. This is where others’ criticism is helpful. For, if we accept that criticism, we can use it to chisel and polish our statue, and thereby better form our lives.
Of course, we are not the best sculptors of our own statues, and criticism can only help so much. It is God, the divine sculptor, who truly hews us from rough stone and sculpts us into a beautiful figure. As the great Renaissance Master Michelangelo wrote, “the heavenly hammer working by God’s throne by itself makes others and self as well.” That is, God’s chisel perfects our own, and guides our hand in our formation process. In this sense, we are at once sculptor and sculpture. While we cooperate with God in the sculpting process, God is the true and more powerful sculptor, and, in comparison, we are but the sculpture before Him.
To be sure, God loves us — the works of His hands — and wants to form each of us into a beautiful work of art. And when our statues are fully formed and polished, Christ may say, “You are totally beautiful… and there is no blemish in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). Then, just as any artist signs his finished work, Christ may instruct us, “Set me like a seal upon your heart” (Song of Songs 8:6). So marked, we shall be perfected by Christ and love Him eternally in heaven.
The sculpting process lasts a lifetime, but it is important to realize that every criticism brings us that much closer to perfection before Christ. Criticisms should not be sources of hurt feelings, sadness, or resentment. Rather, they are a third-party tool for individual formation. A constructive and charitable criticism is a light chisel stroke, helping us make a more perfect statue.
~ Matthew Dernbach