One of my favorite scenes from the 1984 film Amadeus has the protagonist, Salieri, dragging notes from Mozart’s disintegrating brain as the great composer lays dying. Under the guise of friendship, Salieri pushes Mozart to describe the breathtaking arrangements of his final work, the Requiem Mass in D minor. Salieri hates him, but adores his music.
I always felt a certain kinship with that portrayal of Salieri: a man of some talent whose true skill was the recognition of real talent. He loves music, but knows deep down that he is not as great as Mozart. He wishes, desperately, that he could match his love of music with a response equal to its grandeur. But he cannot.
We all wish for this – that we could somehow rise to meet the greatness of our devotion’s source. Mostly, we do not. Mostly, we fall painfully short.
I have seen marriages strain over the struggle. “How am I,” one or both spouses ask, “how am I possibly to show the depth of my promise? How can I ever?” They cannot really, but they worry themselves over how to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, a moment. They grow angry over small things.
People of faith ask themselves the same thing when they wonder how they can possibly show how God is important. How is one to do that, though? How is it possible to greet the indifference of the world with a devotion that lays to bare that indifference? How can we, frail, reveal the strength not merely of conviction, but of God Himself? Only the martyrs seem to know.
We all fall short, and to varying degrees we know this. We are aware. It is the dark secret everyone perceives and will not discuss save in whispers.
We lie to ourselves instead.
Everyone thinks they are a musician; everyone thinks they are a writer; everyone thinks they are capable of greatness. One greatness or another. Some talent buried deep in the flesh, clutched close to the heart in the hopes that it makes us worthy. But we all know the singer who sings flat, though no one can bear to break it to them. We all know the authors whose pages fill the Internet like dust in an empty room. (As Flannery O’Connor rather famously said, “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”) Somehow art makes the disparity more obvious, more embarrassing. But we do it all the time, no matter the topic: we cling to some talent that we imagine defines us, when really what we have is a love for something that we hope we can do.
Salieri, the character, is more blunt about it. He knows the agonizing unfairness in what he hears: he knows that Mozart’s work is beautiful, and he knows with just as much certainty that he himself is not capable of that beauty. He also knows Mozart is ungrateful. So he blames God, the giver of unfair talents: “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
The character’s response to his own mediocrity is the destruction of the one who proves him to be mediocre. Yet, for all the immensity of his hatred, he cannot help himself from loving Mozart’s music. The movie follows the growth of his insane resentfulness, and the growth of his adoration. Mozart, the man, is loathsome. His laugh is piercing, awful. But his music, his music is “music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”
To the bitter end, Salieri consigns himself to a hateful devotion to Mozart’s music. He, Salieri, calls himself the “patron saint of mediocrity.” But really, he is a miserable patron of Mozart’s work.
Interestingly, Catholics at their Confirmations place themselves under the patronage of a particular saint. (Though they are also guided and guarded by their baptismal saint, which would seem redundant but is for Catholics neither here nor there: the more saints you have in your arsenal, the better.) The practice is ancient, and works as an extended guardianship – a lifelong apprenticeship, if you will, as well as a lifelong source of strength. The saint you pick is supposed to be someone you desire to imitate, and whose guidance you would like as you grow in faith. So the relationship a Catholic has to a patron saint is at once passive and active: passive in the sense that the saint serves as an example, and active in the sense that the saint is really believed to help in the following of such an example.
These saints often lived lives of ridiculous holiness. I say “ridiculous” because they themselves were often absurd, absurd like holy fools simply are, and because they are filled with such sanctity that we might despair ever to reach them. Dare I imagine that I could be as extravagantly devoted to God as St. Francis, St. Augustine, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Well…yes.
It’s a daring practice, this Confirmation saint stuff, if we take it seriously. (Which, mostly, we do not.) We must rightly worry if we are setting ourselves up to fail. I love the martyr St. Lucy, for example, but hoping to imitate the grandeur of her daring chastity and death is rather hard. No one seems all that set on killing me for what purity and devotion I have. And even if I did have that much purity and devotion, people nowadays seem more interested in mockery than murder. Which is unfortunate, because martyrdom is far more interesting than ignorant humor.
We are tempted to despair that we will ever be great. That we are only mediocre. But this is getting it all wrong.
Saints are great because God makes them so, and not because they have greatness in them. Of course, the really grand saints have profound gifts – Augustine and his brilliance, or. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s ferocity – but these are always exposed to them in humiliation. It is part of every saint’s story. Even the really talented ones have to be humbled. Especially the talented ones. Because God makes us great, and we do not make ourselves great.
Salieri hated God because God did not give him what he preferred. He is an ungrateful character. We all are. It seems to me, instead, that a bit of gratitude for what little we are and what little we do is much better. We should not desire to be great so much as we should desire God, and that desire makes us little. (St. Thérèse knew that.)
So then. I have a deep sympathy for Salieri. I admire the talents of my friends, or of long dead artists, and I am keenly aware of the way I fail my love for these things. Instead of misery, though, I can perhaps learn simply to be grateful that I notice these things at all. That, too, is a gift.