The Roman Triptych

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II

The following L'Osservatore Romano article includes excerpts from the poetry collection of Pope John Paul II published in Rome in 2003 and Cardinal Ratzinger's presentation of the book to the press. The translation is that of L'Osservatore Romano. The official translation of the entire book, The Poetry of John Paul II, Roman Triptych: Meditations, will be published in the United States on September 5th, 2003, by USCCB Publishing.

N.B.  Although we have included this text among the papal documents owing to the author, it would not be a Magisterial text.

I. The Stream


The Spirit of God hovered above the waters.

1. Wonderment

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams.
To me this rhythm is revealing You,
the Primordial Word.

How remarkable is Your silence

in everything, in all that on every side
unveils the created world around us ...
all that, like the undulating wood,
runs down every slope ...
all that is carried away by the stream's
silvery cascade,
rhythmically falling from the mountain,
carried by its own current—carried where?

What are you saying to me, mountain stream?
Where, in which place, do we meet?
Do you meet me who is also passing—
just like you.

But is it like you?
(Allow me to pause here;
allow me to stop at a threshold,
the threshold of simple wonder).
The running stream cannot marvel,
and silently the woods slope down,
following the rhythm of the stream—
but man can marvel!
The threshold which the world crosses in him
is the threshold of wonderment.
(Once, this very wonder was called "Adam").

He was alone in his wonder,
among creatures incapable of wonder—
for them it is enough to exist and go their way.
Man went his way with them,
filled with wonder!
But being amazed, he always emerged
from the tide that carried him,
as if saying to everything around him:
"Stop—in me is your harbour",
"in me is the place of meeting
with the Primordial Word".
"Stop, this passing has meaning ...
has meaning ... has meaning".

2. The source

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams....
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up, against the current,
tear through, seek, don't give up,
you know it must be somewhere here.
Where are you, source? Where are you, source?!

Stream, stream in the wood,
tell me the secret of your beginning!

(Silence—why are you silent?
How carefully you have hidden the secret of your beginning).

Allow me to wet my lips
in spring water,
to feel its freshness,
reviving freshness.

II. Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel

1. The first beholder

"In him we live and move and have our being", says Paul at the Areopagus in Athens—

Who is He?
He is like an ineffable space which embraces all.
He, the Creator,
embraces everything, summoning to
existence from nothing, not only from
the beginning, but always.

Everything endures continually becoming—
"In the beginning was the Word, and through Him all things were made".
The mystery of the beginning is born together with the Word and is revealed through the Word.

The Word—eternal vision and utterance.
He, who was creating, saw—"saw that it was good",
his seeing different from ours.
He—the first Beholder—
saw, finding in everything some trace
of his Being, his own fullness—
He saw: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius
Naked, transparent,
true, good and beautiful—

He saw in terms so different from ours.
Eternal vision and eternal utterance:
"In the beginning was the Word, and through Him all things were made",
all in which we live and move and have our being—
The Word, the marvellous eternal Word, as an invisible threshold
of all that has come into being, exists or will exist. As if the Word were the threshold.

The threshold of the Word, containing the invisible form of everything, divine and eternal —beyond this threshold everything begins to happen!

I stand at the entrance to the Sistine—
Perhaps all this could be said more simply
in the language of the "Book of Genesis".

But the Book awaits the image—
And rightly so. It was waiting for its Michelangelo.
The One who created "saw"—saw that "it was good".
"He saw", and so the Book awaited the fruit of "vision".
O all you who see, come—
I am calling you, all "beholders" in every age.
I am calling you, Michelangelo!

There is in the Vatican a chapel that awaits the harvest of your vision!
The vision awaited the image.
From when the Word became flesh, the vision is waiting.

We are standing at the threshold of the Book.

It is the Book of the origins—Genesis.
Here, in this chapel, Michelangelo penned it,
not with words, but with the richness
of piled-up colours.

We enter in order to read it again,
going from wonder to wonder.
So then, it is here—we look and recognize
the Beginning which emerged out of nothingness,
obedient to the creative Word.
Here it speaks from these walls.
But still more powerfully the End speaks.
Yes, the judgment is even more outspoken:
the judgment, the Final one.
This is the path that all must follow—
every one of us.

2. Image and likeness

"God created man in his image,
male and female he created them
and God saw that it was very good.
Naked they were and did not feel shame".

Was it possible?
Do not ask those who are contemporary, but ask Michelangelo
(and perhaps the contemporaries as well!?).
Ask the Sistine.
How much is said here, on these walls!

The beginning is invisible. Everything here points to it.
All this abundant visibility, released by human genius.
And the End too is invisible,
though here, traveller, your eyes are caught
by the vision of the Last Judgment.
How make the invisible visible,
how penetrate beyond the bounds of good and evil?

The Beginning and the End, invisible, pierce us from these walls.

4. Judgment

In the Sistine the artist painted the Judgment.
The Judgment dominates the whole interior.
Here, the invisible End becomes poignant visibility.
This End is also the summit of transparency—such is the path of all generations.

Non omnis moriar.
What is imperishable in me
now stands face to face with Him Who Is!
This is what fills the central wall of the Sistine profusion of colour.

Do you remember, Adam? At the beginning he asked you "where are you?".
And you replied: "I hid myself from You because I was naked".
"Who told you that you were naked?"….
"The woman whom you put here with me" gave me the fruit....

All those who populate the central wall of the Sistine painting
bear in themselves the heritage of that reply of yours!
Of that question and that response!
Such is the End of your path.


It is here, at the feet of this marvellous Sistine profusion of colour that the Cardinals gather—
a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.

They come right here.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision.
"In Him we live and move and have our being

Who is He?
Look, here the creating hand of the Almighty Ancient One, turned towards Adam....
In the beginning God created....
He, the all-seeing One....

The Sistine painting will then speak with the Word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus—asSimon, the son of Jonah, heard.
"To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom".
Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrusted
gather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistine's colours,
by the vision left to us by Michelangelo—
so it was in August, and then in October of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,
and so it will be again, when the need arises
after my death.
Michelangelo's vision must then speak to them.

"Con-clave": a joint concern for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
They will find themselves between the Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment.
It is given to man once to die and after that the judgment!

A final clarity and light.
The clarity of the events—
The clarity of consciences—
It is necessary that during the Conclave, Michelangelo teach them—
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.
You who see all—point to him!
He will point him out....

III. A hill in the land of Moria

3. Conversation between father and son in the land of Moria

So they walked and talked together on the third day.
Here is the hill, where I shall offer a sacrifice to God—

said the father, and the son was silent, dared not ask:
Where is the lamb? We have fire, wood, a sacrificial knife,
but where is the sacrifice?
God alone will choose it—
This he said, and dared not say aloud
the words: the lamb, my son, will be you—
so he was silent.

With this silence he was falling again into a soundless hollow.
He had heard the voice which led him.
Now the voice was silent.
He was left with nothing but his own name
Abraham: He who believed against hope.
In a moment he will build a sacrificial pile,
make fire, bind Isaacs hands—
and then—what? the pile will burst into flames....
Already he sees himself as the father of a dead son,
the son the Voice gave him and is now taking away?

O, Abraham, you who are climbing this hill in the land of Moria,
there exists a certain boundary to fatherhood, a threshold that you will never cross.
Here another Father will accept the Sacrifice of his Son.
Do not be afraid, Abraham, go on,
and do what you have to do.
You will be the father of many nations.
Do what you have to do, to the end.
He will stop your hand, when it is ready to strike that sacrificial blow....
He will not permit your hand to fall,
when in your heart it has already fallen.
Yes—your hand will stop in the air.
He Himself will stay it.
And from now on, the Hill of Moria will wait—
for on this hill the mystery must be fulfilled.

4. God of the Covenant

O, Abraham—the One who came into human history
wants only, through you, to unveil this mystery hidden from the foundations of the world,
a mystery earlier than the world!

If today we go to these places
from which, long ago, Abraham set out,
where he heard the Voice, where the promise was fulfilled,
it is in order to stand at the threshold—

and reach the beginning of the Covenant.
For God revealed to Abraham
what is, for a father, the sacrifice of his own son—death offered up.
O, Abraham—God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in Him
should have eternal life.

—Stop here—
I carry your name in me,
this name is the sign of the Covenant
which the Primordial Word made with you
even before the world was created.

Remember this place when you go away from here, this place will await its day.

Translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
copyright, Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Note: This book will be available from EWTN Religious Catalogue (1-800-854-3616) and  USCCB Publishing (1-800-235-8722) in September 2003.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

At noon on Thursday, 6 March, Cardinal Ratzinger presented the main themes of the new collection of the Holy Father's poems, entitled "Roman Triptych, Meditations". On the same morning in Krakow, Cardinal Macharski presented them to the Polish intellectual world.

The Italian actor, Nando Gazzolo, read a few of the poems.

Here is a translation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's presentation.

First Panel: majesty of creation

The first panel of Pope John Paul II's Roman Triptych mirrors the experience of creation, its beauty and its life. The idea of the wooded hills and the even more vivid image of the waters rushing toward the valley, the "silvery cascade, rhythmically falling from the mountain". In this connection several sentences came to mind that were written by Karol Wojtyla in 1976 when he preached the retreat for Paul VI and the Curia. He related the case of a physicist with whom he had carried on a long discussion, and at the end of it, had said to him: "from the point of view of my science and its method I'm an atheist …" However, in a letter, the same man wrote: "Every time I find myself before the majesty

of nature, of the mountains, I feel that HE exists". One can speak of two different ways of perceiving nature! Certainly, the first panel of the triptych closes almost timidly on the threshold. The Pope does not yet speak directly of God. But he prays, as one prays to

a still unknown God. "Allow me to wet my lips in spring water, to feel its freshness, reviving freshness". With these words he seeks its source and receives directions: "if you want to find the source, you have to go up, against the current". In the first verse of his meditation, he said: "The undulating wood slopes down"; woods and waters have shown a downward movement. His pursuit of the source, however, now obliges him to climb up, to move against the tide.

Next panels: the end and the beginning, vision of God

I consider that this is the key to the interpretation of the two following panels. Indeed, they guide us in the climb upward "against the current". The spiritual pilgrimage, accomplished in this text, leads towards the "Beginning". On arriving, the true surprise is that the "beginning" also reveals the "end". Whoever knows the origin also sees the "where" and "why" of the entire movement of "being", which is becoming, and exactly in this way, also enduring: "Everything endures, continually becoming". The name of the source that the pilgrim discovers is above all the "Word", according tothe first words of the Bible: "God said", which John took up and reformulated in an unmatched way in his Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word". However, the true key word that sums up the pilgrimage in the second panel of the Triptych is not "Word", but rather vision and seeing. The Word has a face. The Word—the source—is a vision. Creation, theuniverse, comes from a vision. And the human person comes from a vision. This key word therefore leads the Pope while he meditates on Michelangelo, to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, that have become so dear to him. In the images of the world, Michelangelo discerned the vision of God: he saw with the creative gaze of God, and, through this gaze, he reproduced on the wall, by means of daring frescoes, the original vision from which all reality derives. In Michelangelo what helps us to rediscover the vision of God in the images of the world there seems to be realized in an exemplary way what all of us are destined to enjoy. The Popesays of Adam and Eve, who represent the human being in general, men and women: "So they too became sharers of that gaze". Every human person is called to "recover that gaze". The way to the source is a path that leads to becoming seers: to learn from God how to see. Then the beginning and the end appear. Then the human person becomes just.

Epilogue to the second panel: Last Judgement, conclaves

The beginning and the end—probably for the Pope, a pilgrim journeying inwards and upwards—the link between them appeared obvious there in the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo presents to us the images of the beginning and the end, the vision of Creation and the impressive depiction of the Last Judgement. The contemplation of the Last Judgement in the epilogue of the second panel, is perhaps the part of the Triptych that moves the reader most. From the interior eyes of the Pope in a fresh way, there derives once again the memory of the conclaves of August and October 1978. Since I was also present, I know well how we were exposed to those images in the hour of the important decisions, how they challenged us and how they instilled in our souls the greatness of our responsibility. The Pope speaks to the Cardinals of the future conclave, "after my death", and says that Michelangelo's vision will speak to them. The word "con-clave" imposes the thought of the keys, of the patrimony of the keys handed to Peter. To place these keys in the right hands: this is the immense responsibility of those days. Here we recall the words of Jesus to the lawyers, "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge" (Lk 11,52). Michelangelo urges us not to take away the key, but to use it to open the door so that everyone may enter.

Second panel: Creation, dialogue in God

However, let us return to the true centre of the second panel, a look at the "origins". What do people see there? In Michelangelo's work the Creator appears "in the likeness of a human being": the image and likeness of the human person with God is so contrasted that we can deduce from it the humanity of God, that makes it possible to represent the Creator. However, the way of looking that Christ has opened for us directs our gaze far beyond this and shows, by contrast, starting with the Creator, with the beginnings, who the human person really is. The Creator—the beginning—is not, as might appear in Michelangelo's painting, simply the "Almighty Ancient One". Instead, he is "a communion of persons, a mutual exchange If, at first, we saw God beginning with man, we now learn to see the human person starting with God: a reciprocal gift of self—the human person is destined for this—if he manages to find the way to achieve this, he is a mirror of the essence of God, and so reveals the link between the beginning and the end.

Third Panel: Abraham and Isaac's ascent of Mt Moria, total self-giving

The immense arch, the true vision of the Roman Triptych, isclearly revealed in the third panel, the ascent by Abraham and Isaac of Mount Moria, the mountain of the sacrifice, of the self-gift without reservation. This ascent is the last and decisive stage in Abraham's journey, that began with his departure from his own land, Ur of the Chaldeans; it is the basic stage of the ascent toward the summit, against the current, to the source that is also the goal. In the inexhaustible dialogue between father and son, consisting of few words and of bearing together, in silence, the mystery of the words, all the questions of history, the suffering, fears and hopes are reflected. In the end it becomes clear that this dialogue between father and son, between Abraham and Isaac, is the dialogue in God himself, the dialogue between the eternal Father and his Son, the Word, and that this eternal dialogue represents at the same time the response to our unfinished human dialogue. Indeed at the end, Isaac is saved—the lamb is a mysterious sign of the Son who becomes the Lamb and a sacrificial victim, thus revealing to us the true face of God: the God who gives himself to us, who is entirely gift and love, to the very end (cf. Jn 13,1). Thus in this very concrete event of history, which seems to take us so far from the great visions of creation in the first panel of the Triptych, there appears clearly the beginning and the end of all things, the link between the descent and ascent, between the source, the way and the end of the journey: we recognize God who gives himself, who is simultaneously the beginning, way, and final goal. This God appears in creation and in history. He seeks us in our sufferings and in our questioning. He shows us what it means to be a human person: to give ourselves in love, which makes us like God. Through the journey of the Son to the mountain of sacrifice, there is revealed "the mystery hidden from the foundations of the world". The love that gives is the original mystery, and, in loving, we too can understand the message of creation and find the way.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 March 2003, page 4

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