As one plods through the modern city of Bologna, crossing the Piazza del Nettuno into the Piazza Maggiore, one is greeted by an unsightly, unfinished façade of the Basilica di San Petronio. The basilica as it stands is one of the largest in the world, but the commune and Alduino degli Ariguzzi, one of the basilica’s architects, proposed to make it the largest in Christendom, eclipsing even the current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The fulsome ambition proved short-lived when Pope Pius IV spoiled the scheme by constructing palazzi on either side of the basilica, ensuring the arms of the basilica’s intended cruciform shape would never materialize. Then, the commune ran out of money. As a result, even what could be constructed of the enormous basilica remains indefinitely incomplete. Most obviously, the marble façade climbs only one-third the way up the front of the building and is resumed by ugly brick.
St. Thomas wrote that we encounter pride not principally in what we think, but in what we desire (ST II-II 162, a.1 ad 2). Through pride, someone desires something disproportionate. What one thinks does matter, however, since by coveting what exceeds him the proud man severs the strings of his swelling appetites from reality. Frequently because of this severing, he distorts his perception of himself and what is good for him. Instead, conceding both his deficiencies and his dignity, he ought humbly to tether his appetites to reality. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him” (Luke 14:28-29).
Jesus identifies pride in the gospel of today’s Mass: “You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life” (Jn. 5:31-47). The person of Jesus is simultaneously the greatest concession to human deficiency and the greatest affirmation of human dignity. Man rightly desires eternal life and knowledge of God, but he cannot attain these unless God holds him by his right hand. Jesus comes on account of our sinfulness and is the only one who can raise us to life with God. Yet the Pharisees want this life without Jesus.
Similarly, we may try to seek our happiness without Christ, but this is more than tenuous: it is impossible. In an era where human ingenuity has furthered the aims of human health, technology, and scientific knowledge, we have increasingly yielded to the desire to do without God both in society and in our daily lives. Nevertheless, in our quest for self-reliance we are increasingly confounded by questions of an ultimate nature and of a purpose to life. Like the San Petronio Basilica, our grandiose desires result in less-than-picturesque outcomes. We either fall far short of our intended goal, or we despair, winding up unhappy. To remedy this, we must modify our desires. Of course we should desire nothing less than eternal happiness. Nevertheless, we should desire this with the help of grace and in the life to come. Jesus promises this happiness, and because we cannot attain it on our own, he gives us the grace. If we seek this grace, we can be confident that he will give it.
Image: Paolo Carboni, The Unfinished Facade of the San Petronio Basilica (CC BY-SA 3.0)