Mediocrity, Envy, and Grace

The 1984 film, Amadeus, tells the story of the child genius, Mozart. IMdB describes it in this manner:

The life, success and troubles of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who was insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claimed to have murdered him…

Mozart’s genius is so profound that it is little more than a toy in the hands of a very spoiled and immature boy/man. Salieri feels that, in Mozart’s existence, God is mocking him. He has dedicated his life to his work, even “to the glory of God,” and nothing he produces can be compared to the slightest trifle of Mozart’s irreverent gift. In the last scene of the film, Salieri, now confined to a mental institution (from where he is relating the tale) blesses the world:

“Mediocrities everywhere! I absolve you!”

Salieri implicates the whole of the world in his crime, describing himself as the “patron saint of mediocrities.” It is one of the most deeply affecting scenes I have ever encountered.

His crime is driven by envy. It is a story that brilliantly exposes the reality that envy is the product of shame and our inability, or unwillingness, to bear it. Salieri is the Emperor’s court musician, his favorite. He enjoys the applause and approval of the public – until the arrival of Mozart. The sheer brilliance of Mozart’s work reveals Salieri as a yeoman, one who labors hard but never succeeds in producing the beauty that flows so effortlessly from Mozart’s mind. The shame in that revelation is too much to bear. The result is envy – the evil eye that seeks the destruction of another. It is of note that the Scriptures tell us that Christ was delivered up for death out of envy.

Tragically, Salieri’s envy is directed towards grace itself. As such, his enemy is not Mozart, but God Himself. Mozart gets killed as the closest convenient target. Such envy eats away at the soul and draws it into a very dark place. We come to hate our own life while resenting the very grace that sustains it.

I was struck several years ago on my first visit to Greece, a country of striking beauty with abundant treasures of wonder everywhere you go. And, everywhere you go, grafitti is present. I can only imagine it as the frustrated expression of an embittered generation that cannot allow anything of beauty to remain untarnished. I do not have a broad enough experience to know if this phenomenon is common across Europe. It certainly has its presence in the US. It is a discordant note in the midst of a symphony, an expression of pain that inhabits our envy. We seek to murder beauty itself.

The shame of mediocrity is, I think, particularly strong in modern culture, driven by the strange lies of our cultural mythology. I saw a billboard on a recent trip. It proclaimed: “Goals + Passion = Change.” Well, I suppose it does. However, the hidden message in this is that “change is possible and desirable, but that it’s your personal responsibility. The reason your passions are frustrated is because you have a lack of goals. Great people are passionate people, etc.” It’s nothing more than new packaging for the old Horatio Alger story, the American myth that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It oversimplifies life and transfers the unspoken corporate guilt of our way of life onto the individual. “Mediocrity is failure and it is my fault.” This is cultural insanity.

We live in a sea of grace, in a world in which wonder and awe suffuse the whole universe. Often, the work of grace goes unnoticed, hidden both by its ordinariness and its lack of drama. Our culture is fond of singing, “Amazing grace,” with an expectation that what constitutes the work of God will always amaze and astound. It is the stuff of great “testimonies” and the various heroes of the faith. But most of the time throughout history, there is a slow and steadfast persistence of grace that, on the one hand, sustains us in our existence, and, on the other, constantly makes the fruit of our lives exceed the quality of our work. We offer him what is mediocre, at best, and He yields back to us thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred. Indeed, we fail to understand that what some might judge to be “mediocre” is itself a work of grace.

Such meditations have become more common for me as I age.  I have come to appreciate that which is steadfast more than that which is exciting. On the larger scale of culture and the grand issues of our time, I have little interest in conversations of how things might be changed for the better. It is little more than idle speculation, something that has become a national past time.

We are beloved mediocrities who have been commanded to become gods (by grace). The only pathway that makes any sense in such a journey is that of the Cross. That path is one of self-emptying and patient endurance. God has not established “achieved excellence” as the manner of our salvation. Indeed, the cult of excellence, in many ways, is one of the soul-crushing myths of our age. The Mozarts of the world are seldom, if ever, the result of applied effort (Salieri is the result of applied effort). They are unpredictable wonders whose presence mocks our faith in works.

We are told:

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29)

And, though this is true, we find ourselves chafing at being called “mediocre.” We cannot bear the shame of such a designation. Our failure to endure this properly easily leads to envy of those striking examples of grace that happen among us.

I marvel at the grace that marks our lives. It radiates and shines forth from every blade of grass and every “mundane” miracle of the day. Occasionally it “Mozarts” its way into the world where we are tempted to imagine it as a work of human genius. We fail to remember that “genius,” in its origins, meant a deity indwelling an individual. It was always some sort of grace.

When I write and say, “Do the next good thing,” I mean to remind us of our mediocrity and the importance we should attach to accepting that place in life. However, the “good thing” that comes next is always a gift of grace. In kindness, generosity, mercy, and love we each find a share in Mozart moments that radiate the very life of God. It is such grace that makes our mediocrity possible.

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