The Calling of St. Matthew and Me

The Call of Saint Matthew calls us all to contemplation, to a deeper encounter with our Lord.

Caravaggio, “Call of Saint Matthew,” ca. 1599
Caravaggio, “Call of Saint Matthew,” ca. 1599 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

An amphiboly is when the same statement can have two different meanings depending on the emphasis and grouping of the words. For example, at a recent county fair, I saw signs forbidding parking by “Temporary Police Order.” It made me wonder if I had to take seriously an order given by the temporary police. The real meaning, of course, is that the order is temporary. The ambivalence of the word association creates the amphiboly.

The amphiboly in the title of this blog is intentional because both St. Matthew and I are called to follow Christ, but the painting entitled The Calling of Saint Matthew has had a profound impact on me as I have meditated on it. I am not an art critic, so this is not an explanation of the finer points of composition and symbolism in the painting. This is a meditation on the painting and the two other works created by Caravaggio. The Calling is actually one of a set of three paintings. The other two are The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, which depicts St. Matthew as he composes his Gospel, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, which depicts his martyrdom, as the name suggests.

I first looked up the Calling a number of years ago because I heard a Catholic speaker refer to it. I was impacted immediately by the painting and what I learned as I did some research about the painting’s contents. The impact was heightened because my name is Matthew, and St. Matthew is a close friend with whom I communicate on a regular basis. This painting seemed to be addressing me personally with an important message, just as Jesus addresses St. Matthew with an important message in the painting: Follow me. Jesus says the same thing to me through the painting and at all moments.

It has been pointed out that the feet of Jesus are pointed toward the door. It is a subtle detail of the painting, but it has been a significant point of reflection for me. Jesus is calling me now! “O that today you would hearken to his voice.” (Psalm 95:7) We encounter God and respond to His call in the present, not yesterday or tomorrow, but today (CCC 2659). God’s time is the eternal today. We know what choice Matthew made, and he seems to be in the process of making that decision as his right foot leaves the floor and his legs angle to follow Christ.

The pointing finger of Jesus first caught my attention as a strange posture of hand, but I read that his hand is in the exact posture of Adam’s hand reaching to God’s in the famous Sistine Chapel. Jesus is the new Adam, and he calls me to fulfill my potential as a man; i.e., to be holy, to radiate strength and joy.

But there are things that hold St. Matthew and me back if we let them. Look at St. Matthew’s right hand. It’s still on the coins! We know what decision he made, but meditating on that moment itself when literally everything hangs in the balance forces me to consider whether I am choosing Christ or the world right now. The right hand fascinates me because in the other paintings, he has moved his hand from the coin to the pen. His hands are now put to work for the Lord. In the last painting, his right hand is extended. To the bystanders in the painting, it would appear that he is fending off his attacker, but from the vantage point of being outside the painting, it is clear that he is reaching for Heaven. Even his left hand becomes progressively more open in the paintings, first pointing to himself, then resting on the table where he writes, and finally open wide in surrender to God. These stages of the hands remind me of the three stages in the spiritual life: purgation, illumination and union. St. Matthew is first purged of his attachments to the world, then illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit as he composes the Gospel, and is finally united with the Lord in his death.

The other people in the painting catch my attention as well. St. Matthew’s two companions to the right are looking directly at Jesus, while the other two are engrossed in the money, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the God-Man. The two on the right are caught in the crossfire of Matthew’s call, and one of them appears to also be present in the last painting, contemplatively watching St. Matthew’s entrance into glory. As I move to follow Christ, some will come with me. Conversion is never a purely individual endeavor. It changes our relationships. Some ties must be severed, others will be strengthened. As a husband and father, it is my duty to guide my family on the path toward Christ.

Art is never just art. The Call of Saint Matthew calls me to contemplation, to a deeper encounter with our Lord. The choice is mine if I will answer that call in the now of each moment. The choice is also yours.

Saint Matthew, pray for us.