It is said the famous sculptor, Michelangelo, was once found staring intently at a block of granite.
When asked what he was doing, the artist explained, “I know there’s a beautiful angel in there and I’m trying to work out the best way to release her”.
I was reminded of this story recently as I watched Nick, who many consider to be dangerous, gently interact with Jamie, a young boy from a broken family.
Nick describes himself as a violent and abusive man and it is why many give him a wide berth. As a result he lives a very lonely and isolated existence.
On this particular night he didn’t know I was watching as he engaged with Jamie, who had been removed from the care of his abusive mother and now lived with his alcoholic father.
Nick was playfully showing Jamie a few moves on how to defend himself in a fight.
The interaction meant a lot to Jamie who was often a victim of bullying.
It also came from a heart of compassion as Nick had also been a victim of abuse as a young boy.
I have also seen Nick stand up to acts of injustice inflicted on some of the most vulnerable people living on the streets.
In my last column (August 28) I wrote that in order to discover our true identities we needed to recognise who God created us to be.
After witnessing the interaction between Nick and Jamie, I realised it is equally important for we Christians to also recognise the true identity of those around us.
When Michelangelo was found contemplating the lump of granite he was not staring at a hunk of rough, unrefined rock, but rather visualising a beautiful creation within it.
He knew, buried under the layers of its hardened exterior lay a masterpiece waiting to be exposed to the world. It is an insight we are called to imitate.
God’s identity, which has been indelibly stamped within each of us, lives with the constant threat of burial due to our vulnerability to the environment around us.
His divine identity will be either spiritually released or it will be entrapped and hidden beneath the debris of our human experience.
In varying degrees it is a phenomenon that impacts us all.
If we fail to recognise the divine imprint within our selves, as sons and daughters of God, we will struggle to recognise God within others.
It is why Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Sadly however, how we perceive and respond to others is often determined by the attitude and behaviours they present to the world.
The more one has been hurt or damaged the more likely they are to have erected, usually unconsciously, layers of self-protection to prevent or minimise further pain.
These layers are usually unattractive, and are in fact intended to be.
The divine within them becomes increasingly unrecognisable as they create these identities of self-preservation.
Anger, violence, timidity, self-abuse, aloofness, isolation, substance abuse etc. are all barriers borne of fear, designed to keep the world and its potential threats at bay.
It is why Nick maintains a persona of aggression. He has known deep pain and his natural response has become one of guarded distrust, yet there are moments when his true identity in God will shine through.
These are glimpses of who Nick was created to be and would have been had he been nurtured in the environment of love that God had intended.
It is why we must constantly remind ourselves that God is living within each person, no matter what façade is on display.
If we are to believe that everyone is created in the image of God then we must believe that any signs of external ugliness or imperfection are products, not of God, but of failed human experience.
Psalm 139 tells us that God sees through the darkness of our lives and sees the divine within. It is why Jesus, surrendered to his Father’s will, could see the real person behind the flaws.
It is what we are all called to do. Like Michelangelo, we must look beyond the masks of sediment and, through choices of love, draw forth the beautiful reality buried within.