True short story — The girl who thought she was smaller than she was

‘Ragpicker’ by Édouard Manet, (oil on canvas), 1869 (PHOTO: WikiArt)

By Mark Roberts

Carmen was a shy girl with big blue eyes. She seemed to live in the shadows and hide in the corridors. She didn’t speak unless spoken to, was always polite and never said an unkind word. Carmen had the kind of personality that seemed to bring the best out of everyone. For months I was stupefied as to how a girl like this could have succumbed to a life of drugs and addiction. Carmen was twenty-six years old, had two sons, was single and lived with her mom. She was also very short. Her family doted on her and above all else, she wanted help; she wanted to change and be “normal”.

There used to be a small chapel on the farm – but with the influx of addicts – the chapel was converted to a dorm. The former chapel is surrounded by beautiful gardens bursting with colour and fragrant smells, a pool and an aviary of singing birds. Carmen moved into the dorm, respecting it, always cleaning it and saying how odd it was to sleep in “God’s house”.

There were a few odd paintings that hung on the dorm wall that she decided to keep. The vast majority of these paintings were cheap copies. Her favourite painting was The Ragpicker, which Édouard Manet¹ had painted in the 1860s. Contemporaries ridiculed Manet for the style of his paintings. To appreciate the painting one needs to understand what a “ragpicker” actually was.

“Ragpickers” are individuals considered to be the lowest of society who survived by picking up and living off the scraps of other people more fortunate than themselves. The painting of the “ragpicker” was six feet high by four feet wide. The size of the painting was unusual – portraits that size were reserved for the wealthy and elite of society, not the “ragpickers”! Manet inadvertently broke the mould when he elevated the stature of the “ragpicker” through his painting.

In life, we judge with our eyes and feelings. Our determination of worth and value in others is based on what we see, not what is inside. The farm would often have visits from the clergy and church members. These visitors would observe and make determinations of an addict in five minutes. They approved or disapproved, deciding if the individual was good or bad or whether they should stay or leave. Addicts could sense the judgements being made against them. They would sometimes appear hostile, unfriendly or even ungrateful. These reactions were defence mechanisms that they had learned on the street. I learned that the only way to get an addict to change was to see and treat them as you imagined they could be.

Carmen had her own defence mechanisms. For her, these defence mechanisms manifested from her lack of self-confidence and self-worth. Much like the “ragpicker”. No one knows who Manet’s “ragpicker” really was, but he is immortalised on that giant canvas for the world to see. In his day, Manet was mocked and jeered for the painting. Yet today the painting is regarded as a masterpiece. Similarly, Carmen stood facing the jeers and mockings of society. In their eyes, she didn’t deserve a portrait of herself that size, painted by a Creator who loved her deeply. She was a “ragpicker” after all, the lowest of society.

In time, Carmen would come to see that God had taken an addict and painted a life-size portrait of her. The painting was reserved for the saints and He hung it as a mantlepiece in His throne room proudly for the world to see. Only when she saw the portrait of her reflected in Jesus’ eyes did she understand love and the price it cost Him to paint the “ragpicker” story of her life.

Another painting, “Salvador Mundi” (Saviour of the world), was sold recently for four hundred and fifty million dollars – a record price. The painting was sold despite doubts that Leonardo da Vinci was the artist. On a world tour viewed by twenty-seven thousand people (a world record for an individual piece of work), a promotional video was made. In it the actor Leonardo di Caprio stands, staring at the painting, mesmerised by its exquisite beauty. His mouth hangs open in awe. Art lover, Nina Doede, says that standing in front of the painting was a spiritual experience, breathtaking in nature and brought tears to her eyes.

When you really see Jesus, it’s not always with the eyes of the intellect, but rather a spiritual experience that leaves us in awe. When we look into His face, in time we begin to see ourselves. When we look at a “ragpicker”, we begin to see Him.

Sitting under the trees of the garden one late afternoon during a session, Carmen whispered: “It still amazes me how God can make a “ragpicker” like me seem so beautiful”. All I could do was smile and agree.

A few years later I bumped into Carmen in a shopping mall. She looked like a member of the Royal family. She didn’t seem so short after all, I thought to myself. She was engaged to a young gentleman and her two boys were doing great. I kissed her goodbye and as she turned back to wave I thought of those words under the tree. I realised at that moment that we are all “ragpickers” and yet we are all masterpieces.

¹Not to be confused with Claude Monet, also a 19th-century French impressionist painter

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