The wind blows gently out of the southeast into the safety of the harbor of the little village of Genoa, Italy. The foothills are brown in the late summer; brown against a mostly blue sky and the sky mostly blue except for the clouds that both soak up as well as reflect the soft rose hues of the sun dipping into the Ligurian Sea; the waters mingling with the Mediterranean Sea.
Christopher Columbus sits on the end to the pier gazing into the west. And while the sun sets on another day of dreaming, a vision wells up and he stares into a picture of his future with fierce determination.
“The Vision of Columbus,” painted in the early part of the 20th century by the American artist N. C. Wyeth depicts the young voyager sitting on the end of a dock in the harbor of what must be his boyhood home of Genoa, Italy. Wyeth has captured Columbus somewhere around 17 years old. His face is fresh, his expression is intent and his gaze is steady as he looks beyond the shallow waters of this familiar harbor to the open waters of oceans beyond.
I’ve studied this painting a thousand times. It comes from a music book, a collection of simple tunes and melodies for children that I’ve had in my possession since I was less than half the age of Columbus shown the painting. It was often, in my boyhood home that I would open the book to this page and plead with my mother, “Please play this picture!”
The painting of The Vision of Columbus has always captivated something deep within me. And more times than I can count it’s stirred my courage and reminded me of the importance of anticipating adventure, cultivating a sense of wonder and having vision. Not long ago, after pulling the song book from the shelf and finding my way to this page, I realized that this single image represents for me the most poignant sense of vision in my life. As I stood with the book open to the painting a voice inside me spoke once again: “Please play this picture!”
There are several components in this painting that taken as a whole add up to a remarkable story of a young man with vision who, most likely at the age of ten experienced the open sea and the thrill of voyage for the first time and lived with that vision until the end of his life. But taken separately, each component has something to speak into us here and now.
There is, of course, the harbor. Wyeth’s harbor seems to be a safe place; the pace seems slow, deliberate. In the background, a small ship is being loaded; readied for another voyage. One can only imagine that a crew is working to supply the ship with all they will need to meet the demands of the voyage ahead. But it is safe here, and measured, controlled. There are no storms in this harbor.
There is the large iron ring in the forefront of this painting attached securely into the concrete pier. It is there, presumably to hold fast any sailing vessel that would be anchored and moored. As Columbussits directly over this ring though, there is almost a sense in which it only adds to the Columbus’ conviction and seems to indicate a clear message: “Nothing can hold me back!”
There are the three figures just behind Columbus. 15 to 20 feet away, these three men ponder the waters of the safe harbor. Their juxtaposition to Columbus is striking if not ironic. They are huddled together in the shadows. They are turned away; their faces are trained on the interior of the harbor, they are focused on the safe waters just over the side of the pier. They are indeed in stark contrast to the young voyager whose face is fully set into the sun; looking out beyond the harbor to the open sea.
We might wonder what the painting would sound like if we could hear it; if we could play this picture. We can only imagine the very moment of this painting. Like a mid-15th century digital image caught on canvas, we can only imagine the sounds of the harbor, the seagulls, the workers loading the ships, the people in the marketplace, and conversation among the men on the dock. We can only imagine the movement of the water drawing us deeper and deeper in the painting; drawing us closer and closer to the boy—the young man who sits on the end of the pier gazing longingly into the sun-drenched new day and the open water far beyond the safety of the harbor.
Near the very center of this painting is Columbus’s face. Tanned, yet tender, ruddy, and full of wonder, his face is full of the salty breeze of the Mediterranean. And we can only imagine what must be going on in his mind. What is Columbus thinking at this very moment? Because it’s generally believed that Columbus began his voyaging career at around the age of 10, he knows he can do it. He trusts his sense of adventure. He knows that he has a vision for his future that will carry him confidently into the vastness of the sea beyond this safe harbor. But there is far more than even that. What kinds of questions crowd his mind…
Where will the journey lead me? How far does it go? What can I accomplish? What ‘New Worlds’ await me? What will I discover? What kind of impact will I make? How much will it cost? What dangers will I face? Who will I meet? Who will come with me? Will I survive? Will I thrive? Will it be dangerous? What will I learn? What obstacles will I have to overcome? Will the ship sail? Will the ship float? Will I be afraid? Who will meet me in my fear? Well I learned about myself? How far will I have to push myself?
Am I ready for this adventure? Is my vision big enough? Whose vision is this? Where does the vision come from? How do I discern what vision to follow? What will a risk by going? What will I risk by not going? How I anticipate the problems? How can I turn problems into opportunities? Who will I be when I’m finished? What will I do then? What will I do after that? What will I gain by going? What will I lose by staying? I would talk about this with others? What’s my next step? How will I proceed? How will I chart my way? How will I get back? What does my heart say about all of this? What does my head say about all of this?
There must have been so much going on in his heart; so many questions swirling around in Christopher Columbus’s mind on that day as he sat on the end of that pier gazing into the vision of his future with the conviction that nothing could hold him back.
We know this much for sure: he went.
He got up from that pier, boarded his ship, and sailed out of the safety of the harbor into the open waters. Christopher Columbus’s vision took him from the end of that pier and literally into a brand new world. His vision was transformed into a remarkable legacy that, at least in some circles continues to be debated. But we can say for sure that what he did by moving into his vision has impacted millions of lives and even generations of people.
His vision changed his life. He went.
There is a well-known, well-used line from the book of Proverbs. Chapter 29, verse 18 tells us that, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ Without a sense of the future and the vision to go there, people will shrivel up and die; their dreams and visions will suffer atrophy and they find themselves “settling.” One could paraphrase, “Without a vision for the future, people merely ‘settle.’”
Without a sense of vision, people easily become like the three shadowy figures in N.C. Wyeth’s painting: cautiously looking over the side of the pier, not wanting—or even daring to look beyond the safety of the breakwater, and the harbor out into the open sea. Which sort of begs the question: what’s your vision?
And there is another question in all of this: What’s your vision for reaching your vision? As I’ve come to grips with this question lately, I know that it’s one thing to have a vision for, perhaps, giving a commencement address or even TED Talk, or spending Christmas Eve in England with our whole family listening to the King’s College Choir sing the Nine Lessons and Carols. But if there isn’t a vision for how I’m actually going to accomplish that vision, it’s really not a vision. It’s just a dream—a pipe dream (no pun intended). Visions, dreams, plans, goals, they’re all important. But at some point we have to get up off the end of the dock and walk toward the ship, drop the rudder, hoist the sails and go. With your vision in your heart and your hands on that rudder, your dreams are turning into vision and you are ready to go and nothing can hold you back.
So, let me just ask the question again: what’s your vision? How will you proceed? What, and, or who will help you get there? What, and, or who will stand in the way? Are you ready to take one more step today? Is your face turned toward the sunlight of this brand-new day?
Imagine yourself sitting on the end of your own pier looking into the bright sunlight of this new day. For just a few moments today, consider what today holds for you. It’s in those few moments – if you will take time for those few moments every day that all kinds of opportunity, hope, expectation and vision will come to you.