Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saint Luke, Patron of Artists

On this Feast of Saint Luke, we pause to reflect on the special vocation of the Evangelists to hand on the Good News of Jesus Christ. But, today's Feast, honoring the patron of artists, also reminds us of the essential place that literature, the visual arts, and music have always had in the spread of the Gospel in all times and places.

Saint John Paul II highlighted this in his Letter to Artists, which was issued in preparation for the Great Jubilee, on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

A contemporary icon of St. Luke
showing scenes from his life.
The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ himself made extensive use of images in his preaching, fully in keeping with his willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.

The Church also needs musicians. How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.

The Church needs architects, because she needs spaces to bring the Christian people together and celebrate the mysteries of salvation. After the terrible destruction of the last World War and the growth of great cities, a new generation of architects showed themselves adept at responding to the exigencies of Christian worship, confirming that the religious theme can still inspire architectural design in our own day. Not infrequently these architects have constructed churches which are both places of prayer and true works of art.

You can read Pope Paul VI's 1965 Message to Artists (issued at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council), here.

A Prayer of Thanks for Artists and Writers +
Eternal God, light of the world and Creator of all that is good and lovely: We bless your name for inspiring all those who with images and words have filled us with desire and love for you; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saint Margaret Mary and Learning About Love

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.
—Ephesians 1:2-3

On December 27, 1673, a nun of the Visitation Monastery in Paray-le-Monial, France, was gifted with an experience of the Divine that left an indelible mark on spirituality. Years later, remembering that vision, she wrote: “The Lord said to me, ‘My Divine Heart is so passionately in love with humanity that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of its ardent love. It must pour them out through [you], and manifest itself to them with its precious treasures, which contain all the graces which they need to be saved.” This Divine Love is what devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is all about and it was to this truth that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque committed her life.  

Born in Janots, France, twenty-six years before that first vision, Margaret Alacoque was the daughter of a notary who died when she was only nine years old. (She added the name Mary to her baptismal name at the time of her confirmation.) Sources say that she was mistreated by the family of the uncle who took her in. At this time she was also afflicted with a rheumatic illness which left her bed-ridden for nearly six years. Once she recovered, it was suggested that she marry, but she ultimately decided to enter religious life. In 1671, she entered the Order of the Visitation, which had been founded by Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane de Chantal only sixty years before. 

Although she was known to have been spiritually mature, religious life was difficult for her, and one biography says that “she was slow and clumsy, and perhaps rather absent-minded; she annoyed the infirmarian when working as her assistant and was treated with scorn and ridicule as a result.” As she received the series of visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she understood that she was being called to spread the message that had been entrusted to her: that Christians should make reparations for their coldness, despite the love that the Lord showed them and that special honor should be given to Jesus through times of prayer each Thursday and on the first Friday ofevery month. She was met with strong opposition when she began to carry out the instructions she had received. Although her revelations were condemned as delusions by the first theologians to evaluate them, she eventually found support from her spiritual director, the Jesuit priest Saint Claude la Columbiere. Her experience of rejection and scrutiny were further complicated by temptations to despair, vanity, and even self-indulgence. 

Eventually, Margaret Mary was vindicated and entrusted with more responsibility within her community, including being named assistant to the community’s superior and novice-mistress. The writings of Saint Claude, Saint John Eudes, and the work of the Jesuits, as well as the introduction of the Feast of the Sacred Heart helped to bring Saint Margaret Mary’s mission to completion. During her second term as assistant superior, she was taken ill. Just before her death on October 17, 1690, at the age of forty-three, her last words were, “I need nothing but God and to lose myself in the Heart of Jesus.” She died as she was being anointed.  

Had it not been for her visions, there is little in the life of Saint Margaret Mary that would have set her apart from the other members of her community. And while we may celebrate her for her visions and work of promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus—giving new life and dimension to a devotion that had already existed for nearly 600 years—the secret of her holiness can be found in her humble and enduring faith. In fact, it was her extraordinary courage and fidelity that  enabled her to stand firm in her conviction that a special mission had been entrusted to her, even when those closest to her refused to believe in her or her visions.

As with the other saints, Margaret Mary was conscious of the gift that she had received—the gift of God’s love and the spirit of adoption, the same gifts celebrated in the above passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. And, like the other saints, she received this gift with a spirit of gratitude that empowered her to pass it along to others, down to our own time. 

We live a world in which too many need to hear that they are loved. More than that, though, they need to be shown love. In this love-hungry world, Saint Margaret Mary reminds us of the power of faith and love to effect change far beyond what we might believe is possible.

A Prayer in Honor of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque +
Pour out on us, we pray, O Lord,
the spirit with which you so remarkably endowed
Saint Margaret Mary,
so that we may come to know
that love of Christ which surpasses all understanding
and be utterly filled with your fullness.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(taken from The Roman Missal)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Praying the Rosary on Our Lady's Feast

The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary has, for me, always felt like a non-feast. And, in many ways, it is, because it celebrates a movement of prayer and tradition that is fundamental to our Faith--Mary as a woman of prayer. But, this day in early October is also set aside to honor the Holy Roman Empire's victory at the Battle of Lepanto, during which the Christian forces defeated the invading Turkish forces. Although this isn't the only day on the Church's liturgical calendar that has this sort of provenance (i.e. the Commemoration of the Most Holy Name of Mary), it is an important part of the day's character, highlighting Mary's role as an intercessor for the Church.

This evening, in honor of today's celebration, I set aside time to pray the rosary, as well as the Liturgy of the Hours. Although I'm usually quick to admit that the rosary is not one of my preferred forms of prayer (it has always been more of a discipline), I wanted to be sure that the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary didn't go by without my offering this ancient and revered prayer.

I learned to pray the rosary from my paternal Grandmother, who passed away in 2007. For a large part of my childhood, I spent nearly every weekend with my grandparents. Often, my grandmother would take me to Saturday morning Mass in our home parish and, immediately after Mass, as they did each day, a group of parishioners would recite the rosary. Intrigued as I was by the string of beads with its central medal and crucifix and the mix of prayers, I would ask to stay. Unlike so many others, my introduction to the rosary (and devotion to Mary, for that matter) took place within a context that felt very organic and those who made this daily devotion such an obvious part of their day showed me that this ancient prayer is something that could be loved and even counted upon for comfort and encouragement. Later, once I had learned the prayers, my grandmother and I would sometimes pray the rosary together in the afternoon.

My Grandfather Henderson's First Communion Rosary (ca. 1922)
and my copy of Christian Prayer
Through the years I have had a lack-luster track record of rosary recitation, but it remains a devotion that is dear to my heart. I'm grateful for those generations of pray-ers who helped this devotion evolve to the form we have today and to those faithful women and men, nearly all of whom have passed away, who showed me how beautiful this devotion can be.

And so, this evening I prayed the rosary on a set of beads that belonged to my paternal grandfather, offering thanks for the gift of faith that my Grandma and Grandpa Henderson had handed on to me. I also prayed for all those taking part in the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

Although I try to make these posts as thoughtful and reflective as possible, highlighting points of Scripture and liturgical tradition, this evening I just want to share my prayer of thanks for the wonderful traditions of prayer with which we have been entrusted. I also want to urge you, whomever and wherever you are, to take some time during the month of October to pray the rosary. Finally, I want to ask that you please pray for me and for all those who have helped nurture the light of faith that is glowing within you.

Holy Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!