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Posts Tagged ‘love’

Assisi: love on pilgrimage

Each stage of my Italian journey was rich and rewarding. But I was glad I had planned to visit Assisi last of all. The visit to this place of pilgrimage was far more than I had anticipated, an experience which amply rewarded my preparation of reading a life of St Francis before I arrived in the Umbrian town.

There are so many memories of those places which are associated with Francis, either by his presence or by others commemorating his faithful discipleship.I found myself saving for my last day a return to the basilica of San Francesca. On my first day I come to the church as a pilgrim and spent time in the crypt which houses the tomb of Francis and viewing some of the works of art. The second time I visited the church I had downloaded a tour guide to the church on to my iPod and this made me go around slowly, thoughtfully and relatively comprehensively. But even this second time I kept being drawn back to a painting which had stopped me in my tracks on the first visit. There was strictly no photography in the church so this image is off the internet.

Situated in the left transept of the lower church, this is a representation of the deposition, the taking of Jesus’ body down from the cross, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti early in the fourteenth century. Art historians will tell you that it is significant because it is an example of those works which broke through the medieval conventions which had been  influenced by Byzantine iconography. Instead of stylized images we have figures who interact with one another, a precursor of the humanism of the Renaissance.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But this work hit me between the eyes – or, rather, touched me at a deep level of common humanity and spiritual devotion. Look at the people who crowd around the dead body of Jesus. Their grief is not just the ending of their dreams, but the loss of someone they love more than  they can say. Their grief is tactile, as they cling tenderly to what remains of their Friend and Master. In the foreground, in red, is Mary Magdalene, kissing the foot she had so recently anointed with oil and washed with her tears of repentance. Standing, in blue, is Mary the mother of Jesus gently caressing his cold cheek with her own, just as she may have done when he was a babe in arms. John, the beloved disciple, shares the weight of the corpse – but this is no mere burden to carry, but a beloved friend to be cared for. But the fresco is far more than ‘just’ a portrayal of human grief. It is a representation of human devotion and it drew me into its spiritual response to God’s love in Christ. Here are friends devoted to Jesus. They cradle him lovingly and respectfully. Their tactile affection invites us to respond to this Jesus not simply with the language of faith or the vocabulary of discipleship – but with a  movement of the heart, with an adoration born of love and longing.

See from his head, his hands his feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down;

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Isaac Watts

New book reviews  – just click on the books menu tab:

Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination (Equinox 2005) go to Books >Austin Explorations

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949) go to Books > Merton Seeds

 

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Mary Overload?

Hands up those who can remember Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life! As a teenager they had a profound impact on my sense of where God is to be found in the gritty realities of everyday life. From an ecumenical perspective, the prayer ‘Help me to say Yes’ broadened by Protestant understanding of Mary, with its line, ‘God needs my Yes as he needed Mary’s Yes’.

Protestants have often, or even usually, ignored the biblical figure of Mary in reaction to what they see as the excessive claims of medieval and Catholic piety and dogma. They have even muttered such things as ‘Mariolatry’ (often while practising their own ‘bibliolatry’ – but that’s a debate for another day). In contrast, and prompted by Quoist, I have, each year during Advent, preached about Mary as a model of faith, an example to us on how to respond to God’s call – ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.’ I have even meditated upon the charismatic implications of the work of the Holy Spirit conceiving Christ within her.

Yet this week I found myself reaching a kind of Mary overload. Two things came together. First, while on my Italian journey I have been reading each day a few pages of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. It is, I believe, a spiritual classic but even classics are of their time and this isearly Merton and, at times very pre-Vatican II (because, of course, it was). Published in 1949, it is the fruit of the early years of his contemplative monastic journey when he seems to have been ecumenically unaware.Despite this, the book is full of gems – or perhaps I should say ‘seeds’ that encourage the reader to contemplate. But of course it is human, and so mixed.One moment he writes,

… if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth consult not your own imagination but faith. Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form himself in you by His cross. (p96)

Then within a few pages he is talking of Mary’s soul as ‘absolutely full of the most perfect created sanctity’ (p101), and ‘We believe that hers was the most perfect sanctity outside the sanctity of God…’ (p100)  I could quote further, but I expect you get the gist. I started muttering about the Vulgate’s mistranslation ‘full of grace’, about scriptural warrants for such ideas – and then tried to be eirenic and generous.

Coronation of the Virgin by Michele Giambono

The second thing was just the next day. I entered the first room of the Academia art gallery in Venice, with its medieval and early renaissance religious art, and found that nearly all the pieces were of Mary. Now, I’m very happy to spend time in front of pictures of the annunciation (Mary’s Yes) or images of the Virgin and Child (symbolic of incarnation) but when I realized that a third of the works in the room are representations of the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven – well – I had to take the weight off my feet and take stock. The first reaction was emotional and negative – then the reflection began and I tried to enter the world view of these artists and the spirituality that they express and provoke.

Leave aside for the moment the theological qualifications and caveats – I worked my way through them apace. Yes, coronation speaks of hierarchy. Yes, Mary seems to be given a mediatorial role which should only belong to Christ. Yes, there are dogmatic formulations about perpetual virginity and ‘the assumption of BVM’ which Protestants find very problematic…. yes, yes.

Then the closing lines of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine came to mind:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here is a vision of the consummation of all things in which we all have crowns! Is it too big a step to see in the medieval vision of Mary’s coronation a prefiguring of our own destinies where ‘Love [bids] us welcome’ and gives each of us the place of honour. If this interpretation has any merit then the coronation becomes a symbolic representation of Mary’s place as the first Christian – chronologically – and, perhaps, prophetically.

Her Yes makes room for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enable Christ to be born. She is, as eastern Christians say, the Theotokos, the bearer of God. She also stands at the cross while most of the disciples ran away… And, perhaps, in these pictorial representations of her welcome in heaven we see the welcome that awaits all who trust in the child she bore for us and our salvation.

So – back to Merton. No coronation here, he is talking of Mary’s poverty and lowliness as expressed in the Magnificat.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God.

Well, I – we – might still hesitate with some of that, but its central theme is rich. As Paul puts it, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’; or as Kendrick puts it, ‘Our weaknesses become his possibilities’; or, as Merton continues:

This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.

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