Long ago illiterate people relied on art to learn the faith. Churches were filled with sacred stained-glass windows and statues meant to convey truths and religious stories visually. Their beauty also lifted minds to God. As a child, I had a holy card collection, many of them with sacred art. Did you?
Viewing art is more than an intellectual experience. It has power to move our hearts. Think Michelangelo’s Pieta, Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, or the 13th-century rose windows in Notre Dame Cathedral, which were spared in the tragic fire. They are called “rose” because they resemble this flower by their circular radiating form.
Sacred Reading and Sacred Viewing
Lectio Divina is a form of prayer in which you read Scripture or another spiritual book, be attuned to a phrase meant for you, reflect on it, and perhaps be lifted into contemplation.
A variation of this is Visio Divina, praying with an image, artwork, or a photograph. It follows the same steps:
- Read the image, slowly looking top to bottom or side to side, noticing details. Let some aspect touch your heart.
2. Meditate on the feature that has moved you. Ask yourself why it grabs your attention today. What might God be saying to you through it?
3. Speak to God about your thoughts.
4. Rest wordlessly in the presence of God.
Some people like to add a fifth stage, action. Your prayer may move you to undertake a certain action.
Icons Old and New
Iconography in Greek means “image writing.” Icons, the artwork mainly associated with Eastern Christianity, are meant to make you aware of God’s presence. They are known as “windows into heaven.” Rich in symbolism and rather stylized, icons are not to everyone’s taste. Shown here is the oldest known icon of Jesus titled “Pantocrator” (Ruler of the universe) and perhaps the most famous one of Mary: “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” The traditional artist prays and fasts while painting an icon.
Today several artists provide modern icons. One prominent one is Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS. His icon “Our Lady of Peace in Ukraine” is pictured here.
Daily Gospel-based Art
Each day among my emails is a post from Fr. Patrick van der Vorst that contains the daily Gospel reading along with a reflection on it and a piece of artwork related to it. Reading this post has become part of my spiritual exercises.
Corresponding to this week’s Gospel on fasting is the painting “Fasting in the Wilderness,” seen above. The artist, Rose Datoc Dall, did fast when she painted this one of Jesus in the desert preparing for his ministry. He is shown with his eyes closed and hands folded. He sits under a tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. It forms a tent around him, cutting him off from distractions.
The tallit has a fringe on each corner, which is made of eight strands folded over. The four of them are a reminder to keep God’s commandments. You see them on the ground before Jesus. Some people mistakenly think these are snakes to symbolize of the temptations to come that he will repel. Around Jesus are the rocks he will refuse to turn into bread to break his fast. In the background are blurred people. What do you think they stand for? The painting’s message is that prayer and fasting are keys to spiritual power.
An Example of Visio Divina
If you were to do visio divina using Dall’s painting, look at it carefully. Then you might hone in on those fringes. They might call to mind a commandment you fail to obey. You might then ask God for forgiveness. Finally bask in knowing that the Father’s great mercy and love surround you.
You might give visio divina a try. Or create your own artwork. Or pray about God’s original artwork in the sky, forest, landscape, or garden!
I believe this link will take you to Fr. Patrick’s website: https://www.facebook.com/ChristianArt.Today/
• What are your favorite religious sculptures or paintings?
I learned to tat, a form of lace making, on a bus. As we rode along on the way to a funeral for a Sister’s mother, I noticed a Sister seated across the aisle in front of me doing strange things with her fingers. Curious, going home, I sat beside her, and she gave me a shuttle along with a ball of thread and taught me this art. Lesson one: You never know how your life will unfold.
The thin thread used to tat easily becomes knotted. You can either cut the thread and begin again or carefully work out the knot. Lesson two: With patience and perseverance you can solve your problems.
My first products were delicate flowers. Our maintenance man, whose last name happened to be the same as mine, had an aunt in California, who happened to be a Sister of Notre Dame like me. She happened to make stationery using tatted flowers and sold it. Since I didn’t like the messy, tricky task of gluing the seven petals onto paper, and she needed a source of flowers, I sent mine to her. Lesson three: Life is full of coincidences, otherwise known as God-incidences.
From making flowers, I graduated to making delicate items like a tatted shamrock for an Irish Sister, a white cross bookmark for a newly ordained priest, and green wreaths with a red ribbon to wear in Advent for the Sisters in my convent. Lesson four: You can always build on what you know.
I tried to show a Sister who taught home economics how to tat. She couldn’t master the first basic step when the thread must jump from one side to the other. Her conclusion was that I wasn’t a good teacher! Lesson five: Everyone has unique gifts.
I did successfully teach a young sister to tat. She was going to make a tatted heart and send it to her mother who lived out of state. When I asked if she had completed the project, she said it was in the mail. The next day I received a thank-you card with the Sister’s tatted heart. Lesson six: You never know how people will surprise you.
Often when I flew out of state to give talks, I whiled away the hours in the boarding section and on the plane tatting. Sadly, on one trip my ball of thread rolled down the middle aisle of the plane! Another time, two young men who had been stopped for carrying a hunting knife, sat behind me. One told me that his grandmother tatted.
My largest project was making edging for pillowcases I had embroidered. They were to be sold at our community’s boutique. But my mother said to my sister, “Kathleen spent years making them. I want to buy them.” Lesson seven: A mother’s love is constant. (Years later I inherited the pillowcases.)
Tatting has a long history. In the portraits of eighteenth-century noblewomen, some of them are holding shuttles, including Marie Antoinette. More important to me is the fact that St. Julie Billiart, our spiritual mother, made lace for a living. I’m following a fine tradition. If you examine some altar linens, you will find they are edged in tatting.
I’m sure Mother Mary also took pleasure in doing needlework. It is a calming activity, and you end up with a physical product. No doubt her mother, St. Anne, taught her to sew. I imagine that when Mary visited Elizabeth, the two or them sewed baby clothes. Later, surely the mother of Jesus made (and darned) clothes for herself and her two men. Maybe in their Nazareth home there was a loom.
Apparently, God too enjoys sewing. According to the psalmist, God knit you together in your mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13) Also, after Adam and Eve sinned, “The LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)
My latest tatting project is decorating prayer cards with the tiny flowers. The Sister in California passed on, so I sometimes endure the painstaking task of straightening the petals with a straight pin and gluing them down to make mementos for people who make my retreats. The prayer card pictured here shows a favorite prayer of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She said, “If you ever feel distressed during your day — call upon our Lady — just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ I must admit — this prayer has never failed me.”
I don’t tat much anymore. Instead I crochet baby blankets, mostly as I watch Jeopardy. I’m grateful that my mother taught my sisters and me to sew, crochet, and embroider. We also wove dozens of potholders on metal looms. I wonder if modern mothers teach their girls these skills.
• What kind of needlework do you enjoy doing? Who taught you?
I’m watching the Hallmark movie “Three Wise Men and a Baby,” (very appropriate as Epiphany approaches). This movie is refreshingly different from other Hallmark movies, which are often mocked for having the same plots and details: a move from the city to a small town, saving a building or employment, following a dream, resentment changing to love, and ending with a kiss.
The unique movie is about three very different brothers who don’t get along: a shy and homophobic one; a creative, zany one who can’t keep a job; and an organized fireman. When a baby is dropped off at the fire station, the brothers must care for it the days before Christmas. The baby (who steals the show) brings the brothers together and they are reconciled—to their mother’s delight. The plot is charming, creative, and funny—as when the responsible brother accidentally takes the wrong baby home and when the three men reprise a Christmas ballet they did as children. (This movie is very different from the 1987 “Three Men and a Baby.”)
Now in 2024 you have the chance to make your life refreshingly different. You can change your morning routine by rising at a different time and eating a different breakfast. You can rearrange the furniture in your home and put up new pictures, go to a different restaurant or prepare a new meal yourself. Why not learn a new language—Chinese? Or take up an instrument—drums? This reminds me of the Christmas story of how Mary had just gotten Baby Jesus to sleep when she hears a boy playing a drum!
You might begin the new year by making that dentist or doctor appointment you’ve been putting off, cleaning that cluttered closet, or calling that family member or friend you’ve been out of touch with for a long time.
This morning an article in the New York Times advises renewing your energy during the day by taking a five-minute break once in a while in which you do nothing but breathe. I suppose you can also begin running or at least trying to walk 10,000 steps, or exercising to build up your energy.
My new spiritual practice to renew my soul will be to use a little book I received as a gift. For each day of the year it offers a Scripture verse and a page of blank lines. I intend to record at the end of the day pleasant things that happened. This will make me more mindful of God’s love for me and keep me positive. We’ll see how long I can keep this up!
Just as the brothers in the movie become friends, let’s pray that the Arabs and Jews, who come from the same stock, reconcile this year. Again it’s a baby, the Prince of Peace, who can bring this about. In view of the war in the Mideast and the war in Ukraine, and the conflict between US political parties, we certainly need a new year. This may be the year you reconcile with an estranged relative or friend and bring some peace into your life.
This year a new version of this website, Catholic Faith Corner, is about to be launched. Stay tuned!
• What new thing will you undertake to become a new you?
• What do you like/dislike about Hallmark movies?
Here is a version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth” that I like especially because of the quotations overlaid on the pictures. It is sung by Vince Gill and his daughter Jenny.
Here’s a suggestion to improve your life this year: Revitalize your prayer. This month I’ve been writing a book about praying. I offer you one chapter today that might prompt an idea of how you can enrich your relationship with God by dispelling a misconception you might have about prayer.
• Prayer should be long. No.
I once asked my spiritual director if I should get up during the night, go to chapel, and spend a few hours praying. He wisely said, “No. That’s not your spirituality.” Frankly, I was relieved! As a consecrated religious, my prayer took other forms throughout the day. Prayer is not “one size fits all.” It is an individualized matter.
Jesus spent the whole night in prayer, and some saints were known to pray for hours at a time. These facts might lead you to think that the more time you spend during your period of prayer, the better it is. (Or the more likely it is that God will answer your prayer of petition!) Not necessary so. The quality of prayer depends on your purpose, attitude, and what your mind and heart are doing. Jesus criticized the Scribes for praying long prayers for the sake of appearance (Luke 46:47).
Short prayers can be effective. What do people cry out when their house is on fire? They do not scream, “A conflagration is devastating my abode.” They yell, “Fire!” Your most frequent prayer might be, “Help!” Someone suggested that the first prayer occurred when a person observed a blade of grass emerging from soil and exclaimed, “Oh!”
Keep in mind St. Augustine’s comment on the length of a prayer: “A long speech is one thing, a long love another.”
• Prayer should result in a torrent of wonderful thoughts. No.
Don’t worry if your meditation doesn’t yield a slew of original insights. It doesn’t matter if at Mass you fail to glean enough knowledge to write a book. So what if as you pray the Rosary, God doesn’t reveal a course of action to undertake? Knowledge is not the goal of prayer. Love is.
Perhaps the grace that comes from prayer is not an idea at all. Instead, you may experience a moment of joy that is precious and consoling. Your prayer may leave you with a tear in your eye because you are moved with love for God or contrition. Maybe a sense of peace will come over you while you are in the midst of a maelstrom. Maybe a new desire will be born in you or a resolution.
Prayer shouldn’t be an ego-trip. What you get out of prayer is not important. Just being there, making yourself available to God is genuine prayer. It pleases God who craves your attention.
• Prayer should be formal. No.
St. Teresa of Avila advised, “Try not to let the prayer you make to such a Lord be mere politeness . . . avoid being bashful with God.” In Fiddler on the Roof Tevye’s conversation with God is a good example of informal prayer. To him prayer is not so much a duty but a visit with a friend. You don’t address a friend as “thou.” Prayer can be as simple as that of one little girl who was learning to ride a bike. She said, “God if you push me, I’ll do the peddling.”
Forget about trying to impress God with grand words and lofty ideas. He knows you through and through and loves you even when you stutter or speak in monosyllabic words.
Being real and honest with God might mean giving full play to your emotions. This is how the psalmist spoke to God in the psalms of lament. For example, repeatedly in Psalm 13 he complained, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
• Prayer is difficult. No.
You don’t find it hard to talk with a loved one or good friend. Surely God is your best friend. Probably the most difficult part of praying for many people is finding a free span of time to do it. However, just sending God quick “arrow” prayers throughout the day will keep your relationship intact. You could also pray rote prayers or prayers that other people have composed.
As for various prayer methods, you needn’t strive to master them to perfection. James Finley reports that the Trappist Thomas Merton once gave him insight into prayer. He recalls, “Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.’ You needn’t struggle to pray. Recall that Jesuit Thomas Greene describes the higher form of prayer as floating as opposed to swimming. Meister Eckhart advised, “Get out of the way and let God be God in you.”
The most satisfying prayer is simply being in God’s presence. An elderly married couple is content to sit together silently for hours. No words are necessary. They bask in the flow of their love for each other.
• I am not worthy to speak to God. No.
True, God is majestic and far beyond our comprehension. You might feel very small in his presence. Still, every person, though sinful, is a child of God, loved even before brought into being. Furthermore, God redeemed everyone, including you. Jesus went out of his way to be with sinners. No matter how underserving of God’s love you feel, he wants you to enjoy being in his company. He doesn’t listen to you only when you are good. It’s said that when you feel far from God, he isn’t the one who moved.
• Deep prayer is only for great saints. No.
Yes, St. Teresa of Avila was overwhelmed with ecstasy, St. Joseph Cupertino levitated, and St. Catherine of Siena had visions. These were extraordinary graces. All of us are called to be holy, to be saints. You were redeemed and baptized. You do not have to be super intelligent or super good in order to experience deep, profound prayer. God showers his gifts, including the gift of prayer, on whomever he wishes.
It could be you were rapt in wonder at the starry sky or a newborn. Maybe a glorious Mass or a passage from Scripture moved you to tears. Those instances are deep prayer. You possibly are a great saint in the making.
• What is your favorite way to pray? What new method would you like to adopt this year?
A LOVELY CHRISTMAS DUET
In honor of the Christmas season, here is a video that you might enjoy:
Did you know that Star Street, emblazoned with stars, leads into Bethlehem? It symbolizes the star that led the Magi to the Infant Jesus. Mary, nine-months pregnant, and her husband, Joseph, may have come down this street as they entered the town for the census. Presumably the Magi also followed this route. Sadly, the usual Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem are drastically curtailed because of the war.
In school we were pleased and proud when the teacher placed a star on our paper. It showed that we had done “stellar” work. We call people who are outstanding in their field “stars.” Today Taylor Swift is a prominent one; she graces the cover of Time as its Person of the Year. The article about her explains, “Every year contains light and dark; 2023 was a year with significant shares of darkness. In a divided world, where too many institutions are falling, Taylor Swift found a way to transcend borders and be a source of light.”
A top recognition for actors and actresses is a star on Broadway’s Walk of Fame. Movie stars and pop stars make our lives happier and brighter.
Of course, the greatest star of all time is Jesus. He is God “fallen” to Earth to save humankind. By dint of hard work and pain, he achieved great success. Stars give off light; Jesus called himself the Light of the World. He brought us out of the darkness of sin and death and taught us truth. A star-studded sky is so beautiful that we gaze on it filled with wonder. The prophet Isaiah foretold about Jesus, “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty” (Isaiah 33:17).
We Are Stars
Scientists confirm that we are made of stardust. A whopping 97% of our bodies are composed of the same elements as the stars. Jesus said that we are to be light for the world, to be who we were made to be.
You may have sung, “This little Christian light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” How can you be a star? By radiating love to others by your smile, kind words and deeds, expressions of gratitude, and by reminding others that on Christmas we celebrate Jesus’s birth. In these ways you will lead people to Jesus like the star led the wise men from the East to him. You might be a star to someone who is finding this Christmas difficult because of the loss of a loved one, a job, or good health.
Someone, probably several people, may have acted as a guiding star for you. My mother showed me how to be kind. My seventh and eighth grade teachers (Sister Sharone and Sister John Francis) showed me the way to the Notre Dame convent. My high school English teachers Sister Laboure and Sister Leola set me on the path to writing.
This week the fourth and last candle on the Advent wreath will be lit. You might have a white pillar candle in the center, representing Jesus. Strangely, this year the fourth week of Advent is less than a day! You can make up for this by continuing to await and prepare for the day when Jesus will come in all his glory at the end of time. He will usher in the kingdom that “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). Until then, keep shining!
My wish for you is that you have a Merry Christmas with family and friends and that your New Year sparkles with many blessings!
This is one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Shepherds and Kings.” Wish it had beautiful pictures to go with it.
- Who has been a shining star in your life?