Dorothy Day, devoted to the poor
November 29, 1980 was the day Dorothy Day left this life for the next. Her journey was quite remarkable, and that is precisely why she is now being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church. Ironically, when she was called a saint by someone during her life, her response was a bit shocking: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Her response probably was an act of humility, as most holy people do not see themselves as such. However, it is more likely that she did not want her work to be about her, but rather that it be about the nature of what she did. And more important, she wanted it to be about the God whom she served in the poor and marginalized. She did not care for accolades: the only attention she wanted was for the causes to which she devoted her life. She did not think of herself as a saint, but as a servant and a lover of God.
Dorothy Day was anything but self-conscious. She was a social activist and therefore was devoted to helping the poor. She is most known for the Catholic Worker movement she founded with Peter Maurin which was to promote nonviolent action on behalf of the poor and to directly help the poor with their needs. She was tenacious and determined. She was also outspoken and honest. These are traits that often get one noticed, and she was not always appreciated for working so hard for the causes she believed in. But she was always trying to live the Gospel after her own conversion from unbelief to belief.
Dorothy was born into a middle class family in New York in 1897. The family moved a number of times until they settled in Chicago where she went to college and was exposed to socialist ways of thinking. She moved to New York's Lower East Side and began a series of relationships with men, one of which included a short marriage and an abortion, but finally settled into a common law marriage. During this period she began to turn toward spirituality. She began to pray the Rosary and to attend Mass. She also had a baby daughter whom she sought to have baptized, much to the disagreement of the father. She broke up with him and sought her own entrance into the Catholic Church, becoming Catholic shortly thereafter.
A few years later she met Peter Maurin and they began the Catholic Worker Movement. Maurin was deeply devoted to Catholic theology and the social teaching of the Church. He shared this knowledge with Dorothy, who already had great leanings toward helping the poor. They began publishing the Catholic Worker in 1933 and then opened a “house of hospitality” for the poor in the slums and a number of farms, also for the poor. She worked tirelessly her entire life to help the poor not only with the necessities of life, but to promote social programs to help them. In the course of her life of ministry, she traveled all over the country and all over the world, even meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta in India once, in order to share the message of the Gospel values of the power of love, peace, and justice for the poor.
Dorothy was probably not at all easy to live with or to work with. Often holy people are not. Their directness can be seen as abrasive and they can be most stubborn in carrying out their vision. Holy people are sometimes “difficult” to be around because they challenge us out of our comfortable complacency. They have a calling and live out of truth which is like a fire inside of them. It is a prophetic kind of lifestyle because the holy person sees ills that need attending to, and in doing so they bring them to light. We can no longer pretend we do not see the issues and so it makes us uncomfortable.
Dorothy Day does teach us a lot. For one thing, the ills of poverty are still with us, and as Jesus said, they always will be. That does not mean that we are to throw up our hands in frustration and futility and do nothing. Dorothy shows us that every little action to help the poor has value. One person cannot solve the problems of poverty, but many can work together to make a change and to serve the needs of those who are on the edges of society. Even if all we can do is give an hour of our time once a week, it is something. It does make a difference. For some it may mean a donation of money. For others it is a donation of time and caring. Dorothy also teaches us that everyone can change and grow no matter where we have traveled in our lives. She became an activist against abortion, having learned from her own mistakes. She let God heal what was broken within her. And in doing so she was able to grow into a holy person.
Working to help the poor does not just mean helping the homeless. We have many brothers and sisters in our communities who are the hidden poor. That is, they may live in homes and have jobs, but at minimum wage, barely making ends meet. We have brothers and sisters all over our country who are in need, such as those in the New York and New Jersey area who are homeless or whose homes are in terrible repair due to the recent super storm. One of my friends from the NY area recently gave up some of her holiday vacation to aid stricken people. She reported how many needs there are, but how much gratitude there was in the people who were in need. People like my friend are my heroes and are just as inspiring as Dorothy Day. Regardless of our religious affiliations, our incomes, or where we live, there is always someone whose life we can enrich with a little bit of kindness and sharing.
Dorothy Day shows us that we can work for justice peacefully, which is the message of Jesus. We have a voice in how we vote, we have a voice in writing a letter to an elected official, we have a voice in our actions, but the Gospel shows us that it has to be a voice of peace if it is going to be effective. Violence and hatred only beget more violence and hatred. But peaceful actions are powerful. Love and hope conquer all things if we are willing to take the risk and to work very hard at it. I will not sugar-coat this: being a peaceful advocate for the poor can bring detractors or enemies. All we have to do is look at the prophets and at the life of Jesus to see this. But good does prevail and God's justice is done in the end. Their lives had meaning and their work did bear fruit.... lasting fruit. And if people love, their love is indeed contagious. It will spread to others.
Dorothy Day is a person who challenges us and teaches us by her life. She lived what she preached, living simply and humbly. She did not eat sumptuously or drive fancy cars or wear fancy clothing. This was her choice. I do not think she would judge any of us if we do these things, but she would be upset if we did not share some of the plenty we have with those who do not. She would be upset if we did not live with charity and kindness. She would be upset if we lived without a thought of anyone else except ourselves. She would be upset if we did not love God in others, and most of all, if we did not devote ourselves to a personal relationship with Him, living our lives in service to God, who loves us so much and is worthy of our small works as love in return. As St. Teresa of Avila said, "Christ has no hands or feet on earth but yours." Let us be His!
May we be moved to acts of love and charity, especially at this time of year when we become more aware of those in need. May we be generous with our love, asking the Spirit to move our hearts to peaceful interactions with others. May we be able to look beyond ourselves to the presence of God in our brothers and sisters in need. And may we be able to ask for help if we are in need, trusting in God that He will answer our needs through the kindness of others. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our loving God who gives us so much, and also challenges us to action. Peace!
There are many books and films about Dorothy Day, and she also wrote a number of books as well. I will mention only a few below, but you can find a bibliography easily.
-Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, was published in 1952.
-The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg
-Dorothy Day: Selected Writings; By Little and by Little by Robert Ellsberg
-Also she wrote a biography of one of her favorite saints, Therese of Lisieux called Therese: A Life of Therese of Lisieux.
The icon of Dorothy Day at the top was written by Rev. William Hart NcNichols and can be found at his website:
The Gift of an Anam Cara
Many people have someone in their life that they consider a closest friend or a confidant in whom they place great trust. For some of us that person is a spouse or a sister or brother, and for some it is not a relative, but a friend who is even closer than a relative. While these are beautiful gifts, the anam cara is different than having a confidant. The anam cara is that, but he or she is much, much more. The anam cara is a soul-friend, a relationship based on deep spiritual connectedness.
St. Brigit of Kildare, Ireland, once said that a person without an anam cara is like a body without a head. Thank God I do not have a headless body!! I am very blessed because I have a wonderful anam cara. In seriousness, the gift of an anam cara is indeed a great gift. It is a difficult concept to define because it goes beyond words; it is a soul relationship. It is not a soul mate, it is a soul friend. Rarely is this person a spouse and most often it is not someone to whom we are related by blood, though it can be. The term anam cara comes from old Gaelic for "soul-friend." As Esther de Waal says, "The relationship existed between men and women, women and women, men and men, cleric and lay. The soul friend was the spiritual guide who helped everyone to find his or her own path." What she goes on to say is very much a description of the relationship I have with mine. She says, "It was true friendship, with warmth and intimacy and honesty, and there is a profound respect for the other's wisdom, despite age or gender differences, as the source of blessing."
Originally the term was for someone to whom you confessed, which was a relationship of intimacy due to the confidential nature of it. The anam cara was indeed someone you trusted deeply. It is still true insofar as the anam cara is "someone with whom you share your innermost self, your mind and your heart." (John O' Donohue) The anam cara is the person with whom you are most yourself and you can share everything, but the most important difference between the anam cara and a best friend is that the relationship is based on, and rooted in, a deep spiritual intimacy. The anam cara is someone with whom you can share the depths of your spiritual life, and when you do, he or she says, "I know." And you know to the core of your being that this person does indeed know!
The anam cara is a prayerful person. This person is indeed a friend of your soul, but the relationship is totally mutual. That is, it is a two way street. What the anam cara is for you, you are for him or her. You are both wisdom figures for each other, not because of book knowledge or education, but because of a deep, shared rootedness in Christ. What makes it such a gift is that we cannot force this relationship. When we meet our anam cara we recognize the relationship. We just know. We recognize the presence of God in that person, and we just "click." Sometimes we are very different types of people. To be anam cara does not mean we agree on everything or that our tastes are the same. It means that when it comes to things spiritual, experiences and understandings, we rarely have to explain to the other because the connection is so deep that we are as one.
John O'Donohue says that the aman cara is a relationship based on the Trinity. He says that "the Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship." This reminds me of the beautiful teaching of St. Augustine who said that the Trinity is the eternal exchange of love between the Father, Son and, Spirit which is extended to us. The entire Trinity is based on an intimacy so great we can never understand it; it is beyond human comprehension. But we can experience it in the love of God for us. O'Donohue goes on to say that when Jesus says He calls us friends that He is the anam cara of every individual. "In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity." (page 15, Anam Cara; see below)
Based on what O'Donohue is saying, we all have an anam cara in the friendship we have with Jesus. I could not agree more wholeheartedly. When I teach about this concept, quite often people will say they do not have an anam cara and wish they did. I have two responses for this. The first is that we all have an anam cara in Jesus. God so wants an intimacy with us that we cannot comprehend the longing He has for us! It amazes me when people say they do not have a personal relationship with God. He wants it so very much, but He will never force us. So if you seek a personal relationship with Him, tell Him. Ask and you will receive. I promise: I could not be surer of anything. You already have an Anam Cara in Jesus.
The second response is to say that maybe they simply did not know what or whom they were looking for. We all have an anam cara at some point in our lives. Not only that, but an anam cara is yours forever and that includes after physical death. They remain alive spiritually as they enter Heaven; they are yours forever, whether here on earth or if they have predeceased you. A connection of love, rooted in Christ, can never be broken. Maybe you have not yet met your anam cara or maybe you have a friend who fits this description and you simply did not know that this is what it is. If so, this would be a great time to express it to the other.
My anam cara has blessed my life for many years. She is a gift from God who has encouraged me in many ways. I probably would not be writing a blog if not for her. My anam cara is a wisdom figure for me and will always remain so. We often can be speaking of a spiritual experience, and then eyes fill with tears ("gift of the Holy Spirit" tears), a nodded head, a smile, and the only words possible: "I know. I know." My anam cara is a woman of deep prayer, and therefore, of presence. She has taught me much. I am blessed and enriched by her soul friendship, and deeply humbled by it.
I encourage you to pray about who might be your anam cara. If you know who he or she is, but simply did not have a name for it previously, share this with that person. Remember, you are as much anam cara to the other as the other is to you! I also encourage you to give thanks not only for that person, but for having the best anam cara of them all: God. Whether it be the Father, the Son, or the Spirit to whom you relate best, let God be your anam cara. He so desires that! It would indeed be an incompleteness without having the anam cara you are offered in God. I could not even imagine it. But even better is the completeness we experience when we find that relationship shared with the gift He gives us, which is the person with whom we share our spiritual journey here on earth.
May we realize who our anam cara is and be grateful for such an incredible gift! May we realize that God is the ultimate anam cara and accept the gift of His friendship. May we be moved to deeper prayer and gratitude for all His gifts of love to us. And may we share that love with all we meet, an overflowing of the love that is nurtured through our rootedness in the Trinity. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the perfect Anam Cara, the Lord of Love. Peace!
(This post is dedicated with great love and thanksgiving to my own anam cara, who has made me a little bit Irish!)
Both the photos at the top and to the left are mine. The top photo was taken at Glendalough, Ireland. The photo to the left taken in a church in Adair, Ireland.
The icon above is St. Brigid Abbess of Kildare by Rev. William Hart McNichols. You can find the icon on his website at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=355
I have quoted two books:
The Celtic Way of Prayer, by Esther de Waal. Image Books, Doubleday. 1997
Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O'Donohue. Cliff Street Books, 1997.
The Church, Our Family
It is amazing what one sees when one spends a little time in or around a church building. Because of my spiritual direction ministry, I spend a lot of time coming and going from my church. And I spend a lot of time inside of it, too, since that is where the room in which I meet with people is located. I have observed some really wonderful things during these times, and I am sure they go unnoticed by most people. They are not unnoticed to God, however: He sees it all, and I am sure it makes God's heart sing!
Just the other day, as I was pulling into the parking lot near the church building, I saw a man do something I have not seen in a very long time. He was apparently walking his two dogs, both of whom were on leashes. He stopped right in front of the church doors, faced them, as if facing the altar and tabernacle, made the sign of the cross, and said a short prayer. Years ago many Catholics used to do that every time they passed a Catholic church, although my husband told me that his grandmother used to do it in front of a Baptist church, too. That delights me to no end! Why? Because all houses of worship are where God dwells. Any house of worship in which people praise, bless, and thank God is a holy place because it is filled with the prayers of God's faithful, holy (but not perfect) people.
Another sight I witness with great regularity at my church is people coming in during the day to say a prayer in front of the tabernacle. Once, I saw a young couple come in holding hands, and together they knelt and prayed for quite a while. Then they silently left, again holding hands. I could not help but wonder if they prayed for blessing on an upcoming marriage and the start of a new Christian family. Couples that base a marriage upon prayer are less likely to have their marriage fall apart according to statistics, (and common sense). This must be because they have built their marriage on solid rock, so that when the winds blow and the storms come, they have a firm foundation. (Paraphrase of Matthew 7:26-27)
I have seen men and women come into the church for brief prayers many times. What it leads me to understand over and over is that the church is not a building, but a living organism. The Greek word translated as "church" which appears in Scriptures is ecclesia and it is used to describe a community of believers. Hence the book of Ecclesiastes derives its name from a word which represents a community of believers gathered for like purpose. In the New Testament St. Paul used a different Greek word to describe the church: Koinonia. This word means "a Spirit-filled community of believers." That is what church really is: it is a community of believers, filled with the Spirit through the sacraments and prayer. They are holy, though not perfect, and they are living, not static. The church is its people...all its people. Not just the clergy. Not just the laity. All of us are church. Indeed we are very much alive. If you "hang around" my church, this is very obvious, and I dare say this is true of other churches as well. One only needs to pay a little attention to see this.
We are a people of faith. God did not call us to be individuals, thank....well, thank God. He created a people. None of us can go it alone. Even Adam realized he needed a companion and so God created Eve. Thus the family was born, so to speak. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the family is called the domestic church. This means the family is a mini-church, a community of believers who are the members of the larger Church. Therefore, we need to recognize that we need the larger community for support, love, fellowship, service, and continuing education and growth in our faith. We need to do more than simply receive these: we need to give them also. As in any family, all the members need to give and take. Mostly we need to spread the love. That is, we need to live our faith so as to preach it with every action. If we desire others to come to know God, Father, Son and Spirit, how do we expect them to do so if we are not inviting? If we are poor witnesses to the love of God which we profess to believe, how do we expect to attract others to Him? It does not take "rocket science" or an intimate knowledge of theology. It does not take perfection. It takes love and sincerity of heart, pure and simple.
Maybe as this liturgical year comes to an end we can make an extra effort to live our gratitude by being conscious that we are church and we are the ambassadors of love. It would be good if we could make an extra effort to welcome everyone to the table, not just the people we see week after week. It would be good if we could make it our lived understanding (not just an intellectual understanding) that our church is not somewhere we go because of obligation, but that they (remember, church is a people) are our true home where we can truly be ourselves. It would also be good to be reminded that because our church is a family, it is has many dimensions and has many needs to which we have something we can offer. We do not just show up to dinner all the time, we often have to contribute. Maybe we contribute through our prayer, and maybe in a more concrete way. But like a family, we do not come with our hand out all the time, expecting to do nothing but receive. We offer our unique gifts and our unique selves. That is what family is all about.
This time of Thanksgiving can be a time of more deeply recognizing that we are the people of God, a family of faith. Let us be filled with gratitude for many good gifts, including the gift of our family of faith as well as our families of kin, no matter how flawed, near perfect, (or somewhere in between), they may be. Truth is, they are probably a little bit of both, but they are still ours. Maybe we can think about this as we pass by a church, whether it is the one at which we worship or not. Let the buildings be a reminder of the realities they contain. We are God's people, we are His children, and we are a family of faith.
May we be ever grateful for the gift of family! May we be grateful for the gifts of love that the Lord gives us through the people who are in our lives, both those we know and the stranger! Let us reach out in some form to someone who may be needy in any way this time of year when it gets colder. Let us turn our hearts to others in order that they may bless us with the gift of who they are in turn. And may our hearts be ever open to the Lord who is present in all our brothers and sisters. And when we leave the buildings where we worship, may we bring the love with us, recognizing that the only walls to our churches are the ones we take with us. Let us continue to meet both at worship and in the church of the world, surrounded by the Heart of Christ, the King. Peace....and Happy Thanksgiving!
I took the photo at the top in Turin, Italy. I chose it because Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati used to practice the act of reverence and piety I described above; he would stop in front of churches for a quick prayer if he was passing by and did not have time to go in. He spent hours praying inside of the church, also; the church depicted was one of his favorite places to pray in his home town.
The photo above is of a church in the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia, Canada. Again, the photo is mine.
Mother Cabrini, helper of those in need
It is timely that today is the feast day of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, (1850-1917) who was the first US citizen to be canonized. She was born and raised in northern Italy, and came to the US in 1889 in order to build and operate hospitals, schools, and orphanages for the poor immigrants in New York. During her life of service she built 67 such institutions in Europe, the United States, and South America which were run by the sisters in the congregation she founded, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although she loved Italy, she decided to become a US citizen and spent much of her time doing more than just administrating her congregation, but tirelessly working to make sure the needs of the poor were met. It seems timely to me that it is her feast day when many of the people of New York and New Jersey are in such need. So many people need her today!
I first became acquainted with Mother Cabrini when I was a teenager. She came into my life through a remarkable woman named Joan. She was already elderly by the time I met her, but Joan led such a fascinating life that I never saw her as anything but young. For example, Joan dashed around on a motorcycle when she was in her younger years at a time when women were not usually on such vehicles. She traveled to what seemed like exotic places and loved life, living it to the full. I am not one who usually classifies people this way, but Joan had to be one of the "coolest" people I ever met. Nothing seemed to be impossible to Joan. She possessed an adventurer's heart for as long as she lived. Convention did not make a difference to her; she did what her heart led her to do. But the truth of her heart was that it was given totally to Christ. Joan went to Mass every day and was a very devout Catholic. Joan was very humble; she loved God with everything in her, and it was the Lord alone whom she served. She was very giving, and by the time I met her, she spent many hours praying for others.
The connection here is that Joan was cured of a life threatening illness when she was a very young child due to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini's intercession. When Joan was only two or three years of age she suffered kidney failure due to an illness. Little Joan was dying and the doctors told her parents there was no hope. Some sisters from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart brought Mother Cabrini's crucifix, which was worn during her life on her habit, to Joan's parents and let them have it overnight. They placed the crucifix on Joan's body and prayed for the intercession of Mother Cabrini in healing their daughter. The next morning not only was Joan still alive, but when the doctors examined her later she was found to be totally healed. Joan lived into her early 90's, and while in her older age she had other health issues, her kidneys were never one of them! I loved Joan dearly and always have hoped that I could live life with the enthusiasm and gratitude with which she lived each and every day, which no doubt came from receiving such a great gift as the healing she experienced as a small child.
When I was a young adult, Joan brought us that crucifix, which had been given her by the sisters after her miraculous healing, so we could pray with it. We had it for one day, keeping it overnight. I remember praying with it and feeling a closeness to Mother Cabrini. I was not expecting any miracles, but it made me realize that all it takes is the openness of faith to recognize when we are in the presence of something that conveys holiness. The cross was not a good luck charm and had no power of its own. But it was the connection to this holy woman and the belief that she could intercede through her prayer for anyone who asks which was important. She has no power of her own either. The power is the power of God, who hears the cries of the poor and the prayers of His faithful servants. Any one of us can intercede for someone who is in need; one need not be a canonized saint to pray! The Scriptures and our faith teach us that we pray for the dead and we can also pray to them, asking for their intercession. And of course we ask the living to pray for our needs. Most of us do this quite often when we ask a friend to pray for us, or when we pray for the needs of our church and our world when we are at worship in our faith communities. Our world needs our intercessory prayer very greatly. Of this I am sure!
Mother Cabrini is important not simply because of miraculous experiences such as the one I have mentioned. She is important because she teaches us about the great courage it took first to found a congregation and then to leave her homeland and cross the ocean at the cost of great discomfort and danger. She teaches us about the courage and fortitude it took to minister to the poor immigrants who had next to nothing and had great needs in what for them was still a foreign land. She had to raise money, get the right builders, and staff the hospitals, orphanages, and schools with sisters. She traveled tirelessly all over the country establishing these institutions in other cities because she knew the One whom she served. She knew what He had called her and gifted her to do. She had many obstacles that had to be overcome, but she did not let anything stand in her way. She was a woman of prayer and of great love for those who were seeking to find a way out of poverty. I think she must have been the inspiration for my friend Joan who seemed to have many of the qualities that Mother Cabrini possessed, even though Joan was married with children and not a vowed religious.
Mother Cabrini should inspire us to prayer and the action born of prayer also. We do not have to go to exotic lands and dash around on motorcycles, but we can open our hearts to the poor in our own towns and cities. There are so many people suffering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast; there are many people suffering from unemployment or under employment; there are many people suffering from illness or loneliness due to being home-bound; there are many people who are struggling to feed families; there are many homeless and many veterans who were wounded visibly or invisibly who are struggling to integrate into life back at home; there are needs all around us to which we can respond. This is what Mother Cabrini inspires and challenges us to do: to hear the call of the suffering and do what we can to alleviate it. Nothing is too small when it is a gesture of love for the poor.
May we be inspired with the courage of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini to reach out to those around us in need. May we be so moved to pray in intercession for the needs of our communities, our nation, and our world. May we be filled with gratitude for the many blessings we have, especially the small ones we often overlook. And may we be filled with love for all our neighbors, stranger and friend alike, just as Christ was during His lifetime and will be evermore. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our loving Savior. Peace!
The above icon is St. Mother Cabrini, Missionary of the Sacred Heart, by Rev. William Hart McNichols. You can find this and others like it at http://www.standreirublevicons.com.
I mentioned the book seen on the left, Mother of God, Similar to Fire in my last entry. I recommend it highly not only because of my love for icons, but because of the meditations paired with them. The book contains an incredible 50 different icons and images of the Blessed Virgin Mary all painted by Rev. William Hart NcNichols, each one beautifully accompanied by the prayerful reflections of Mirabai Starr. I cannot think of another book with such an exquisite and moving combination! The writing is inspired by grace and so are the icons. I find myself drawn to different icons at different times, depending on my needs, or my moods, or the situation I am praying about. You can find this book at the link above, or click here. It will definitely help with prayer and will move your heart to praise. (Not a bad gift idea, either!)
Once again, I gain nothing from recommending this book (or the icons) except to share the wealth of beauty that is contained in it with others.
Reflections on Beauty
If you know me you know I am passionate about iconography. It is a love that has developed over the last dozen years of my life. Icons are not everyone's "cup of tea", I know. While everyone's tastes are different, I do believe that many people do not understand icons and that is why they say they do not care for them. Icons are meant to deliver a message and to draw us into the mystery of what it depicted. They are not meant to be portraits. They are not meant to have literal reality, but rather, they show us inner reality, spiritual reality. That is, they depict God's beauty through symbolism. If one knows the language, it helps to see past the two dimensional aspect of icons and past the seemingly unrealistic symmetry. Icons are images that draw us into the reality of what is holy and the beauty which resides in each one of us.
The word icon means "image" in the original Greek, (eikon). They are much more than simply images, they are sacred. They draw the one who gazes into the very presence of the image written on the wood or masonite. One author I have read said icons are soul-windows, or windows to Heaven, because when we are in the presence of an icon we are in the presence of the Holy. They are Sacramentals, which means they remind us of deeper realities. We are always in the presence of the Holy: the icon reminds us not only of this truth, but it helps to draw us more deeply into the attentiveness to God's presence we need in order to "hear" His voice deep within. Icons help us to see God's reflection in the beauty around us.
I am fascinated by the lives of the saints who are our heroes in the faith. Therefore I love icons which depict the various saints. However, my favorites are icons of Jesus and Mary. An icon speaks a language: it speaks of awe, reverence, blessing, and sometimes sorrow. This language leads us to what is holy and reveals to us something about the holy one being depicted. This is why we say the iconographer writes an icon, rather than saying he or she draws it. Icons are almost always two dimensional, and rarely ever show the saint or holy one in profile because they are seen as being present to us rather than looking away. The person is not to "look realistic" because these are not portraits and are not like Western religious art. For example, the eyes might be large because they have seen the glory of God, and also they are in a sense, absorbing the one who is viewing. The nose might be narrow and the mouth small "because the presence of God has lessened the need for sensual satisfaction", according to Solrunn Nes, author of The Mystical Language of Icons. Halos surround them because they depict the essential part of that person who has been transformed by holiness. The saint is being depicted not as they were in life, but as they are in eternity. There is no facial expression so as not to limit the image. Sometimes that can be jarring for someone who has never really gazed closely on an icon before.
I do not intend to go into an entire teaching on the symbolism of icons, but rather to suggest that often it is helpful to put ourselves in the presence of the holy by having an image to remind us of God's beauty. God's beauty, for me, is often seen in the face of a friend or loved one. Honestly, if we look around us with eyes that seek God's beauty, we can see it in the face of a total stranger, even in a person with whom we have the most fleeting of encounters. If we look another person in the eyes, even briefly, we can see the beauty of God if we take the time to accept it.
I believe friendship is a relationship of beauty. John O'Donahue, in his book Eternal Echoes, says this about friendship: "When someone is really close to you, you are in each other's soul-care. Because of the calling of your own life, you cannot be continually there. Yet in the affection of prayer, you can carry the icons of their presence on the altar of your heart." (Italics mine.) However, I also believe that when we learn how to gaze deeply into the eyes of any person, we can learn to carry the icons of their presence and their joy or suffering in our own hearts as well. In other words, we can be affected and moved to compassion and love, or simply to see the beauty of God reflected in anyone's face, that is, their presence, if we open our eyes to see. Having iconography can help open us up to the greater reality of God's beauty around us so that we can see others as icons of God's beauty, too. If I can only see beauty and experience God's presence on a piece of masonite or wood, then truly I have not seen it at all.
My favorite iconography is from the work of a friend, Fr. William Hart McNichols, (known as Father Bill to most people), so I admit to being biased. However, it was his iconography that came first and the friendship which grew out of my love for his work, later. Through him I have learned that the iconographer would not be able to write his or her icons if not for a deep relationship with the Lord. That is, the iconographer has to see beauty and become one with it as much as possible in order to express it. It takes root in the soul of iconographers because they are always in the space where beauty dwells. They immerse themselves in the life of the holy person (or the Lord) that they are depicting. In other words the person has to be a person of deep prayer which expresses itself not just as love on a piece of masonite, but it is seen in all he or she does. Fr. Bill is just such a person. Both his work and his friendship have taught me a lot about holiness and beauty.
Therefore I recommend that you take a look at Fr. Bill's work, (and at the work of different iconographers, too), to see if there is something that leads you to that gazing and longing for God which sparks a desire to learn the language of beauty to a new dimension. If we begin to understand not with the mind but with the heart that beauty is all around us, we can begin to realize that beauty also resides within us. The icon helps us to learn how to gaze deeply within it, which in turn helps us to learn how to gaze deeply within the hearts of others and ultimately into our own hearts. It becomes a sort of inner transfiguration in which we begin to see with different eyes, just as the apostles saw Jesus with different eyes after they witnessed the inner reality of His divinity residing along with His humanity. They did not realize it until they were able to gaze upon it. So we, too, have to learn how to see the inner reality of those around us. When we do, everything is transfigured; everything reveals the beauty of God.
Let us ask God for the grace to see the inner beauty within the Holy Ones, that it might inspire us to holiness, too. Let us ask for the grace to see the hidden beauty of those we love and those who are strangers, that we might be inspired to deeper love. Let us ask for the grace to see the hidden, inner beauty within ourselves, that we may be inspired to greater freedom and to actions of greater good. May we all be filled with wonder and awe at the beauty of God all around us and within us. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord, the most perfect abode of beauty. Peace!
I have cited three books in this posting:
Festival Icons for the Christian Year, by John Baggley. London: Mobray, 2000.
The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, by Paul Evdokimov, (translated by Fr. Steven Bigham). California: Oakwood Publications, 1990.
The Mystical Language of Icons, by Solrunn Nes. London: St. Paul's Publishing, 2000.
I have also quoted John O' Donohue: Eternal Echoes. HarperCollins, 1999.
The icon on the top of the page is the famous Old Testament Trinity icon by St. Andrei Rublev and is long thought to be the most perfect of all icons.
Additionally, you can find the work of Rev. William Hart McNichols, such as the icon at the left, at
Also I recommend Fr. Bill's books which contain meditations along with his iconography:
-Mother of God Similar to Fire by Mirabai Starr and Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2010. (I highly recommend this one!!)
-"You Will Be My Witnesses" by John Dear, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York, Orbis Books, 2006.
-Christ All Merciful by Megan McKenna, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2002.
-Mary, Mother of All Nations by Megan McKenna, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2000
-The Bride, by Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2000
You can purchase any of his icons as found on his website in various forms: plaques of varying sizes, cards, holy cards, giclee prints of varying sizes, etc. There is contact information on the site in order to call with any questions or simply to place an order. (P.S. I am not getting a commission or anything like that for encouraging Fr. Bill's icons for sale. I simply love him and his work and want to share the wealth!!)
Focusing on The Things That Matter
As we begin November and enter the last few weeks of the liturgical year, I am reminded of the coming of the holidays. As I mentioned in my last post, this is a sacred time of year no less than any other time. Today we celebrate All Saints Day and tomorrow All Souls Day, remembering all who have gone before us. We also are mindful of all those who have lost loved ones and the burden of sorrow that they may be experiencing. It is important for us to pray for each other, for all those who have indeed gone before us, and to be present to one another.
The other day I was directed by a friend to an article about listening to Christmas music well before the Christmas season. It got me to thinking about the issue of too much/too soon in terms of the commercialism that has accompanied the holidays the last number of years. I used to think that it was awful and did not want anything to do with early signs of Christmas. I still think this when the signs of Christmas begin in September and supersede everything else in order to get us to buy stuff. It takes the focus from living each day, from savoring the "now," and puts the focus on the future too much. It also takes the focus off the interior, heart values, “the things that matter," (our relationships with family, friends, and God), and puts it on the exterior, surface values of materialism and things. This is not to say it is all bad, but simply to say it refocuses us on things that are passing instead of things that are lasting.
However, in November we do begin the month with a renewed focus on "tttm" (the things that matter); that is, we begin with a remembrance of people who mean a lot to us, whether they are our beloved dead or the saints who are our mentors in how to live a holy life. From there we begin to focus on what we are grateful for, both the people who have touched our lives and the blessings we have received. These indeed are the things that matter! It is never out of season to be filled with gratitude. We should live our lives that way. But in this season we have a particular focus on that which is important. Maybe it would be a good idea to spend the entire month of November being grateful for the things we have and the people in our lives. All is gift. A suggestion is to begin each day this month by being grateful for one spiritual gift you have received or one thing you possess or one person who has touched your life. Choose a different one each day and write what it is on your calendar, spending the entire day reflecting on this gift and being grateful for it. I suspect we will realize just how much we have been given if we do this. It will be interesting to look at the calendar at the end of the month to see what has appeared on our list.
As we approach Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent we may feel celebratory, and so if we decide it is putting us in the giving mood and it gets us creative in planning for our Christmas giving, so be it. We do not have to be Scrooge to avoid the commercialism. We simply need to keep our focus. If we feel the music gets us in the mood to welcome the Son of God at Christmas, so be it, even if we do begin to listen early. So long as we keep our focus on Thanksgiving, then on Advent when it arrives and take it one day at a time, savoring each day as a gift, there is nothing wrong with getting in the mood for the holiday early. I think that we can still enjoy each day and not be overwhelmed with stress and a frantic chase for getting all the stuff we think we need to get, even if that feels focused on giving to others. Once it starts feeling frenetic and harried, we know we have lost our focus. It is about the things that matter, which really is about the people that matter and the Lord who gives all gifts. It is about spending time with them. That needs to be our focus.
Maybe the gifts we give need to be about our presence and savoring the presence of the other, letting the other know how loved and valued they are just for being who they are. This is the way God loves each of us. We can take our cue from God and try to love in this same way. We do not need to impress God with all we can give Him. In fact, there is not much we can give Him that He does not already have. The one thing we can give Him that He cannot get otherwise is our trust, our attention, our worship, and our love. If it takes Christmas music in November to do this, then bring it on!!
May we spend the month of November refocusing on God so that each day we can savor the gifts we are freely given by our loving God. May we be filled with renewed gratitude. May our gratitude move us to compassion for others who do not have the gifts we have received, and therefore move us to action to help the poor, lonely and lost in our communities. May we be filled with the love of God so as to seek and find His presence all around us. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of so generous a God! Peace!
I cannot end this post without remembering all those on the east coast who have been so devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Like many of us, I have family and friends there, but all the people are in my thoughts and prayers. Maybe our gratitude, compassion, and inspiration to action will lead us to be generous in some way to help the people hardest hit. Here on the Gulf Coast we know the experience and we know the feelings they must be having. Therefore let us pray about what we might be able to do for them in addition to our heartfelt prayers. Thank you.
Heart Speaks to Heart