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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour


This is the substance of a talk given by me to the Peruvian Redemptorists who met in chapter a little time ago.  The Redemptorists were given this icon which had belonged to the Irish Augustinians by Pope Pius IX ; but, at least among the Peruvian Redemptorists there was little realization that icons are a language and that through this icon Our Lady speaks to them about their vocation as Redemptorists - fr) David

When, at last, the Church authorities recognized officially that Our Lady had appeared to St Bernardette, they engaged a sculptor to make a statue of Our Lady, depicting her exactly as St Bernadette had discribed.  Al statues of Our Lady of Lourdes that exist are copies of that statue.  However, when the sculptor showed the statue to St Bernardette she excalimed, "That is not Our Lady!   It is nothing like her!!"   The poor sculptor said that he had made the statue exactly as  she had described Mary to him.   "I know," said St Bernardette, "But it isn't Our Lady."   Then she was shown other depictions of Our Lady to see if any fitted.   When she camw across the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, she exclaimed, "THAT is Our Lady!!"   "But it isn't anything like your description!!" cried the poor sculptor.   "I know," said St Bernadette, "But it is certainly Our Lady!"

What did the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour have that the statue lacked?   What did St Bernardette recognize in the icon that wasn't in the statue?   Although she had never learnt it in a talk like this one, what she SAW was simply the fact that an icon manifests the prsence of whoever is depicted and hence is the closest thing to an apparition that we are ever likely to come across.  The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour reveals to us the presence of Our Lady, and through it, Our Lady speaks to us, just as really as when she spoke to Bernardette!!.

The first thing we need to know is how Catholic tradition sees beauty.   It is very different from the idea of beauty that is common in the modern world.   Have you ever been to the magnificent gothis cathedrals like Chartres or York Cathedral?   Have you ever seen the wonderful windows of the Sainte Chappelle that form the background to the title of this blog?   None of these exquisite works of art bear the signature of the artists that constructed them.   Why?   Because beauty in Catholic tradition is not in the eye of the beholder, still less is it simply the product of the genius of the individual artist.   No work of art, be it in architecture, music, painting or sculpture is authentic for the simple reason that it realizes or manifests the feelings of the artist.   Beauty is not the expression of something merely subjective.  As one Orthodox defined it, beauty is the impact on the human mind of the presence of the Holy Spirit in nature.  The vocation of an artist is to so arrange nature that he leads people to wonder at the glory of the Presence within.   .   In Tolkien's words, the artist is a co-creator, where his creative act is in harmony with the creativity of God..  Thus, Bach, Handel and Mozart knew that their compositions were beautiful because  the notes were exactly right and no note or sequence of notes impedes us from discerning God's presence  by its ugliness

This being the case, an icon that has been blessed by the Church is art that has been raised up to manifest the Christian Mystery, and its particular function rises out of the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church.  Hence it is truly liturgical art because liturgy is the product of the same harmony or synergy; and, alog with all authentic liturgy, it manifests the presence of the aspect of the Christian Mystery that it depicts in such a way that we can participate in it.  Hence an icon is a window or door into the world transformed by the Christian Mystery.  It invites us in to dine at the table of God's Grace.   If that seems too abstract, let us now turn to the icon we are going to "read", Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

"Our Lady of Perpetual Succour"  is called "Our Lady of the Passion" in the East.   It depicts Mary, Mother of God, and her Son who is frightened and has jumped into her protective arms, this sudden movement is suggested by the sandel that is falling from his foot.   He is not looking at her or at us, but at the instruments of crucifixion that are held by two angels.  Of course, he is a baby, but he is not depicted as a baby but as a youth, striving to understand his vocation.   He is wearing the green tunic, red cincture and gold toga of an Emperor, and the Blessed Virgin is dressed as an empress.   They are the new Adam and the new Eve  Their two haloes are united as is their holiness, but only the halo of Jesus has a cross traced within it and letters which stand for "I am who I am" that God revealed to Moses as his name.   His two hands seek comfort and protection in the hand of Our Lady which, at the same time, points to the instruments of crucifixion - there is no escaping the cross..Mary is looking, not at her Son, but at the person or persons looking at the icon.   Her expression is one of sorrow, just like the icons of her at the foot of the cross.   She is letting us know at what human cost in suffering for her and her Son our salvation was bought.  She asks us if we are worth it, fully knowing that, in God's eyes, we are.   She is challenging us to take our salvation seriously.  She is showing how intimate is the relation between Christ's vocation and her own.   She is showing us that, just as she was concerned and sorrowful over her Son's crucifixion, she is concerned and sorrowful over us.   In this she reveals that she is our Mother too.

There are two main kinds of icon of Mother and Son: one like that of Our Lasy of Vladimir, that depicts the tender relationship between Mother and Child, and is called "Our Lady of Tenderness"..   In these she reminds us that we are to enter into the intimacy between Mother and Son which is the intimacy between Christ and his Church.   The other is where Mary expounds to us the Christian Mystery.

  "Our Lady of the Passion" is doing this.   On either side are two angels.  The Archangel Gabriel holds the cross, and it is this that Jesus is looking at.   On the other side of Mary is the Archangel Michael with the other instruments.  Gabriel is the angel that announced the First Coming of Jesus to his Mother at the Annunciation, while St Michael is expected to announce the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time.   Thus Gabriel wears a stole, which is a symbol that he has been sent by God;but Michael does not, because the Second Coming is still to come.   Both hold the instruments of crucifixion with covered hands because they are not just instruments of pain and death: they are means by which God the Father redeems the world, instruments of resurrection.   Hence, Mary, Mother of God, sits between the two comings of Christ, during the time of the Church on earth, expounding to us the Christian Mystery of death and resurrection and inviting us to participate in the salvation that cost her and her Son so dearly.

This is the perfect icon for a religious congregation like the Redemptorists who share in the mission of the Church and of Mary to expound the Christian Mystery and who invite, persuade,challenge and encourage people to take part in this Mystery by which we participate in the very life of the Blessed Trinity.  Providence has given them an icon by which they can go ever deeper into profundity of their own vocation.  May I suggest that, in contemplating this icon they use the four steps of lectio divina:

  • An icon should be seen at eyes level, in this case the eyes being those of the Blessed Virgin.   You first read the icon, what it is actually saying.   This article is all about that.
  • Ten you must ask yourself what the Blessed Virgin wants to say to you, or what significance for you do the instruments of the Passion have in your concrete situation; or in what way Jesus, who is dressed as an emperor, and Mary, who is dressed as an empress, really are those who direct your life.  Remember that icons, like the meditative reading of Scripture, take for granted that God, or Jesus or Mary or the saints, really do want to communicate with you and really will do if you pause to remain humbly receptive to what they have to say in the presence of the Word of God or of an icon.
  • Then respond in prayer, in repentance, in promises and praise
  • Finally, simply rest in the presence of Mary and her Son, content to remain in silence because all that can be said has been said
"Our Lady of the Passion" in the form we know it as "Our Lady of Perpetual Succour" first appears in Serbia in the 14th century (in the churches of Lesnovo and Konce).   After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, many refugees fled to Italy, and a school of Iconography opened in Venice.  Venice was chosen because there was so much Byzantine art in that city which had been looted from Constantiople during the Crusades that it had become a centre where such a school would flourish.   It is from the workshops of the school of iconography in Venice that our icon of "Our Lady of Perpetual Succour" came.   Perhaps because of the number of Redemptorists involved in the Ukrainian Greek Rite, "Our Lady of Perpetual Succour" is patron of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Pray for us
Our Lady of the Passion, Prayer for us.
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