A Century of Marian Metaphors

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Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us. (Source)

1. Mary’s heart is the prism which catches the ineffable light of the Godhead and scatters it out as all the many graces of the world.

2. Mary is the pure candle holding aloft the undying flame of the Holy Spirit – the light and heat are Christ in his humanity and divinity, come to quicken the dead earth.

3. Mary’s heart is the spotless flower from which we, like so many bees, draw forth the fragrant nectar of Christ to make sweet honey for our God and King.

4. Mary’s heart is the fresh spring of grace that flows until it has become the mighty river of all the baptismal waters through history.

5. One word spoken by Mary is more ravishing to the angels and saints than the music of our worship, the hymns of the dead in purgatory, or even that sweetest sound, the prayer of a single penitent sinner.

6. Mary’s heart is the jeweled cask that hides a treasure inexhaustible.

7. Mary is the ever-new wineskin, and she always receives the new wine of God’s undying graces.

8. As the Ark rested beneath the watchful gaze of the two angels, so Mary is attended by her two angelic forebears, Enoch and Elijah.

9. Mary’s Immaculate Heart is the pillar of fire; the breath of her Fiat is the pillar of cloud.

10. Mary is the crown of the priest and king, his finest ornament and glory as he stands at prayer for us in the Holy of Holies.

11. Mary is the priestly breastplate, the glory of the House of Israel, the bearer of the Urim and Thummim of Christ’s two natures, guardian of the heart of the High Priest.

12. Mary is the Golden Vestment of Adoring Sacrifice and the Linen Vestment of Atoning Sacrifice.

13. Mary is the triumphant sister of Jael and Judith.

14. Mary is the undying hearth in winter, and she who tends the hearth.

15. Mary is the strong tree of shelter for us and the wood of the cross for her son.

16. Mary is the threefold seat of wisdom.

17. Mary is the ring of Solomon the King, that all the demons fear and tremble before.

18. Mary is the blueprint of Heaven and its surest map.

19. Mary is the granary of Heaven, opened for us in the time of our souls’ great famine.

20. Mary is the Pelican, piously feeding her children with the fruit of her own Immaculate Heart.

21.Mary is the cup of the everlasting nuptials.

22. Mary is the abyss of all Light, and the Light is Christ.

23. Mary is the white fire; her spouse is the black fire; together, they bring forth the Word.

24. Mary is the perfect circle of the nimbus around Christ’s head.

25. Mary is Eden-Garden.

26. Mary is Bethel of Jacob.

27. Mary is Eretz Yisrael.

28. Mary is Mt. Sinai.

29. Mary is Mt. Zion.

30. Mary is Jordan-Bank.

31. Mary is Mt. Tabor.

32. Mary is Golgotha.

33. Mary is the Cenacle.

34. Mary is the Tree of Life, the fruit of which we are given to eat, now and always.

35. Mary is the Tree of Life, on which the world of the spirit turns.

36. Mary is the Tree of Life, perfectly united to Christ in His sacrifice.

37. Mary is the visible whirlwind from which God speaks to the Righteous man suffering; her spouse is the invisible whirlwind, from which the wind derives its likeness.

38. Mary is the wing of the Seraphim lifted into flight by that ghostly wind.

39. Mary is the flowering earth under the footprint of Christ, her son.

40. Mary is the willow who weeps with an inconsolable grief.

41. Mary is the first high cliff that meets the light of the rising Sun.

42. The heart of Mary is as a treasure hidden in a placid blue sea.

43. Mary is the haven of white sands.

44. In Mary, lava cascades into the sea and builds a new land.

45. Mary’s heart is the molten forge of the King’s great weapons.

46. Mary’s heart is the gift of roses and lilies upon the altar.

47. Mary’s heart is the mirror of heaven.

48. Mary’s heart is the root of a golden fruit, the sacred heart of her son.

49. Mary’s heart is the privileged parchment on which the Holy Ghost composes the chant of every Angelic choir.

50. Mary’s heart is God’s library, wherein He may read and recount His own great deeds in all of human history.

51. Mary’s heart is the throne of the cosmic King.

52. Mary is the unstained looking-glass through which we see Christ clearly.

53. Mary is the altar.

54. Mary is the Tabernacle

55. Mary is the Lampstand.

56. Mary is the Holy of Holies.

57. Mary is the parted veil.

58. Mary is the lantern we carry that spreads the Uncreated Light before us on our path.

59. Mary is the Queen of all our darkest nights.

60. Mary is she who speaks the ineffable name of God, and lives.

61. Mary is the first and perfect Veronica, keeper of the Holy Face of Jesus.

62. Mary is the first and perfect Magdalene, anointing Christ with her unblemished humanity.

63. Mary is the first and perfect Martha, laboring always for Christ and His kingdom.

64. Mary is the first and perfect Lydia, following the Gospel wherever it leads.

65. Mary is the first and perfect Priscilla, aid to all the successors of the Apostles.

66. Mary is the hidden Aleph at the start of God’s great book.

67. Mary is the firmament.

68. Mary is the firstborn of the Redeemed World according to the order of time.

69. Mary is the Golden Fountain of all graces.

70. Mary is the Garden and the Garden-Ground.

71. Mary’s heart is the thurible in the hands of the Great High Priest; her pure prayer goes up to the Father as so much fiery incense.

72. Mary’s heart is the Chalice that receives and holds the Most Precious Blood.

73. Mary’s heart is the gem at the center of God’s crown.

74. Mary’s heart is the virgin land where stands the banner of her son.

75. Mary is the ladder of the Angels.

76. Mary is the cloud that rises from the sea.

77. Mary is the one who chants the music we had forgotten.

78. Mary is the canopy of the undying marriage between Christ and His bride.

79. Mary is the neck of the Church.

80. Mary is the joy of all creatures.

81. Mary is the Star seen in the East.

82. Mary is the chariot of the dawn.

83. Mary is she who has surpassed Semele and Psyche.

84. Mary is she who shames Juno and Venus.

85. Mary is she who overcomes Minerva and Diana.

86. Mary is the unlooked-for gift.

87. Mary’s name is the shield of Michael.

88. Mary’s name is the lily of Gabriel.

89. Mary’s name is the staff of Raphael.

90. Mary’s name is the honey of the angels.

91. Mary is the black cloud bringing rain to the desert.

92. Mary is the gateway to the land of the living.

93. Mary is the orb of God’s blessing to the righteous.

93. Mary is the scepter of God’s wrath to the demons.

94. Mary is God’s royal seal upon His creation.

95. Mary is the quarry and mine of the Temple.

96. Mary is the font of new birth.

97. Mary is the Queen from whom all queens take their pattern.

98. Mary is the one enthroned in the heart of Jesus Christ, and His perfect likeness.

99. Mary is the sweet perfume of the holy through all the ages.

100. Mary is the eternity’s memory.

A Word of Thanksgiving

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Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us. (Source).

Today, on the double feast of Our Lady of Ransom and Our Lady of Walsingham, I was blessed to consecrate myself totally to the Mother of God at the Church of her Immaculate Heart, otherwise known as the Brompton Oratory. Thank you to everyone who prayed for me en route to this wonderful occasion. I look upon it as a momentous date, a renewal of my entrance into the Church four years ago,

The date and place are especially meaningful to me. I have long had a devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham, Patroness of England. During the stresses of my final year at Virginia, I entrusted all my major projects–in particular my thesis and my graduate school applications–to her. And over the course of the last few years, my love for St. Philip Neri and his sons has grown into a true devotion to the Oratorian way. Brompton was where that began for me, almost two and a half years ago. I date the start of my friendship with St. Philip to my first overawed trip to the Oratory in 2015. And I pronounced my vow of consecration at the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, a grace that reminded me of all the wonderful Dominicans I have known over the short course of my life as a Catholic.

So thank you to all those who have prayed for me. And please pray still, that I might not forget my vow as the inevitable distractions, delights, and stresses of grad school set in.

Our Lady of the Vallicella

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Our Lady of the Vallicella. I don’t know who painted this version. (Source)

Today is the Feast of Our Lady’s nativity. Nine months after the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the luminous and holy birth of the one who would some day give birth to God Himself. As the Church rejoices with S.s. Anne and Joachim, perhaps we should consider the manifold titles under which Mary has come to be known over the centuries.

Some religious orders have devotions to Our Lady under particular titles. The Cenacle Sisters are devoted to Our Lady of the Cenacle, the Institute of the Incarnate Word takes as its patron the Virgin of Luján, and most famously, the Redemptorists were commissioned by Pope Pius IX to care for and propagate devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The Dominicans appeal to Our Lady of the Rosary, the Augustinians to Our Lady of Good Counsel, and the Franciscans to Our Lady, Queen of Angels.

But what of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri? Is there a Marian image, title, or devotion proper to the Oratorians? Since the Oratory is not a religious order, the question may seem ill-put. Nevertheless, some research shows that there is in fact a specifically Oratorian icon of the Mother of God: Our Lady of the Vallicella.

It is related in various lives of St. Philip that, during the construction of the Chiesa Nuova, Our Lady miraculously saved the church. As Gallonio relates in his Vita:

In the following year, 1576, something happened during the building works, which I must not pass over in silence. When the old church had been demolished, along with other buildings on the site of the new construction, one little hovel remained roofed, after the others had been levelled. Suddenly one day Philip had Giovan Antonio, the clerk of works, summoned, and as soon as he arrived he told him to have the roof taken off the hovel immediately. “Last night,” he explained, “I saw the Holy Mother of God, who was holding it up with her own hands.” (The place was being used as a chapel to say Mass and administer the sacraments to the people, for the old church had the responsibility of souls attached to it.) Giovan Antonio went back and ordered the workmen to demolish the roof. As soon as they set to, they noticed that the beam which supported the roof had no support for itself; one of its ends (what they call the beam’s head) was quite out of the wall, which quite astonished those who saw it [Gallonio, Para. 112 – trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram CO].

This incident is memorialized in the ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova.

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The ceiling of the Chiesa Nuova, in which is depicted the scene of Our Lady preserving the Vallicella from collapse and ruin. (Source)

It is my understanding that the Saint and his sons attributed the miraculous intervention of Our Lady to an ancient fresco they uncovered during construction. The image depicts Our Lady in blue holding the Infant Christ. Jesus raises his hand in blessing. Both are seated in the moon, while three adoring cherubs look up with rapt attention. These are the essentials of the icon, which canonically follows the “Nicopeia (bringer of victory) or Kyriotissa (enthroned) type.”

This conjunction suggests something about the icon’s meaning. The Mother of God brings us the ultimate victory, Christ Himself; His victory over death is truly her victory and, by extension, ours. What’s more, their relationship is a mutual enthronement. She takes all of her dignity as Queen of Heaven from Christ, and He is most magnified in Her Heart.

It seems appropriate that an image that bears such a meaning would fall to St. Philip and his sons as a kind of special inheritance. After all, Cardinal Newman’s motto encapsulates the entirety of Oratorian life: Cor ad Cor Loquitur, “Heart Speaks to Heart.” This phrase of the Psalmist describes God’s Liturgical communion with us, our spiritual communion with each other, the key process of evangelizationbut also the intimacy between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And let us not forget that third heart, the Flaming Heart of St. Philip Neri. All in all, communion and reciprocity are key to Oratorian spirituality in a way that is perhaps more pronounced than in other religious families.

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The ancient, miraculous fresco-icon of Our Lady of the Vallicella. Currently hidden in the Chiesa Nuova behind the Rubens rendition. (Source)

The story of Our Lady of the Vallicella is not just theological, though. It also winds through some of the more important chapters of Art History.

The great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned by the fathers of the Roman Oratory to paint the church’s high altar. He ended up painting a few. The first, a canvas, was rejected because it was too reflective and is now in a museum at Grenoble. The second, a painting on slate, remains in situ. He later painted a somewhat rougher third version that now hangs in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

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Pope St. Gregory, Surrounded by Saints, Venerating the Miraculous Image of the Virgin and Infant, called Santa Maria of the Vallicella, Rubens, c. 1606-07. The first altarpiece of the Chiesa Nuova, now in Grenoble. (Source)

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Madonna della Vallicella, Rubens, 1606-08. The second altarpiece, now in situ at the Roman Oratory. The central image of the Madonna is removable and covers the miraculous fresco. (Source).

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The Madonna della Vallicella Adored by Seraphim and Cherubim, Rubens, 1608. Now in Vienna. (Source)

Of course, devotion to Our Lady of the Vallicella is, like so many other elements of Oratoriana, not restricted to the sons of St. Philip. As the whole city of Rome is imbued with his spirit, we find her image among the many picturesque street shrines that stand as one of the Eternal City’s most distinctive forms of public piety.

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in a Roman street shrine. Note the way the hands are positioned; Our Lord’s left hand on the Orbis Mundi, with Our Lady’s right. Conversely, His right hand rises in blessing as her left seems to hold or even crown him. This posture is consistent with earlier renditions. (Source).

Regardless, Our Lady of the Vallicella quickly became a major emblem of the Congregation. She adorns most of the first-edition title pages of Baronius’s Annales Ecclesastici, as you can seen in this image from the Twelfth Volume.

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The title page of the Twelfth Volume of the Ecclesiastical Annals of Cardinal Baronius. (Source)

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in a portrait of Fr. Antonio Talpa, one of the founders of the Naples Oratory and the confessor of St. Camillus of Lellis. I don’t know how old the image originally is. Photo taken from the 2008 English Edition of Cardinal Capecelatro’s Good Philip, produced by The Desert Will Bloom Press. Page 111.

Later Oratorians also made use of the icon in their publications. This was particularly true of works brought out by the Fathers of the London Oratory. A publication of Fr. Faber’s Spiritual Conferences from 1859 includes the following sigil on its title page:

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Our Lady of the Vallicella in one of Father Faber’s many books (Source).

More recent Oratorians have also included this image of the Mother of God on the volumes they have published. For example:

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Our Lady of the Vallicella as seen on the title page of my copy of Agnelli’s The Excellences of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Third Edition (Oxford 2012).

What I have not found yet is any evidence that Our Lady of the Vallicella was enshrined or venerated as an icon anywhere outside of the Roman Oratory. Further research may prove otherwise. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope on this Feast of the Nativity of Mary that, as we are living in an Oratorian age, devotion to Mary under her Oratorian title will continue to spread.

 

Elsewhere: A New Blog on English Catholicism

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All ye holy English Martyrs, pray for us. (Source)

Anglo-Catholic readers will no doubt have mourned the demise of Conner McNeill’s Merrily on High, what was once among the best and most prolific AC blogs on the web. Never fear! Connor McNeill rides again. He’s back with a new blog called Mary’s Dowry. It looks as tasteful, reverent, and aesthetically sophisticated as the project that preceded it.

Mr. McNeill has decided to depart from the Church of England and join the Roman Communion. As he had been pursuing ordination with the C of E, this conversion is no small undertaking. Pray for him! And check out Mary’s Dowry while you’re at it.

 

A Prayer Request for St. Mary’s Day

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The National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, St. Bede, Williamsburg, VA. (Source)

Of your charity, please pray for me. Today I begin a 33-day retreat for Marian Consecration. Normally I would not wish to broadcast such a spiritual undertaking on my blog, but since I know several of you, I would rather avail myself of your prayers than keep silent.

Astute Kalendar watchers will know that if I start today, on the Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, then the day of consecration will fall on September 24th. That’s the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham (well, technically not since it’s on a Sunday this year, but I don’t really care). I’ll be in London. Please pray that I might be able to pronounce the prayer at the Brompton Oratory if at all possible, and more importantly, that I might truly and obediently submit to Mary’s gentle guidance in all things.

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!

V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God,
R. That we might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Amen.

Original Art: Four More Pieces

Here are the fruits of my labor for the last week or so.

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“The Madonna of the Vallicella,” photo taken by artist. The chief Marian icon associated with the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. This is a smaller study for what I hope will one day be a larger piece.

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“Our Lady of Walsingham,” photo taken by artist. Included are the arms of (top to bottom): on the left, the Oxford Oratory, Cardinal Newman, and the Cardinal Duke of York, and on the right, Our Lady of Walsingham, St. John Fisher, and St. Edward the Confessor.

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“St. Dominic,” photo taken by artist. Dedicated to all the wonderful Dominicans in my life.

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“The Basilica of Saints Catherine and Lucy,” photo taken by artist. Very pleased with how this turned out, as it’s my first largely free-drawn project, and my first without any use of a model.

A Corpus Christi Meditation

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Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. He’s one of the best Catholic artists working today.

In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.

I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:

Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.

This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.

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Russian icon of The Holy Face of Jesus “Not-Made-by-Hands”(Source).

St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.

What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.

The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,

Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.

The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.

What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.

But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.

As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.

Our Lady of the Cenacle in Armenian Iconography

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Figure A. Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. From the source: “MINIATURES – Erevan, Matenadaran, MS 8772, Gospel, Aght’amar, Vaspurakan, 1391, artist Dzerun, Pentecost. Photo: Dickran Kouymjian.” (Source)

Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.

Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?

As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.

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Figure B. A Greek-style Russian icon of 1497. Note the emptimess of the “Teacher’s Seat” at center. (Source)

In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.

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Figure C. A Russian-style icon with the Mother of God in the “Teacher’s Seat,” date unknown. (Source).

The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.

Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essayFigure A.

Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.

A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:

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Figure D. Description from source: “This Armenian Gospel book was produced in 904 of the Armenian era (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet, son of Vardan and Dilšat, and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.” (Source)

Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.

Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.

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Figure E. An Armenian Pentecost icon without Mary, but with a blue dove of the Spirit. (Source)

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Figure F. Pentecost icon of unconfirmed but probably Armenian origin. Same blue Spirit, roughly the same placement of the Theotokos. (Source).

It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.

And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.

Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.

Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).

On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.

Four Luminous Days

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From an Icon of the Ascension. (Source)

This week, we are about to enter a truly remarkable liturgical sequence.

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Our Lady, Help of Christians. (Source)

Wednesday is Our Lady, Help of Christians, patroness of my parish here in South Carolina.

Thursday is the Ascension (sadly moved to Sunday in my province of Atlanta).

Friday is St. Philip Neri, and then on Saturday comes Our Lady of the Cenacle.

We could extend our reckoning to Sunday, but for now, I think it is appropriate for us to hesitate on the threshold of the Mystical Sabbath. Let us instead examine only these four days and their import.

We begin and end the progression with Mary. First, we see her in her relation to humanity. She is the help of Christians. Then, we see her in relation to God. She receives the Holy Spirit. Taking both feasts together, we see Our Lady participating in God-humanity; she becomes the perfect emblem of Divine Wisdom.

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St. Philip Neri, who received the Holy Spirit in the catacombs. (Source)

Studying Sophiology has made me appreciate Our Lady of the Cenacle even more. There is a deep connection, I think, between the manifestation of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the Cosmos, at the Baptism of Christ, and at the descent of the Spirit upon Our Lady at Pentecost. They are mutually illuminating events. I wonder if we can find that connection at the level of the propers for each liturgy, a project I may try to engage in before Saturday.

And how appropriate that St. Philip, who experienced his own Pentecost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, should go forth as a herald for Our Lady of the Cenacle! It is a kind of liturgical proof of the hierarchical principle, that we are led by lower things to higher things. St. Philip received the Holy Spirit into his heart as a ball of fire in the catacombs under the city of Rome, once a place of persecution, the mythical “Babylon” of Revelation. He guides us to Our Lady as she waits and prays in the Cenacle, the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the sacraments of the Eucharist and Orders were instituted and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in tongues of fire on Pentecost. What a picture of the historical Church in pilgrimage! From the darkness of the Roman catacombs to the heights of the upper room in Zion. We could read an eschatology out of these mystical days.

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Russian Icon of Pentecost, 18th century. The Slavs are unique among the Eastern Orthodox in placing Our Lady in the scene. (Source).

 

Nevertheless, this week’s procession is easy to overlook, since its central diamond, the Ascension, has been misplaced by so many bishops. Celebrating the feast on Sunday robs it of its truly Eucharistic meaning, for the Ascension’s traditional place on a Thursday meant that it could only be read through the texts of Maundy Thursday. Ascension Day is to Maundy Thursday as Pentecost is to Easter, the initiator of a new liturgical season and a reminder of the Mystical Priesthood of Christ. All of this is admirably explained by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby OSB in his podcasted homilies and in his blog, Vultus Christi.

The Eucharistic and Priestly meaning of the Ascension matters for the rest of the four-day sequence insofar as the Eucharist represents, sustains, and completes every instantiation of Sophianic being. The Sophianic character of the four days can only be discerned in the light of Christ’s face as He ascends into his cosmic priesthood on Thursday. This would be true even if St. Philip were not there to complete the set. This is, after all, a fairly uniqueE situation. Ever spry, St. Philip moves around the sacred calendar with the bustling rhythms of profane time. But in this auspicious year, so full of historical resonances and providential patterns, let us rejoice in the days that the Lord has made (Psalm 118).

 

A Poem for the First of May

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Our Lady of Walsingham, borne aloft by the faithful in a procession. Source.

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

– “May Magnificat,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

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Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ. Source