Light and Life – Sept.-Oct. 2019, Vol 72, No 5 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
As my life has progressed, I have come to appreciate sacred art more deeply. It’s amazing how you can walk into a beautiful church and behold the splendor of stained-glass, ancient frescoes, carved statues and even marble floors and feel like you’re closer to God. Such a place can be conducive to prayer—sometimes even if you don’t consider yourself a person of faith.
If you are ever in San Francisco, wander over into St. Dominic’s Church on Bush and Steiner. As the saying goes, “They don’t make churches like this anymore.” The church is beautiful inside and out. Over the years I have heard many stories about people who have ventured into the church intrigued by its beauty and only a short time later have had their faith awakened. Most people who visit there can tell you about their favorite altar, statue, stained-glass window, or place to pray. For years, I have felt myself drawn to the modest statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the “Lady Chapel” which is located to the right of the main altar in the church.
The Lady Chapel is often used for daily Mass. Its windows depict the Mysteries of the Rosary in beautiful stained-glass. However, at the center of the chapel is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary carved in stone. One cannot help but pause before this statue and ponder what she is contemplating.
Before I go any further, I will digress for a moment to speak of statues and other sacred images and their rightful place in the Catholic religion. Non-Catholics will sometimes question whether Catholics worship statues and other images as if the image itself is a god. They will even see a Catholic approach a statue of a saint and kiss its feet or reach out and touch the garment of its clothing.
However, any worship of a statue or of any piece of art would be considered a pagan practice and would not be something that is apropos for any Christian. Only the Lord himself is worshipped. Thus, sacred images of the saints, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, are inspired art forms to lift our spirits, minds, hearts and even our eyes to heaven to dwell on the Lord and his kingdom, and to inspire us to strive for that kingdom. In short, any sacred image is meant to help us on our way to eternal life in heaven. If they are done well, they teach us something about our Christian faith, inspire us to pray, and move us to take stock of our lives.
When beholding sacred art, we take into account everything about the image, in this case a statue of carved stone, including clothing, gestures, bearing and posture. We take note of other things that surround the statue, the way the artist foresaw light shining upon it, and even its original place in a church or oratory.
When I look upon this statue of the Blessed Mother, the word that comes to mind is resolute. She is determined, steadfast and unwavering. She is introspective and centered upon her
Lord and nothing will pull her away. Her union with the Lord is immovable as the stone she has been cast in; yet, while on earth, her will had always been flexible, moving with the divine will as it had been revealed to her. We recall Mary’s Yes, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.” (Luke 1:38)
Could the artist have had a single purpose in mind for this sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary? In our own review of it maybe we can uncover the mystery. Mary is wearing the apparel of her time: a simple tunic held together by a sash, with a mantle that covers her head and drapes down over her shoulders. Some locks of her hair show, but not much. It speaks of the attire of a Jewish maiden of her era and of her own modesty. There is nothing ostentatious or immodest about her dress, nothing that would lead our focus elsewhere; instead, we remain transfixed by her image, and are left wondering what she is contemplating.
Her feet appear to be completely covered, which seems unusual. Perhaps the holy ground on which she stands necessitates the covering of her feet.
Her head is tilted downward with her eyes closed. She is in deep contemplation, fixed in prayer. It speaks of her humility, as her own words come to mind, “He has looked upon his servant in her lowliness.” (Luke 1:48a) But the Blessed Virgin also says, “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48b-49) In these words she is prophetic as she speaks of the role that she will play in salvation history.
Her hands are perfectly synced together, including palms and fingertips, as if to say that she is wholly united to God; nothing within her is out of place. There is no discord within, no sin, nor even concupiscence. In Mary, as a daughter of Israel, in the perfect union of her hands, we can see a symmetry between the Old Testament with its Ark of the Covenant and the New Testament with its living Ark of the Covenant.
As we back off from the statue and take note of its surroundings, we observe two Dominican crosses flanked in stone on either side of her, like guardians, reminding us of the motto of the Dominican Order, Veritas (Truth), perhaps instructing us that Mary has never veered outside of the truth.
To the right of the statue, the mysteries of the Holy Rosary are etched in stained-glass. As the sun shines through the windows, they tell the story of our redemption reflected in the images of the key events in the lives of Jesus Christ and his Mother, and how she played a role in salvation history through God’s own design. Thus, they too shed light upon the image of the Blessed Virgin carved in stone. As we enter into the mysteries of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we could follow the lead of Mary who shows us how to navigate the sometimes troubled waters of our own world.
Finally, if we return to the statue, as we look beneath it, we discover a small door with hinges, almost hidden in the shadows. Herein lies the secret; here we uncover the mystery. If we reflect back to when St. Dominic’s Church was first built, we suddenly realize the nature of this door—it is the door to a tabernacle which houses the Holy Eucharist. Even to this day, this tabernacle is used to keep the Blessed Sacrament.
Now we understand the nature of Mary’s prayer, of her contemplation, of her posture; her eyes are closed as she adores the Lord. Mary calls us not to look upon her, but upon her Son who is in our midst (in this chapel) in his Real Presence. Everything about her is oriented toward him as she beholds the Holy Eucharist, and when Mass is celebrated in this chapel, he will be made present on the altar just in front of her image.
It’s not too often that we reflect upon the life of Mary after Jesus’ resurrection, while she was still on earth. She who became the Ark of the Covenant, who gave birth to God’s own Son, also once attended Mass with the neophyte Church and received the Body and Blood of Jesus. She lived her last days on earth wholly united to the Lord in body, mind and soul. One could say that her spiritual house was built on solid rock. Now she stands before us in adoration proclaiming the greatness of the Lord as he is present to us in the Holy Eucharist.
There is another motto of the Dominican Order, contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of contemplation). As we look upon this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, what comes to mind is that not only has she given us the fruits of her contemplation as a faithful daughter of Israel, she has also given us Jesus Christ the Fruit of her womb. If there is no title to this image, perhaps it should be Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
Dear faithful supporters of the Rosary Center & Confraternity, we are grateful for your support. We could not fulfill our Mission if not for our benefactors. After decades of constant use, the Rosary Center, the home of the Rosary Confraternity, is greatly in need of renovation. Please consider making a special gift to help make badly needed repairs, and to refurbish the offices, chapel and kitchen. Thank you for your generosity! Fr. Joseph Sergott, O.P., Director.