Saturday, April 8, 2017

Art Meditation on Mary Magdalene

As we move into Holy Week, we can prepare by entering our Lord's Passion through the eyes of someone who was there. Here is a meditation on four works of art featuring Mary Magdalene, which I originally wrote for my Moms and Tots ministry.

We know Mary Magdalene best for her visit to Christ’s tomb, bringing the spices to anoint him. While it is not certain, many also believe she is the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair at the home of the Pharisee in Luke 7: 36-50. 

In this painting by Nik Helbig, Mary and Jesus are painted in an impressionist style. The softness of the lines surrounding them give the illusion of her hair, which is the same color as Jesus’ hands and cloak. We are meant to see that His spirit and hers are united in this moment where she honors Jesus and is forgiven of all her sins. The brightest part of this painting is her face, right in the center. Her eyes are open as she gazes at His feet, gently touching them. And we see this touch echoed above, as Jesus lays His hand gently on her head.  As you look at this painting, what sort of emotions come to you? The colors are like a rainbow after a storm, evoking the hope that comes after darkness. Mary is peaceful, yet not happy. Her sins have burdened her so much all her life. This is the very moment of her forgiveness; she has not yet felt the weight lifting off her. She is still bent, crouched over the feet of the only one who she believes can save her. What is she thinking right now, as she feels Jesus lay his hand on her head? Take a moment to sit with this painting and allow the Lord to speak to you through this image.

The next painting depicts Mary at the tomb on Easter morning. It is titled Noli Me Tangere (Latin for “Do not touch me” or “Do not cling to me”) and was painted by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. In John’s Gospel, when Mary finally recognizes Jesus, she falls down to worship Him. He replies, telling her not to hold on to him, because he has not yet ascended to the Father, but to go and tell the disciples that she has seen Him. In this painting, though they are very close, there is a distance between them. Mary does not look at Jesus; her face is pressed into the ground, but she raises her hands in supplication. She knows this is the Son of God, risen from the dead. The apologetics site “Unam Sanctam Catholicam” describes the moment this way:
In addition to fear of the Lord, Christ inspired within Mary a deepening of faith through His gentle command to cease touching Him. Physically touching the Lord surely served as a great comfort to Mary Magdalene. In the midst of our Lord’s Passion, Mary remained close to Him, right beside the Cross. In the midst of her great grief, the body of our Lord is that which Mary sought. Yet, Mary’s faith was great; hence, she was the first witness of the Resurrection, the first one to see the Risen Lord. With the removal of this comfort from physical touch, with this abandonment of self, Mary would have to grow in faith. Her faith in Christ, rather than physical touching of Christ, would have to be her comfort and consolation. This deepening of faith in Mary Magdalene certainly would have been preparatory for the time between Christ’s Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. It is as though by saying “For I have not yet ascended to the Father” Christ is also revealing to Mary that His salvation of mankind is not yet finished; He still must ascend to Heaven and send His Spirit. With the sending of the Holy Spirit, there is a more complete restoration of the union, the “touch,” between Christ and man. Mary was being told to wait, rely on her faith, wait for the Spirit, and grow keen to the spiritual Presence of our Lord.
Notice some of the details the artist has included, and ponder what meaning they have to you. Jesus’ hand is in the three fingered blessing that was common in early Medieval and Renaissance art. The three outstretched fingers alludes to the Trinity. Is he blessing Mary, or showing us that He is going to the Father? Both the tomb and the temple are visible in this painting. The tomb housed the body of Christ and was the site of His resurrection. The temple was the spiritual center of the Jewish faith, and housed the Ark of the Covenant the Word of God. Christ, too, is the Word of God, and the tomb parallels the Temple where God Himself entered to encounter His people. Take a moment to examine the painting, and see if the Lord gives you any other insights.

Here is Mary in a very different light. Mark Hough paints her standing, her eyes lifted, her face full of wonder and awe. The halo behind her head signifies that she is a holy woman, and the banner above her head proclaims “I have seen the Lord!” but it is her face that communicates most clearly her encounter with God. Notice how her hand is in almost the same position as Jesus’ in the last painting. But she is not blessing the Apostles; she is instructing them. Here is Mary as the messenger, the original evangelist, proclaiming the Good News. The columns and arches behind her evoke the naves of a Cathedral, and her rich and beautiful clothes are colored with Christian symbolism: Red for martyrdom and the blood Christ shed on the cross, Gold for his kingship and the glory of his resurrection, White for purity, forgiveness, and salvation, and a thin band of blue, the color of our Blessed Mother, which binds together Christ’s sacrifice and our redemption.

Take a moment to reflect on this image. If you were one of the Apostles, seeing Mary come to you like this, would you believe something miraculous and inexplicable had indeed occurred?

Lastly we have this painting by Francesco Hayez, titled:  Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene Kneeling and Weeping. In this image we see brought together all three of her roles. She is wiping his feet with her hair, as she did to honor him at the home of the Pharisee. Now she does it to comfort him in his agony. See how one arm embraces the cross? At the time, she would not have known its glory, but from the perspective of history, we the viewer can see that the cross is an instrument of salvation. Just as she was forgiven all her sins, so  are we. The cross is glorious, we adore it as we adore Christ because he sanctified it. We will venerate the cross this coming Holy Thursday, as Mary Magdalene is doing here. Look now at her face. Her eyes are downcast, yet she has a slight smile, and her face is bright like the line of the horizon behind her. The darkness surrounds Jesus, except for a circle almost like a halo  just around the top of the cross. But around Mary it is not dark.  She still has Jesus, and that brings her hope and life.  But death is coming. The skull beside the Cross, Christ's closed eyes, and the descending darkness makes that clear. Here  were are at the very last moments of Christ’s life, and Mary is clinging to him, and clinging to the Cross.

When Mary Magdalene sees the man at Jesus’ tomb, she thinks he is a gardener. It doesn’t occur to her that it is Jesus. She is blinded by her grief, her own human failings, because in that moment, she believed her struggles were greater than God himself.  She has forgotten Christ’s promise that he will rebuild this temple in three days (Cf, Jn 2:19).  She, who sat at the feet of Jesus as he suffered on the cross, does not recognize that Christ is standing in front of her. 

Take a moment now to see God in this painting, and to seek Him in your heart and in your everyday fears and hardships.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I post this picture to illustrate what my life is like these days. Not because it's a great picture (which it is) but because this was MEANT to be my holiday card picture. I send cards every year, real cards, that I write in by hand with a nice little personalized Christmas message. I also enclose a picture and a letter detailing what we've been up to the past year. I love it. I send almost a hundred every year and it's a wonderful tradition that I'm very happy with.

However. This year I COULD NOT get the picture to work. My friend took this one of us when I realized that the pictures I'd had my dad take in August were not accessible from any phone but his. Then for a long time I couldn't figure out how to access this one, either. Finally my husband just emailed it to me (old school tech.) Even then I couldn't get it to print properly on our printer. It kept coming out all yellowed. I decided to spring for actual photos, and went to Shutterfly to place an order for pick up at Target. They wouldn't let me order more than 9. In case you missed that part, I send 10x that number of cards.

So, I could have called them, maybe, and tried to figure it out, but since it was pretty much a week till Christmas at that point I called it and decided no picture with my card this year.

And that's everything right now. Good intentions + massive effort = dismal failure. Let's review!

It's hard to view this year's attempt at homeschooling as anything but a flaming trainwreck, unless it's to look at it as a dumpster fire. I could not get my 10 year old to do anything. For the first three months we went on a field trip every week and kept a loose schedule to see where her interests and learning style lay. When that resulted in very little work being accomplished, I put together a daily schedule and sat beside her to work on every subject. She got WORSE. Over Thanksgiving I had many conversations with her, my husband, and friends who homeschooled, and the best we could determine was that she was sabotaging the experience because she hated being at home. She claimed she didn't know how to write a paragraph, so I assigned her one sentence. She couldn't even do that. Literally, lying on the floor, kicking her legs and crying, claiming she "didn't know what to write." I started bringing her to the library every morning for three hours and whatever was done in that time was our work for the day. I had to limit the number of hours that I'd work with her because otherwise it ate up the whole day. Every science test I gave her was an F. She wasn't on track to finish her math at grade level. She wouldn't do her writing assignments or her grammar. The only thing she enjoyed was Latin and read-alouds. If she had been doing art, or anything constructive, I could have at least pointed to that and said, hey, she's learning and growing in this area, so it's okay. But after about a month of homeschool, she refused to work on her art at all.

During this same period of time, my son refused to do the work assigned to him by his homeschool co-op, and during conferences managed to convince them that he'd learn better if he did all his work online. After Thanksgiving, seeing that he had turned nothing in and was spending his "school hours" playing video games, I sat him at a computer where I could see the screen to ensure that he was actually doing work. Still, he wouldn't turn in his projects. On the last day of the semester I went in to his co-op for a celebration, and tracked down one of his teachers to let her know that he was prepared to present four projects that day. She'd had no idea he'd even done them. He ended the semester with a D, two Cs, and a B-. And that B- was an F before I intervened. So we thought about it and determined that it wasn't working, and we needed to accept that and change course. They both started at public school by the third week of January and are doing well. My daughter keeps asking to be homeschooled next year because she doesn't like all the homework. But seeing what she's able to produce in the environment vs what she refused to do with me, I can't see that homeschool is at all an option for us anymore.

Whole 30
After we got back from our Disney Trip, I put the family on a Whole 30 diet. Mostly I wanted to curtail the habits we'd picked up over the holidays of having dessert 3-4 times a day and whining for snacks constantly. My husband and I also wanted to lose some weight, as we didn't fit into our pants. For me, there were health issues I wanted to cure, as I've had stomachaches, heartburn, and digestive issues (to state it delicately!) The diet itself was fine; it was difficult but not impossible. We ate a lot of fruit which helped with sugar cravings, and I had a repertoire of recipes from GAPS and from friends who have gone through it. Unfortunately, I saw no improvement of any kind, whether in weight loss or reduction of my cravings or digestive symptoms. My husband says he lost some weight, but I don't think either of us saw the results we were hoping for, especially considering how much work I put into cooking every single meal for those 30 days. (Part of the diet involves not eating out.) So I am still eating a limited diet to avoid aggravating my heartburn, and wearing skirts and sweatpants as much as possible. Not happy.

The Book
Is still on hiatus. I stopped writing a year ago (April 2016) because I just couldn't handle having a puppy on top of everything else. I had too much work to be able to take a whole Saturday and write. Once the kids went back to school, people were asking if I planned to work on the book again. The short answer is, no. Not yet. To my mind, the book is a huge time and resource commitment with a slim chance of low return. Getting published requires more than talent and hard work; you have to also write the sort of book publishers are looking for right now, and that people want to read. Short of stumbling upon some sort of Harry Potter or Twilight niche, the best I can hope for is to make around $20,000. So I've never felt that it was appropriate to expend my family's resources on writing when my contributions are so necessary in other areas. But the real reason is that I just don't think I'm good enough at writing to get anywhere with it. It's going to have to be a hobby for me; not a profession. My husband says that's exactly the wrong attitude, and if I want to be a successful writer I have to make failure a non-option. That the only way to get better at it is to sink time and energy and training into becoming better. It's wonderful to have someone who believes in me, and I appreciate everything he's saying. I'm sure he's right. But again it comes down to the fact that this can't be the right time for me to invest in the book. We are investing in other things right now. The book must wait.

People insist that I have great kids. I agree, but it's not easy to get them there. I am very tired of the fighting and arguing. On the one hand there's been great improvement in this area because my confidence as an authority has skyrocketed in the last year. I know that it's right for me to manage their screen time, to insist they eat a balanced diet, to require them to help around the house. So I expect all these things, and, as children do, they fight me constantly because they don't want to do them. Each child has his/her own unique method of resistance. Maizie fusses and cries and complains. Pookie screams "I hate you!" hits, and calls me stupid. Doob does a bad job and claims it should count. And Ginny shuts down and refuses to comply, then offers snide remarks to extended family at my expense. Among the many fine abilities my husband has, discipline is not one. Nor does he have time to figure out and enforce the massive network of rules and arrangements I've established with the kids. The end result is that I expend an enormous amount of work (mental and otherwise) to keep on top of the kids. I really feel parenting shouldn't be quite this hard, and I'm wondering when the fruits of my labors are going to show. The truth is, sometimes I don't like being around any of them. Those fleeting moments of joy, like when I watch my 5 year old riding a bike for the first time, or hear the peals of laughter as all four jump on the trampoline together, or receive a spontaneous hug from the 3 year old, are present every day and make the journey worthwhile. Yet they are too few to really sustain me.

It will come as no surprise, given this self-indulgent and whiny post, that my prayer life has been a struggle, too. When I find time and energy to be with the Lord, I feel so much better. Going on a mini-retreat with my mother's group, reading a spiritual book, or even something as simple as listening to Christian music is enough to draw me right back to where I am fed and sustained from the grace of God. Yet there is SO MUCH NOISE, not just in my house but in my head. Concentrating on anything is so difficult. What I really long for is a book I love, or imagining scenes from my world in my head. Prayer takes effort, and I have expended so much elsewhere that it's hard to find the motivation. I know that I need it. I know that it will help me. I want to do it, yet I don't. I feel much like a person who realizes that cooking an actual meal will nourish them best, but they grab a packet of potato chips instead. Not that I do that. I am a superstar on the nutritional front. But I'm filling up on processed prayer.

I know that the answer is quite simple. Trust God. Keep moving forward. Do what's right and the rest will follow. I know that I'm a good parent, and my kids will be fine. I would love to just shut off the neurotic parts of my brain that question everything I do and whisper that I'm the problem. I envy the amazing women in my life who don't overthink every damn little thing. I can recognize, intellectually, that things are getting better.

I know I am slightly (if not severely) depressed. My OB and I are working on some supplements that may help better than the SSRIs I was on for three years (and which I didn't feel did much.) In the meantime, I'm just going to keep doing what I need to do and seizing joy wherever it finds me. Most days are better than today.