Thursday, June 21, 2012


This past few days the monks have been on retreat. The conferences, presented by Fr. Justin of St. Vincent Archabbey, were unique because they were based on famous a set of paintings begun 500 years ago this year by Matthias Grünewald, known as the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is a series of folding panels containing pictures from the life of Christ. The deep theological symbolism contained in the paintings would take a month to exhaust.

When the hinged panels were closed, they revealed a scene of the crucifixion that is one of the most macabre and horrid depictions you can imagine. It’s important to remember that the piece was painted for a hospital for victims of an epidemic of a terrible disease called "ergotism" or “St. Anthony's fire” caused by the poison of a fungus that clung to rye and was inadvertently pounded into the flour used to make rye bread. It “set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions. Many victims died.” The sufferers were being invited to identify with the Christ hanging in torment on the cross.
At the base of the work is a panel showing Jesus being taken down from the cross. His body is covered with red lesions; these are not signs of the scourging, they are the familiar skin lesions of ergotism! The sufferer looking at the painting would easily see himself in Christ and identify with Jesus’ passion.

How good am I at remembering to identify my own sufferings with those of Christ on the cross? I’m too likely to forget that connection and concentrated simply on the commendable search for ways to make the pain stop. But this picture of the body of the crucified Christ covered with lesions can remind me to see my sufferings as part of his.

Another of the panels depicts the Annunciation, in which Mary is listening to the angel Gabriel’s salutation of her as “Highly favored one” or “one full of grace.” But what struck me was not Grunewald’s depiction but rather something Fr. Justin said about the expression “Let it be done to me according to your word.” It was translated into Latin as “fiat mihi,” “let it be done to me,” as if Mary is passively resigning herself to whatever it is that God wants to do with her. But Luke’s original Greek says “genoito moi.” The first word is a verb that has lots of meanings, but “let it happen (to me)” would be pretty accurate. The interesting thing is, in linguistic terms, the verb is not in the subjunctive mood, which would carry the idea of passive resignation to God’s plan; instead the verb is in the optative mood, implying wishing, wanting, even hoping. So Mary is not a passive instrument in this scene: she is saying something closer to “Oh yes! I’d love it.” She is perfectly open to God’s invitation, and gives herself to it unreservedly.

How many times, when God’s will makes itself pretty clear in my life, do I passively accept it as God’s will, and say “fiat,” “let it be so/” thinking that I’m imitating Mary’s response to Gabriel? Nope, sorry! Mary was far more open, active and involved than that. I pray that the Lord may find my responses in the future closer to the one that Mary gave when she gladly embraced God’s will for her.

The suffering ends in glory!


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