By the time we returned to the Church, the sun had come up and the medallion window of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit was brilliant in the early morning light. The image is brilliant in the blues of Our Lady and the vibrant oranges that cannot help but invoke the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is all there: the hand of the Father, the Dove of the Spirit and Jesus, in Mary’s womb. Looking at the image as I finished my morning rosary, the prayers took on added significance. Images sometimes speak more clearly than words; isn’t that what the old saying is? Certainly there is much in the spiritual realm that lies far beyond the land of language, sometimes even of thought.
This is a place that would drive my Presbyterian friends nuts. Our Lady is welcomed to mass and, especially in this month of May, is a bold part of it. The images around the retreat house are often of Mary: it is, after all, the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit. I am always struck by how phobic my Protestant friends are on the subject of Mary. Do they not understand that in the order of things, we need both Father and Mother?
One image in the hall outside the dining room draws me particularly. Mary and Joseph and Jesus as more than infant, less than toddler, are under a tree. Mary's arms encircle Christ as he stands. They both look across Joseph, reclining on his side; his head is slumped over on his hand, eyes closed, asleep. They are looking at cherubs holding a cross; Joseph’s back is to the scene. The cherubs are at once solemn and wondering. Mary’s face is quiet and composed, her eyes open, her hands clasped in prayer i. Jesus is attentive, his arms open wide, as children naturally do in welcome, but also as He would also open them in his ministry and His passion. And he smiles. He smiles.
There’s a lot of theology packed into that little painting. Sometimes we forget that the Infant Christ is still the Christ, born to deliver us in His passion. And as much as He suffered to bring redemption to the world, it was also His joy. The idea of joy in suffering is foreign to modern minds, because we think of suffering as something evil, to be avoided at all costs, and because society pretty much defines joy as the absence of suffering. Christ knew better and Our Lady still strives to instruct us in that truth.
But it is Joseph who intrigues me. I suppose one could argue that his sleep and his posture represent the state of sinful man; unaware of the scope of the great Passion that purchases redemption. I see it differently. Joseph has the look of a man exhausted by his labors, taking rest where he can and when he can. But his posture is not of repose. Rather, he looks like a watchman drifted off for a moment but ready to be called into action at the slightest provocation: resting for coming conflict, not indifferent and unsuspecting.
Pious tradition holds that Mary came to understand the import of her fiat as she pondered the Incarnation in her heart. But she, and Jesus, needed Joseph to protect them, care for them, and sustain them so that the infant Jesus could come to be the Christ on the Cross.
Did Joseph know the full import of what he was called to do? We don’t know. Scripture is silent about that and very nearly silent about him. But I see him as not unlike the fathers of my own dad’s generation: men who simply and quietly provided for and protected their families, allowing God’s love to be present and grow in the world around them. Never truly asleep, always on guard, perhaps not quite understanding their roles, they never the less filled them and we prosper because of it.
These days, society sees men and fathers as dispensable, or at least, indistinguishable from mothers. This morning, after mass, we saw images of Milton Rogovin, who photographed the poor and dispossessed. I was struck by how many images of fathers and children he had, including one that reminded me of the image in the hall. An African American man, sitting on a stoop, held his arms open wide, his child standing before him, sheltered by the expanse of bare, strong arms, at least for a time. I wonder, could he make such an image so easily today, in a time of families so mixed no one is quite sure whose father is whose, a time when too many mothers refer not to husbands but to their baby’s daddy? If Protestant thought has abandoned the spiritual need for a mother, secular society has jettisoned the material need for a father. Neither serves us well.
St. Joseph, Mary, Mother of the Church, Mother of Priests, pray for our fathers, in the natural order of things and in the spiritual order. We are so vulnerable without them and we have strayed so far from their arms.