Gwen John was from Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Her more famous brother, Augustus, was also an artist. Gwen studied art in London and in Paris, becoming the lover of the much older sculptor Rodin; hardly a woman with a vocation, you might feel. Yet as her passionate affair with him came to an end, she was received into the Catholic Church and lived a quite solitary life with her cats, which she often painted.
She began writing meditations and prayers; she wanted to be a saint and God’s little artist: ‘My religion and my art, they are my life’, she is quoted as saying by Tenby Museum and gallery.
About 1913, to oblige the Dominican Sisters of Charity at Meudon, she began a series of painted portraits of their founder Mere Marie Poussepin, based on a prayer card.
In Meudon she lived in solitude, except for her cats. In an undated letter she wrote, “I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.” She wished also to avoid family ties (“I think the family has had its day. We don’t go to Heaven in families now but one by one”) and her decision to live in France after 1903 may have been partly to escape the overpowering personality of her famous brother.
Art was her vocation, and perhaps something of an obsession; or should we say she was single-minded? Previous generations would have revered her as a repentant sinner, a term most likely to be used of a woman who had abandoned promiscuous ways. It was not so cut and dried as that. Just look at this self portrait, and it appears that her vocation was to question, to seek. to record what she saw, and to go back and begin her search again.
John of Fiesole joined the Order of Friars Preacher, or Dominicans, but his vocation lay with the walls of churches rather than their pulpits; he is better known to us as Fra Angelico. Here are the thoughts of E.V. Lucas in the early years of last century, who visited, studied and enjoyed Angelico’s work in Florence and elsewhere.
As to Fra Angelico’s character, let Vasari+ tell us. “He would often say that whosoever practised art needed a quiet life and freedom from care, and he who occupies himself with the things of Christ ought always to be with Christ. . . . Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brush without first making a prayer. . . . He never made a crucifix when the tears did not course down his cheeks.”
The one curious thing—to me—about Fra Angelico is that he has not been canonised.* If ever a son of the Church toiled for her honour and for the happiness of mankind it was he… His pictures will be found not only in Florence and Italy but in the chief galleries of the world; for he was very assiduous. We have an excellent example at the National Gallery.
In looking at his pictures, three things in particular strike the mind: the skill with which he composed them; his mastery of light; and—and here he is unique—the pleasure he must have had in painting them. All seem to have been play; he enjoyed the toil exactly as a child enjoys the labour of building a house with toy bricks. Nor, one feels, could he be depressed. Even in his Crucifixions there is a certain underlying happiness, due to his knowledge that the Crucified was to rise again and ascend to Heaven and enjoy eternal felicity. Knowing this (as he did know it) how could he be wholly cast down?
From “A Wanderer in Florence” by E. V. Lucas, 1912.
A Dominican, also known as a friar preacher, preaching in Canterbury Cathedral, and seven more singing Vespers. Not something that happens every day, but no longer an occasion for demonstrations against such ecumenical hospitality. And it was a shared time of prayer, celebrated at the usual hour for Evensong, with contributions from both Anglican and Catholic clergy, and the choir of St Thomas’ Church, Canterbury with the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin.
The occasion was the 800th anniversary of the arrival of the Dominicans in England. Four of the friars are walking from Ramsgate to Oxford via Canterbury and London. The Preacher was Fr Richard Finn; most of the friars present were young men: fit, we hope, for two weeks of marching. But they were taking a break for refreshment and prayer in the mother city of the English Church.
The vespers were sung and the sermon preached 800 years to the day since the first Dominican sermon preached in England: Archbishop Stephen Langton ordered one of them to give the homily and after hearing it, gave them his blessing and his backing. Fr Richard spoke about joy: a virtue to be cultivated even in difficult times, as the pandemic has been for so many of us. But if we are joyful at heart, we can live and share that joy. For a start, let’s rejoice that these events do take place.
The friars are now walking on to Oxford, where they established their first house in England and where their main house of studies is today, though they are also at Edinburgh and Cambridge.
Chesterton is discussing the impact of the friars mendicant upon the Church in Western Europe. A shock to the system that we can hardly comprehend when Franciscans and Dominicans are part of the establishment. We need to feel a measure of disconcert, a sense of our own lack of balance, before we can learn to get to our feet and move on. And who is afraid of Christ’s message today? Maybe we are, first of all.
It is highly pertinent to recall the modern revolutionists would now call the revolt of the French Jacobins insufficient, just as they would call the revolt of the Friars insufficient. They would say that neither went far enough; but many, in their own day, thought they went very much too far. In the case of the Friars, the higher orders of the State, and to some extent even of the Church, were profoundly shocked at such a loosening of wild popular preachers among the people. It is not at all easy for us to feel that distant events were thus disconcerting and even disreputable.
Revolutions turn into institutions; revolts that renew the youth of old societies in their turn grow old; and the past, which was full of new things, of splits and innovations and insurrections, seems to us a single texture of tradition. But if we wish for one fact that will make vivid this shock of change and challenge, and show how raw and ragged, how almost rowdy in its reckless novelty, how much of the gutter and how remote from refined life, this experiment of the Friars did really seem to many in its own day, there is here a very relevant fact to reveal it. It shows how much a settled and already ancient Christendom did feel it as something like the end of an age; and how the very roads of the earth seem to shake under the feet of the new and nameless army; the march of the Beggars. A mystic nursery rhyme suggests the atmosphere of such a crisis: “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark; the Beggars are coming to town.”
There were many towns that almost fortified themselves against them and many watchdogs of property and rank did really bark, and bark loudly, when those Beggars went by; but louder was the singing of the Beggars who sang their Canticle to the Sun, and louder the baying of the Hounds of Heaven; the Domini canes of the medieval pun; the Dogs of God.
From Saint Thomas Aquinas by G. K. Chesterton; via Kindle.
Lisa Elmaleh took her antique, large-frame camera with her when she volunteered with the Sisters helping Latin America migrants along ex-president Trump’s border wall. This photo-essay, with words by Soli Salgado tells some of the stories they encountered. It comes from Global Sisters’ Report. Click on the link and read on: it is a sobering report.
The Gospels are full of instances where Jesus is “moved with compassion”. No translation in English quite conveys the force of the original: a deep and visceral movement from the bowels, the entrails, the depth of the heart where the strongest emotions originate. For Jesus this feeling of compassion often extended itself into acts of healing and the restoration of the inherent dignity of people on the margins, often in things as simple and straightforward as a conversation or sharing a meal.
Albert Nolan OP in his splendid book “Jesus before Christianity” says: “It would be impossible to overestimate the impact these meals must have had upon the poor and the sinners. By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame, humiliation, and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people he gave them a sense of dignity … The physical contact which he must have had with them when reclining at table … must have made them feel clean and acceptable”.
The point Nolan drives home is that Jesus isn’t a friendly social worker or dispenser of charity “doing good to someone” but is rather participating in a person’s experience. He stands in solidarity and makes community with people in their woundedness; he is deeply affected by the pain of others, and he can do nothing other than to alleviate pain and suffering. This was received as healing and salvation with relief, joy, gratitude, and love.
As a young man I felt ambivalent about Catholic devotion to Mary. I remembered how the Redemptorists who staffed the parish and the teachers in the primary school served up what now seems a sentimental soup of hymns which emphasised the differences between us and the ‘wicked men [who] blaspheme thee.’
My father’s well-thumbed rosary has appeared in these reflections before. His convert’s devotion was not stultifying but I had and have difficulty in seeing the Assumption, today’s feast, as central to my faith. but belief in the Assumption of Mary – he being taken up, bodily to heaven at her death – was required of anyone who sought to become a Catholic Christian. Just as well I was a cradle Catholic!
Walsingham helped reconcile me to some Marian devotion. I think it was to do with the ecumenical nature of the town, with Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches in close proximity and, by the time of my second visit with L’Arche Kent in 1976, living in harmony.
Another pilgrimage, a few years later, threw new light on the place of Mary for me. We were visiting Lichfield Cathedral from the Dominicans’ conference centre at nearby Spode House. ‘We’ were a group of children with learning difficulties, their parents and friends. We had a service in the Cathedral and afterwards looked around. I was grabbed by one boy who wanted to show me a snake, carved on a memorial tablet: ‘It’s an obsession of his’, said his father.
We then realised that little Jenny was missing. Jenny had no speech, we did not know what she might do.
We found her, curled up in the Lady Chapel. ‘I should have known!’ said her foster-mother. Jenny preached without words but with an eloquence that reached one who is liable to let his head rule his heart even when it should be the other way around.
As I was walking home at a quarter to nine this morning, the Sun was finding it difficult to break through but there was autumn colour nonetheless. We are in the city centre, at the site of a corn mill that burned to the ground eighty years ago. Top picture is looking upstream; the cathedral is behind the houses on the left; the building on the right, obscured by trees, was once the Dominican Priory.
Looking downstream, the steps, right foreground, take you across the main river over the sluice gates that control the flow – still vital when there is too much or too little rain.
There is a pub with rooms called the Miller’s Arms just visible behind the trees to the right. They fed us well the last time we visited.
The old bridge is called after St Radigund, a princess-abbess from the so-called dark ages when so many noblewomen found openings for themselves and others to be something other than wives, mothers and domestics. We’d better publish a post about her sometime soon; till then, Laudato Si!
Do I need to add that it was another true story? One of the most spectacular shared meals of all time, that puts into the shade our small miracle recalled in Tuesday’s post – and it happened in the unforgiving Galilean sunshine. 5,000 men, not to mention women and children, all of them fed from five loaves and two little fish.
John’s account (Chapter 6) tells us that the food was offered by a small boy. So even then, the Lord depended on others to complete his work.
John also tells us that Jesus spoke about himself as real food:
For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him.As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.
Well, they did not get it, those who walked no more with him. But do we get it? Remember Herbert McCabe:
The doctrine of transubstantiation, as I see it, is that the bread and wine become more radically food and drink.
To the naked eye the Eucharist is nothing like as spectacular as the feeding of the five thousand, at which Jesus floated the idea of his body as food to his followers. But consider how we feel more alive in the company of loved ones, as part of a crowd with a purpose such as cheering on a sports team; breathing the same air, hearing and singing the same chants, sharing conversation. We feel energised.
We can be less than 100% attentive to what is being said and done at Mass, receiving the Sacrament in a daze of fatigue or fret. But our presence, our extended hand, are there not just in the moment, but more radically are on the brink of the eternal moment.
(I doubt the loaves and fish were as big as these carved on Strasbourg Cathedral)
Herbert McCabe O.P. was always thought-provoking. Nicholas Lash once laid these quotations of Herbert’s before his own readers:
Christ has a better right to appear as food and drink than bread and wine have. The doctrine of transubstantiation, as I see it, is that the bread and wine become more radically food and drink.
I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which questions of whether it is bread can not relevantly be asked.
Nicholas Lash, ‘Traveller’s Fare’, New Blackfriars, May 2007, pp129, 131.
Lash warns against the ‘reification’ of Christ in the wheaten host. In other words, I think, we must not see the host as a thing we can call Jesus. Despite the old hymn it does not ‘my very God conceal’, but it reveals him.
It reveals him as humble, as nourishing, as one who,
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.