I went to a symposium last weekend in Denver, Colorado. It was held at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and was sponsored by the Institute for Priestly Formation. The topic was, of course, priestly formation and focused on the relationship between the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly identity and ministry. In my work serving the formation of future priests I sometimes think, “How did they let me in here?” It’s such a privilege, even as it’s also challenging work.
The seminary chapel was lovely, and having a Mass celebrated by 50+ priests is always an extraordinary experience. After Mass on the second day of the symposium, I walked around toward the narthex of the chapel and was overtaken by this beautiful bronze statue of Christ in the throes of his Passion. I stood in prayer before him and couldn’t help but think of St. Teresa of Avila’s experience,
By this time my soul was growing weary, and, though it desired to rest the miserable habits which now enslaved it would not allow it to do so. It happened that, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image which had been procured for a certain festival that was observed in the house and had been taken there to be kept for that purpose. It represented Christ sorely wounded; and so conducive was it to devotion that when I looked at it I was deeply moved to see Him thus, so well did it picture what He suffered for us. So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart were breaking, and I threw myself down beside Him, shedding floods of tears and begging Him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend Him.
I had a great devotion to the glorious Magdalen and often thought of her conversion, especially when I received Communion for, knowing that the Lord was certainly within me then, I would place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be rejected. I did not know what I was saying; but in allowing me to shed those tears He was very gracious to me, since I so soon forgot my grief; and I used to commend myself to that glorious Saint so that she might obtain pardon for me.
But on this last occasion when I saw that image of which I am speaking, I think I must have made greater progress, because I had quite lost trust in myself and was placing all my confidence in God. I believe I told Him then that I would not rise from that spot until He had granted me what I was beseeching of Him. And I feel sure that this did me good, for from that time onward I began to improve.
That made me think of how very important sacred images are in the spiritual life, and how God can use them to sanctify our senses and stir both contrition and virtues to life within. Especially in a culture so supersaturated with sensual images, we desperately need to allow God to pour his grace into our senses by praying with beautiful and sacred artwork. As Cardinal Ratzinger said it in a 2002 lecture,
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
The Passion of Jesus is the most beautiful form in the whole of creation, as it reveals the self-wasting love of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). As I looked at him, I prayed that I might place all my confidence in God.