In Part Two of this special Advent post, Fr Gordon MacRae continues “33 Days to Morning Glory,” an invitation to Marian Consecration by Fr Michael Gaitley, MIC.
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part post. Part 1 posted last week, was entitled, “Woman, Behold Your Son! 33 Days to Morning Glory“
When I was ordained a priest on June 5, 1982, an old and dear friend, Father Anthony Nuccio, CSS, a priest of the Congregation of Stigmatines, gave me a much treasured gift. It was a wood panel measuring 12″ x 20″ bearing a beautiful reproduction of Fra Angelico’s famous masterpiece, “The Annunciation.” It was placed with honor on my office wall in every place I have lived since – except, of course, this place. As with all evidence of a life before prison as I approach my 20th Christmas behind these stone walls, I do not know what has become of that treasure. I see it today only in my mind’s eye.
But I still see it vividly. Having studied “The Annunciation” intently, I can picture every detail of it. Painted by the Italian master, Fra Angelico between 1430 and 1432, it is justly the most famous of many paintings of the Annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke (1: 26-38). Three years ago on These Stone Walls, I wrote of this treasure and of that scene in my favorite Advent post, “Saint Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon us.”
It contrasted the two annunciation scenes of Saint Luke’s Nativity account. The first was the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the priest, Zechariah, about the birth of John the Baptist. The second was the announcement to Mary that she was soon to bear the Son of God.
The Archangel began his message to Zechariah by calming the priest’s fear in the presence of an angel, but the message to Mary began with the Archangel’s own awe of Mary herself in words now very familiar:
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”
The contrast in Saint Luke’s account, and in many subsequent works of art, is fascinating. Gabriel towers over Zechariah brought to his knee in fear and trembling as he questions how the announcement of the angel could be true. As I wrote in that post, do not read the Archangel’s words in casual and bland prose. Read them with the sound of thunder in the distance, and the Temple floor shaking beneath Zechariah’s feet:
“I am Gabriel who stand in the Presence of God, and I was sent to you to bring you this news. And behold, YOU WILL BE SILENT. . . !”
I have always imagined Zechariah’s hasty visit to the Temple men’s room after this scene. For his doubt, he is utterly silenced in the presence of Gabriel, and until his son is born.
But the Annunciation to Mary is portrayed very differently, not only by the Evangelist, but in centuries of art, and especially by Fra Angelico. In the Annunciation to Mary, it is the Archangel who takes the humble position, bowing before Mary with deep reverence and deference. In this scene, Saint Luke reflects the great esteem and reverence with which Mary was held very close to the heart of the Apostolic Church.
Fra Angelico portrayed the moment of the Holy Spirit’s act of Divine Mercy for the world as a subtle beam of light, descending from above and beyond Gabriel into the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Annunciation is fulfilled in Mary’s assent to God, an act of submission that has expressed for two millennia the birth of redemption for a fallen world: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; Be it to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). As the Nativity story concludes, Jesus is presented in the Temple, as Simeon the priest blessed Him, beheld his Mother, and foretold their Cross:
“Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
THE GREAT PONDERING
In His dying words upon the Cross, Jesus looked upon his mother and his beloved disciple, John, and said, “Woman, behold your son!” and to John, “Behold your Mother.” Then from that moment on, the Disciple “took her into his own home,” and into his heart (John 19:26-27). We have beheld her since, and pondered with her the meaning of Christ’s coming into our world, the scandal of His bearing our Cross, the gift of salvation as he died upon it, and the hope of a door long closed to us – the Gate of Heaven – opened anew. From the Fall of Man to the Annunciation to the Cross to the Empty Tomb, the story of salvation has been told in Sacred Scripture and in sacred art to remind history of something essential: The life of the Son of God on Earth began with the words of an angel, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” and ended with the words of Christ crucified, “Behold, your Mother!”
Every now and then I find something obscure in the secular media that shines a light on my pondering with Mary, and it’s usually something in The Wall Street Journal. In early November, art historian, Alain de Botton penned an article entitled “Art for Life’s Sake” (WSJ “Review,” Nov. 2/3, 2013). Profiling eight great works of art, de Botton wrote:
“Great works of art aren’t just for show. Approached in the right frame of mind, they can help us deal with life’s key challenges… our fear of the unknown, our longing for love, our need for hope.”
One of the works of art de Botton chose was “Christ Crucified” by the great 17th Century Spanish master, Diego Valasquez. Alain de Botton’s description of the painting and its starkly moving scene of the Crucifixion was surprising to see in a secular newspaper today:
“Valasquez shows us the Son of God, the King of Kings, bleeding on the cross like an ordinary stricken man. He will be dead in a few moments. Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives can be burdened by suffering…but Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to have some honor or dignity” (Alain de Botton, WSJ Nov. 2/3, 2013).
33 DAYS TO MORNING GLORY
Today, I look for that honor and dignity in suffering in the place Christ told me to look, “Behold your Mother!” In Part One of this post, I wrote of the ordeal of two prisoners who had once promised to be with Mary at the foot of the Cross, but some of the sense of honor that comes with that had faded among the wind and the waves of life’s storms. So I wrote of an invitation extended to us, of our “Zechariah-like” doubt, and of our inevitable acquiescence (picture Jonah in the belly of the beast) in spite of ourselves. It was an invitation to ponder with Mary, and it took the form of another great work of art, this time painted with words, and captured in masterful prose by Father Michael Gaitley, MIC of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. It was an invitation to “33 Days to Morning Glory,” the first time such an invitation was extended inside an American prison.
In True Devotion to Mary, Saint Louis de Montfort’s 18tn Century classic of the spiritual life, the great Marian saint laid out a course toward Marian Consecration that comprised 33 days. Father Michael Gaitley authored a very readable analysis of this classic, weaving into this beautiful journey the Marian theology of three great 20th Century models of faith: Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Mother Teresa, and Blessed John Paul II. Father Gaitley incorporated this wealth of inspiration into his own “33 Days” format and it is wonderful to behold.
Many readers of These Stone Walls already know what some of these saints and companions have meant to us. I wrote of one in “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell,” but my meager prose paled next to the brilliance of Father Gaitley’s presentations. The connections he made between the life of John Paul II and the Miracle of Fatima were breathtaking. It was information I knew, but had never before tied together in such a powerful presentation. It will leave you, as it left me, with no doubt about the work of Divine Mercy in human history. Father Gaitley’s DVD reflections on Blessed John Paul II were simply brilliant.
And TSW readers know that I have written many times of our journey in prison with Saint Maximilian Kolbe and all that he has meant for us, perhaps best expressed in a recent two-part post, “Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.” As Father Gaitley’s riveting DVD retreat conferences commenced in our “33 Days” journey, our friend Pornchai and I knew without doubt that we were among friends.
The brief daily readings in “33 Days to Morning Glory” written by Father Gaitley, and the “Retreat Companion” journal by Carol R. Younger, Ed. D., were augmented by weekly meetings and the superb DVD presentations of Father Gaitley. Under the capable leadership of retreat coordinator, Nate Chapman, our small group discussions were led by three exemplary disciples of Mary from New Hampshire: David Kemmis, Jean Fafard, and Jim Preisendorfer. I was humbled to be in the presence of such men who gave so much of their time and experience to our “33 Days.”
PORNCHAI’S NEW NAME
But beyond the overwhelmingly beautiful and hopeful content of “33 Days to Morning Glory,” there was a very special gift for me and Pornchai. At two of the large group meetings, Eric Mahl was present. A few weeks ago, some TSW readers called me “The Priest Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest” after my controversial post, “Stay of Execution.” I wrote about the moving story of Joe Walker who shared, along with Pornchai Moontri, a chapter in Felix Carroll’s great book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions. The final chapter of that wonderful book was the story of Eric Mahl, a very special young man and witness to Divine Mercy.
Because Eric and Pornchai each shared a chapter in Felix Carroll’s book, they knew of each other but had never met. As Pornchai and I arrived at the prison chapel for our third “33 Days” group meeting on November 10, I heard Pornchai exclaim, “That’s Eric!” And simultaneously from across the chapel, I heard Eric exclaim, “That’s Pornchai!” It was a meeting of brothers, each bringing the wounds and hopes of life to the foot of the Cross where they both, at the command of Christ, behold their Mother.
By human design or not I do not know, but it was no mere accident that our “33 Days” retreat culminated in our Marian Consecration at Mass in the prison chapel on November 24, 2013, the Solemnity of Christ the King and the closing of the Church’s Year of Faith. The Mass was presided over by Father Wilfred Deschamps, a priest of my Diocese whose parishioners at Saint Patrick Parish in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, devoted many hours in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament for the success of “33 Days” behind prison walls.
And to our great surprise and joy, Felix Carroll was also present along with Eric Mahl. Both traveled from the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Felix had extensively interviewed Pornchai via telephone for his book, but the bond of friendship and brotherhood was clear in their meeting, finally, behind these stone walls. Both Felix and Eric returned to the prison that evening for the closing conference of our “33 Days” retreat.
At one point in his DVD presentation during the “33 Days,” Father Michael Gaitley described why young Raymond Kolbe was given the name, “Maximilian,” as his religious name as a Conventual Franciscan. From childhood in a war torn and poverty stricken Poland, Raymond Kolbe’s love and reverence for Mary were very great. At his Profession of Vows in religious life, his Order gave him the name “Maximilian” because it means, “the greatest.” Pornchai, who took that name as his middle name at Baptism to honor his Patron Saint, was beaming a smile that could have been seen from space. After the session on the walk back to our cell, Pornchai told me that from hereon he wants to be called “Max.”
I thought I might have to clear some space in our cell to make room for this new name, but “Max” was quick to clarify: “I’m not the greatest,” he said, “but my saint is!” I told Max that in Sacred Scripture, spiritual transformation often brought a new name. After his encounter with God in the Book of Genesis, Abram became Abraham. And in Acts of the Apostles, Saul of Tarsus was knocked off his high horse to become Saint Paul. Max is in good company.
After the trials of October, “33 Days to Morning Glory” was a great spiritual gift that I want to extend to the readers of These Stone Walls. It can transform hearts and entire parishes, and in fact has transformed many. Spend time this Advent at www.AllHeartsAfire.org to learn how.
“Marian Entrustment,” as Blessed John Paul II called this Consecration, has become the heart of our pondering with Mary. Down the nights and down the days, from the Annunciation to the Cross, and then beyond to where the Dawn from On High breaks upon a far distant shore, we are borne upon this Vessel of Honor, full sail, toward home.