The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

A priest’s office rarely suffers from a lack of religious artwork, sacramentals, and the knickknackery proper to Catholic piety. My own is no exception. From where I sit Jesus and Mary have me surrounded. And (to point out just a few things) on the window ledge next to my desk a small statue of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux keeps a sisterly eye on me. Thérèse cradles in her left arm an open book; the words Ma vocation c’est l’amour appear on the pages. With her other arm she keeps a bunch of roses handy, ready to send one down the instant the next novena concludes.

About a foot to the left of the Little Flower is an image of Blessed Sebastian Maggi, the 15th-century Dominican whose name I received at the beginning of my novitiate and who has been stuck with me as a dependent ever since. Between Thérèse and Sebastian, and thus right in the middle of the windowsill, is a small framed copy of one of my favorite works of art, one that inspires me as much as any I can think of: Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion, by Fra Angelico.

Clinging to the Cross

A Dominican friar himself, Beato Angelico produced a number of frescoes along the same lines—depicting, that is, the founder of the Order of Preachers as if present at Calvary. Sometimes Dominic is at the cross alongside Saint John, the Blessed Mother, and Saint Mary Magdalene. In other versions he is by himself. At times he is standing (in one his arms are outstretched in imitation of the Lord on the cross), at other times we find him kneeling in prayer.

In this particular image Dominic is alone, kneeling to the left of the crucifix. His arms grasp the cross underneath the feet of Jesus, whose blood is running down the wood, right where Dominic’s hands are. The saint’s head is tilted up, his gaze directed at the Lord with a look of love and adoration.

Higher up, the Lord’s own thorn-crowned head is bowed, an aspect of the fresco that I find especially arresting. Scripture reveals, of course, that the Savior bowed his head the moment he surrendered his spirit in death (Jn 19:30). But the image also gives the impression that the Savior has purposefully lowered his head in the direction of Dominic, as if he wishes to utter his last words, It is finished, directly to him. Apparently I was not the first person to think of this. One book about Angelico’s work acknowledges “the intense emotion of this silent dialogue between Saint Dominic and Christ.”

The Lord’s particular love

It’s not that the artist couldn’t keep his dates straight. He knew very well that his order’s founder had lived a good twelve hundred years after our Lord. By placing him at the foot of the cross, Angelico was rendering a theological truth: God’s love is not an abstraction, nor does time separate us from the merits of the Lord’s death. Jesus knew and loved Dominic from the cross. In fact, he knew and loved each of us from the cross. And he continues to love us with unyielding intensity and specificity. As Saint Paul said, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:20).

The great spiritual author Archbishop Luis Martínez reflected on this truth in words I’ll never tire of reading:

Faith teaches that God loves us and that he loves us not as a group, but personally, individually: He loved me! Each one of us can make these words of the Apostle Paul his own without fear of error. He knows my name; he has engraved my image in his heart. Still more, I can be assured that his heart is all mine, because our Lord cannot love as we do, by halves; when he loves, he loves with his whole heart, infinitely. Souls sometimes say, with a mixture of love and of ignorance, “I wish our Lord would love me more.” But is that possible? Can he who loves infinitely love any more? If nothing else existed in the world except God and you, O soul who reads these lines, he would not love you more than he does right now. If you were the only object of his love, he would love you just as he loves you now.

Saint Thérèse also had a profound awareness of the Lord’s particular love, for both herself and others. “I feel,” she said to Jesus, “that if you found a soul weaker and littler than mine, which is impossible, you would be pleased to grant it still greater favors, provided it abandoned itself with total confidence to your infinite mercy…. I beg you to cast your divine glance upon a great number of little souls!” The Little Flower knew that her confidence in the love of Jesus was a gift others could enjoy as well.

Venite, Adoremus!

Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion still hangs in its original home in Florence, Italy, in the Dominican priory of San Marco (now, alas, a museum), where it and dozens of other frescoes would have been an inspiration for the friars’ contemplation and preaching. Angelico knew that as preachers of grace they could not resort merely to sublimity of words or of wisdom—they must resolve to know nothingexcept Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2:1-2). That is in fact the call of every Christian, and it’s what I try to remember every time I sit down at my desk.

In these especially important and holy days, dear friends, let us draw close to our Crucified Lord. Let us adore and love him who loves us first, who loves us to the end, who loves us like none other.