Thursday, 30 December 2010

The faces of saints

In The Oratory Church, Oxford, the parish of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, there is a great reredos of 72 saints on the sanctuary. It fascinates me. I always want to climb the stairs beyond the altar rail to examine the faces of the saints, but I never dare. It is only recently that I discovered, framed behind a pillar, a mapped key to who is who. I liked the guessing game, but now I can check the answers! I have written before about my attachment to faces. It is the most public and the most intimate part of someone. We only touch the faces of those we love. Faces make their home in our subconscious. They come back when we least expect it. Treasured memories are those when we recall the emotion in a loved ones expression: 'I remember how you laughed'; 'I saw you cry'; 'the look on your face'. Sometimes, after a long absence, waiting to meet someone, we worry about how they might have changed - will we recognize them? It only takes the moment of their appearance for all our doubts to go away. The faces of those we have loved and lost come back and catch us unawares at the most awkward moments, hearing the words of a once shared joke, tasting again a wine used to celebrate a unique occasion. Dusty artistic impressions of saints who lived long ago surely can never have the same effect?

I love the stories of the saints; not always the holy holy ones, but the little accounts of day to day living that give a glimpse of the humanity of someone journeying heavenwards. It is a little bit like when I am teaching A Level Theology I will go to great lengths to get a good picture of the theologians, ethicists and thinkers on the syllabus to show to students. I want to bring their words, and their lives alive again. There is something about images, and about faces in particular, which does that in a moment, creating between strangers an intimate connection. Perhaps that is why religious art has caused so many to be afraid. Maybe it is why I like it so much.

Anyhow, today I found another who shares a little of my peculiar passion for faces and the faces of the saints. It made me laugh out loud, so I thought I would share it. I hope it makes you smile too. :)

Easter Sunday  - 28th March, 1948
In the library I looked at a marvelous book The Faces of the Saints - pictures as near as possible the genuine portraits - contemporary - of saints. Mosaics of the Fathers were some of the most beautiful. Saint Catherine of Sienna, too, and another I have forgotten. More Modern ones - some of the death masks - frighten me. Saint Vincent de Paul looks very real - very much of a Gascon peasant, and as tough as can be, terrific energy in his face, fiery black eyes, and a mouth like a bear trap. The one that astonished me most was St. Francis de Sales - ponderous and unlike anything I would have imagined.
Not Francis of Assisi, but close :)
One that most impressed me - St Benedict Joseph Labre. One that scared me least - John Bosco. Also Saint Catherine of Genoa looked nice and normal for a mystic, and Louise de Marillac was a French housewife in her picture. Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi looked a little like my mother. St Aloysius Gonzaga was almost too beautiful. Saint Teresa was funny - a plump little Spanish lady, like an inn - keeper's wife in that picture, with all due respect, but I love her. Saint John of the Cross I knew; looks surprisingly un-ascetic. The saint's face that to me is most completely the face of a saint is the child's face of St. Francis Assisi with big astonished eyes looking out from that over-ample hood - the thirteenth Century portrait.
Some saints I had never heard of I wanted to love as soon as I saw their pictures, like St. Catherine of Ricci. All of them had faces that had suffered: some more, some less, some very intensely.
Thomas Merton
The Sign of Jonas

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