Following the deadly explosions that devastated Beirut, the people of Lebanon need our solidarity. Development and Peace and CNEWA are responding to help those affected by this crisis. Please help us make a difference by donating to any of these funds:
There was a mountain of laundry.
“What a cliché,” I thought as I begrudgingly grabbed some little-boy pants and started to fold. I stood there, barefoot, pregnant with our fifth child, and supremely irritated at the mundane task before me.
“I’m a cliche,” I thought bitterly as I continued to fold and form large piles of the clothing I’d washed for my family. The negative thoughts about housewifery and motherhood continued to spiral around me as I experienced what I now realize was one of the lowest moments of pre-natal depression.
Then, as I progressed through little pairs of jeans and t-shirts and mismatched socks, I started to uncover a piece of paper I’d stuck to the laundry room wall months before: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,” read the Memorare in my own handwriting, “that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided…” I might have dropped an expletive. I was not having a receptive moment. Probably I was more of a Zachariah, liable to be struck dumb for my doubt than like a Blessed Virgin, who immediately opened her womb up to God, proclaiming herself the handmaid of the Lord.
I prayed the Memorare that day with the laundry, feeling a bit sheepish about my initial reaction. However, that’s exactly why I have placed that card in the laundry room, because I know that it is during loathed tasks that I need reminding of God’s grace. I ran and got the statue of Mary that had been my great-grandmother’s and decided she might do more good there instead of on my dresser upstairs.
Sacred Art at the Dinner Table
The texts, statues and images I have around my home are attempts to redirect my focus back to the heart of God, and I can’t help but think of the art of the churches I’ve visited throughout my life. As I am distracted at Mass by any number of things that might befall a mother of five, I see the vivid depictions of the Stations of the Cross and my mind is bounced back to the holy.
Afterall, that is the purpose of Sacred Art – our statues, paintings and other works that can be found not only in church, but in our homes – which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “draws man to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God.” (CCC 2502)
Growing up, my mom shared her love of beautiful art with us. As a convert to Catholicism, her appreciation for depictions of Christ or beautiful images of the Holy Family or the Blessed Virgin translated into incorporation of sacred art into our décor. The collection grew to the point where even an unobservant stranger couldn’t walk into our house and miss the fact that we were Catholics. Years later, I realized I’d followed in the tradition of my parents. A young friend of my oldest child sitting at the dinner table looked around at the décor, which includes two crucifixes, images of the Good Shepherd and the Annunciation, and a chalkboard featuring a quote from a saint or the Bible, and remarked, “You guys have lots of Catholic stuff here.”
That might be one of the moments that I realized that our home could be a place not only of welcoming, but of evangelism too, and if not that, at least a place where our visitors can see visible signs of the faith we try to live.
Our Lady of the Backyard
We are not unique of course, as Catholics worldwide “advertise” their faith with sacred imagery inside or outside the home or business or in their vehicle. From the art inside Rome’s catacombs, to traditional Byzantine iconography, and some more modern interpretations, faithful Catholics have created and displayed sacred art for centuries. Outside of many churches, you can find examples of statues of Christ, Mary, and the saints providing us with beautiful places to stop and pray.
As I reflect on that, I think about the perception of people of faith throughout the world. Non-Christians express that the Church is to them an antiquated and sinking ship; feminists look at us as a sign of a patriarchy they want to demolish, and people of all kinds see our statues and art as signs of misplaced authority and abusive power. Though we want these misconceptions to be cleared up, I think we know that it isn’t enough to simply display sacred art, we need to be pointing with our very lives to the love of God.
In the meantime, perhaps we may become bolder in our use of the images that point to our love of God. When we moved to our home nine years ago, I shared the dream of a little Marian shrine and garden modelled after little grottos I’d seen in other people’s yards. Finally, when the Covid-19 pandemic had us all at home, my husband Joseph got to work building our now much-loved stone grotto, complete with a handmade wooden version of Our Lady.
Our Lady of the Assumption and of Our Hearts
With the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary coming up on August 15, this has me thinking of ways we can celebrate this new space as a family. We’ve braved the mosquitos to pray a rosary there, and also a few family prayer sessions on particularly hot evenings. In times of unrest, that is where I’ve gone this summer instead of my bedroom. To highlight the summer of newfound worship space, perhaps a crowning of our statue is in order, with the kids processing in song along with something simple like angel food cake or some other favourite celebratory food.
Though I’m sure our neighbours understood that we were Catholics before, this permanent fixture that can be spied over the fence has given us a few small opportunities to confirm it. Now, because we’ve overtly announced it, I am conscious of the path I must follow to strengthen my faith and the faith of my children so that our neighbours don’t see a statue signifying our devotion but also see a bunch of hypocrites. This is not to say we act perfectly all the time, and certainly we don’t need to put on a show of perfection for our neighbourhood (don’t worry – we’ve shattered any grand illusions with our boisterous crew and hot tempers), but the overt sign inspires me to make efforts to strive for our faith to flourish inside our home too.
Through this writing, I am humbled to realize how far I have yet to go. Certainly, I’ve padded the image of myself as a faithful church-lady with art and statues but be assured that this church-lady needs all the grace she can get. In these times of pandemic and the uncertainty it brings, a little wavering and questioning is to be expected, but I’ll confess that sometimes I have utterly failed to point the way to Christ in my own family. Without airing too much dirty laundry, I am reminded that Our Lady probably didn’t have tantrums demanding that St. Joseph “just take Jesus and go!” This is exactly why I need the reminders all around me, because even when I am failing, God is not. He is faithful, and in spite of my frequent need to stalk out to my garden lately to air my grievances, I know deep down that Our Blessed Mother only wants me to know His faithfulness too.
Written by Jessica Cyr for Faithfully. Jessica is a mom of five who attends St. Bernard’s parish in Calgary, AB.
For the August edition of Faithfully, we asked sacred artist Maria Muszynski, founding member of Sacred Guild of Alberta, a Lay Association in the Diocese of Calgary, to share about her journey in the sacred arts.
Why becoming a sacred artist?
I was born an artist. But why the sacred arts? I have been journeying towards this path my whole life. A journey shaped by childhood experiences, unexpected circumstances, and twists of fate.
My father was a Polish soldier who fought with the Allied army and my mother was a refugee in a displaced persons camp. After the war, by chance, they both decided to settle in Calgary. My mother converted to Catholic Christianity when she agreed to marry my father. Mother’s side of the family were Russian Orthodox and we celebrated Christmas and Easter (twice!) with the extended family. On occasion I attended the All Saints Russian Orthodox Church and feasted my eyes on the iconostasis which separated the sanctuary from the nave. From the cadence and the passion of the choral voices singing the liturgy in the loft, to the intense images that were illuminated by hundreds of candles lit by the faithful – all of these elements left an indelible impression that shaped my sensibilities and my soul.
In comparison, the Queen of Peace Polish Catholic Church - which was the church we attended - was innovative on the outside (built in 1968 and shaped like a gleaming white teepee) but bereft of warmth inside because of its plain concrete walls and lack of imagery (minimalism and constructivism was “in”). Only a framed copy of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, resided above the altar. Over the years, as the population of Polish immigrants increased, many contributed their talents to the beautification of the church. Today the stained-glass windows, once plain, resonate with stories while the walls are warmed with carved traditional architectural features and religious imagery. It is a testament to the transformational power of art and faith.
I began my personal journey into the sacred arts when St. Mary’s University offered a Sacred Arts certificate program. The first course I took was Painting in the Western Renaissance Tradition. Other courses followed – traditional iconography, calligraphy and illumination, and even stained glass. A trip to Italy to see the glories of Rome, Florence and Ravenna was a special highlight. In 2014, I was one of 5 students to complete the requirements for the certificate in the Foundations of Sacred Art. The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA) was conceived by a handful of like-minded souls who wished to delve even deeper. SAGA brings in local and international specialists in illumination, iconography, calligraphy, sculpture - and in the near future Byzantine mosaic - to nourish the skills and spirits of our guild membership leading to a wonderful resurgence in the creation of sacred arts here in Alberta.
Share about other artists who inspired you
My journey has taken me through many mentors most notably iconographer Peter Murphy, David Clayton (The Way of Beauty) and the brilliant illuminator Jeb Gibbons. I am also inspired by the traditional work of Aidan Hart, and the contemporary style of Philip Davydov, among others. I am drawn both to the classical Greek/Byzantine and Romanesque style of icons, and to Marian images in particular because of my Polish heritage. Like Saint John Paul, faith in Mary kept me strong through many trials and tribulations including surviving cancer.
Sacred art is not ‘art’, it is theology, it is a way of praying and connecting with God and all His wonderful creation. I am humbled that people have expressed their admiration of what I do, but I thank the spirit of God who moves through me when I sit and begin the first line. Every stroke is meditative and reflective and prayerful. It is an act of salvation, my connection to the divine. Peter Murphy and Aidan Hart believe that a fragment of heavenly reality is revealed within the sacred image, as it is revealed in the holy Scriptures and through the blessed sacrament. It is ‘extraordinary’ in every sense of the word.
Any advice for novices in sacred art?
The best advice for beginning sacred artists is to be mindful while you are working – hold the focus and pray. Breathe. Practice your drawing skills which is key. Find a good teacher or mentor who inspires you. Learn from everyone you can and practice. The typical stereotype of the hermit monk writing icons alone in his hovel does not fit today, so find and join a community of similar-minded artists. And practice more. Do not worry about the medium you use because it is the message of the image and the intent of the artist that are more important.
Writing an icon is like praying twice. “Lord Jesus Christ, God of all, enlighten us, imbue the soul, the heart, the intellect of Your servant.” So begins the iconographer’s prayer. And is it still relevant today? In the age of Covid-19 and all its’ uncertainties and anxieties - more than ever.
The joy of our Catholic Faith cannot be hidden. It naturally flows from the conviction of the heart and the mind and shows itself in the choices we make and in what others may perceive of us.
Our Lord says in Matthew 5:14-16, "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."
Even if we may be persecuted for naturally showing our personal beliefs, we must be ready to show and explain the reason for our hope in Christ... and hopefully, through the way that we love.
"But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence."
For the past few years, I had entertained the idea of committing myself to more creativity and development as an artist. In part, this meant eventually publicizing my personal work through different platforms, such as Instagram. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of working and serving multiple clubs during my time as a university student. This helped sustain my creativity while I juggled student life and served as an outlet to grow my passion and perspective on what it meant to be a designer and what kind of designer I wanted to be. Still, every time it came to my own art, never mind releasing it, I felt a lot of pressure, fear, and anxiety. It always felt like things had to be perfect before I was ready.
With the recent turn of events - quarantine hitting hard and fast – I found myself (blessed) with too much time and too much energy. I had fewer excuses and more reason than ever to focus on developing my work and in turn, releasing it. Really, it came down to “if not now, then when” and a reflection upon how I had gone through so many years just thinking about it, and how so many opportunities had probably passed me by while I was just thinking.
This has led me to the process of overcoming perfectionism. Perfectionism stalled me in taking that first step long ago and still to this day is something I struggle with. It was a detriment that set back growth and prevented me from focussing on the things that matter. I can’t say that all of the work I have put out there is near perfect, but it is so much better to be striving and learning (from action), rather than sitting paralyzed on the sidelines because of anxiety or even pride.
This is not to say that striving for excellence and obedience is wrong – in fact, it is what God calls us to do. However, it is imperative to remember that there is nothing to be earned or proven, because Christ has already earned that for us on the cross and while there is so much weight, in desiring to be perfect, in reality, there is no way to be perfect on our own. We are sinners who have only been redeemed through God’s mercy and love. In realizing and accepting this, there is a new hope and relief – because when we fail, we can trust that we are allowed to fall freely and live imperfectly, and still be redeemed; we can point others to this mercy and love. Suddenly, rather than pointing to our own accomplishments, it becomes significantly more important to be pointing people to God’s abundant love… and to His perfect sacrifice on the cross. These are mostly things I realized from creating imperfect art, and more of a reason as to why I choose to release mostly Catholic art on my personal portfolio.
In addition, this experience has opened up new opportunities and avenues for me. I have experienced a different type of growth in my faith and a new excitement from the flourishing community for catholic creatives online. There is so much zeal, drive, and innovation from the young generation and it is truly inspiring and hopeful for the renewal of the Church.
Striving to share my faith in a personal and different method has also been a great way to immerse myself in prayer, to devote myself to learning more about my faith, and to share more openly with people I may never have the courage or opportunity to share with in person. It has helped develop me as a striving saint, an artist, and a designer, and allowed me to incorporate my faith into other areas of my life. I am truly blessed and grateful for my faith and the opportunity to live freely and imperfectly.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers