To See as Our Mother of Perpetual Help Does

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My personal experience with this devotion took place in our parish church in Rosario (Santa Fe, Argentina), which is named after Our Mother of Perpetual Help. There, in the center of an immense and beautiful altar, crowned with the image of Christ the Redeemer, is a simple and luminous image of Our Mother. Many times before that image, I prayed, cried and dreamed my life and those of all the people whose needs were in my heart.

It has been and continues to be, a meaningful place in my journey of faith, a theological place, as is said. A place where I return physically whenever possible, and via memory frequently. There, I find a particular element that renews in me the freshness of the first moments of faith, opens up the horizon and allows me to spread the wings of freedom. When I contemplated the icon there, my gaze was captivated by Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s gaze. The same thing still happens to me when I celebrate morning mass in our church in Rome where the original Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is to be found. It is almost irresistible. Her eyes engulf and penetrate me, transport me to the depths of myself and the external and internal reality in which I find myself.

So then, of all the theological and historical aspects this icon can offer, and about which many fellow Redemptorists have written with great authority, in this jubilee context, I would like to share my own Marian meditation and experience from the gaze of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. And I will do it by way and style of a Redemptorist missionary. For by considering the image through this optic, allows me to connect the liberating aspects of the passion with those merciful and maternal ones of Redemption. In this sense, I will keep in mind elements proper to our Redemptorist spirituality, and moreover, those that emerge from the Jubilee of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis, within which our Jubilee also occurs.

 

Mary’s Gaze in the Icon

If we direct and concentrate our attention on Mary’s gaze, we see her big eyes, somewhere between serenity and affliction, distress we may say; accompanied and framed by her pronounced eyelashes going around the full extension of her eyes. Her gaze is not directed to the child, whom she holds firmly on her left arm, while she points to Him with her right hand. Her gaze is directed at those who look at her, toward us, to the world.

We immediately want to ask: What is Mary looking at? Why is she looking like that? If the eyes are the windows of the soul, of intimacy, tell us, what is going on in your interior? What is your gaze? What are you thinking? To what are you inviting us? What do you want to tell us?

Personally, her gaze has always seemed to me to be the serene and tender look of someone who loves from pain and looks at us with compassion, with understanding. It is as if she is telling us that, as the image and presence of God’s love, she lives the pain in her flesh, she feels it alive and poignant. By feeling it in all her agony, she understands and feels others’ pain. For this reason, we feel her closeness and her gaze speaks to us. It is a gaze that takes a side, and gets involved. She does not look at us simply because she is the Redeemer’s Mother, as a compliance of a duty or simple ministry. She looks at us because she is the first one involved in this story, and she wants to get us involved as well.

For my part, this is how I have lived and felt it. Her gaze made me see the mystery of my own life and of life itself. In a more real and more transcendent way at the same time. I could not escape diving into my conscience and discovering its beauty and lowliness. Everything was so clear and honest in the glow of her gaze. I could see my whole life involved in the work of Redemption. I would spontaneously pray: Your mercy is plentiful, O Lord, despite all my sins and my forgetfulness of your presence in this story. It is a gaze that refreshes memory, strengthens and makes it deeper, throws it into life’s agony in order to offer it some way out.

I have always perceived a certain confidence, like a complicity, in Mary’s gaze. She invited me, in a unique way, to dive into God’s Mystery, through the mystery of my own life. It was as if she was telling me “come and see” (ven y ve in Spanish, with the difference of only one letter, making both actions so close to each other). A gaze that set me in motion to see things differently and follow unknown paths. It is a gaze that encompasses and invites us to take on life, without fear, because she holds us, as she holds her son. She receives that serene and strong “do not be afraid” from the Angel, and transmits it to us in that same way. So many times she has said to me: Do not be afraid, I am here with my Son. Come be part of this mystery. Redemption’s triumph erases pain here, from and through mercy.

Her eyes are deep, and that is why they are attractive. They have always seduced me. It is God’s own strength present in her gaze, seducing us. I could say that looking at her, I would remember verses from the song: “You have looked into my eyes and uttered my name with a smile.” The God of life looking at me through the gaze of the woman of life, the new Eve. Thus, looking at us with Redemption’s eyes; eyes of liberating love, of new creation. It is a gaze that renews me over and over again. It always manages to put me in the path to continue renewing myself without stop.

In her, in her gaze, God’s gaze is made present in a benevolent way, with a woman’s tenderness, with a feminine sensibility. It is a woman’s gaze that seeks and questions, but that knows to give itself with generosity when things look well and promises adventure (Annunciation). She is the one that always asks about the best way to serve making herself second and from there speak of others’ deepest longing for freedom (Visitation). The one who is always attentive so that the joy of life’s covenant never ends (Wedding at Cana). The one who knows silence and dark moments but also fidelity (Rearing and Public Life). The one who knows to be there to the end, even when the end is cruel and harsh (Passion and Crucifixion). The one who knows to be in the community so that all, with and like her, may receive the power that comes from above, in order to continue at the center of this story (Pentecost). Thus Mary’s gaze gathers and communicates all the process of the mystery of God’s liberating revelation in Jesus Christ. It is a gaze full of revelation.

Eyes tell us a lot about people, what they are and feel. This is also true in Mary’s case, but her eyes reveal to us that she is like the moon, the reflection of a greater light, of a greater and more powerful gaze, of which she is only a faithful servant. Looking at Mary, it is impossible not to come in contact with God’s mystery, with what He is capable of achieving in us if we allow ourselves an exchanging gaze.

God’s Gaze in Mary’s

My experience has been that every time I look at Mary, I see God’s gaze, a gaze whose content is mercy. I feel looked at but not controlled or judged, at least at first. The experience is that of feeling content, attended to, solicited, attracted to a place where it is possible to see oneself in a new way. It is in this context of interchange that the serene gaze of affliction and hope that does not fail, becomes in a certain way, control and judgment. But the judge is merciful love, which tells me: You cannot go on this way. It is not right to waste your life like this. Come and see how good it is to enjoy the fruits of Redemption, of new life.

The, then-Cardinal Bergoglio put it very well when, speaking precisely of Mary’s gaze, he said that “her gaze is like the continuation of the Father’s gaze, the Father who looked at her as a child and made her God’s Mother; like the Son’s gaze from the cross, from where He made her our mother; the same gaze with which she looks at us.” The then-Cardinal adds that “the Virgin’s gaze helps us look at each other in a different way. We learn to be more human, because the Mother looks at us. To have that gaze that seeks to save, accompany and protect. We learn to see ourselves in her motherly gaze.”[1] This is what I have always lived contemplating the icon of Perpetual Help.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help brings us near that God who always helps us, perpetually, through her, who is precisely Mother of Perpetual Help, who is Jesus. He is the Redeemer and He is the one that helps (i.e. saves).[2] Mary only intercedes, or better yet, connects us with the source of our salvation, redemption, help, freedom, however, we wish to call this Mystery. She brings God’s Son nearer to us; she offers us, Jesus, as God-made-flesh. That is how she brings Him to us on earth, helping Him live among us. She protects, nourishes and defends God’s Son, and for this reason, she does the same with us. We see all this with profound magnificence and simplicity in our icon of Perpetual Help.

When I look at Mary’s gaze and in her, that of God, both lead me to the blessed fruit, to Jesus, the Redeemer, the Liberator, humanity’s true Perpetual Help. Mary is Perpetual Help because she shows us who is truly Perpetual Help. We perceive and see this in the totality represented in the icon. Her gaze opens for us a window to the content of Jesus’ revelation.

We are only saved “in” Jesus (Acts 4:12; Rom 10:9-10). In his name, the Father gives us what we need (Jn 14:14, 16:23). He is our Perpetual Help. Mary reminds us of this truth by captivating our attention with her motherly gaze. Mother of the One who helps and those that are to be helped. “In” Jesus means the love that forgives, “in” plentiful redemption, “in” reconciliation, “in” communion, “in” oblation, “in” incarnation, etc. These are the content of Jesus’s name, God-with-us-who-saves/helps-us, and in all states of sin, from all falls, to guide us to victory over evil.[3] That is why Mary looks at us well, so that we may be able to follow that gaze, look like that, and allow ourselves to be led by that gaze, to face life’s challenges, always through the path of righteousness, therefore, blessed (Mt 5; Lk 6).

The Redemptorist Mission from Mary’s Gaze

We are the Redeemer’s missionaries, called to announce that “With Him there is Plentiful Redemption” (C 6). We are, therefore, called to see everyone’s life as Jesus does, especially as Mary’s gaze invites us to see. This is, to say it in Pope Francis’ words,

With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. The mission Jesus received from the Father was that of revealing the mystery of divine love in its fullness. “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16), John affirms for the first and only time in all of Holy Scripture. This love has now been made visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life. His person is nothing but love, a love given gratuitously. The relationships he forms with the people who approach him manifest something entirely unique and unrepeatable. The signs he works, especially in favor of sinners, the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering, are all meant to teach mercy. Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion. (Misericordiae Vultus [MV] 8)

As Redemptorists, we can learn from Mary’s gaze (C 320), and in this manner grow in our identity. She looks with God’s tenderness and compassion expressed in a human face. This should be our way of looking at reality. Like her, we place ourselves where Jesus’ suffering body claims home and Redemption, take Him in our arms. This is why we go to the most abandoned poor (CC 3-5, 14). For there, redemption, which has already taken place, needs to be shown as a life project (C 12). This is a contemplative look that allows us “to see God in the people and events of every day; to perceive in the true light His saving plan, and distinguish between reality and illusion” (C 24). For an attitude we should always cultivate, from our initial formation, is that of “to seek God at all times, interpret the signs of the times, see Christ in all people and have a proper appreciation of human values” (C 83). For this reason, Mary’s gaze cannot but reinforce our conviction to be servants of “the Good News of God’s mercy” (C 12) through “the ministry of reconciliation” (C 11).

Mary’s gaze leads us, as with Her, to always be “attentive to the signs of the times” (CC 2, 24, 73, 83). Mary of Perpetual Help’s gaze is “humble and courageous” (C 6) at the same time. It is humble because she knows herself as a servant and courageous because she offers her life, faces the mystery of God and the human mystery, at its greatest crossroad. There she is present, standing, holding, pointing, looking and showing the best attitude, just and liberating. This is why, from her gaze, we can understand what is in our Constitutions: “All Redemptorists, ever following the magisterium of the Church, must be humble and courageous servants among people of the Gospel of Christ, the Redeemer, and Lord, who is the head and model of the new humanity” (C 6). She is a sign and source of that new humanity, gestated in and from littleness, simplicity; but at the same time, penetrating and profoundly liberating. Her gaze frees and calls us to be part of a freeing story, of true and integral Redemption (CC 5, 6).

She reminds us that her serenity and communion with human frailty comes from what in her produces the Spirit’s presence and action. She is the woman of the Spirit because she has allowed her mortal flesh to become the manifestation of the Spirit’s sanctifying and liberating force, that is of love, communion, communal love.[4] She invites us to allow this to happen with us, Redemptorists. We know very well that “the Spirit has command of every situation, puts the appropriate word on the lips of the preacher and opens hearts to receive it” (C 10). As in Mary, the Spirit is the principal author and protagonist at the time of the Word’s incarnation and making Him known from life’s testimony.

Contrary to what this icon of a Virgin standing in a certain static position, painted there for all to see, could suggest, my personal experience has been that in Her, particularly in her gaze, I have discovered our “apostolic dynamism” (CC 13-17). It is a gaze that captures our attention and leads us dynamically to the Mystery of Redemption. She invites us to be, under this aspect, servants of God’s help, with a maternal, feminine and faithful attitude. Thus she helps us “[to strive] earnestly to carry out [our] mission with bold initiative and wholehearted dedication” so that we may “[develop] and [adapt] the form of [our] missionary activity” (C 13). She helps us be “free and unimpeded in [our] choice of the peoples to be evangelized and the means to be employed in the mission of salvation” (C 15). These are motherly attitudes, of feminine tenderness and attention, less conservative and more adventurous for love, for the need to be at the service of those in need of help. It is the Father’s work through the Mother’s gaze and the Son’s action. All this is in this icon. This is why we want to commit, not only in this jubilee, but in the “only for today” of our lives, to understand this mercy as “the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life” (MV 2).

Conclusion: Mary’s Gaze at the Service of the Jubilee of Mercy

Mary’s gaze has taught me how to look and how to look at myself, to see in people’s eyes a window to life’s deepest mystery, in every person and in every historical reality. A gaze of agonized passion and merciful compassion, a gaze that should be permanent and transversal in our apostolic life, in every missionary effort, for there lies the criterion of our own credibility (see MV 10).

Led by Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s hand and guided by her gaze, this jubilee, along with the Church’s Jubilee of Mercy this Holy Year, should give us courage and confirm us in our identity and mission, for as Pope Francis very well says it: “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope” (MV 10).

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[1] Homily of October 10, 1999 (arzbaires.org). See also homily of September 22, 2013 (vatican.va).
[2] The icon’s title of “Perpetual Help” is first of all applied to Mary, but also to Jesus, the only who truly helps (i.e. saves) (Cepedal, Perpetuo Socorro [Madrid, 1995] 47-50).
[3] “The name ‘Jesus’ signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins. It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation, so that ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’” (Catechism 432).
[4] In this regard, Pope Francis says: “My thoughts now turn to the Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love” (MV 24).

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Antonio Fidalgo, C.Ss.R. (Province of Buenos Aires)

Translated from the Spanish by Mr. Miguel Valerio (Dominican Republic)

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