The Icon of Perpetual Help: A Teaching on the Family

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If a study were carried out to ascertain which is the most venerated image of the Virgin Mary in Catholic homes around the world, there would certainly be many contenders. In different regions she is called upon by different titles, be it Our Lady of Lourdes, or of Guadalupe, or of Mount Carmel, to say nothing of myriad other local devotions. But if the study covered the whole globe, and included even the most remote regions of Asia and Amazonia and the Eastern rite Churches too, I am sure that the most venerated image would be found to be the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. And I don’t think this would be so just because of the missionary efforts of the Redemptorists alone, but because of many factors inherent in the image itself: The fact that it is an icon, presenting Jesus with his Mother (not just the Virgin Mary by herself), the theology which the Icon reveals, the tenderness which it depicts, and the closeness and protection which it expresses. These have all contributed to its popularity. The Icon of Perpetual Help is in itself a little library of the Christian life, and that is how the people of God have perceived it.

  1. The Icon’s presence in our homes

The icon of Perpetual Help has a special place in churches, but a much more special place in peoples’ homes. Here I would like to say something of my own personal experience, which I believe is also the experience of many other Christians. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, various missions were preached in the town where my forebears lived. Looking at the town’s records, we know that these were carried out by various different religious communities, but none left such a deep impression as the ‘Holy Mission’ preached by the Redemptorists. And, in particular, that impression was left by the Lady whose image became the ‘souvenir’ of the mission – the image of our Mother of Perpetual Help which the missionaries made so popular. As the missioners went by visiting every family, the picture was ‘enthroned’ in almost every home. It was from that time onwards that my family began the tradition of having the Icon in our house, starting with my grandparents, and continuing with my own parents. Above the marital bed, in pride of place, was ‘the picture enthroned’ of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Another important item of furniture in our house was the Singer sewing machine, on which were sewn almost all the clothes for the household, including the children’s clothing. My mother worked on it hour after hour, and we knew that, in the drawers of the machine, she always kept some prayer cards of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which she would give away to any of her friends who were going through times of particular need.

Because of this, when I arrived at the Redemptorist minor seminary and saw the image which presided in the chapel, I felt at home. It was a long way from home, but it was like breathing the same air. Without a doubt, this was an important factor in my perseverance in my vocation.

  1. The Icon as a synthesis of traditions

The Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, say the experts, represents a synthesis of Byzantine traditions of an iconography of the Theotokos, or, the Mother of God. For this reason, a cursory, one-dimensional reading of the Icon – which would only disfigure its theology – would never do. Nor is it right to look for the techniques employed in the production of the Icon at the expense of the themes it represents, or to look towards its human author at the expense of its symbolism, or to the artistic inspiration for it at the expense of its spiritual message.

In the Icon of Perpetual Help, three types of icons come together: The Strastnaya (or Virgin of the Passion – see the Archangels holding the instruments of the passion), the Glycophilousa (or Our Lady of Tenderness – note Our Lady’s maternal tenderness in the Icon), and the Hodegetria (translated as She who shows the Way – see the hand with which Mary points to our Lord). In the light of these three iconographic traditions, we can speak of integrating our pain, our love, and the ideals which inspire us, into our personal and family lives. That is, the frustrations of the past can be assumed into the real tenderness we experience in the present moment before the Icon, allowing us to move forward positively. With Paul Evdokimov we can say: “In the face of worldly cares, in the face of the sheer battle for survival and the extermination of love by hatred which we witness, the Icon is a fragment of eternity which preaches to us by its mere presence, and calls us to a radical conversion as far as human relations are concerned, to the sacrament of our brother and sister, and to cultivate hearts that are really full of love for God and for every living creature.”

  1. The Christ Child

Even though the figure of Mary occupies the larger part of the Icon, in the Hodegetria tradition, the central theme is the hand which points the way, and so the ‘raison d’être’ of an icon is thus the person being pointed to, that is, Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, of some importance to examine the image of the Christ Child.

3.1.The face of the Christ Child

3.1.1. Eyes which look to the future

There are other types of Strastnaya icons in which the Christ Child and the Mother appear grief-stricken before the prospect of the suffering which the Archangels foretell, and much emphasis has been placed on the sadness of the Christ Child in our own Icon as he looks towards his passion. However, that is simply not the case here: The Christ Child looks ahead and slightly upwards with no discernible grief. Nor is this a Christ Child of months but of years in age.

The gaze of the Child is not overpowered with sadness, but rather it is open to the future. What is more, the Archangels hold the instruments of the passion as trophies rather than as threats.

And here we touch on a fundamental aspect of the teaching on the family which the Icon affords us: the future of our children. How to anticipate it, how to prepare for it? Our children should learn, from a very young age, to undertake realistic challenges which will not suffocate their dreams and plans for the future. Thus the importance of getting them used to having a plan of action which takes them in the right direction. Only then will they learn to make good decisions.

3.1.2.  Identification with his own destiny

The Child Jesus grows embodying his own vocation and mission. He must face head-on the challenges of life. If a child never takes risks, he will never learn to walk, and his mind will never learn to fly. Today we use the word ‘resilience’ to understand that we need to learn to stand firm against difficulties, facing them with positive emotions so that we don’t fall into despondency and depression.

The Child in the Icon has reached that age of encounter with his own self. Self-esteem – which is neither false humility nor vain arrogance – begins to germinate and develop. Just as any child of today, he must begin to take decisions, such as in dressing himself, and choosing the clothes he likes.

3.2. The hands of the Child

In many Hodegetria icons, the hands of the Child either don’t hold any special meaning, or they explain his future mission (in such cases almost always by way of a blessing action). In the Icon of Perpetual Help, however, the hands of the Child are placed in his Mother’s hand, not hanging on to her, but rather supported there. This is not, then, a sign of fear before something external, but rather a sign of inner confidence.

Whereas a small child clings to its mother, the Child in the Icon bears himself up on his Mother. One imagines that he has already reached that age at which he has been inducted into the social life of the family, that is to say, to learn to relate to his environment and to the eternal. His Mother acts as a springboard into this new way of ‘relating’, rather than as the placental protector of former times.

3.3. The Child’s attitude:

3.3.1. To be about his Father’s business

A healthy reading of the Child’s attitude in the Icon of Perpetual Help is not one which draws on the Garden of Gethsemane: “And he began to feel terror and anguish. And he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death … Take this cup away from me” (Mark 14:34-36 and parallels). One should much rather look, as the first Christians did, to Psalm 39:7-8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will” (cf. Hebrews 10:5-7). The Child accepts his vocation and mission, that is to say, his personal identity and his place in the social context, “growing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). We could say, then, that he is preparing himself for how he will react when, at twelve years old, he will make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). He is also preparing for that time when, as an adult, he will be able to distinguish between his biological family of origin and his existential family which is being ‘built’: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33).

3.3.2. Resting on her heart

In the Icon, in contrast with many other similar icons, the Child rests on the Mother’s left-hand side. He rests on her heart. That is where, symbolically, maternal affection is expressed and where children learn to soothe themselves, synchronizing their own heartbeat with that of their mother’s.

Modern science, be it in the areas of medicine or psychology, underlines the importance of the relationship between a mother and her child. It is that learned reciprocity which prepares a person for a healthy, happy life, much more so than intellectual or physical prowess. In reality, lasting wellbeing has little to do with academic or professional successes, or with wealth or physical beauty. The happiest human beings are those who have learned to live in peace with others, in gratitude and service.

Cultivating kindness is the simplest way to ensure that our children will be happy. It’s not about worrying about educating our children so that they will be able to ‘do well’ (in other words, to ‘earn a lot of money’). It’s about forming them in their affective maturity so that they can dedicate themselves to doing good because, more than ‘doing well’, it is what they like doing.

  1. The Mother

It is an obvious thing to say that the Mother occupies the larger part of the Icon, as in all icons of the Theotokos, or ‘God-bearer’. However, in the Icon of Perpetual Help, one can also trace out an invisible so-called ‘tau cross’ which forms the backbone of the image (tau, from the name and shape of the Greek letter ’T’). The cross’s horizontal axis runs from one Archangel to the other, via the Mother’s eyes. Along with its vertical axis, it runs, again, from the eyes of the Mother, through the hands – her right hand and both the Child’s hands – ending at the lower part of the Icon with the Child’s feet and sandal. Pictorially speaking, this ‘tau cross’ is the focus of the Icon.

4.1 The eyes of the Mother

There is also a difference between this Icon and the majority of other Icons of the Glycophilousa (Our Lady of Tenderness) tradition, in which the gaze of the Mother is directed towards the Child and not towards the observer. In those other icons, the tenderness of the mother-child relationship is emphasized through the meeting of their gazes.

It is not important to speculate much on the reason for the pictographic development represented by our Icon, in which the Mother looks outwards. Perhaps this evolution in Glycophilousa (Our Lady of Tenderness) icons was aimed at better drawing in the prayer. Perhaps it was a reflection of the growing popularity of the Salve Regina prayer: “Turn thine eyes of mercy towards us…” What is certain is that the central perspective of her gaze, directed towards the observer, makes her ever present, the embodiment of the title which we give her: Perpetual Help.

But from the point of view of the teaching on the family which the icon affords, the Mother’s gaze unites the domestic and the social spheres. In other words, it brings together the relationship between blood families and families born of the Word. Mary doesn’t pamper her Son in the sweetness of an intimate gaze directed towards him, rather she teaches him to look outwards, adopting a social and a universal perspective. Here the words of Albert Einstein are particularly apt: “Example isn’t another way to teach, it is the only way to teach.”

4.2 The hands of the Mother

In the Book of Proverbs, when the virtuous wife is praised, several verses are dedicated to praising her hands: “She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong… She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hand to the needy… Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Proverbs 31: 17.19-20.25).

In the Icon of Perpetual Help, the Mother’s hands seem to trace two diagonal lines which extend up to the Archangels on either side of her, emphasising the centre of the composition, namely, the hands of the child Jesus placed in the right hand of his Mother.

The Mother achieves her mission: With her left hand, she holds her Son (emphasising his humanity) and with her right hand she points him out as Son of God (emphasising his divinity). From this, she derives her name of Hodegetria –  ‘She who shows the Way.’

4.3. The Mother’s posture:

4.3.1. Supporting without overprotecting

As she carries the Child, the Hodegetria shows us a way of living family life, and in particular what relations between parents and children should be. In the first place, she shows that parents should not protect their children from every single risk. The protection which is offered them should gradually leave space for their freedom, in such a way that the child can face the real world without having to be ‘rescued’ just in time. A child should also gradually take responsibility for its own weaknesses and mistakes.

Some parents feel totally responsible for what may or may not happen to their children, and fear for every activity they take part in, to the extent of trying to solve their every problem. Others, perhaps in the mould of the post-war generation, believe that life is already hard enough, so they strain to make it appear a rose garden, and to protect their children from feeling emotions of fear or sadness. Others still, perhaps to soothe feelings of guilt following a marital separation, try to win their children over so that they can feel “loved as good parents”. In this way, they end up giving them what they don’t need, and saving them the effort of facing life by themselves.

In our own day, already so marked by the use of the cell-phone, it’s not hard to spot ‘bodyguard parents’ or ‘helicopter parents’, ready to swoop down at the first sign of trouble, rearing in the process children who grow up as if enveloped in a bubble.

4.3.2. Embracing without suffocating

Once again, we see the difference between the Icon of Perpetual Help and the majority of other Glycophilousas. We don’t see a tight maternal embrace, nor (which has often been preached) a Child who seeks hasty refuge in the arms of his Mother. No. The scene is much more mature and serene.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help speaks to us of a love which brings about freedom, because happiness in childhood does not consist in having an easy life, but rather in an abundance of love, an ability to overcome challenges, and in the knowledge that we can triumph over them. The mission which parents have is not only to raise happy children, but happy adults. It’s not about surrounding them with walls, when what they really need are bridges.

4.3.3. Accompanying us, but without living our lives for us

“You are the bows which will launch your children into the world like living arrows.” So wrote Khalil Gibran. That is the vocation of parents, symbolised by the way in which the Icon depicts the Mother who supports her Child. The teaching on the family which the Icon presents us with is about authentic parental authority, that is, an authority which leads to personal growth in the child.

Children should not be a means to the ‘self-realisation’ of their parents, nor a piece of property, or a carbon copy of their parents; they have their own journey to travel and their own hopes and dreams to fulfil. Nevertheless, there are many ‘agenda-mothers’ out there who try to point out to their children what they should be doing at every step of the way, forgetting that they ought to be helping them and not suffocating them. Pope Francis is right when he says: “When parents take back-track in loving their children, those children will find it hard to take the next step forward”

Conclusion

I’m afraid that as Redemptorists we have become accustomed to presenting the message of the Icon of Perpetual Help by following the ‘canonised’ version of the story, and the style of the great preachers of the Congregation. They were very eloquent, but they reflected the mentality of their era; it could not have been any other way. To interpret the image from the point of view of the fear of the Child and the sadness of the Mother was akin to the interpretation given to other Strastnaya icons, though not suited to the Icon of Perpetual Help at all, which is based more on a spirituality of the resurrection than of the cross. The moral message which was attributed to the Icon was therefore one in which the Ten Commandments prevailed over the New Covenant, in which attrition prevailed over contrition.

Let us return our attention to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel: They do not carry threatening implements but victory trophies. What is more, the story behind the sandal is just as eloquent too. Traditionally it was said that this was a reference to the sinner before the justice of God who, like the sandal, hangs on to life as if by a thread, and that only devotion to Mary would keep the sinner from falling into the pit of hell. It didn’t occur to anyone to look in the Bible, and to discover that the sandal represents not a threat, but a guarantee. As it says in the Letter to the Colossians: Christ “cancelled the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). The loose sandal is the guarantee in our favour, according to the traditions of the Israelites. “Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalising transactions in Israel (Ruth 4:7).

One final point about icons, so that we do not judge them with western aesthetic norms, thinking them badly proportioned or ill-configured. With icons, of more importance than the figures we see from our point of view, is how the subjects of the icons see us. It’s not so much about what we see, but about how we are seen, because icons are not a glimpse of the eternal as seen from the ephemeral, but rather a view of the every-day as seen from the sublime. “Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

+ Noel Londoño CSsR, Bishop of Jericó, Colombia

Translated from the Spanish by Charles Randall CSsR, Province of London

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