Prayer and the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

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On April 26, 2016, the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help officially completes 150 years of journeying with the people of God in the Redemptorist Church of St Alphonsus, Rome. During this century and a half, it is good to see how our Mother in this Icon of Love has made a difference in the lives of those who pray with her.

In this age, there are many easy ways of capturing every action or event. With a simple cell phone, one can take a picture of anything or anybody. Besides photographs, portraits and paintings make people look more deeply into the image which communicates a message.  Every photograph or art-work has many factors or characteristics. They may first of all be presented as a fruit of one’s talent. They may project a message or a feeling. A person when so captivated may decide to keep it or to stay with it because the image expresses something that she/he cannot articulate. Or a person may like a particular image because of the uniqueness or memory that the image is able to represent.

All these may be also true with reference to an icon. However, over and above being a fruit of one’s talent, it is first of all the fruit of deep prayer of a soul who desires to stay in union with God and who wishes to proclaim a divine message. For a short while, all other artworks, even the most abstract ones, may be interpreted well by people who are also gifted to see beyond a mere image. On the other hand, the icon continually and endlessly speaks to the eyes and the heart of every person who gazes at it. For this, the icon is not just a piece of an artwork but becomes a mouthpiece of God. And whenever a person looks at the icon and allows God to speak to himself/herself, this person enters into a real encounter with the Divine – which we call prayer.

Pope Pius IX while entrusting the Icon to Fr. Nicholas Mauron, Superior General of the Redemptorists 150 years ago, said: “Make her known to the world”. He obviously did not see the Icon as an object but as a person, the very person of Mary, with the title of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In some traditions, she is called “Our Lady of Perpetual Help” or “Our Virgin of Perpetual Help”. In any case, the icon is not a thing, but a person who invites us to be part of this life and journey: She invites each one of us to enter into a relationship of love, into a relationship with God who is Love.

With this, we can see that both Prayer and the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help have a common denominator, i.e., God. With this essay, the author hopes to deepen the understanding of prayer as an experience before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Prayer as a Relationship

How do we understand prayer? In the struggles of life, we can be caught up with all kinds of concerns and worries which often leave us confused and disconnected from who we really are, as Christians. We might forget that we are persons, lovingly created by God, sons and daughters of the Father, redeemed by the Son and temples of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of problems and crisis, we might have the grace to go back to our senses and remember to call on God for help in prayer. Is this how we understand prayer?

A dictionary gives us varied definitions of the word “prayer”: a devout petition to God or an object of worship or a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession. The Introduction in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, has a quotation from St. Therese of Lisieux, Autobiography Manuscripts, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trials and joy”. This is followed with a clear explanation of prayer as a gift, as a covenant and as a communion. With all these definitions, even including the seemingly so secular meaning given from Dictionary.com, we could sum it up by defining prayer as a relationship.

To make a petition to God or enter into spiritual communion with Him in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration or confession – implies an existing relationship of trust and openness. St. Therese mentions the word ‘heart’, the dynamic of communicating with Someone whom she knows and who listens to her. It also manifests a relationship and oneness. If prayer is a gift, a covenant and a communion, it is because a relationship exists between the two persons who communicate or are in an encounter in prayer.

Prayer and the Image of God

When a relationship is promoted by frequent communication, it grows stronger. Prayer is something dynamic. However, both parties have to open themselves to each other so as further strengthen mutual trust. The way one relates with another depends so much on how well she/he knows the other person. Therefore, one’s prayer reflects very much, concretely, the image of God.

Since prayer is an activity of the whole person, whenever we pray – even while doing other things – the mind, heart and body agree to the same image of God. Tim Jennings, M.D. reports these findings in his book, ‘The God Shaped Brain’. Recent scientific research actually confirms that our beliefs about God change our brain circuits! When we worship the true God with our hearts, it activates brain pathways and turns on higher brain regions that help us to become more like Jesus, more compassionate, wise, humble, and confident. But lower views of God correspond to activity in more primitive brain regions along with selfishness, fear, and anger.

If one knows God as a loving Father who simply loves without conditions regardless of shortcomings and sins, prayer and the very way of relating would be of one of true confidence and trust. A person who feels so loved cannot but respond in any other way but to love this God in return. The beloved would not want to offend God but would always seek whatever is pleasing to Him and would desire to do only His will and nothing more. This person is convinced that true happiness and peace is in God alone.

On the other hand, a poor image of God is reflected in a life of prayer that is routine and without depth. This relationship is cold and indifferent and this person knows God in a very shallow way. There is not much effort in responding to the God that she/he barely knows. This is sometimes noted in the lack of sincerity or in the tendency to hypocrisy as Jesus warned in Luke 12. Mediocrity is also the fruit of a poor knowledge of God which we may see in the seed that fell on the rocky ground and among thorns (Matthew 13:1-9).

Prayer, as a relationship, is the fruit of an encounter with God in our day to day experiences as we seek Him in His word, in the Church, in the world around us and in our own life.

One can relate with God as Creator, King, and Lord, as Father, as a Friend or as Savior. A person may also recognize God in different ways as she/he gets to know Him better. One’s image of God as a Father must grow and deepen in a way that – despite failures and pain in the experiences of human relationships – one is able to identify God’s presence, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and love in life.

Prayer, therefore, as a relationship is indeed a gift. What would life be without being a part of a relationship? Furthermore, a relationship with God is the most beautiful gift one can ever have. “One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in His temple” (Ps. 27:4).

Pray-er as a Person, one who prays!

Prayer invites us to a relationship and we see this in the dynamics of relationships between the persons that we visibly see in the Icon, which we shortly see below. So, we may now take another step in defining prayer, i.e. from ‘prayer as a relationship’ to the ‘pray-er as a person’, i.e., one who prays.

In most languages, it is quite easy to understand some words by simply knowing the verb which is the basis for the corresponding noun. A singer is a person who sings, a dancer is one who dances. So too, we can say that a pray-er is a person who prays.

Prayer, therefore, implies an action and a way of being and doing. A real singer or dancer can be recognized by the way she/he interprets a song, or a rhythm. The same is true for a person whose authenticity of prayer is manifested in daily life – where God’s presence is constantly felt and experienced. This can lead us into a deeper relationship with the Person of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, even as we contemplate the different characters that appear in the Icon. The one who prays, can now be called the pray-er!

The Persons in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

The Archangels in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

The Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has a story to tell. Before one starts interpreting or understanding its message, it is good to know that among the figures present in the Icon, a dynamic relationship exists between them and continually lives on. Before one can claim a relationship with Mary and Jesus and even the angels with Jesus and Mary in the Icon, it is good to identify the different persons in the Icon and their relationship with each other.

The Archangel Gabriel:

The Archangel Gabriel, seen at the right side of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, announced to Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the Mother of His Son (Lk 1:28-33). But Mary expressed her uncertainty regarding the message of the angel (1:34). Gabriel explained the message and pointed out the pregnancy of Elizabeth as a sign. (1:35-37). Mary then offered her “perpetual YES” to God with her fiat: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).

The angel told Mary how her Son Jesus (Hebrew: “God saves”), would be great and rule over the house of Jacob forever. The same angel, by holding and showing the Cross to the Child Jesus also revealed to Him the manner in which He would reach such greatness and how He would truly save God’s people.

Jesus bravely accepts the will of the Father by looking at the Cross that the angel is showing. In this, He echoes the Yes/fiat of His Mother in the Annunciation: “May it be done to me according to Your word”. This, He repeated several times: as a teaching (Mt. 6:10); in His prayer “Your will be done” (Mt. 6:33); in the time of agony “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” (Mt. 26:42); on the cross “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”(Lk 23:46). Mary and Jesus showed us that the fullness of life can only be obtained by doing the will of the Father. One who wholeheartedly and humbly contemplates on the Icon slowly arrives at this disposition. Even if the prayer began with a petition or request, it will eventually finish with “May God’s will be done.”

The Archangel Michael:

The Archangel Michael (Hebrew “who is like God?”) is mentioned three times in the Book of Daniel, and is referred to as a “great prince who stands up for the children of your people”. The presence of Michael in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, holding the lance and sponge in order to present them to Jesus is actually an affirmation of God’s constant presence in the life of His Son especially in His helplessness, powerlessness and experience of abandonment. The sponge soaked in vinegar on a sprig of hyssop and put to His mouth, was to assuage his thirst (Jn. 19:29). We could say that the thirst was not just for a drink but for mercy and compassion for all who suffer. The lance represents that which was thrust by a soldier into the side of the Innocent Lamb, who gave His life for the salvation of the world.

It also reminds Mary of what Simeon, told her:” and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Lk. 2:35). Michael, with these instruments, is a reminder of God’s faithful love for all whose hearts are torn and lives are shattered because of the injustices, betrayal and selfishness in the world.

The Person Jesus in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

When we recognize prayer as a relationship and person, we open ourselves to a deeper experience of entering into this window of the Divine.  After acknowledging the archangels in the Icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help, we now focus our attention on the Person Jesus. He is the one by whom the Mother wants to constantly communicate Love to each one of us, who is the Perpetual Help in her arms…

Mary, shows us that the Person in the very heart of the image – is her Son, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. Every time we contemplate this icon, we discover the great love and respect of Mary for Jesus and how she desires that we completely receive Him in our life. This is just as our Lord desired for us on the Cross, when He entrusted her to John and to all of us, His disciples.

Observe Mary’s hands as she holds Jesus in her arms. You could see in it, the moment of consecration in the Eucharist and so find a parallel. As we look at Mary carrying Jesus, we can allow ourselves to hear in the silence of our heart – the words said during the consecration: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me”. “Mary, throughout her life at Christ’s side and not only on Calvary, made her own the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist” (Encyclical Letter Ecclesia De Eucharistia of his Holiness Pope John Paul II, #56).

She invites us in this icon to take Jesus into our life and extend His perpetual help to the world. She also continually reminds us in the icon of some important truths proclaimed especially during the Eucharist: “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor for ever and ever is to the Almighty Father”. She reminds us of God whose love endures forever (Ps. 36). God’s glory through the Resurrection of His Son is reflected in the background of the icon. Our Mother tells us that we have to look beyond our sufferings and sorrows in life as Jesus Himself looked at the Cross and accepted His Passion and Death. However, he did so with the living hope that in spite of all this, and more correctly, precisely through all this, He is to rise up again from the dead and to have eternal life in union with the Father in heaven.

When we offer and unite ourselves in the Eucharist, we also allow ourselves to be broken as the bread for the hungry because we know that food brings about life for many. Mary communicates to everyone who approaches her in the Icon that we are all called to be food for the hungry. It is opportune to remember the song “Now we remain” by David Haas:

We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts.
Living, now we remain with Jesus, the Christ.

1. Once we were people afraid, lost in the night.
Then by your cross we were saved.
Dead became living, life from your giving.

2. Something which we have known,
something we’ve touched, what we have seen with our eyes:
this we have heard, life giving Word.

3. He chose to give of himself, became our bread.
Broken that we might live. Love beyond love, pain for our pain.

4. We are in the presence of God. This is our call.
Now to become bread and wine: food for the hungry,
life for the weary, for to live with the Lord, we must die with the Lord.

This is Mary’s song summing up her message in the Gospel: her Yes/fiat in the Annunciation; her Magnificat in the Visitation; her constant pondering of God’s ways in her life in the Nativity; in the Presentation and Finding in the Temple; her being one and united with Jesus in His mission from the day she conceived Him in her womb till the cross and till every moment that we contemplate her in the Icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help and up to the end of time since she is the Mother of the Emmanuel, of Perpetual Help.

The Person prominent in the Icon – Mary

A person who sees the icon for the first time, apparently thinks that the protagonist in the Icon is Mary since she occupies a bigger space. She is the one, no doubt, who directly communicates with the person gazing at the Icon because her eyes are directed at every person who looks at it. She, as we have reflected, proclaims God’s message but again, the very center of the Icon is Jesus Himself. His body is complete in the image unlike that of Mary. Quite interesting! So, what about Mary? She stands with us and among us, wherever we are, she walks with us, and she fulfills her Son’s will on the Cross: “Woman, behold, your Son” (Jn. 19, 26). She is our Mother. In Mary’s apparition in Guadalupe, she reminded Juan Diego: “Am I not here who am your Mother?” In all the apparitions of Mary, we can clearly see and feel her motherly concern for her children as she invites us to repentance, to build a common place of worship as a family united in God’s love, to peace and unity, etc.

An Australian Redemptorist who served in the Philippines noted that as he watched people kneeling and pleading before the Icon of our Mother, he imagined Mary bending to embrace and bless her children who cry in suffering. She comforted each one with her maternal embrace as she reassures them of the mercy and love of her Son Jesus Christ, the Perpetual Help. She continually says to her children: “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn.  2, 5).

Mary is an example of prayer as a person who treasures every relationship she has been gifted with. It is this that keeps her united to God and helps her faithfully keep her Yes/fiat, i.e. to do God’s will forever. With this in mind, the words of a popular slogan in the Baclaran Shrine, Philippines ring true: From being a Devotee to becoming a Missionary or the dynamic from Devotion to Mission.  Thus, a devotee is invited to become a missionary.

Every person who develops a close relationship with the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help will realize that there are consequences. Sooner or later, Prayer as a relationship will further lead us to become persons who need to put into action the deep knowledge and experience of the Perpetual Help of Mary, our Mother. Such a person who is convinced of being a true child of Mary understands that God loves all His children and so she/he has to do something so that everybody knows and experiences it. This person grasps that in the family of God with Mary, our Mother of Perpetual Help who stands in our midst, together with the Redeemer Christ much can and much needs to be done. Thus, true justice, reconciliation, peace, joy and abundant mercy must be enjoyed by every son and daughter of the Father.

Alphonsian Spirituality and the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help

The spirituality flowing from St. Alphonsus to the Redemptorists is summed up in the Icon that was entrusted to them 134 years after the Congregation was founded. It is important to discuss these elements in the Icon for the benefit of every prayer as a person.

A Spirituality, rooted in the Gospel – four (4) words that capture this spirituality in a nutshell (Fr. Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. Short Course on Alphonsian Spirituality, https://youtu.be/bA6VCzTnam8): Crib, Cross, Sacrament and Mary. These words serve as guides to help people enter into the narrative of the Gospel.

The Crib refers to the mystery of Incarnation wherein God entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not Someone who is far from us, He always wants to be united with us and does so by entering our world in the mystery of Incarnation. We find this element in the Icon in the very presence of the Christ Child whom Mary carries in her arms.

Now, He not only entered our world but He gave Himself to us completely to the point of dying for us. The Cross, then, which is the second important element in Alphonsian Spirituality represents the Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. Here, Jesus shows us that He is not only with us but that He suffered for us to the extent of accepting the ultimate suffering until his death on the Cross. In the Icon, this element is clearly shown in the instruments of the passion and death of the Lord that the archangels Gabriel and Michael are holding.

The third element is to remind us that Jesus did not only enter our world and suffered for us but He also became our nourishment by giving us the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Salvation. In this Sacrament, we “receive” Jesus and we become like Him. As noted above, the way in which Mary holds Christ, in the manner of consecrating Him as she offers Him to us, we, therefore, recognize this particular element in the Icon. Mary tells us to do whatever He tells us, to take Him into our life and that we, as her children, be like her Son Jesus.

Finally, Jesus becomes our source of hope. Dennis Billy explains that in the fourth element, i.e., Mary becomes that moment of hope for having accompanied Jesus at every moment of His life. A mother is a hope made visible. Normally, any child who has the mother beside him/her feels secure and knows that everything would be fine. That is the same assurance that Mary in the Icon of our Mother of Perpetual Help gives us each time we come before her and call on her as our Mother. She has that great confidence in Jesus which we see at the wedding in Cana. Despite Jesus saying, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:4), she believed that He would do and give what is best for each one.

After understanding these four elements, it is important to keep in mind that these are not only proper to the Redemptorists but to every person who claims Mary as our Mother of Perpetual Help. The Person before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, should continue to grow in the knowledge of the Gospel so that she/he may radically put into practice the Faith, Hope and Love that Mary teaches us through the icon. The person before the Icon thus eventually can become a small icon to others by sharing the Gospel message through her/his life and by letting others know of the Lord’s presence and oneness with those who are suffering in the spirit of solidarity, selfless love and compassion.

The Prayer with Our Mother of Perpetual Help

Here, we can sum up all the above reflections with the prayer not ‘to’ but ‘with’ our Mother of Perpetual Help. We are happy to make this milestone of the 150th Anniversary of the restoration to public devotion of her original Icon in the year 2016. As children of this ever-loving Mother, let us continue to make her known with our dedication in praying wholeheartedly to our Mother of Perpetual Help but most of all by spreading the message of this Icon by living out our prayer:

P-  Profound: A person of prayer, is someone who is deep, prays from the heart. The contentment is not on things that fade but in always searching and discerning God’s will. This is because she/he believes that it is the best. This person knows how to transcend her/his experiences because of the awareness of God’s presence in every event that takes place in her/his life.

R – Redeemed: A person who has experienced the redemptive love of Christ and manifests it with the right attitude. These are attitudes of joyfulness, courage, compassion for the needy and humble service, all in the example of the Redeemer.

A – Authentic: A person stands for the truth and is not afraid to face it, following the example of Jesus in the Icon who bravely looks at the Cross. This person holds on to the Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life as she/he faces the different challenges in life.

Y – Young: A person is always open to learn, to be taught and corrected; with mind and heart that is open and trusting just like a child.

E – Evangelical:  A person is rooted in the values of the Gospel, i.e., the views, decisions and actions are all guided by the teachings and examples of Jesus. She / He is simple, a friend, a sister/brother to all esp. the poor and the suffering… Like Mary, one invites others through her/his way of life to come to Jesus and accept Him in their life. Pope Francis said in the Angelus address for the Solemnity of All Saints “Whoever wants to follow Jesus on the path of the Gospel, can find a secure guide in Mary. She is an attentive and caring mother with whom we can entrust every desire or difficulty”.

R – Radical:  The witnessing to the values of the Kingdom is radical. Mary accompanied Jesus up to the Cross. Jesus accepted all the sufferings for His great love for us and obedience to His Father. A person who is radical in following Christ will bear the pains, embarrassments, discomforts and abandonment for the love of Christ who has loved her/him immeasurably. This radicality is motivated by love. A true child of our Mother of Perpetual Help is a person of love as the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is indeed an Icon of Love.

The Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has journeyed with God’s people for 150 years since it was officially made known by the Redemptorists. The Icon will go on visiting, touching and being part of the lives of many people who will continue to make her known by their lives learned from Christ, the  Redeemer and Perpetual Help together with His Mother.

Sr. María Victoria V. Flores, MPS

Missionaries of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Philippines

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