My earliest memories of going to church are of the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in my home Redemptorist parish. During the early years of World War II, my mother took me each Wednesday to the novena service at 3:30 in the afternoon. The church was crowded. People were praying for the safe return of their sons, brothers, and husbands from war.
Another mother also used to take her little boy, exactly my age, to the novena. She was praying for peace, of course, but also for her little boy. Doctors had told her he might go deaf. The war ended, the crowds thinned out. Noticing this, the little boy asked where the people had gone. She told him that the war was over and they did not feel the need to pray so much. He asked her, “Does this mean we won’t be coming either?” She answered, “You can still hear, can’t you?
There is no doubt that the power and popularity of devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help attaches first of all to her power of intercession. In those days, I never remember Perpetual Help spoken of as an icon. It was rather “the miraculous picture of Perpetual Help.” This has changed, of course. I have been happy through the years at the restoration of the original picture, even at the removal of the attached crowns, though at the time I hardly noticed. Through the years this icon has become, in my gazing at it, an ever more winsome and necessary element of my existence.
The Miraculous Picture.
The narratives of the Gospels teem with miracles. And there is this explosive sentence from Our Lord’s commissioning of his Apostles: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons” (Mt 10:8). Miracles remain very important in the life of faith. Without them, that is, the Gospel miracles, and also the wonders that people seek and say they receive from Our Lady and her miraculous picture, I doubt we can keep praying. Sometimes we know, we just have to know, that the aim and object of our praying is nothing less than a miracle. It sometimes becomes emotionally impossible to go on praying for anything less!
This is the way it was for the Syrophoenician woman, humbly and even shamelessly begging for the life and health of her daughter (Mt 15:21-28). This is how it was for two desperate fathers, one in John 4:46-54 and the other in Mark 9:14-29. Jesus challenges the credentials of their faith in him. One offers him a confession of imperfect faith: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). The other ignores Jesus’ challenge of his faith and lets his heart cry to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (Jn 4:49). To pray like this pagan mother and these two fathers is a fearful thing to do. It is to utterly abase oneself before God, stripping oneself of all claims except that of divine love and mercy.
To pray like this is to enter oneself into a wrestling match with God, as Jacob did in Genesis 32. He wrestled all night. He could have no thought of defeating his opponent, but he could, and he would hold on: “I will not let you go until you bless me!” (v. 27). For the rest of his days, Jacob was marked with a limp. It had cost him to wrestle with God, to grapple with life at its deepest and most exciting.
Jacob is one of the heroic ancestors of our faith. The Letter to the Hebrews describes them as a “cloud of witnesses” who leads us to Jesus. Chapter 11 movingly celebrates the Old Testament heroes of our faith, whom we now follow. They have led us and still lead us to Jesus, whom they never saw. Their example urges us to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader, and perfecter of faith (12:2). I am thinking also of the experience of the pagan mother and the two fathers pleading for a miracle from Jesus. I refer to what life is for people who try to give themselves over to God and to living life as it happens to them. One day they find that they cannot go on without arguing it out once and for all with God, as Jacob did. They pray for an impossibility, for a miracle.
That father who ended his argument with Jesus by just ignoring what “faith” might mean, said it out, “Sir, come down before my child dies”—his story is accounted the second of the signs that Jesus worked at Cana in Galilee. The first, of course, is the changing of the water into wine, and there the Mother of God had quite a role! This, then, is the Mother and her miracles – that so many people have found in the “miraculous picture of Perpetual Help,” as they long called it.
Miracles are sensational. This was a problem for Jesus, who had to flee the crowds wanting to make him king. Miracles are connected with faith but do not necessarily lead to faith. Jesus himself accused people of following him for the free bread he could provide. Even in his home town of Nazareth, he did not work many miracles because of the people’s lack of faith (Mt 13:54-58). He yearned for a faith that was personal, a faith in him and all that he was, a human being like them and also the Son of the Father. Yet he would settle for faith in the works they had seen him do (Jn 10:31-38)!
So it is that miracles remain, in the Gospels, an important mark and theme of his life. They remain also an important element and motivation of religious seeking. People are right to still pray for them and celebrate them.
There are some places, shrines especially, where miracles, though still uncommon, seem to become customary. One thinks of Lourdes in France. But there are many shrines. One such place is the Shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia. I have lived and worked there from time to time. Many, many people would tell us priests of miracles the Saint had worked for them. Some of these, of course, had to be investigated by the Church in the process of the canonization of St. John Neumann. But now we join the people in thanking and praising God for the experiences of their faith. And we readily recognize and make room for urgent visits of those who hurriedly enter the shrine, like the desperate parents who came to Jesus. They may have a child in tow. They may be on their way to one of the famous hospitals in Philadelphia. But for now, they must kneel and pray for a miracle.
From the day, April 26, 1866, that Perpetual Help was enshrined in the Redemptorist church of St. Alphonsus in Rome, the powerful intercession of Our Mother was the vivid motivation and attraction of devotion to her. This was a devotion marked by favors received, some of the miracles. In more recent years the “miraculous picture” has come to be known as the icon of Perpetual Help. It seems that some puzzlement and even embarrassment attaches to this observation as we celebrate 150 years of an amazing religious phenomenon. What do we do now? What does the icon mean to us today?
It is still, and always will be, a focus of hope to people in need, even desperate need. We will always come before Our Mother. We will kneel there, pouring out our hearts with our prayers. But there was always more to the mystery of praying before an icon. A true icon has a power of drawing us into its reality and life. A true icon is as real and alive – a reality of faith – as are the Gospels. This is the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Second Council of Nicaea was held in the year 787. It was the seventh and last of the Councils in which both the Church of the West and the Church of the East joined as one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this doctrine of the Council: “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words” (#1160).
The Gospels themselves are alive, in their words and wording, for they are the Word of God (cf. Heb 4:12-13). You have surely felt them search your heart, or comfort and enliven it. You have favorite biblical passages that you keep returning to because they always speak to you, and tell stories that are about Jesus and about you, too. All the Scripture is about Jesus, and if about him, about you, too, and your life with him, your Lord and Savior. The icon of Perpetual Help is to draw us just as really into the life of Jesus Christ.
A friend of mine, a religious teaching Sister, used to take time with her classes to “do icons.” She had gathered prints and clippings of religious icons and handed out to the children, telling them to keep them face down for a while and then to turn them over. Just gaze at them. What did they see? They saw the figures looking at them, stirring them, comforting or even frightening them a little. For over thirty years she did this with inner-city children, of varied racial backgrounds and nations. She says they all responded in the same way, and would often ask, “Sister, can we do icons today?”
The entry point of the icon of Perpetual Help is the eyes of Mary: she is looking at us, each and every one of us. We cannot help it: we can only meet a gaze already upon us. We may have come, kneeling, in quest of power and even of a miracle. But here it is, whether a miracle comes or not: this is a live experience of the same religious power those school children knew when “doing” icons. At this point and from this point, the power lies with Our Lady and Mother of Perpetual Help, and with the Child Jesus in her arms. We need only allow their power and presence to direct us and our lives. But this takes time, and time returned to and repeated, like the Hail Marys on our beads. Mysteries are not revealed on demand. They have their time and times.
The icon of Perpetual Help is a portal to the mysteries of our faith and to the contemplation of them. In the Eastern Church, it is literally true that an icon of the Mother of God is always found as a liturgical portal to these mysteries. In the Eastern Church, a screen called the iconostasis marks and designates the entry to the sanctuary of the church. It can look like a tall tapestry hung with icons of the Lord and the saints and angels. In our Roman rite the altar rail, sometimes called also the communion rail, is something related to the iconostasis. A classic iconostasis of the Eastern Church may have as many as three doors. But the principal door, in the center, has an icon fixed to either side. The icon to left is an icon of Mary, and the one to the right, is an icon of Jesus, usually in the style of Pantocrator. The holy place or sanctuary is entered through Jesus and through Mary!
We can find in the icon of Perpetual Help, by itself and not part of an iconostasis, a portal to the mysteries. It is an entry to the infinite golden dimension of the Kingdom of God. To gaze at and ponder this is to enter this eternal dimension itself. As noted just before, nearly everyone’s opening experience of the icon is to meet and feel the eyes of the Mother of Jesus. They are sad and they are knowing. They make it easy to see that this icon is of a type known as the Virgin of the Passion. It has come to us from the island of Crete and was painted in the 14th or 15th century.
There is a legend about Perpetual Help—and many other icons—that the Evangelist St. Luke himself painted it. Can there be anything to this? We will never know in terms of St. Luke himself, of dates, and places, and so forth. But the legend underscores this important mystery—the feeling and devotion for the Mother of God that has always been important to the Catholic Church and to Catholics. Our non-Catholic friends often find this hard to understand and we find it hard to appreciate how it is not as clear and deep to them as to us. It is a family thing. More deeply than that, it is part of what we celebrate in every Mass when the priest prays God not to look on our sins, “but on the faith of your Church.” This is faith as a divine gift and living inheritance, handed down, living and real, from century to century, from generation to generation.
The eyes of Perpetual Help, they know. We come before her because she knows. She knows God, she knows us, and she knows all about life. St. Augustine evocatively connects the Spirit’s Gift of Knowledge with the Beatitude that blesses those who mourn. And he links these two to the petition of the Our Father, “Thy will be done.” No words of hers better sum up Mary’s life and everyone’s challenge of following Jesus Christ than “Be it done unto me according to your word.”
The Way of the Cross.
For the icon’s Lady and Mother, no one within the frame is more important than the Son she holds firmly. Outside the frame, we are the important ones, held firmly in her gaze!
Another traditional designation of our icon is that it belongs to an ancient class or type called Hodogetria, that is, she points the way. The icon has her do this with power and grace. Note her right arm and the elegant fingers of the hand: the line and direction of them lead to Jesus and then, on the same line, to the cross, borne in veiled hands by St. Michael the Archangel. The figure of Jesus, we might say, is that of a Man-Child. His whole life and self are portrayed in a license of style allowed to classic icons. Nearly everything in the scene speaks to us of beauty, order, and elegance—except perhaps for two features of the portrayal of Jesus.
We have always read the icon as telling us that the Child has run frightened to his Mother’s arms. The fear comes of the Cross and the instruments of the Passion carried by the Archangels. For whatever artistic reason the eyes of Jesus are not on the Cross, but are off to the side, perhaps focused on something outside the frame. But there is a slightly strained and uncomfortable twist of his head in the direction of the Cross. Second, towards the very bottom, centered in a direct line with the eyes of Mary and Jesus’ hand in hers, his foot is uncomfortably protruding, so that the sole of the foot is almost totally visible. From the foot, of course, hangs the sandal, turned so that the bottom or sole is clearly presented.
Foot and shoe or sandal, especially with the sole clearly presented, is a religious symbol. But one does not need a religious context to recognize the basic power and message. There is a famous saying of Mohandas Gandhi, a religious man surely, as well as the founder of a nation. It seems to catch the universal power of this part of the icon: “The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him.”
Religiously our thoughts run to St. John the Baptist, who said that he was not worthy to lose the strap of his Jesus’s sandal (Jn 1:27). The imagery also leads to the Liturgy of Holy Thursday. The Gospel tells the story. “Fully aware… that he had come from God and was returning to him,” (Jn 13:3), Jesus sets himself to wash the feet of his disciples. In this self-awareness and sense of himself, he stoops to wash the feet of the disciples. Peter, shocked by the divine humility, would refuse Jesus if he could, but acceded when Jesus told him that to refuse the washing would cost him his life in Jesus’ company.
This is the divine emptying of oneself that is sung in the famous hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. It leads to glory, this divine urgency that is humility. One can never have too much faith, or hope, or charity—or too much humility. There is no end to the mystery. This is the last line of the icon, so to speak. Only the frame remains. And there outside it, in our own world, the challenge of the cross comes to each one gazing on the icon.
The Last Word.
Devotion to the icon of Perpetual Help is popular religiosity, of and for the people. It has been a great privilege for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer to have embraced the icon and shared her for a hundred years with a whole world. Our Mother of Perpetual Help keeps the secret for us Redemptorists of finding again the power she brought us 150 years ago. The secret is to be close to her, and in that closeness to find ourselves close to the people, especially the poor.
I speak here of an ongoing, recurring miracle. It is the renewal and conversion and repentance of the Church and of Redemptorists within the Church. This raising to life again we shall find with our people, praying with them before the icon of Perpetual Help and entering more deeply into her reality and mystery.
John M. Hamrogue, C.Ss.R.
Province of Baltimore