Monday, August 23, 2010

Mary, Mother of Priests

This was an accidental shot.  We were in the parish garden, having just taken some images of this photographer-priest, first getting some straight-on shots of him using his elegant, vintage camera, then trying for some artsy images reflected in the windows of the church.  As we played with the idea, the priest stepped back to stand next to the statue of Mary and instinctively, protectively put his arm around the statue, his hand coming to rest just above the Blessed Mother's own hand.  It was intimate, familiar, and utterly natural, and very moving when Steve finally finished with the cropping and the tidying of the shot--after all, a statue left in the elements has a certain proclivity for odd marks and discolorations. It takes some viewers a few moments to realize that one of the hands in the shot is not stone at all, but very much human.

This image speaks to the role of the priest on so many different levels.  Mary, Mother of Christ is also the Mother of Priests.  The tenderness she feels for her firstborn of necessity spills over to her sons His priests, and she embraces them as she embraced Him.  It is more than fitting for Mary to be a part of a project celebrating priests--after all, hers were the first hands to bring Jesus to the world.

 For a convert like me, knowing that I have a priestly father and a heavenly mother both looking after me and leading me to Jesus is of great comfort.  The coincidence of those two realities here is striking: that protective, fatherly hand touches the face of the infant Christ even as it embraces His mother.  As always, it is impossible for me to see Mary without seeing Jesus, and impossible for me to see the priest without seeing the Source of his priesthood and the mother of his vocation.  

The priest's hand conveys a sense of security and the Mother and Child are so clearly at peace.  I am reminded of  St. Joseph, another ordinary yet extraordinary man charged with the care of our Redeemer, with  keeping Him and His mother safe from harm.  As St. Joseph is also the patron of the Church, it is no accident that the hands of a parish priest evoke his memory in this image of Mary and Jesus.

Mary's hands may have been the first to bring Jesus to the world, but Joseph had his role as well.  Almost all of what he did is lost to history: the story of Joseph is a story of quiet fidelity in the background.  It is also thus with our priests.  So much of what they do is done without fanfare, in the background of other lives, embracing the service of Christ as this priest embraced a statue of His mother one afternoon in late November.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


This photograph started out very differently from the image that ended up as one of the signatures of the project. The priest Steve was photographing had taken us through the motions of the Mass, step by step, starting with preparing in the sacristy--and including a brief discussion of the attributes of sacramental wine. When he got to the elevation of the Cup, Steve took the shot from several angles. One included the nimbus of light from a sconce on the wall that, from the proper angle, looked like light emanating from the chalice. Right from the camera, it was a distance shot, in color and impressive enough to my untrained eye. Steve fretted that the image was too complicated, and the purple chasuble in one corner of the frame and a doorway in the other took away from the power of the shot.

My groom has an artist's appreciation for the picture-in-the-picture; he sees not only what is, but what can be. One evening, we went to our respective computers after dinner, he to work on photos, I to work on a book I was in the process of writing. He cropped this image, softened the edges, took away the color and sent it down to my desk. It took my breath away when I opened it.

I'm no intimate of the processes of the digital darkroom, but it seems that wresting this beautiful picture from its less impressive source is a bit like growing in the spiritual life. Start with something good, as we are created, but a work in progress, needing an Artist's touch here and there to be what we are meant to be. Get the right perspective on things, focus in on Jesus and remove distracting details--it's surprising what can emerge.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sign Language

Almost every priest talks with his hands as he preaches, and the accents are as distinctive as are the accents of voice.  Some are given to grand gestures; others hold their hands closely and more controlled.  Watch any priest in the course of Mass, and his favorite gestures will become evident very quickly.  See him outside Mass, and you’re likely to find the same motions in conversation.  Recognizing the postures was easy, but posing them was more difficult.  Our subjects were often unaware of their most characteristic poses and stiff when asked to reproduce them. 
One expedient Steve used was to get his subject talking, and the discussion was often as interesting as the resulting images.  One priest told the story of a taxi driver and a priest—the priest ending up with time in purgatory and the taxi driver waltzing right into heaven despite his profane life.  The punch line?  The priest’s homilies put people to sleep but the taxi driver regularly drove (literally) people to prayer. 
The result is a diverse collection of images.  One priest regularly pushes up the sleeves of his alb before beginning to preach--or celebrate-- as though to emphasize that he is preparing for important work.  One is given to elegant, inviting gestures, palms up, that beckon both the listener and the Spirit.  Another’s “accent” is to bring his hands together in various ways, emphasizing the connections of the people of God.  Yet another often raises his hands in sheer joy at the wonder of the subject he teaches. 
One of the great gifts of Catholic worship is that we get to use our bodies, not just our hearts and minds, as vehicles for worship.  We see the beauty of our churches, we hear consecration bells and some of the most glorious music ever written, we touch beads and holy water, we are surrounded by the fragrance of incense, we taste the Blessed Sacrament.  The language of our priests’ hands in worship provides yet another dimension in a tradition already rich in expression,inviting us to communion with God and each other.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Holy Smoke!

This is an image of an image-maker.  This priest is himself a photographer, which meant that the photo session was particularly enjoyable, especially for the man behind the lens.  It wasn't long before our subject and Steve were deep in conversations about f-stops, pixels, lens characteristics and the electronic (as opposed to the traditional) darkroom.  When we'd exhausted our repertoire of shots in the church, the good Monsignor invited us to the rectory to see some of his own work.

It was always a treat to be invited back to the priest's digs.  It's too easy to think of our clergy as a breed entirely apart.  Seeing their home base has a way of reminding us that they are as ordinary and individual  as anyone else.  In this case, as soon as we walked in it was evident we were in the house of someone who loves photography and reading.  There were stunning images of the Irish countryside on every wall, and books in the book-cases, some two-deep, spilling onto the desk and left by the easy chair, several in progress at once.  And on the table beside the chair, under the light was a neat, wooden stand, with half a dozen pipes standing at attention, ready for use, leather tobacco pouch laid beside them.

A small confession.  I've always loved pipes, an admission liable to result in my being drummed out of polite, anti-tobacco American society.  As a physician I am well aware of the pernicious effects of smoking, but there's something warm, professorial, thoughtful and oh-so-comfortable about pipe smoke.  Maybe it's my primal affection for Sherlock Holmes and his two-pipe problems, or the memory of a particularly pleasant colleague whose office was one down from mine and whose cherrywood smoke drifted into my own office as he worked.  At any rate, I asked if we could take a few more images, and our subject was delighted to comply.

As a rule, pipe smokers fiddle with their pipes more than they smoke them.  Steve clicked away as the pipe was filled and tamped with a well worn implement and  eventually coaxed into flame.  A few determined puffs and smoke curled from the bowl, making graceful shapes as it rose.  Rearranging his subject for optimal light, Steve sought the perfect image of that curving smoke.  Once back home, we realized there was an abundance of riches in those images.  This is a detail from one of them.

Maybe my affection for pipe smoke isn't so hard to understand from a Catholic perspective. We inherited from our Jewish forefathers an appreciation for smoke--the smoke of offerings, the smoke of incense, as both metaphor for God and the very image of our prayers and sacrifice rising heavenward.  Pipe smoke isn't incense, of course, but I am willing to believe that it is at least as pleasant as the smoke from burnt offerings of old.

Why the smoke?  Aside from tradition and the Biblical references of incense symbolizing prayers rising and the altar (or the faithful) being recognized as set apart by censing, there's the physical reality of it all. Smoke is best seen up against something else in the world to bring it into sharp focus.  It's impossible to feel it or taste it, but  just as impossible to escape from it--it surrounds everything and you KNOW it's there.

A bit like God.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Christ in the Shadows

We all have our listening habits.  If I have paper and pen in front of me, it's impossible for me to listen attentively and not doodle. Mine is one of the more common listening habits, and one of the less aggravating.  In the fifth grade, my son was known to discharge his excess energy in class by shredding anything that came his way.  His desk was a mountain of Styrofoam cup shards, dissected Kleenex and minute bits of notebook paper with rubble from the odd writing implement thrown in for good measure.  

The physical tics of listening don't mean inattention.  Oddly, in fact, they can serve to keep the attention focused, by drawing off the need to move in small and harmless ways, even though to the observer the behavior may look odd or unfocused.  I remember hearing my son tell, with great amusement, of the day his teacher, certain he was distracted and not paying attention, asked him a question while he was in the process of disassembling a pencil in his desk.  Looking up long enough to engage him, my son answered immediately and completely, then ducked the eraser the teacher shied at his head in utter frustration.

The Catholic habit of holding one thing in mind while doing another is conducive to two-track thinking.  If one can hold a rosary, manage the beads, remember the mysteries, say the prayers, intercede and meditate all at once, one is a step ahead of the general population.  And it is then possible to go about one's daily business attentive to the job at hand and the fact that God is behind it.

This image was taken after a meeting at the Catholic Center in Atlanta. I'd looked up from my doodling long enough to notice that the Archbishop's listening tic is to twirl his pen. Steve and I prevailed upon him to permit a few images in his brief free time after the meeting. We went into his office, and he sat at his desk, sunlight streaming across the black desk blotter. In mid twirl, Steve saw the image within the image and barked, "Stop! Hold it right there!" all the while working with lens and position furiously to catch the form in the shadows. (Let me assure you, ordering an Archbishop around, even in this sort of situation, feels distinctly upside-down...) 

The result is a photograph that invariably gets comments for its strong form and subtle message.  The hands are poised and elegant but still convey great strength.  They look ready to take on any challenge with Christ as an underpinning, the form in shadow made by the interplay of these hands and the world, the light around them.  

As Catholics, it should be our hope that the world sees Christ in all we do, even if only indirectly, and sometimes in the shadows. Like these hands when the Light strikes us, we can show forth a form of Christ, even when doodling on a pad or tearing up paper or twirling a pen. It is possible to make Him present even when we are unaware we are doing it, and the image can be striking to those who see it.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Steve had honed his skills in photographing hands on our own pastor and one other willing guinea pig, so we were all set--or so we thought--when the first appointment was arranged and we set out for Atlanta one Saturday morning.  Thanks to the good offices of our GPS, we arrived (more or less) at the right spot at the appointed hour, and trudged up to the door of the parish offices, lugging cameras and suddenly unprepared for what we were about to do.  The enormity of meeting a complete stranger, barging into his day and taking photographs weighed in on us as we knocked rather timidly on the office door.  No answer....we momentarily considered abandoning the whole project and starting a new life in East Sopchoppee.

Checking  our watches to make sure we were on time and gathering up our courage, we tried again.  This time, an exuberant grey-haired presence greeted us: Flannery, the rectory dog.  The priest followed two steps behind, grey-haired and as friendly as his canine emissary.  He introduced himself and his dog, and asked us to wait in the sitting room while he finished an appointment.  The grey haired mutt kept us company, first sitting at our feet with her face upturned and quizzical; then allowing herself to be petted, then settling herself down on the couch, awaiting her master's return.

Flannery's hospitality was mirrored by her owner, who spent a good deal of time asking us about ourselves and the project, putting us at ease, before Steve took the first frame.  Flannery fixed her attention on him, snuggled against his side, then inched into his lap as we chatted.  The image of Flannery being petted was too compelling to miss.

It was surprising, too.  I know the controversy that can result in a parish from a pet in the rectory, but it's never made much sense to me.  Pets are as essential a part of my life as  breakfast coffee.  It was so reassuring to meet this stranger and have an immediate bond not just because we were both Catholic but because we both understood the role of dogs in creation, in life.  It  was a great joy some months later, when attending the Chrism mass to see Flannery on the end of  a leash, taking the air before, no doubt, being sequestered away while the liturgy proceeded without her.

There's a temptation to wax eloquent about the necessity of dogs, or to draw great and lofty comparisons between the relationship of a dog to its master and us to Christ.  I'll leave that to someone else.  This image is about the simple joy of companionship that comes from comfortable knowledge, passes much of its time in silence, and is grounded in just being together.  Flannery is the quintessential dog and that makes this image all the more human, the priest all the more familiar whether one knows him or not.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Penal Rosary

Steve took relatively few rosary pictures, and this was the first.  We'd brought a "prop" rosary from home, but the priest volunteered to get his personal one to use.  It was the first time we'd seen this particular style of penal rosary.  The Connemarra marble stones are identical to those in the rosary we brought as a prop. Our rosary was one brought back from a trip to Ireland several years ago,  But unlike ours,  made from marble beads that are still sharp, hard cubes, this one had the patina of age and use.  The stone beads are worn smooth with use, and they slide easily through the fingers, sharp stone made comforting and familiar by countless small touches and voiced prayers.

The one decade rosary is often called the penal rosary.  I had assumed it was so named for the common practice of giving a decade of the rosary as a penance after confession.  It wasn't until that trip to Ireland that I realized it was named for the Penal Years.  In those years, especially under Cromwell, the faith had to be practiced in secret, for fear of arrest or even death.  Priests could be executed summarily; mass was often said around "mass rocks" because it was not possible to practice the faith in public in a church.  A penal rosary was small enough to hide in one's hand and could be prayed discretely.  Unwilling to abandon their faith, the Irish took to the fields for mass, and tucked these small rosaries into their sleeves and pockets.

Priests and laymen alike risked their lives for the faith, among them Blessed Margaret Ball, who sheltered priests and bishops in her home and gave them safe conduct as well as as she could.  She died in Dublin prison, sent there by her son the (Protestant) Mayor of Dublin, after he had he dragged through the streets on a wooden hurdle because she was crippled and unable to walk, because she refused to renounce her Catholic faith.  All in all, over 260 men and women are known to have died for their beliefs between 1537 and 1714, with no accounting of those who may have perished in anonymity in scattered villages.  Bl. Margaret's story gives Christ's admonition that "I come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother..." new meaning.

It's hard for modern Americans to imagine a time when praying the rosary could cost one's life, but it could then, and in some places in the world, it can today.  Nor is America free of the risks of persecution.  One American Bishop has commented that he expects to die in his own bed, expects his successor to die in jail and expects that bishop's successor to die a martyr.  Being Christian--being Catholic--is not without its risks, not the safe choice. The admonition to pick up the cross--which led to a criminal's death on Calvary and in a Dublin jail---remains incumbent on us today.

This image was taken in the quiet alcove of a beautiful church in downtown Atlanta, a place full of rich imagery and art, early in November, on the eve of a service in observance of World AIDS Day.  The hands convey a sense of calm and confidence.  Unlike in the Penal Years, the rosary is in full view, the crucifix and beads dangling outside for anyone to see.  But the ring is on the third finger, for the fourth mystery--in the sorrowful mysteries, the Carrying of the Cross.  The priest would go on that evening to call the faithful to selfless and loving care of those who are marginalized because of an illness and have themselves been persecuted by fear and ignorance.  More than fitting for a stone rosary, fashioned after ones originally made to survive persecution, worn by many decades of prayers, changed but in no way diminished by penal years, then or now.  More than fitting for the Catholic faith that survives and flourishes, and the priestly hands that receive it, hold it, protect it and pass it on.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Silent Language

Start thinking about the hands that confect the Eucharist and it has a way of wonderfully focusing one's attention on the Mass. What began as an artistic exercise in trying to see the images that might speak to other people became an exercise in contemplation and a new form of prayer. Concentrate on those hands and they begin to speak clearly, all by themselves, each pair with a different voice, all with the same language.

Every priest has his own gestures, as typical of the man as his face and conversation. The images in this collection are almost entirely posed; photographing the Mass is a daunting and intrusive process in what is rightfully worship that should be apart from other human concerns, and we did not do it often. Even so, these photographs capture the idioms of the individual priests, and if you know the men, you will recognize their gestures.

No matter how we speak, we do so individually and with accents. Watch the hands of the priest with rapt attention and suddenly, one remembers that God expects us to worship him in body as well as in spirit. For this reason, we kneel, we stand, we genuflect, we make the sign of the cross. For this reason, the physical aspects of the Mass are important. For this reason, God gave us eyes, to see Him in creation and, not the least, to see Him in the beautiful movements of the celebration of the Eucharist. We hope these images capture some of that.

The rhythm of the Mass and of its gestures communicate in a universal way the messages of the Church, as anyone who has heard Mass in a foreign country and an alien tongue will testify. The header of this blog is the title image from These Hands Bring Me Jesus: The Exhibit; it is only one of many images that are Catholic in every sense of the word. 

Against the backdrop of a green chasuble, the color of Ordinary time, it is a very familiar image. There is probably no priest, living or dead, who has not assumed this posture at one time or another. The clasped hands are peaceful. They do not grasp or fidget, but rest patiently. Not open in the usual sense, they seem to be waiting to extend themselves in welcome. The fingers are interlaced, but not clenched.  There is no anger, no tension, and no need to prove themselves; the hands are authoritative without being overbearing. Entwined with each other, they are ready, expecting to reach out.

It brings to mind a verse of a traditional Irish hymn that links the passage of the day and the passage of life to the strong, patient, loving presence of God:

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace
Your hands swift to welcome, Your arms to embrace
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray
Your love in our hearts, Lord
At the eve of the day.

In a world that has exploited and diminished, even corrupted, the value of human touch, it is well to remember that it was often by His hands that our Lord communicated His healing grace. He applied a paste of mud to the eyes of a man blind from birth. He touched the ears of the deaf mute. He grabbed Peter by the hand to rescue him from the deep waters when Peter's faith failed. He wrote in the dust to challenge the hearts of those who had caught a woman in adultery. Before He ascended, he stretched out His hands to bless His Disciples.

And it is through the hands of the priest that He brings us His very self, to become part of our very self. A thought, an image, a gift and a reality worth contemplating.