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Hidden Delights

“The world is not only hungry for food, but also for beauty.” With those words, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta helps explain why Pope Benedict is encouraging us to return to Catholic art as a privileged place for prayer. The vision of a gifted, accomplished, faith-filled artist can reveal to us a glimpse of God’s beauty, sparking an encounter with his love – and that’s the heart of all Christian prayer.

When I was just discovering the Catholic faith, before entering the Catholic Church, I used to wander into churches and gaze at the works of art, sometimes for hours at a time (college students have plenty of free time). This high relief sculpture of the Annunciation caught my eye, and my heart, even before I discovered that the Renaissance master, Donatello, had carved it out of pietra serena (a type of gray sandstone native to Tuscany) in the early 1400s.

What I Wasn’t Looking For

I have to make a confession about this work of art. It is located in a famous Italian Gothic church in Florence, Santa Croce. This church is home to immortal monuments like frescoes by Giotto, chapels by Brunelleschi, and the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. The first time I visited this church, I was interested in those famous monuments, not in Donatello’s little relief sculpture. Likewise the second time, and the third. In fact, this Florentine treasure of a church became a favorite stop on my way to class – I would light a candle for prayer intentions there as a part of my morning routine.

These repeated visits brought me in regular contact with Donatello’s Annunciation. It is located on the right side of the nave, between other monuments and side altars. I would walk by it every time I went through the church. Gradually, day by day, it began to demand more attention.

An Elegant Drama

We are used to seeing this type of depiction of the Annunciation, the moment when the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Blessed Virgin Mary and invites her to be the Mother of our Lord. But Donatello was the first sculptor to depict this scene with such drama. And it was the drama that struck a chord with me.

On the one hand, we can see that St. Gabriel is interrupting Our Lady. She is just closing her little prayer book with one hand, and with the other hand she is pulling her cloak over her as if to protect herself. Her right knee is turning away from the angel, but her left foot is still planted and hasn’t yet caught up with her body’s motion. But even while her body is moving away from the angel, as if she is surprised or frightened, her face and head show that she is actually mesmerized by the vision and the angelic presence.

And isn’t that exactly how it is with all of us? When God breaks into our lives, interrupting our routine with an invitation to repent, or to serve in a new way, or to somehow follow him more closely, isn’t our automatic reaction one of fright or resistance? We say, “Well, Lord, I have a lot to do, and I don’t think your idea is going to fit into my plans.” And yet, even as we resist, there is a place in our hearts, way down deep, at the very core of our being, where we feel the excitement and the draw of the Christian adventure. We know that we are made for God and that his will is the path to the meaningful, worthwhile life that we truly desire. And so, our true self – represented in the sculpture by the Virgin’s face, since the face is always the fullest expression of the person – wants to pay attention to God’s voice and invitations as they stir our hearts and conscience. But our lower tendencies of selfishness, represented by the lower body of the figure in the sculpture, tend to flee from the Lord. As St. Paul put it: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind…” (Romans 7:22-23).

The Charm of Grace

The charming elegance and sincere reverence with which Donatello depicts that drama was something else that resonated with me, in addition to the drama itself. In Mary’s case, the interior battle was much less violent than in our case. She was preserved from original sin and free from personal sin. And so, though the angel’s message caused her to be “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29), she recovered quickly. Donatello’s rendition captures in Mary’s postures and attitudes the graciousness and gracefulness of her soul: he says with pietra serena what Gabriel said in words: “Hail, full of grace!” How could I not be attracted and intrigued by such beauty? How could I not be inspired by seeing the Mary’s natural agitation being conquered by her supernatural affinity for God?

The year that I visited Santa Croce so frequently was the year that God first began calling me into his Catholic Church. Throughout that year, I played out in my own soul this drama that Donatello captures so beautifully. My lower self resisted God’s interruptions, but my soul was mesmerized, and dazzled, and won over by the sheer goodness and beauty of God.

This Advent, as we spend time contemplating Our Lady’s journey of faith, so full of joy and trepidation, perhaps admiring Donatello’s magnificent snapshot will release the adventuresome spirit within us, and give us a share of Mary’s courage so that we, like her, can answer God’s invitation (whatever it may be) with the perfect prayer: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", Inside the Passion--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

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  • Joyce Crain

    Thank you so much for the picture of the Annunciation sculpture and for your thoughtful, personal comments.  I’d like to add that the depiction of the angel Gabriel is also very moving.  The kneeling, the humility in the entire posture and tilt of the head of the messenger says so much about the amazing way in which the Lord approached Mary.  He was (almost unimaginably) awed by her, and asked (perhaps best described by the words of Julian of Norwich, “with courtesy”) that she become the Mother of the Son. This is something to ponder as we consider His movements in our own lives. Shalom,  Joyce, Seattle

  • Anonymous

    Simply Beautiful!!  Thanks Fr. John!!

  • Terr60

    So beautiful. How privilege we are to have the Blessed Virgen Mary as our mother and to be prt of our life.
    Thank you Father John for sharing with us, God bless you.

  • Sandy

    Thanks for sharing this picture of the Annunciation and your deep interpretation of the sculpture.  I will be going to Florence with a group of pilgrims from my church in March and will be sure to stop and contemplate this image of the Annunciation while visiting this holy place.  

  • Rick

    I read in the morning on my 2nd cup of coffee. So sometimes I don’t really hear you. But todays reading is ‘grabbing’. I’m a ”cradle catholic’ and although at times I felt close to God I gave Him my life this past Easter. Never before have I felt such a pulling back and forth. Having the chains of sin being broken is ; there is no words. Praise be to Jesus.

  • Gavinmcevoy7

    Thank you father. Such is the beauty of our lady! It will always pull us in to a closer encounter with God.

  • Bridgitabita

    Wonderful blog, perfect timing

  • Catherine Teresa, OCDS

    As someone involving in the visual arts either for pleasure or for work most of my life this really spoke to me. In fact, it is the second time within 24 hours that I have heard the same message from 2 different sources which makes me notice what is being said even more. Thanks for posting this.

  • Ramona

    Fr. Bartunek,

    I love when you speak to us.  This message has helped me carry my daily cross.  Thank you! 
    Ramona

  • Rita OCDS

    Novena in honor of the Immaculate Conception by St Maximillian Kolbe

    http://www.corazones.org/oraciones/oraciones_maria/novena_immaculate_conception_colbe.htm

  • Ian

    I too have visited Santa Croce. It was twenty years ago. I was not yet a Catholic. Traveling throught Europe with my wife, we spent most of our time visiting churches, drawn to their beauty. I converted in 2000, in my 40th year– a number whose significance is not lost on me. I have realized that in Europe, in Santa Croce, for all of my life, God was callling me. Never has there been a time when He was not calling me. He is so patient. He calls us but never forces us. He waits for us as we wander about squandering our inheritance but when we come to our senses and turn to Him, He is right there to welcome us home. Do our hearts not burn within us? Blessed be God forever!

  • jack g.

    “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind…” (Romans 7:22-23).
    I tend to experience just that most of my days, Fr. John, and thank you for the reflections. I have been to Italy in ’81 to see John Paul II, unfortunately I was only 12 then and I couldn’t have appreciated all the beauty there. 3 busses went there from Krakow on that trip, we went all over Italy and really saw a lot, so I have a memory of that, but no details. I appreciate the beauty of the churches for it sets the stage for a deeper reflection and somehow it feels better and closer to God.
    I have issues with pride and the more I am converted the more God lifts the veil of my nothingness. No, He doesn’t put me down, I do that myself too many of times, but He lets me know where He needs me to concentrate and I am very thankful to my Lord for that. During this Advent season I will work on my pride and the root sin of mine, which must be in the area of pride. I have read some of your posts, I believe, and pride and my wife’s comments fit right into that, too. I believe that God speaks to us through our spouses, too, you know, so this was too obvious for me. My Father in heaven wanted me to pay more attention to pride during Advent, or at least I think so. I guess, never too much humility, so getting to know my root sin with God as a spiritual director, should not be so bad anyway. Anytime I ask to be able to be more humble, I experience humility through others and so I must be humiliated, when then I turn around and complain to God in prayer, how it is all unfair, He quickly reminds me of my previous plea.
    God has a sense of humor and I can’t help but laugh in the midst of all that ordeal. I have to again tell you all about The Mystical City of God, by Mary of Agreda. Before you buy it, it is available to read for free at, http://www.themostholyrosary.com/mystical-city.htm It is so beautiful and was recommended by a few Popes, too. Mary of Agreda’s body is still incorrupt. With love of Jesus, jack g.

  • Ana

    Fr. John Thank you for helping us see all the meaning of this beautiful sculpture, and for your personal reflections on it. God Bless you.

  • Mary42

    What a fitting Post as we enter the Advent.  Thank you, Fr. John

  • Anonymous

    “…my soul was mesmerized, and dazzled, and won over by the sheer goodness and beauty of God.”
    :0)

  • Turlfamily

    As we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth, in this Advent season, let us reflect on Our Blessed Mother’s “yes” to God’s invitation… Praying we all grow in personal relationship with Our Lord in this the season of waiting…… <3

  • http://twitter.com/belvealUX Roger Belveal

    I appreciate your comments about the spiritual value for art by faith-filled artists, which I am one.  See http://www.belveal.com/art_Christ_BeyondtheCross.htm

    roger belveal

    • Anonymous

      Beautiful work Roger