Radical Presence

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Originally posted at: https://ignitumtoday.com/2020/09/11/radical-presence/

Written by Anja Renkes (Notre Dame)

“Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of His creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and His work.”

Because creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness — “And God saw that it was good … very good” — for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. On many occasions the Church has had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the physical world. God transcends creation and is present to it.”
~ Catechism of the Catholic Church #299, “The Mystery of Creation”

Radical presence. What does this mean in the current state of Planet Earth and all that fills it? Mysteries too great for our limited human minds can be overwhelming. Yet exist, they must.

“God transcends creation and is present to it.” This passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church articulates a core concept explored in my artistic work: the divine encounter in our very own creation as well as our participation in creation by our everyday life.

This mystery, and the desire to understand what people long for, took me to Ireland. As a painter, I sought to explore human relationship with one another and with God through the painting of pilgrimage sites where both phenomena are visually apparent.

At holy wells around Ireland, people come to pray in solitude as well as community, in times of anguish and pain, as well as in times of joy and celebration. Catholic popular piety at holy wells demonstrates events of humanity directing themselves toward God and other holy figures in prayer and petition. Why? Why would people respond to their own slice of the turbulent, unpredictable, and wonderful human condition in this way?

Human longing for God shapes the way people interact with their environment and one another. As I traveled from holy well to holy well around the country, I was increasingly aware of the need and longing made apparent in the material traces of Catholic popular piety. As has been established by many a Catholic theologian before me: It is only natural that, as embodied creatures, humans rejoice in the physical and material expression of the Divine reality of God’s presence to creation.

So, as I encountered the mystery over and over again, I painted. Eventually, a year after returning from Ireland, I finished the ninth painting in oil and wax. This central 36 by 48-inch panel of a triptych, pictured above, is the keystone piece of the Numinous Beauty Exhibition, these nine paintings.

Hung at eye-level, the perspective of the image is meant to draw the viewer into the well, enabling one to see things that they would experience if they crouched down, inside the u-shaped stacked stone structure around the small spring. At one of the St. Patrick’s wells at Mám Éan, the pilgrims we met on our way knelt at the well, dipped their fingers in the water, and blessed themselves in the sign of the cross. In this way, prayer was embodied.

In the upper left corner, a small figurine of the Blessed Virgin Mary rests next to the stone plaque on which is written “Tobar Phadraig”. The Blessed Mother’s presence is felt at holy wells and shrines around the country. As the Theotokos, or ‘God-bearer’, the Blessed Mother’s acceptance of the will of God, that Jesus Christ would be born of her immaculate womb, by the power of the Holy Spirit, allowed for the sanctification of humanity through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christian hope is deeply related to our bodily reality. God created, and it is good. When humanity needs redemption in our sin and weakness, through Christ, God mercifully created a way for us to turn back to Him with our whole hearts, open for Him to heal and to protect. The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, at these pilgrimage sites of prayer and petition makes present this reality in the minds and hearts of those on their knees.

In the upper right corner, a rosary hangs down, wedged between two rocks in the stone structure. As a prayer offering in petition or thanksgiving to God, people will often leave devotional items, statues, rosaries, prayer cards, and even more random objects like coins, pins, and ribbons or bits of cloth near the spring at these wells.

In the wellspring itself, one finds a dog dish floating in the water. At many wells, one will find a vessel to be used to drink water from the well as part of the ritual and prayer to be performed at the site. This presence of a commonly-used receptacle emphasizes the perpetuation of community in these places, which extends back through generations. On a rock ledge under the “Tobar Phadraig” plaque, one can see coins deposited long enough ago that they have had time to rust, bleeding a deep, burnt orange color into the stone beneath them.

This article is the first of a triptych, each matched with one of the panels of this central triptych in the Numinous Beauty exhibition. For now, let us meditate on the bodily, bleeding reality of Christ. He chooses to hang on the cross, and to keep hanging there. He knows how we struggle, so He loves us to the end of creation. He loved us to His death. And as we know, this is not the end of the road. The pilgrimage continues, and so does the mystery: God’s radical presence.

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