An Icon Finds a Home

I received an interesting phone call recently from a dear friend of mine, author Susan Tassone, making me an offer I couldn't possibly refuse.

Susan wanted to know if the Marian Fathers here at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, would like to have a 28-inch-by-34-inch icon that she had commissioned for the cover of her book St. Faustina Prayer Book for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (Our Sunday Visitor, 2015).

After speaking with my provincial, the answer was a resounding "Yes!" So now we Marians are the proud custodians of an extraordinary icon titled "Purgatory, The Promise of God's Mercy." We're still discussing where it will be kept, but in the meantime, on March 19, following the Eastern tradition, the Marians blessed the icon for public veneration using a special prayer adapted by Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC.

By blessing the icon, Fr. Seraphim bestowed upon it, through the Holy Spirit, an importance beyond a mere work of art or decoration. Indeed, it is now a sacred object, "an instrument of graces," said Fr. Seraphim, that, like the Divine Mercy Image, "is to remind us of our duty to be merciful to others by our merciful deeds." And of course one of the merciful deeds is to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, which brings us to this particular icon.

Written onto a birch panel in gold leaf and acrylic ("writing" is the verb used for creating an icon), it tells the story of Purgatory using figures familiar to us all and symbols that may require some explanation.

The writer of the icon, Vivian Imbruglia of California, explained to us that the board's vertical dimension is symbolic of the Tree of Life, and its horizontal dimension represents the Tree of Knowledge. "Together," she said, "they're a reminder of Paradise."

As to the scene depicted, at the cen¬ter is the image of Christ set against the clouds of Heaven. His wounds are pres¬ent as a reminder that He suffered and died so that we may be saved.

"One of Christ's hands blesses us, and the other points to His Heart," said Vivian. From His Heart emanate the rays of Divine Mercy extending to all those in Purgatory.

To the right of Jesus is an image of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, which is a reference to St. Faustina's Diary (entry 20) when she was led by her guardian angel to Purgatory where she encountered Our Lady. "The souls call her 'The Star of the Sea,'" Faustina wrote. "She brings them refreshment." And, indeed, Our Lady is shown in the icon with a seashell pouring water upon the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

"Our Lady holds a Rosary in her right hand, offering it to an angel who's lifting a soul from Purgatory," explained Vivian. "Those beads, those prayers, are a link, a ladder: soul to angel to Mary to Christ."

To Jesus' left is an image of St. Faustina. In the Diary, Jesus says to St. Faustina, "Enter into purgatory often, because [the souls] need you there" (1738). Faustina is holding a Rosary as a reminder for us to be mindful of the Holy Souls when we formulate intentions for a Rosary or a Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

Vivian said that before she began writing the icon she did a lot of research, all of which dissuaded her of some common misperceptions. Chief among them is that Purgatory is a place of physical pain.

"I always thought of Purgatory as hell, and it scared the heck out of me," she said. "But that fire we hear about is really the fire in their hearts longing for Jesus, and when I learned that, it gave me such peace."

As such, in the icon, the souls in Purgatory have hearts painted as if on fire, with the image of a cross behind them representing Christ.

Moreover, the souls are shown praying. But they are not praying for themselves; they are praying for us. Also, you'll notice that three of the souls are painted in white. That is to represent that their time of purification has been completed. They are being pulled out of Purgatory by their guardian angels who will escort them to Heaven.

If you look real close, you'll notice that one of those souls painted in white has a goatee and looks a lot like yours truly. I think my dear friend Susan Tassone had a hand in that and was having some fun.

It was fitting that Fr. Seraphim would sanctify the icon. He himself was ordained in the Eastern Rite, where icons are given prominence as instruments connecting us to the divine.

It is Fr. Seraphim, the world's leading Divine Mercy expert, who makes a fascinating connection between the mission of St. Faustina and the larger role of icons and sacred artwork. He notes that St. Faustina was given her mission to the Church and to the world on Feb. 22, 1931, when Jesus appeared before her and instructed her to have an image painted of Him according to the pattern He presented (see Diary, 47).

It just so happens that Feb. 22, 1931, was the first Sunday of Lent, the designated Feast of Orthodoxy, celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine Rite to commemorate the return of icons to the churches and an end to the heresy of iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images.

So in other words, on the feast day devoted to sacred icons, Christ came to St. Faustina instructing her to have an image of Himself painted and "venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world" to underscore the graces He makes available to us through the veneration of sacred images.

"As St. John of Damascus pointed out, if we deny that Jesus, who came to us in human flesh, can be depicted in art, we deny the very fact that He was truly a human being," said Fr. Seraphim. "Then, St. John pointed out that when we venerate sacred images, it is not the painting that we hold as divine; rather, it is the persons, the saints, Jesus, the angels, the mysteries of our redemption represented by the sacred images that are given the honor."

Father Seraphim believes the Divine Mercy Image, given to the world through St. Faustina - and now one of the most recognized and venerated religious images in the world - was, in part, Christ's effort to bring accord between East and West. "To me, it speaks that Jesus wanted to initiate something - that He wanted to touch us in our own time through St. Faustina to bring peace between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church."

Father Dan Cambra, MIC, is the spiritual director for the Marians' Holy Souls Sodality.

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