Divine Mercy 101: Elements of the Devotion

As those who have taught religious education to very young children will testify, there are few things in the world more delightful than watching children draw pictures of God. Usually, children are asked to draw pictures of Bible stories such as Noah and the ark, or Jonah and the whale, but some of the more astute children realize that God should be in the picture somewhere too, and so He is drawn up in the clouds, with a "smiley face," or walking on earth with a long beard like Santa Claus. Our Lord must have a very fond spot in His Heart for these innocent, childlike attempts to depict His likeness.

It is a bit more worrying, however, when not-so-innocent adults try to imagine the divine likeness. The ancient pagan religions were filled with images, statues, and idols that were the fruit of these daydreams. They called God Zeus, Wotan, Moloch, Baal, and they bequeathed to us all manner of bizarre representation of the Most High God. That is one reason why the Lord God solemnly forbade His Chosen People, Israel, from trying to depict what they imagined God to be like, and trying to enshrine this into art. As the Lord said in His Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image" of the heavenly realities. Because of our sins, and our ignorance, we are just too likely to get it wrong. As limited human beings, and as sinners not yet fully healed, we are completely unqualified to paint or sculpt the Holy Mysteries of heaven.

But something new has happened in Jesus Christ. We are still not fully qualified to communicate the things of heaven in earthly artwork. But because we could not picture Him, the Lord, out of His infinite Mercy, has pictured Himself for us. God, as it were, painted His own portrait for us through Jesus Christ. He fashioned the true image of Himself through His incarnate Son: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Pope John Paul II expanded on this gospel teaching in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy):

It is precisely here that [God's] "invisible nature" becomes in a special way visible, incomparably more visible than through all the other things that have been made: [God] becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, through His actions and His words, and finally through His death on the cross and His resurrection.

In this way, in Christ and through Christ, God also becomes especially visible in His mercy.... God becomes "visible" in a particular way as the Father "who is rich in mercy."1

In short, the Pope is telling us that the very best image that we have of God, the Father of Mercy, is His only Son in human flesh, Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of Mercy.2

It is for this reason that Christians all through the ages have felt free to make images and sculptures of Jesus, the saints, and even highly symbolic images of the Trinity. For God has imaged Himself for us; it is therefore permissible for us to copy God's sacred art in our own, proclaiming the Gospel in paint and stone, and drawing our hearts ever nearer in prayer to the heavenly persons depicted.3

Moreover, it is best for us when we are not left on our own to copy the Master's sacred art, but when He Himself lends us a helping hand. That is why true Christian icons must be the fruit of prayer and fasting. It is also why the most powerful holy images we now possess, the ones most "full of grace and truth," are the ones traceable most directly to divine intervention.

One thinks, for example, of the Holy Shroud of Turin, an image not made by human hands at all. We also have the image of the Mother of God given miraculously to Bl. Juan Diego at Guadalupe. We have the image of the Sacred Heart, revealed in four apparitions of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary in the 17th century, prophetic revelations accorded the highest degree of approbation by the Church. And now, in our own time, at the dawn of the third millennium, we have what has come to be known as the Image of The Divine Mercy, given to a simple Polish sister, St. Faustina Kowalska, in 1931: an image fashioned especially for the needs of our age by the guiding hand of Jesus Himself.

The Origins of the Image

The story of the Image of The Divine Mercy begins on the evening of Feb. 22, 1931, when St. Faustina was alone in her cell in the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Plock in Poland. Suddenly, she saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment, with His right hand raised in blessing. His left hand was touching His garment in the area of the heart, from which two rays shone forth, one red, and the other pale. Sr. Faustina gazed intently at the Lord in silence, her soul filled with awe, but also with great joy. Jesus said to her:

Paint an image according to the pattern you see with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I myself will defend it as my own glory.

Over the last half-century, many different versions of this image have been painted. Saint Faustina's spiritual director, Fr. Michael Sopocko, commissioned an artist to attempt it during her lifetime, because she could not paint herself. But when St. Faustina saw the first try at a painting of the image, she wept with disappointment, and she complained to Jesus: "Oh, who will paint you as beautiful as You are?" And Jesus replied: "Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace" (Diary, 313).

1. Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), no.2.
2. St. Faustina Kowalska, Diary (Stockbridge: Marians of the Immaculate Conception, 1998), entry 1745.
3. See Catechism of The Catholic Church, entries 1159-1162.

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