Tuesday, March 5, 2013

“I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord”

Last Blessing of Benedict XVI as Pope
Castel Gandolfo, February 28, 2013
These are among the last words from Pope Benedict XVI, as Pope, spoken during his last General Audience on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. He was trying to convey to the Church and to the world that his renunciation of the Petrine Office does not mean that he will return to his ordinary, pre-papal life. Rather, he is withdrawing to a life of intense prayer and reflection for the good of the Church and the world, realizing that prayer is often as (or even more) important than action, that Mary has "chosen the better part" than Martha (Luke 10:42).

His words bring to mind such a flood of images that I must comment on some of them.

Jean Bourdichon, St. Anthony Abbot
Grands Heures of Anne de Bretagne
French, Tours, 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, Vol. 193v.
First of all, it appears to me that his intent is to withdraw into a form of desert experience. Like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, such as St. Anthony Abbot, or like St. Benedict himself, he withdraws to a quiet place to pray, free from the distractions and cares of the world, even if that world is the governance of the Church.

Il Sodoma, Scene from Life of St. Benedict
Italian, 1505-1508
Monteoliveto Maggiore, Abbey

Skellig Michael
County Kerry, Ireland

There is also, in his choice of wording, a hint of the concept of “white” or “blue” martyrdom. These designations signify alternative forms of martyrdom to the shedding of blood, the “red” martyrdom. Historically speaking, once the period of intense persecution had ended ardent souls, no longer candidates for “red” martyrdom, sought other ways to assure salvation for themselves and others. In North Africa they did this through withdrawal to the desert, in Mediterranean Europe they withdrew to caves in the countryside, in Ireland they withdrew to wild places like Glendalough or to remote islands offshore like Skellig Michael. They also undertook intense ascetic practices of prayer and fasting. This surely lies in the background of Pope Benedict’s withdrawal.

Fra Angelico, St. Dominic Before the Crucifix
Italian, 1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco
Further, the statement that he will “remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord” calls to mind Fra Angelico’s image of St. Dominic at the foot of the Cross from the walls of the Convent of San Marco in Florence. This (and similar) images are not to be read as “reports of reality”. We are meant to see them as visions of visions. For the Dominicans of San Marco, sons of St. Dominic, it was a reminder of the powerful prayer of their Founder in his adoring contemplation of the Crucified Lord.

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome
Italian, ca, 1460
London, National Gallery

And finally, we know that the Pope will spend his remaining years, not just in prayer, but also in study. This brings to mind images of scholar saints, such as St. Jerome. The image of St. Jerome (often anachronistically shown wearing the robes of a Cardinal) in his study was a favorite image of the Renaissance, appearing in the work of numerous artists, both north and south.
Albrecht Durer, St. Jerome In His Study
German, 1514

El Greco, St. Jerome
Spanish, 1600-1614
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

But we also need to remember that another image of Jerome, equally popular, was that of the “white” martyr. In many of these images he is shown in the desert, often before or even embracing the Cross.
Filippino Lippi, St. Jerome in the Desert
Italian, 1490s
Florence, Ufizzi Gallery

Cima da Conegliano, St. Jerome in the Desert
Italian, 1495
Budapest, National Museum

Georges de la Tour, St. Jerome
French, 1620-1635
Genoble, Musee de Grenoble
Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome
Italian, 1661-1663
Sienna, Cathedral, Chigi Chapel

All of these images remind us that withdrawal into a “desert”, be it an actual desert or an interior one, is not uncommon in the history of Christianity. It would seem that the Pope Emeritus has chosen to join the ranks of these heroes of the faith.

His very last words, spoken from the balcony at Castel Gandolfo, were “Grazie. Buona notte. Grazie per tutti”. I would like to echo them, with a slight change. “Thank you, Holy Father. May your remaining years be fruitful. Thank you for everything.”
Among the very last photos taken of Pope Benedict
following his farewell blessing
Castel Gandolfo, February 28, 2013
P.S. There is a really nice 62-page tribute booklet to Pope Benedict XVI, produced by L’Osservatore Romano online at http://www.vatican.va/bxvi/omaggio/index_en.html It includes wonderful pictures (many of which I have never seen before) and quotations from his writings. Plus, you can link from a quotation to the full text from which it is drawn.

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