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home : features : people of faith

8/25/2016 9:00:00 AM
Religious art and living faith
DETAIL FROM Hieronymus Bosch's
DETAIL FROM Hieronymus Bosch's "Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony"

(Editor's note: With this column, Daniel McHale joins the writers of the "Seminarian's Diary" column. Mr. McHale, a native of Holy Trinity parish in Hudson, is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was thumbing through an old book on one of my favorite painters, Hieronymus Bosch of the Netherlands. His Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony (1505-06, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) caught my attention that day -- especially a detail in the central panel.

There, St. Anthony, the third-century Desert Father, is depicted kneeling in prayer. Surrounding him are a horde of phantasmagorical creatures, a Bosch trademark. Amid throngs of minions vying for his attention, St. Anthony looks not at them, but at us, the viewers.

His right hand points to a hidden altar. There stands Jesus Himself, who is in turn pointing us toward the crucifix behind the altar.

Though this painting, as with most Bosch works, looks like a late-medieval version of "Where's Waldo?" the moral message is crystal clear: Amid the chaos of life, we must keep our eyes on Christ crucified, though whom we are redeemed.

What does all this have to do with this soon-to-be seminarian's first-ever summer parish assignment? Coming into the summer, I had little experience in day-to-day church operations, other than attending and serving at Sunday Mass. I was assigned to two different parishes in the Catskills: Sacred Heart/Immaculate Conception in Palenville/Haines Falls and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Windham.

These parishes, nearly 20 miles apart using mountain roads, are managed by Rev. Jay Atherton, who is pastor at both locations. Admittedly, I neither appreciated nor understood until now all the different responsibilities that make demands on a priest's time: parish meetings, budget reports, the Bishop's Appeal, non-profit events, random phone calls and, for priests with multiple parishes, the travel.

This is all, of course, in addition to the priest's main responsibility: being the local conduit of the Church's sacramental life.

What, then, is the pastor's secret to staying focused on Christ with all the demands -- predictable and unpredictable -- of shepherding God's people? Like St. Anthony in Bosch's masterpiece, who remains in supplicated in prayer before the altar despite being tempted to look away, Father Atherton offered me sage advice about prayer on my first day on the job.

He said, "Above all, you need to make 'Dan and Jesus time.'" For me, that was saying the Rosary on my drive home to Hudson using my iPod - effectively turning my "car into a monastery," as Bishop Robert Barron puts it. But, most of all, it was the time spent praying with the people in the three churches that comprise these two parishes, which helped nourish my faith.

Whether it was reciting morning prayer on Thursdays with the folks at St. Theresa's, praying the Angelus in community on Mondays at Immaculate Conception or singing "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" with the congregation at Sacred Heart on Fridays, I can honestly say that this was the part of my assignment I will treasure most. It also helped validate my decision to pursue this vocation!

Throughout Christian history, religious art has had a way of touching our souls. It assists in conveying spiritual truths and helps us understand the mysteries of the faith in ways words fail to do so.

While the distractions to prayer faced by faithful Catholics -- clergy and laity alike -- do not look like the nightmarish creatures that harangued Bosch's St. Anthony, we must nevertheless be conscious to keep our eyes, mind and heart focused on Jesus, in the most holy sacrament of the altar.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by chaos of our busy, modern lives. But if there is one lesson I learned in my summer assignment that I will take with me to seminary, it is that frequent prayer is not only brings stability to our lives, it is most essential.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, August 26, 2016
Article comment by: Ursula Sturms Papp

Thank you for this explanation of Bosch's painting and bringing it together with prayer. I will pray for your success in Seminary and beyond,
Ursula Sturms Papp

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