Last week at Mass, I mentioned a passage from the Divine Comedy describing how God’s grace perfects human love. This week, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, and the divine compassion flowing from the heart of Christ, as related by the visions of St. Faustina Kowalska. But can one give an example of divine mercy? Happy to:
In 1941, a seventy-something Parisian artist suffering from cancer advertised for a “pretty nurse” to care for him as he continued to generate a vast output of paintings and sculptures. The young woman who answered the ad, Monique Bourgeois, treated him tenderly, almost as a devoted daughter might, throughout World War II. She even served as his model for several drawings. In 1946, Monique followed another calling, entering a Dominican Convent in Vence, France. The artist, Henri Matisse, eventually moved to the town, in large part to be near her. The superiors of Sr. Jacques-Marie, as she was then known, even let her continue to care for the aging artist.
The story goes that the beloved nurse-nun confided in Matisse her hope that he might consider designing the chapel of the convent, from its interior to its exterior features: Cross, Stations, stained-glass windows, vestments, etc. The baptized, but for the most part secular artist granted her request, and set out to create what some have called his greatest masterpiece, the Chapelle du Rosaire. (Many elements of the chapel are now part of the Vatican Collection of Sacred Art.) The decision was met with resistance: some were put off by its simplicity, others by its abstract qualities, still others, by what seemed a raw, unfinished look. The most intense criticism, however, came from perhaps his closest friend, Pablo Picasso. “You’re crazy to make a chapel for those people. [Those people?] Do you believe in that stuff or not? If not, do you think you ought to do something for an idea that you don’t believe in?”
This begs the question: did Matisse believe in God at all, to say nothing of Christ? His answer was: “Yes: when I work.” There is little doubt Matisse fell away from the outward practice of religion and lived without it, practically speaking. Yet it is also true that his masterpiece was inspired by the mercy he experienced at the hands of Sr. Jacques-Marie. His reply to Picasso is fascinating: “You are like me…what we both search for in art is the climate of our first communion.” Ah, communion: perfect intimacy with God, a reality that transcends “proof” while it seizes the heart. The soul experiences the “prevenient” (unrequested) grace of God in order to respond to him. All true art, like the Chapelle du Rosaire, points the soul in the direction of eternity, but is not a substitute for it. Matisse’s response to his friend, it seems to me, is a very humble admission that while the artist creates the image (of God), the saint (Sr. Jacques-Marie?) enjoys the reality. At any rate, a funeral Mass was celebrated when Matisse died in 1954. The saintly nun was not allowed to attend.
Today’s art is the windows from the Chapelle du Rosaire, designed by the use of cut paper in vibrant colors. The “Tree of Life” is how saints have described the Cross of Christ. We remember that there are countless souls who do not express faith, or are even aware of God in any explicit way. Still, the grace of God, at work in Christian love, touches these souls as well. On Divine Mercy Sunday, let us pray for—and love—all those who search for the compassion of Our Lord Jesus.