On September 24, we will celebrate the 195th anniversary of the day Catherine McAuley opened the doors of the House of Mercy on Baggot Street. This began her ministry of serving the poor, the sick, and those in need of education. Beginning on September 17, we will “Celebrate Mercy” in history, poetry, education, art, justice, music, ministry, and prayer through reflections written by sisters.
By Sister Celeste Marie Nuttman
It was a joy and challenge when a Mercy sister asked me to make a cross for Taizé prayer. When many more such requests came from Mercy and from others, each was a call to prayer, conversation with those commissioning it, research and design. I chose to use the San Damiano cross as my “jumping off point” for design and as I moved along to 10 more crosses, I had the opportunity to develop my own visual theology of the resurrection and of our vow of service.
As I prayed about this first cross, the idea came to show the sisters and our colleagues doing the Works of Mercy. I included folks I knew (three of the novices I was accompanying at that time) doing works they participated in. I also wanted to show where our sisters ministered worldwide, so I painted portraits of sisters from many areas of the globe. I designed these crosses with Mary, John and Catherine McAuley by the Crucified since, as Catherine said, we are ”founded on Calvary, there to serve a crucified Redeemer.”
When I first begin to sketch the design, I use photos of the people the commissioning community and I discern need to be on the cross and do drawings of others and of the historic scenes that will be depicted or evoked (these become most of the saints in the painting). I work out the design in sketch books, then actual size on tracing paper. Next, I saw, reinforce, sand and gesso the cross form and transfer the design.
Then the actual painting with acrylic begins. I first paint the face of the Crucified, praying that the emerging image will be who this particular community needs to see. Each Christ has been different. Often as I paint, I am arrested and must stop and just pray with Who is revealed. The last piece is putting on the gold trim (I have already worked out the edge pattern, sometimes from ornamentation gleaned from the area the cross is for).
All of this is a celebration of our ministries of Mercy.
What might Catherine say? Humm. I’d hope she would like to pray with the images and not think the time of expression was wasted: she valued contemplative action and the process is a celebration of that! It is a prayer of gratitude and of hope.