St Peter Canisius : Doctor of the Church 1521-1597
My friend Fr Paul Begheyn, SJ commissioned this icon for the Dutch Province of the Jesuits in 1996. The first image I had for the icon was Peter wading through a thick,foggy, ominous, Grimm’s German fairy tale-dark-forest, holding a lantern, as in the painting of Christ knocking at the (your) door, (The Light of the World) by William Holman Hunt. This was my image of the dangerous journey Peter Canisius had to manage during the Reformation. God, through the Church, has always produced men and women with what the late Cardinal von Balthasar has called “church souls.” These souls have been given a gift of a profoundly inspired knowledge of what is necessary and what is superfluous. They are not tied to their own times, but seem to have an ancient love for the church, going back centuries before them. Some are very prickly and irascible, ready to fight, and quite up to the task. But I am attracted to the ones who have a supernatural gift of being compassionate in the midst of incredible tempers flying at them while they serenely preach the truth. I think of these Master Apologists as almost “inhumanly human” and yet very much human at their core. Living in this, our time, of great anger and divisions about religion and politics, it’s not hard to imagine these furious battles of opinion, but to imagine the serene preaching and converse of St Dominic, St Catherine of Siena, Blessed Cardinal Newman, or the late Daniel Berrigan, SJ, is obviously miraculous. St Peter Canisius had this gift. There are many more in our history but those saints and prophets, always come to mind first for me. Peter could stand before his enemies and bear the flying rage coming toward him, then simply speak back to them with the truth. He was well aware of the need for a Reformation but saw it coming in a less violent/schismatic way. Today, I think Fr Jim Martin, SJ also has this Apologist’s gift and I admire him so much, with the Internet age, he gets twice, ten times, a hundred times, actually, the irrational, scurrilous rage thrown at him but he manages to remain inside his Lord Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life.
A key to St Peter’s spiritual depth is his devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was a gradual transformation within him, or mystical exchange of hearts, that created the heart and soul of Peter. On the day of his final vows Our Lord allowed him to see his Sacred Heart. This of course changed the way he saw and spoke to everyone. He could say no, and create what we call boundaries, or teach someone the depths he had received with an incredible care for them, because his own heart had been transformed. Peter said, “Again, it is a mistaken policy to behave in a contentious fashion and to start disputes about matters of belief with argumentative people who are disposed by their very natures to wrangling. Indeed, the fact of their being so constituted is a reason the more why such people should be attracted and won to the simplicity of the faith as much by example as by argument.” So in this icon I finally decided to show him with Holy Wisdom gently whispering on his shoulder into his “inner ear”. She alone could teach him the countenance and the extremely practical, daily ways of Wisdom. Normally only St John the Evangelist is shown with Holy Wisdom (Sophia) but at the time I painted (wrote) this icon, I saw an icon with St Gregory the Great being similarly instructed by Sophia, so knew I had to portray St Peter with her too. He is prayerfully contemplating the book on his lap, the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, about the Light coming into the darkness and the darkness unable to receive or allow the Light in. If you’re looking for an example of getting through these times, I cannot think of anyone better than St Peter Canisius whom we celebrate, not accidentally, on the Solstice...Light returning.
“Let my eyes take their sleep, but may my heart always keep watch for you. May your right hand bless your servants who love you. May I be united with the praise that flies from you, Lord Jesus, to all your saints; united with gratitude drawn from your heart good Jesus, that causes your saints to thank you; united with your passion, good Jesus, by which you took away our guilt; united with divine longing that you had on earth for our salvation; united with every prayer that welled up from your divine heart, good Jesus, and flowed into the hearts of your saints. Amen”
St Peter Canisius
Fr Bill McNichols
21 December 2017