Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

La Virgen de la faja

Murillo ~ La Virgen de la faja

THE TITLE OF THIS PAINTING IS THE VIRGIN OF THE GIRDLE. That can't mean much to people today. A better translation for now would be The Virgin of the Swaddling. In Saint Luke's Gospel we read (2:7) "And as there was no place for them inside the inn, she wrapped him up and laid him in a manger." That wrapping is called swaddling.

A still better title might be, The Virgin of the Diapering. It reminds me of a medieval manuscript in which the monk had painted a little angel zooming into the manger scene of Bethlehem holding open a clean diaper for the Infant Jesus. Some people may see this as just the whimsical expression of a monk looking to break up the tedium of printing a Bible by hand. But I don't think so. Conscious or not, Murillo and the Bible-printing monk are giving expression to the deep reality of the Incarnation - that God has become one with us utterly in the birth of Jesus. This is echoed here in that Mary's dress is not buttoned up tight to the neck as she has perhaps just finished nursing her Child.

It dawned on me years ago that the Incarnation is not a mystery to be admired but which changes everything about how we live on this planet. A theology of the body, yes, but not about sexual things. In Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25, Jesus lists the Works of Mercy for the body: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned.

I wonder if Jesus were to leave us a list of MERCIES for our time he might add, "Oh, and don't forget to offer people a bathroom" given that in some  large cities, public bathrooms are not available and those that are, are often foul. It will sound silly to some people, including the clergy, but I started to observe closely.

While visiting a cathedral in Florida I needed a bathroom, which in the church vestibule was locked with a taped sign: "Only open during services."  But the gift shop on the other side of the vestibule was open and doing a brisk business. So I walked across the street to the Episcopal church where I was greeted kindly and offered the use of a large, clean and well-stocked bathroom. I've noted  signs posted in another very famous cathedral directing people to the bathrooms in the nearby department stores.

Should the Catholic Church be in the business of offering bathrooms to people? I think so, if we're going to celebrate the Incarnation with statues, paintings and manger scenes all over the place. Infant Jesus needed to have his diaper changed. Taking care of people in that most basic need is Christianity 101 for me. In some churches the proceeds from one good-sized candle rack could pay for bathroom soap, paper and the employment of one person to keep the place clean.

Religion can get terribly twisted up, even sick. Religion can become so vertical that the horizontal dimension is lost. Then religion becomes silly and irrelevant. I'd suggest that as we need to return to the most basic things; we can ask The Virgin of the Diapering to teach us and show us the way.

One New York City church with a grand porch and staircase went to the expense of blocking off the area with high black iron gates to keep homeless people from sleeping there at night. More recently the pastor acknowledged that gating off people who were hungry and tired simply wasn't the Jesus way, and so the parish set out to creatively organize and invest in feeding and sheltering people. The gates came down.

Can a parish organize itself around these works of mercy? Of course. If we can organize pray-ers around the Perpetual Adoration Monstrance, we can manage meals, toilets and cots for the night. Is that really what Christians need to be doing? Look again at the painting. If we persist in calling it The Virgin of the Girdle or even The Virgin of the Swaddling, we'll miss it. Mother of the Diapering is more to the point.

But the painting doesn't sound holy or  religious with a title like that. Maybe that's the point as well. In the Incarnation, the more ordinary something is, the more of God it is, especially when it is done generously, joyfully, willingly: preparing a  meal, setting a table, doing laundry, changing a bandage, washing up, listening to someone fatigued, offering a bathroom.


  1. These merciful kindnesses seem so obvious when you see them in black and white. How often do we overlook the basic needs of others? Even the Son of God needed a diaper change. A reminder of Jesus' humanity. Our humanity.

  2. I have been in many churches that offer the use of a bathroom, and that help the needy that adorn their steps. For all the bad, there is good. For every person that turns a blind eye, there is someone who offers encouragement and support. Ordinary people doing ordinary things that make extraordinary differences.

  3. As I said above, the Catholic Church SHOULD be in the business of offering bathrooms and night shelters. It's good to hear that there are parishes that have passed Christianity 101. What a wonderful day when this big NYC church I refer to took down the wrought iron fencing and gates and humbly and quietly opened the doors to their shelter. God is pleased!

  4. Well said Father. You put into words what many might think, but don't always hear.