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A picture to redraw the world’s canvas


Words are wonderful things. I have always loved them. They expose the human heart to the light of day; they protect in darkness what are the secrets of the soul. But I wonder sometimes if, however powerful the words, they can possibly have as much impact as one picture.

Someday I will make a list of the photographs that have shaped my life. I know some of them without thinking: Nelson Mandela walking spry and determined out of a South African prison after 26 years in jail; Jackie Kennedy crawling over the back of a moving car in an attempt to get help for John Kennedy, her wounded husband, our bleeding president; a naked Vietnamese child aflame with American napalm on a quiet country road; the young father I never knew standing tall and gentle over my small self just before he died; an old nun on crutches baking bread in a large monastery kitchen; Pope John XXIII smiling in the midst of an institution not known for smiles; and one lone boy in a sea of faceless onlookers staring down a Chinese tank in the center of Tiananmen Square.

Those snapshots carry veins of meaning for me because they color the world differently from the way I have been taught to know it. Now I have two more pictures to add to the list. The first is Bohdan Piasecki’s “Last Supper.” The second is the image of a wee, small girl an ocean away from both Piasecki and me but very, very near to both our souls.

The little girl’s name, you will not be surprised to discover, is Bridget. She was an Irish child growing up in that place on earth where Americans love to think that the faith remains pure and undefiled, whatever the excesses and extravagancies of Vatican II. The story is a true one.

The little girl in question is no longer a little girl, of course. She has recently turned 20, in fact, but no one in the family has ever been able to forget the prescience of her insight. And neither has she.

Like so many young women her age -- in multiple places around the world -- identification with church has gotten more and more difficult for Bridget as the years have gone by. She doesn’t know how to reconcile her experience of herself with the theology of women she’s been given by the church she’s grown up in.

Like most women, she identified her problem at a very early age. Like most women, she suspected it intuitively. Shown the standard picture of the Last Supper by her godmother, she asked at the age of 4, “Where are all the mothers and the children?” Freeze frame. Good question. Anybody out there with an answer?

If we ever needed proof of the truism that pictures speak louder than words, then what we believe about the meaning of Easter, Eucharist, Jesus, church, shows clearly the effect of images on understanding. In these instances, the words say one thing clearly and the picture says decidedly another, but we believe the picture instead. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” the classic oil painting of Jesus’ last Passover meal -- 12 men and Jesus -- painted almost 1,500 years after the event, obscures the obvious family nature of any kosher Jewish Seder and, as a result, leaves us with a church of male believers and invisible female disciples.

Blinded by the implications of one visual interpretation of the event, we assume that Jesus entrusted his theology and its teaching only to men, despite the fact that he clearly said to women what he did not say to men. We believe that only the apostles were entrusted with the Eucharist despite the fact that it was a woman who first brought Christ to the tabernacle of the world.

And we never question, if indeed Da Vinci’s rendering of the Last Supper and its version of the for-males-only institution of the Eucharist is correct, why it is that women, who were not given the command to celebrate the Eucharist “in his memory,” were ever allowed to receive it. We never ask who broke that “tradition” and on what grounds and with what authority?

We believe, instead, that Jesus is the private property of half the human race and the beggared portion of the rest of it. Indeed, where are the mothers and children?

But Bridget, take hope, have heart. The Bohdan Piaseckis of the world see the words your way. They have brought their brushes and have come to prove you right. With them, never forget, is the sight of a Jesus who stops by the wayside to play with children, chooses women for intellectual companions on the Way, moves freely with married men and their mothers-in-law and sits at table with the entire human family to feed them all, to wash their feet and to give to each of them, not only to the men there, the command, “Do this ... ”

With every stroke of the brush, these picture-making prophets are redrawing the canvas of the world. But not alone. We are, each one of us, stones skipped across the waters of the universe. The ripple of our presence, whatever it is, good or bad, radiates forever. As you go, in other words, so goes the world. We must each do our part then, Bridget -- both of us -- to re-envision the remainder of the Jesus story in all its fullness, all its promise.

When that picture is created, Bridget, it will finally be Easter for mothers and children, too. Then, Bridget, it will really be Alleluia time. Until then, see behind all the pictures of the world the Jesus who calls us always beyond any confining view of God, and have hope, have hope, have hope.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999