"Icon of Mmomi"- Her Story

by Joseph Dusza

The Commission

When Timothy and Mildred Duff, the founders of the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre commissioned me to paint an image of the Virgin Mary under the title of Merciful Mother of the Mentally Ill", I was delighted and honored. As a Little Brother of St. Francis, the emotionally and mentally disabled have a special place in my heart and the prayers of all of the brothers.

Through our apostolate of friendship and outreach to the poor and homeless, we have come to know many men and women who, like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, live on the streets while suffering with such oppressive and painful disability. In them we can see the hidden presence of the broken, crucified Christ in a very special way.

Along with many hours of prayer and reflection, the intercession of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, I truly believe that these beautiful souls, who bear their crown of thorns so heroically, have been an enormous source of inspiration in helping me portray Mary as "Merciful Mother of the Mentally Ill."

The image is painted or written (because it is a spiritual message written in visual and symbolic language) in icon form. It is a window into heaven through which the one who prays before it can gaze upon and drawn into Heavenly reality:

The Mercy of God, revealed in His son through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, for all of those who live with and suffer from an emotional and mental disability.

Explanation of the Symbolic Meaning

In looking at the symbolic message of the image, let us begin with the dark background.

The Dark Wall

The dark wall which rises up behind the Virgin Mary in the lower background half of the image represents the feeling of being trapped within one's own fears, which often brings about feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and despair.  This is often described by those who suffer with mental illness as a dark wall within which seems impossible to get beyond.

The Stormy Sky

Above the wall, in the upper background half of the image, is a gray stormy sky. This represents the feelings of depression, anxiety and confusion. These feelings are brought about by painful memories, negative voices within and distorted thinking and view of reality. Therefore, though it may be a bright clear day in the outer world of reality, the world within those who suffer with emotional or mental illness can be like an endless stormy day.

The Virgin Mary and Christ Child

In the midst of this stormy, overbearing darkness, Mary is present, just as she stood at the foot of the cross. She is the Theotokos: God Bearer. She holds within her arm her Divine Son and offers him as the Savior of all. She fulfills her role in bringing Him forth into our humanity and therefore our human suffering and leads us to Him.

The Christ child is clothed in a royal robe through which light emanates from His body. For He is: The light of the world which overcomes all darkness, our hope beyond hope, our peace in the midst of fear and anxiety, our compassionate friend in loneliness, Bearer of our illnesses, our Consoler and Healer.

The Virgin Mary is portrayed as Our Lady of Guadalupe. For the message of Guadalupe, given to Saint Juan Diego, is very significant and meaningful to those who suffer with an emotional or mental disability.

Her message was thus:

Hear and let it penetrate you heart, my dear.
Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you.
Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance.
Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.
Am I not hear, your Mother?
Are you not under my shadow and protection?
Am I not your fountain of life?
Are you not in the fold of my mantle?
In the crossing of my arms?

In this beautiful message, the mentally ill can find consolation and hope. They hear their Merciful Mother speak gently to their hearts.

She acknowledges and addresses their deep and interior sufferings, beckoning them not to be discouraged or depressed, not to fear anxiety or illness. Beneath Her mantle and with Her arms held close to the Christ child they are protected and loved.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

The right hand of the Virgin Mary gently rests on the shoulder of a man with a red beard and hair. He is dressed in a green overcoat and lifts a crown of thorns to the Christ Child   This image is that of St. Benedict Joseph Labre who is not only the patron saint of the Homeless but also is quickly becoming known as the patron saint of the mentally ill along with St. Dymphna.

St. Benedict Joseph had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary. He always sought her intercession and showed his filial love for her by making pilgrimages to the Holy House of Loreto and many other shrines dedicated to her honor. Thus the Virgin Mary tenderly enfolds him beneath her mantle and gently draws him closer to her Divine Son.

The Crown of Thorns

The crown of thorns held by St. Benedict Joseph and lifted up to the Christ Child with his left hand, in exchange for His crown of thorns, Jesus give our patron a crown of gold adorned with precious jewels, each one representing the suffering he patiently endured for the love of God and salvation of souls. Thus the Saint is rewarded for willingly sharing in Christ's Crown of Thorns while the dignity of all those who suffer with mental illness and their call to holiness is revealed and acknowledged.

The Different Peoples Represented

At the very bottom of the image, beneath the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and St. Benedict Joseph Labre is a gathering of people both male and female, young and old, of different ethnic groups, walks of life and vocations. Each on bears on their head the Crown of Thorns. The represent all those throughout the world who suffer with mental illness. Standing at the feet of their patron St. Benedict Joseph Labre, they implore his intercession while he lifts up their sufferings to Christ, with his own crown of thorns, and bestows upon them the blessing of Christ.

In traditional Catholic symbolism, the Virgin Mary has always been seen as an image of the Church; for just as Mary brought Christ into the world, for the salvation of all, the Church, throughout every age, brings forth Christ to all people. Therefore, those who suffer with mental illness peacefully take refuge beneath the fold of Mary's mantle; for they too are members of the Church; important and vital members of the body of Christ.