By Elizabeth Morris
In my life, I have taken only a single art class, and it was the best class I’ve ever taken. When I was a sophomore in college, I had the great privilege to study in Rome. There, we learned about ancient Roman history, philosophy and visual art, among other things.
Rome may seem like an incredibly tourist-filled city, and in a certain respect it is. However, there is a spiritual air about the city that you can feel and embrace, and it was in that atmosphere of holiness, history and beauty that the Lord planted a seed that would blossom and bear fruit in my life many years later.
In our art class, our professor taught us about many artists, one being a man named Georges de La Tour, a French painter in the 17th century. His most famous technique was to have a single source of light in an otherwise completely dark scene. Although we saw only one painting by La Tour in our class, I remember coming across more of his works some time after and was struck by the drama and beauty of them.
One La Tour painting in particular stuck in the back of my mind and has stayed there ever since. That painting is “Magdalene with the Smoking Flame.”
Eventually, as I began my life after college, I sat down with this painting and studied it, and I began asking the Lord to show me why he kept drawing me to this image. In this painting, we see Mary Magdalene sitting in a dark scene, late into the night, staring at a solitary candle on a small table next to her. On the table, we see with the candle a stack of books and then a couple of the instruments of Christ’s passion and death. She sits barefoot, with one hand on her face, eyes wide, looking into the light of the candle.
La Tour decided to show Mary Magdalene in an unstaged and somewhat lonely moment. Truly, though, this painting shows more than just Mary Magdalene praying alone. What we see instead with this painting is a moment of humility and poverty of spirit. We see Mary Magdalene in deep contemplation, in the darkness, and we are maybe questioning what she is doing alone so late in the day.
I think many of us have found ourselves awake and by ourselves at a dark time of the night and maybe felt a sense of sorrow, poverty of spirit or even fear. Mary Magdalene, while she is alone in the darkness, is choosing at this moment to remember Christ’s death by looking at the cross on her table. Because of this, she is actually anything but alone. She is turning her thoughts into a prayer and this moment into a contemplation of Christ’s great love, and the Lord is near to her.
I realized while studying this painting that after graduating from college, I had felt that sense of loneliness and confusion, and the darkness in my heart was heavy, but Mary Magdalene in this painting showed me what hope really looks like.
In a moment where our circumstances may feel grim and dark, Christ shines like the candle in this painting. We may feel the deep darkness around us, whether physically, mentally, or spiritually, but when we fix our eyes on Christ as the source of our hope, we have no need to fear the darkness of the world. He has won us back from sin and darkness by the illumination of his love.
The darkness we feel is an invitation to ask the Lord to enter into our life in a new and life-giving way. With that, we can begin to understand the immeasurable love Christ has for us, and the hope we place in goodness and light becomes based in that great love Jesus has for us and not in the passing things of this world.
May we, like Mary Magdalene, not be afraid of darkness, sorrow, grief, pain or loneliness, but take the heaviness we feel to Jesus in prayer, and may we always remember that Christ has suffered all before us and that he has triumphed over death and darkness with the light of his love.
Though we may feel alone sometimes, we are never truly alone with the love of Christ.