Sanctuary II

Students at Pilgrim Theological College are from all around the world, and include those from churches--e.g. the Presbyterian Church of Brazil--that have taken away from women authority to preach. So in the college chapel here we have placed behind the holy table an astonishingly beautiful artwork by Libby Byrne, "Sanctuary II": a female figure, perhaps asleep, perhaps enwombed... Aptly, the artwork was bought collectively by women ministers of the Uniting Church in Australia to be held at the Centre for Ministry, a teaching and administrative locus of the synod's work. Now placing it behind the table speaks to me of a woman being in the right place, despite whatever some churches are doing to remove women from leadership. 

Libby Byrne first presented her painting as part of a sequence Infusing Hope, in which a sequence of images were presented alongside her poetry. Her text accompanying Sanctuary II, printed onto translucent paper so that the image is opaquely-present beneath the text in the Infusing Hope catalog, is called "Acceptance": 

So this is how it is going to be.
There is nothing to be done.
There are things that I cannot change.
So many things beyond my control.
And now this is where I find myself.
Maybe this is as good as it gets.
This is me.
This is where I am.
At least I didn't drown.
I have survived.
Within this empty vessel,
I think that I feel safe. 

Libby Byrne writes of Infusing Hope: "Images are a way to stay with problems that compel us and repel us simultaneously. When there are no logical words or reasons that lead us to hope, there are images. They are all around us, comforting us and challenging us. They are constantly available for use in the process of redesigning, regenerating and infusing hope" (artist's statement). 

Byrne's image reminds me of another poem, one by Therese of Liseaux: "To live of love..." of 1895. The eighth and ninth stanzas recall gospel images of Jesus asleep on a boat in the midst of a storm:


To live of love it is to sail afar
And bring both peace and joy where'er I be.
0 Pilot blest! love is my guiding star;
In every soul I meet, Thyself I see.
Safe sail I on, through wind or rain or ice;
Love urges me, love conquers every gale.
High on my mast behold is my device:
"By love I sail!"


To live of love, it is when Jesus sleeps
To sleep near Him, though stormy waves beat nigh.
Deem not I shall awake Him! On these deeps
Peace reigns, like that the Blessed know on high.
To Hope, the voyage seems one little day;
Faith's hand shall soon the veil between remove;
'Tis Charity that swells my sail always.
I live of love!

David Ford writes that Jesus asleep was one of Therese's favourite images, for her a vivid image of trust in God (David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed [Cambridge: CUP, 1999], p. 233).

The restful woman in Sanctuary II speaks deeply of being at peace in the right place. I trust that the placing of Sanctuary II, a trusting woman, behind the Christ's table, is just right.



(This post is written as people are gathering at Pilgrim Theological College with the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies to hear a lecture by Emerita Professor Elaine Wainwright, rsm.)

PHOTOS on this page: Catherine Schieve.