Photo of Madonna of the Holocaust icon provided by Fr. Chris Kanowitz
This painting is shocking. As soon as we recognize precisely what the artist, Franciscan Brother Mickey McGrath has painted, we feel disquieted- even to the point of turning away, closing our eyes. Upon reading what Brother Mickey writes about his painting, our sense of disesteem increases.
God of Our Fathers, let the ashes of the children incinerated in Auschwitz, the rivers of blood spilled at Babbi Yar or Majdanek, be a warning to mankind that hatred is destructive, violence is contagious, while man has an unlimited capacity to cruelty.
Almighty God, fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares . . . nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Until I listened to Fr. Chris Kanowitz’s homily for March 15, 2019, I had heard neither of the painting nor the artist who painted “Madonna of the Holocaust.” But the title of that painting reaches out and tears your heart out. It cannot be ignored.
The Gospel for that Friday was that most difficult of Christ’s teachings, loving our enemies. He does not couch his command; there is no equivocation in the words Jesus speaks:
“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Father Chris declared that he had not prepared a homily as he had not expected to perform that mass. Speaking extemporaneously, he looked at the fifty or so of us there are that daily Mass and said, “I keep a painting called “Madonna of the Holocaust” in my prayer room at the Rectory.”
After describing the painting, he explained that initially, he kept it there to remind him of the depth of evil that man could perpetrate upon others. "Now," he said, “I keep it for a different reason.”
I thought I understood.
Once back home and able to see the painting, I was disappointed. It was nothing like what I had imagined while listening to the priest explain its appearance. Too garish. For some reason, I had visualized it done as a starkly black and white etching or charcoal. Certainly not these obscenely vivid colors representing the flames of the gas chambers and the array of symbols of the SS labels for Jews marching across the chest of the Virgin Mary.
But after the fourth or fifth time that I found myself returning to the image of Mary, cloaked in the accouterments of a Nazi death camp, serenely holding her God-Child, Jesus, I became aware of the ineffable providence of God and saw clearly why this painting refused to leave my psyche.
Over the last several months, intentionally I have upped the ante in my prayer life. Deciding finally, to speak those words, “I want to be perfect as my Father in Heaven is perfect...I want to be a saint.”
And have been astonished at the insights: First and foremost that being perfect and achieving holiness has nothing to do with me. Instead, it is the will to unite with Him, be his hands and mouth. It is pure Grace.
For the third time in the years since my conversion to Christian Catholicism, I have read Brother Lawrence’s “The Practice of the Presence of God.” But for the very first time, am close to understanding...and practicing the presence of God. In all circumstances...even doing the dishes or agreeing to do something I do not want to do.
The Madonna of the Holocaust takes me back to revelations about the Book of Job. I wrote recently that “...Job’s unwarranted sufferings pierce the hearts of contemporary Christians. He feels like a mirror to me.
Whether our pain is caused by the crumbling of beloved ideologies, morals, and institutions or watching loved ones waste away breath by breath as cancer eats her away, we Christian Catholics are called to see the hand of God amidst the darkness.”
Just so this haunting portrait of the Madonna in the Nazi concentration camps compels an understanding that is beyond reason. There is no evil or depravity which can drive out this God of ours. No suffering from which He will walk away. It is we who walk away.
Brother Lawrence’s simple prose can direct us...if we get out of the way.
When we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy presence, and set Him always before us, this hinders our offending Him, and doing anything that may displease Him. It also begets in us a holy freedom, and, if I may so speak, a familiarity with God, where, when we ask, He supplies the graces we need. Over time, by often repeating these acts, they become habitual, and the presence of God becomes quite natural to us.