Month: July 2021

Historical Context of a Prayer

A Prayer “For the Protection of the United States,” by Father Abram Ryan, printed in the December 1953 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin, was a little old-fashioned in phrasing, and oddly passionate. 

                In 1953, without the easy reference capabilities of the internet, the Bulletin editor probably had no idea of the piece’s origin.

                Blessed instinct said “find out more about it before you reprint it in 2021” (though a quick google finds this odd prayer online already, in various places, unattributed)!

“O Mary Immaculate! Guard with loving care this country dedicated to thee. Let thy purity keep it pure. Watch over its institutions. As thou art the Refuge of Sinners, this country is the refuge of the exiled and the oppressed. Guide it ever in the ways of peace. Let it never forget its high vocation to teach all the nations of the world, by word and example, the principles of well regulated liberty and reverence for rights of men. Let not its prosperity be its ruin. Alas, many of its children who know not what they do, are walking in uncertain paths, whch are dark and lead them away from the truth. Mother of all, pray for us and plead for them, that we thy children may love and adore thy adorable Son with more fervent faith; that those who are wandering in error’s path may, through thy intercession, return to the one Fold of the true Shepherd — to thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Father Abram Ryan

It appears in a book entitled A Crown for Our Queen, written by Rev. Abram J. Ryan, published in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1882.

Who was Reverend Abram Ryan?

The 1912  Catholic Encyclopedia  describes him as “the poet priest of the South, born at Norfolk, Virginia 15 August, 1839; died at Louisville, Kentucky, 22 April, 1886.” (Other sources correct his birthplace as Hagerstown, MD February 5, 1838 – shortly after the family moved from Norfolk). Father Ryan was ordained just before the Civil War and entered the war as a chaplain for the Confederacy. The Catholic Encyclopedia guardedly observes that “he inherited from his parents…the strange witchery of the Irish temper...” and he used “weird and exquisite imagery” in his works. The careful wording begs for further investigation.

Modern sources clarify that Father Ryan was called the “poet laureate of the Confederacy,” writing poems during and after the Civil War which “captured the spirit of sentimentality and martyrdom then rising in the South.” He was known well-enough, that he even had a cameo in Margaret Mitchell’s famous Civil War novel Gone With the Wind: “Father Ryan, the poet-priest of the Confederacy, never failed to call [at Melanie’s home] when passing through Atlanta. He charmed gatherings there with his wit and seldom needed much urging to recite his ‘Sword of Lee’ or his deathless ‘Conquered Banner,’ which never failed to make the ladies cry.

Several sources note that Ryan was fiercely “anti-abolitionist,” which draws new attention to the emotional phrasing of his exhortation. Reaching out from history, this curious artifact offers an unsettling glimpse back in time, and a stark reminder that context is important. Though the prayer itself is ambiguous enough that it could just as easily have been prayed by a Catholic abolitionist. Sometimes God answers prayers in unexpected ways.

“In all of your affairs, rely on the Providence of God through which alone you must look for success. Strive quietly to cooperate with its designs. If you have a sure trust in God, the success that comes to you will always be that which is most useful to you, whether it appears good or bad in your private judgment.” (Saint Francis de Sales)


The Cross and the Peacock

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched when you are sitting in your pew?

The colorful “eye” patterns on peacock feathers are supposed to represent the “all-seeing eyes” of the church, and there’s a pair of these peeking out — like an ever-vigilant Santa’s “elf-on-a- shelf — from a half-hidden, half-moon stained-glass window perched above the left confessional at the back of the church.

The two peacock feathers in our window actually form part of a Resurrection tableau, on either side of a cross with five “jewels” in the middle, indicating the five wounds of Christ; diamond-shaped Byzantine lozenges symbolizing the Word of God made flesh; and a calla lily border signifying rebirth.

How do the peacock feathers fit in with the Resurrection theme? That’s a complicated question. Some claim that medieval Europeans long ago believed that peacock meat would never spoil, so peacocks came to represent the “incorruptibile” and, by extension, immortal. Others maintain the fact that peacocks shed their feathers and re-grow them in the Spring, suggested a phoenix-like cycle of rebirth and renewal. According to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols, the peacock is a symbol for “the blending together of all colours and for the idea of totality. This explains why, in Christian art, it appears as a symbol of immortality and of the incorruptible soul.

Peacocks have a long mystical history in art. Tracing their story, Jelena Andelkovic writes that in ancient India and Ceylon, the peacock was considered a symbol of the sun, because of it plumy tail. In the Greek and Roman worlds, the peacock was the emblem of Dionysus, god of wine; and Juno/Hera. queen of the gods. The eyes in the peacock’s tail represented stars and invoked eternity. This may have been the roots for their association with the all-seeing church, and their use as protective talismans.

Cirlot observes that symbolic peacocks often flanked a “Cosmic Tree” — an ancient association “which came to Islam from Persia and subsequently reached Spain and the West,” and “denotes the psychic duality of man…drawing its life force from the principle of unity.” When peacocks were adopted in Byzantine Christian art (a design inspiration for our church), especially in Ravenna, Italy, Jelkovic notes that they were often shown on sarcophagi with a “Tree of Life” from the Garden of Eden, which “symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, death and resurrection, and sometimes suggests crucifixion.” Two peacock feathers flanking the wood of a cross in our church might then be intended to signify Christ’s connection with heaven and earth — both human and divine — a theme that is already highlighted in the double-cross motifs below the long, stained glass windows on the parking lot side.

Located above the confessional, our feathers could also offer a meditation on Christ’s sacrifice and an admonition to humility for those examining their conscience before entering the box, since the peacock’s showy tail can represent vanity and pride.  The peacock’s reputation for “incorruptibility” could also be a caution to the ambitious!

In the end, whatever the peacock represents, the real “eyes of the church” are not the ones in the stained-glass feathers above the confessional: they’re ours — acknowledging each other from our pews each week; watching our parish children grow, year by year; looking out for one another; and feeling that we share a bond over time as part of a faith community!