Enders Island is located a few miles from Mystic Seaport. In the first week of May, I spent a rainy eight days there laboring, with some success, to produce three mural frescoes under the guiding hand of Chady Elias, a masterful religious artist who is the Vice President & Dean of Administration at Sacred Art Institute Enders Island and the Adjunct Professor of Sacred Art at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
About the rain: I cannot help mentioning a morning prayer delivered by Sister Eugenia, a Master Catechist, after a sumptuous breakfast before we set out for the studio. It contained the usual appreciation and gratitude for all things large and small, with a slight knock “even though the weather has been not to our liking.”
When someone – was it me? – pointed out that this was a proper Biblical way of addressing the God of mercy and justice (See Job, 7:11), the sister pointed out with a slight Irish lilt in her voice, “Well, I’m Irish.” Such mild reproofs are to be expected of Irish lasses: Roses mingle with thorns.
And she was Irish, full of green thoughts, prone to laughter and seated comfortably on years of study and learning. A certified Spiritual Director and a member of Spiritual Directors International, Sister Eugenia has degrees in Education, Music, Religious Studies, Spirituality Theology and Scripture. She left Ireland when she was eighteen, but Ireland, as we know, never leaves the Irish. She has taken Ireland with her to several states – agnostic California among them -- loves children, has dedicated her life to the service of God and man, quotes Wordsworth at length from memory, and composes, on the spot and with flawless fervor, prayers that tickle the ears of angels.
Frescoes can be intimidating. Through our eight days, Chady leads us by baby steps – first a watercolor of the subject, then a painting on dry plaster, and finally a portable fresco mural on a wet surface. How, one may ask, is it possible to paint on a wet surface? Ah, but with God, who leads the senses to beauty and form, all things are possible. Every bit of Michelangelo’s art in the Sistine Chapel is fresco, a process that involves simultaneous multiple steps: plotting the image, preparing the surface with a combination of lime, sand and plaster, waiting patiently for the moment when the surface will accept dry pigments dissolved in lime-water, kissing the surface softly with a brush plunged in color. One thinks of Michelangelo, suffering under the mild lash of a pope, carving forms on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with brushes the size of brooms, wondering, like Job, when the horror will end so that he might return to his first love -- sculpture.
As they say in the fairy tales: There are things twain; one you must do, the other you must not do. A fresco is a form to be seen from afar. And so, on the final stretch, you must see the projected painting from a distance, plastering in large blocks of color that change hue as the fresco dries. Chady puts it this way: NO DETAIL! The final strokes will be lines, bordering off the colors, the way stained glass is presented from a distance when a raking sun floods the forms with the light of creation.
A personal grief struck me on the third day: My aunt, Mary Mandirola – how well she was named – died in Windsor Locks in the arms of her children. A day earlier, at lunch, Sister Eugenia told us of the death of her own mother, who died in her arms. Holding her mother tight, as if to prevent her going, she slipped away. As her spirit left, Sister Eugenia felt the death of her mother inside herself. It was as if her blood poured out of her, she fainted, was hauled out into the ice and snow of a winter’s day and slowly revived. Such moments, when the veil separating us from the throne of mercy is torn and we are brought face to face with a numinous mystery, are forever impressed on the soul. In remembrance, which transcends space and time, these moments of the soul rise in splendor, a mnemonic resurrection, to console us and assuage our griefs.
Andree and I sped to Windsor Locks to be present at the wake. We found Kathy in tears. Like myself, Kathy is a twin; her sister Karen died several years ago, leaving a gaping scar in her heart. She brought to her mortally ill mother a rosary that belonged to Mary’s mother, Mrs. Meade, a lovely lady, quiet and serene.
Draping them in her hands, she asked, “See Mommy, these are Nonna’s beads. Do you understand me?”
Mary clasped the rosary, nodded, then slept with the angels.
“She died in our arms.”
I told her that I was trying to make a fresco at St Edmund’s retreat and art center. My twin sister Donna called to tell me Mary had died. My cell phone rang at precisely the moment I was trailing a brush lightly across an image of what is called a “Tenderness Icon.” Fresco painters call the image “The Honeyed Kiss.” It is an image that shows Mary pressing the cheek of her child to her own cheek. “And whenever I stroked Mary’s cheek, I thought of your mother.”
We are a family of hugs and kisses. But the hug that followed was a honeyed kiss.
To remember one who has died, is a prayer, Soren Kierkegaard says. And we all know what prayers are: arrows shot from earth to Heaven that pierce the heart of mercy and goodness. This is the saving knowledge of Job and all the saints. The life of the soul depends on two things: that neither beauty nor love should suffer lasting harm.
After eight days of spiritual comradeship and hard work, I came home with three frescoes thinking, oddly enough, of the sea wall surrounding Enders Island and of Sister Eugenia’s yet unanswered prayer. During a violent storm, part of the sea wall collapsed. She was assured by the Army Corps of Engineers they would repair the wall. In years and years following that assurance, large boulders necessary for the repair were collected on the island. She prays, she waits, full of a fugitive hope. The boulders lie untouched by the Army Corps of Engineers. There may be somewhere in Connecticut a politician attuned to God’s whisperings, so quiet they seem to be faint commands tucked in whirlwinds. Heaven needs earth to move Heaven.
Following its connection with Holy Apostles College & Seminary, St. Michael’s has become an internationally renowned religious Art Institute. It is a jewel in the heart of Connecticut that has drawn artists and aspiring artists the world over. It’s time now to shout for joy, time to ring the bells – time to fix that wall. Do it for Sister Eugenia, do it for Art, do it for God. But do it.