Our Lady of Breezy Point

Original photo: Wall Street Journal, 31 Oct 2012

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one image in particular has drawn attention: the Breezy Point Madonna. This stone lawn statue of the Virgin Mary remained standing when the house to which it belonged, as well as about 100 others in the Breezy Point neighbourhood of Queens, New York, burned down during the storm.

The Madonna has become a pilgrimage site. A recent New York Times article lists the gifts that visitors have laid at the statue’s feet: ‘a bouquet of yellow roses, four quarters, a votive candle, a memorial card for the victims of Sept. 11, a written admonition that healing begins with acceptance’.

Ellen Mathis Kail, a teacher at a Catholic school in Colorado, rescued a pot of living violets from the rubble of a neighbouring house, and brought them to the shrine. As the Times reports:

“It was so bleak, so horrific,” Ms. Kail, 44, said. “And I thought maybe if I left some color, some hope, it would brighten someone’s day, just to think someone is praying for them.”

Ms. Kail’s statement of intent is a simple one, but it reveals the relationship between beauty, hope, and love.

First of all, there is the identification between colour and hope, in contrast to the identification between bleakness and horror. If one looks at the original photo in the Wall Street Journal (above), one sees a monochrome portrait in shades of brownish-grey – smoke, concrete, charcoal. However, in the updated New York Times photo (below), the added pots of flowers (an orange bloom in addition to the violets) create a new bursting forth of life in the image, which is also made more radiant by the fresh layer of snow on the ground. The image of perseverance amidst devastation has become an image of baptism into new life.

Why does this colour speak to us of hope? I can think of three reasons. First, when we look at Nature, we see that colour is usually associated with life. A meadow of wildflowers is more colourful than a scree of shale. Second, claritas is one of St Thomas Aquinas’ ‘three conditions’ for beauty in his Summa Theologicaalong with integritas and consonantia – ‘things are called beautiful which have a bright color’ (ST I.39.viii). This beauty speaks to us of God, because the Son images forth the Father in beauty (ibid.). Third, we know why this colour was placed. When we see the pots of flowers at the feet of the Madonna, we know they were placed there intentionally by another human being, and so this colour speaks to us of love and gratitude.

And this brings us to a second aspect of Ms. Kail’s statement: the idea that this colour can ‘brighten someone’s day’ because its presence means that ‘someone is praying for them’. Certainly, the prayers of the Virgin Mary are sought by those pilgrims who leave gifts at her feet. But the gifts speak of prayers requested for the entire community, not just the giver. The pot of violets was placed with the intent of brightening someone else’s day. The Sept. 11 memorial card connects the Madonna to the Ground Zero cross and other images New Yorkers (and Americans) have claimed as symbols of God’s care for their community.

By adding colour to the blasted landscape, the pilgrims to Our Lady of Breezy Point have created an image of beauty that speaks of their love for their neighbours. Their work is a response to God’s love as expressed in the survival of the Breezy Point Madonna, and, indeed, as first expressed in the saving donation of His Son to mankind through a Virgin’s womb. The new shrine of Our Lady of Breezy Point is an example of how God’s love, when responded to with love, results in an efflorescence of beauty, which invites others to participate in His promise of rebirth as well.

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Image credit: Images are re-posted under the ‘fair use’ provision of the U.S. Copyright Act (17 USC § 107), for purposes of ‘criticism, comment,…[and] scholarship’.

The original images can be viewed here (Wall Street Journal) and here (New York Times).

6 Comments

  • Denny Kinlaw says:

    Beautiful post, Cole. Another account of “colour and hope” found amidst the wreckage–this one from VICE magazine–so the hope is working on at least two levels here…

    “I met a woman lugging an oil painting through the wreckage. She was going to hang it on the wall of her sisters’ house in Brooklyn, she told me, where she’d been staying since the storm hit two days earlier.

    “Why is that the only thing you’re taking?” I asked.

    “It’s the only thing that wasn’t ruined,” she said.

    “Who’s it by?”

    “I don’t know,” she said. “I just like it.”

  • Imogen says:

    Love this post it is great to see the two images contrasted in this way. I think a lot of the power of the second image is in the way it conveys that the people of the community have not been forgotten.

  • Craig Harris says:

    I like and understand what you are saying about beauty and color but the problem is that instead of worshiping God they are worshiping a created thing, this idol of Mary. This has Romans 1 written all over it.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Craig,

      Thanks for your comment. Without wanting to get into a lengthy debate about the place of Mary in the Church, I will point out that the Catholic Church prohibits the worship of Mary, or any created image. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (§971) states that the honour of Mary “‘differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit\'” (quoting the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, #66). In other words, Mary is never to be worshipped, because she is a creature and not the Creator. She is only honoured because of what her place in salvation history says about the love of God, namely, that His love is so great that He deigned to be born of a young girl living in poverty in an occupied territory. Those who honour Mary rejoice that God chose to exalt those of low degree, and fill the hungry with good things (cf Luke 1:52-53). As Mary herself sings in praise to God in Luke’s Gospel, “Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,” because “He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name” (Luke 1:48-49).

      Romans 1 is talking about images that are worshipped in place of God, and this worship leads to evil fruits. In contrast, a priest quoted in the NY Times article says about the statue, ‘“It will be a reminder that for all the property we lost, God never left.”’ It points to the love of God, and is leading to the good fruits of gratitude toward and praise of God.

      The statues and paintings of Mary and the other saints are more like photographs of people we remember and love than they are like pagan idols that demand allegiance. Their purpose is to point us to God, the Source of all saving love, and they are only useful insofar as they point us beyond themselves to Him.

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