Stained glass and seeing with the spirit’s eyes

The Mary Window, located in the Lady Chapel of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine’s Toronto convent, shows the five “joyful mysteries” of the life of Mary. In the top panel, St. John leads Mary home after the Crucifixion. Photo: Contributed
By on March 1, 2022
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Editor’s note: In our January issue, we invited readers to share photos of the stained-glass windows that were particularly meaningful to them. Along with the submissions we received was the following reflection, a version of which appeared in the December reflections email of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, an Anglican religious order based in Toronto. We reprint it here with permission.

More Capturing the Light submissions will appear in forthcoming issues of the Anglican Journal, and on anglicanjournal.com.

We have a number of pieces of stained glass at the convent; some are actual windows and are located in the main chapel and St. Margaret’s chapel, and some are free-standing or hanging panels which can be found in the Lady Chapel, the lobby, the book room corridor and St. Margaret’s Chapel.

Most of the windows tell a story. The stained glass in the Lady Chapel depicts the five scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, the lobby panels speak of the importance of music to the sisters and the panel in the book room corridor depicts St. Francis surrounded by animals. The stained-glass window in St. Margaret’s Chapel shows the risen Christ with St. John the Divine on his left and St. Margaret of Scotland on his right.

Sidebar
“What if we approached the stained-glass windows in our lives with the expectation of the Holy Spirit working within us?” Photo: Contributed

In contrast, the 12 windows in the main chapel aren’t depictions of biblical scenes or historical characters but are instead abstract designs. In the words of our chapel brochure: “Gold towards the bottom, blending into green in the middle, and blue at the top, they remind us of the golden brown earth on which we live, the green plants which sustain our life, and the blue sky which raises our eyes to heaven.”

I’ve probably spent hours gazing at these windows in our chapel and I’ve noticed that my brain is always trying to see a pattern in the geometric shapes, always trying to see the story. Just when I think I have observed a pattern, it slips away and I am once again face to face with my desire for clarity and certainty, a desire to see a coherent narrative emerge from the messiest of situations.

It’s usually not possible to see through stained glass windows but you can see through them. J. Philip Newell writes, in his Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, how “something of the eternal is glimpsed in and through the temporal.” What if we approached the stained-glass windows in our lives with an expectation of the Holy Spirit working within us? What if we could let go of our desire to be at our journey’s end with all questions answered and instead embraced where we are right here and now?

While thinking about windows and seeing I turned to John 8 for lectio divina. This chapter begins with the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery, and I found myself just wanting to move past it to something less familiar. The scribes and Pharisees who bring the woman to Jesus only see the woman in one way: she isn’t a human being to them but a weapon to use against Jesus. They make her stand “before all of them,” but she isn’t really their focus. In contrast, Jesus sees the woman as a person worthy of human dignity. He doesn’t condemn her; she may be a sinner but Jesus recognizes—as the scribes and Pharisees do not, until Jesus makes them see—that all those who condemn her are themselves sinners. The men in this story think they know all of the answers, but Jesus surprises them.

As I read on through the chapter I noticed the dichotomy between how Jesus expresses himself and how the scribes and Pharisees respond to him. Jesus’ language is poetic and imaginative and contains an invitation to see other possibilities, but the scholars keep trying to pin him down, to establish some facts. They want to know who Jesus is, where his father is and by what authority he is speaking.

I have a certain sympathy for the Pharisees. Like me, they desire clarity, certainty and coherent narratives. The Pharisees know what the rules are and like to draw definite lines between those who keep the rules and those who don’t. They want to classify Jesus and label him and put him in a box and file him away neatly. Jesus simply refuses to engage on their terms. He keeps inviting them to see the world in a completely different way. Jesus wants them to look beyond the temporal and, just maybe, glimpse the eternal.

Tucked into the front of the hymnbook which I keep at my prie-dieu is a postcard with an image of a stained-glass window from St. Agnes’ Church in the Isles of Scilly. The picture depicts two lifeboats making their way through a stormy sea to a ship which is sinking just on the horizon. Below the image is a quote from Isaiah 43: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you.” I keep the postcard in my hymnbook (which is in daily use) because I want to remember that beyond all of the questions, the uncertainty, the stormy seas and the messiness of life is the One who has promised to be with us.

Sr. Wendy Grace Greyling is a member of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine.

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