Saint Francis in Meditation,
Painted by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664),
Painted between 1635-39,
Oil on canvas
© The National Gallery, London

 

Saint Francis in Meditation,
Painted by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664),
Painted between 1635-39,
Oil on canvas
© The National Gallery, London

 

Gospel of 12 January 2022

He went off to a lonely place and prayed there.

Mark 1:29-39

On leaving the synagogue, Jesus went with James and John straight to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now Simon’s mother-in-law had gone to bed with fever, and they told him about her straightaway. He went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. And the fever left her and she began to wait on them.

That evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils. The whole town came crowding round the door, and he cured many who were suffering from diseases of one kind or another; he also cast out many devils, but he would not allow them to speak, because they knew who he was.

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ And he went all through Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out devils.

Reflection on the Painting

Today’s Gospel reading has one of my favourite lines of all the Gospel readings: ‘In the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there’. These few words reveal how important prayer was for Jesus. Everything He did flowed from spending time on His own with His Father. Just before the quoted sentence, Our Gospel reading shows how busy a man Jesus was: healing, spending time with the sick, casting out devils, crowds gathering around Him, etc… Then Mark brings it all back to its essence: prayer. The secret of Jesus’ ministry is His withdrawing to a lonely place to meditate. In the midst of all the action, solitude fuels it all. 

A striking painting, reflecting prayer and solitude, is this canvas by Francisco de Zurbarán. It depicts Saint Francis kneeling in meditation, clasping his hands, whilst holding a skull. We can barely see his face. He wears the brown habit of the Franciscan Order which he founded in the 13th century; its patched and worn appearance convey the vow of poverty taken by all the order’s friars. 

This is an intensely spiritual painting. There is nothing in the painting that distracts the viewer. Simple colours, a restrictive palette and plain background all help us to participate in St Francis’ meditation. His hands bearing the stigmata (which Francis is believed to have received in 1224 during a retreat on Mount Alverna in the Apennines) feature the most light in the whole painting. Both Jesus in our reading today and St Francis in our painting withdrew to lonely places to pray. Solitude in the Lord fed their souls. 

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