St. Anne and the forgotten grandmothers we need

Saint Anne ca.750 Faras Cathedral (Nubia) in present-day Sudan

The wall painting of St. Anne, above, from the now-submerged Faras Cathedral, was saved from the waters of Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia in Sundan) in the early 1960’s as Aswan Dam came into service. Polish archaeologists discovered her under the plaster of more recent redecorators. Now Anne is secured in Warsaw in the Polish National Museum. She looks like she might still be pondering what happened to her.

No one knows why she is holding a finger to her lips. She could be encouraging silence for prayer. Or she could be modeling a common pose for praying, guarding one’s lips against the entrance of evil.  I think it is fine if you invent whatever meaning suits you, since Anne is an invention herself. The purported mother of Mary, entered history in the late 100’s or early 200’s when the author of the Gospel (or Protoevangelium) of James added her to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Legendary or not, St. Anne became a very popular saint by the late Middle Ages in Europe and is still widely venerated. Where I come from in Southern California, the friars among the Portolá Expedition were naming mountains on her feast day in 1769.  So we have the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Ana River flowing from them (or so they thought), which leads to the present day city of Santa Ana, near Disneyland. In the early 1800’s the Moraga expedition named the river that flows through the southern half of the Central Valley of California after Anne’s husband San Joaquin. Anne and Joachim are the grandparents of Jesus in popular imagination. As a grandparent myself, it is nice to vicariously feel necessary.

The Holy Kinship — Matthäus Gutrecht the Younger (c. 1500-1510). Philadelphia Museum of Art

I became interested in Anne as I read Margaret Guenther’s nice book about becoming old  called Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life. She uses Anne as a centering image for what she writes.

“Image” is an important word when it comes to Anne. She is not written about in the Bible, but she is depicted all over the Bible-for-illiterates: the medieval church building. When Guenther interpreted  the many images of Anne and the family that grew along with her legend in Medieval and Renaissance art,  she revealed scenes I wish were influencing the Jesus followers of today:

Typically, God the Father is in the sky, watching over the scene in the garden, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove directly over the Christ child. The matriarchal, earthly trinity is, of coure, comprised of Anne and Mary, with the child between them. It is an immensely satisfying picture of the union of divine and human.

At the heart of it sits the grandmother in the garden. If she is a typical grandmother, she is convinced that the child she holds is perfect, gifted, and beautiful. She has no trouble loving him unconditionally and his divinity is easily apparent to her, for grandmothers can see the divinity in every child even when the parents cannot.

Can you think of many Annes in the hagiography of popular culture today? The world did stop for Queen Elizabeth last month. Was she an outlier, or are there more? Oprah? Jill Biden?

I’m not sure our old people even want to be old people or display a lot of wisdom to call on. It seems like a lot of young people rarely even relate to their grandparents, who tend to pop in on their way to their latest destination, or who must be visted in Florida, or who just get in touch when they can’t master a new bit of virtuality.

Our own secret St. Anne

As soon as I saw St. Anne peering out of the Faras icon, I thought, “I think we have a picture of St. Anne I have been ignoring for over 40 years.” I had to ask if we still had it. It used to be over our fireplace in the old house; as it turns out, it is now in the bathroom off our guestroom. Here it is.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne — DaVinci

Whenever I looked at that painting, I thought of the dear freind who gave it to Gwen, and did not give much thought to St. Anne. Maybe I was not ready for her.

Anne is a commanding figure in DaVinci’s painting, but she is still, like many grandmothers, comfortably in the background. The action is all about what Mary is going to do about the baby Good Shepherd already going after sheep. I think Anne looks on with a serene confidence which speaks of knowing a lot about how things work, how to live, and how to die.

Anne is not only associated with the Holy Family of Jesus, which calls us to kinship and connection, people light a candle in front of her statue (or pay attention to spiritual directors like Margaret Guenther, writing in her old age) for many reasons.  Women consult her when they would like to conceive or can’t, since she, like Hannah, conceived miraculously in her old age. She’s all about healing and about the arts and crafts of homemaking. She is help for the troubles of birth and present for the blessings of a “good death.”

I have been known to light a few candles myself. I love being part of the communion of saints, historical and legendary, saints living (like you) and dead, saints closeted away in my DVD collection (where I found Francis on the 4th) or tucked away in European museums. I especially love Anne, right now, because she was, in her time, a much-needed antidote to too much patriarchy, as men made her daughter, Mary, a goddess instead of a human, like the rest of us (similar example). I also love her because Anne is a much needed encouragement in our time to pay attention to people who are wise, who can offer some direction in an overwhelming time. I wish all our ancient political leaders qualified as wise people, but they mainly serve the invisible hand. So it makes sense for us to search out the forgotten wise women in Christ hanging on the walls of our lives.

In the Catholic devotional universe, people pray for St. Anne’s favor and ask to be adopted as her grandchild. That may be effective sometimes and is undoubtedly well-intended. But diminishing Anne to an intercession tool might undermine the teaching of all those paintings. Grandmothers in the Spirit are grounded in the earth at the center of our extended birth and rebirth families. They are meaningful and they know it, and they make meaning. They are deeply rooted in the present age and the age to come. Their appreciation for eternity rubs off on us. They are finally content with the love they have and so enfold us in love. Their lively but enigmatic faces (a DaVinci speciality) lead us to look beyond what we normally see toward broader wisdom and beyond the present moment toward deeper lives and good deaths.

I hope your own grandmother was or is an Anne-like presence of faith, hope, love and communion. During the course of writing this I thought of grandmother Gwen and the dear friend in California who gave her the painting a long time ago. I hope people are seeking them out right now. Grandmother Margaret Guenther died in 2016, but she is still someone I listen to through her books. I have so much need for spiritual grandmother energy I may pull my kneeling bench into the bathroom and pray with St. Anne for a while!  She may not be a fact, but she embodies what we really need, and what people needed when they invented her. Who is waiting comfortably for you in the background of your life?

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