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What I learned from Fra Angelico

About six months ago, I started experiencing severe abdominal pain. At my wife’s urging, I reluctantly went to the doctor. The doctor sent me for an ultrasound, and referred me to a physiotherapist. The physiotherapist diagnosed it as an umbilical hernia, and sent me back to the doctor. The doctor then sent me to a sports physician, who diagnosed it as shingles or nerve inflammation, and sent me for an MRI. The doctor then sent me for another ultrasound, and referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon said that it wasn’t an umbilical hernia, and sent me for blood tests and a cholangiogram (CT scan) … ad infinitum.

Meanwhile, I was still in pain, and fearing the worst. Was it my pancreas, or my bowel, or my liver, or my kidneys? As anyone in a similar position knows, uncertainty is the biggest enemy of all. I felt very much like the woman with the issue of blood, who had suffered many things from many physicians, and had spent all her savings and was no better, but rather had grown worse (Mark 5.25-34).

And like the woman in the story, I longed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, believing that He and He alone had the power to heal me. Every Sunday, as I would go forward to take communion, I would say under my breath, “Lord, I am reaching out to touch the hem of your garment.” I don’t know if I was imagining it, but I would feel like I was receiving a transfusion of life and energy.

During the service, I would sit in my seat and gaze at the crucifix, mounted on the wall behind the altar. I would think about Jesus bearing the sins and sicknesses of the world in his body on the tree. I would imagine the blood streaming from his hands, his head, his feet, and his side. And I would consider the price that he paid for my redemption. As Paul said to the Galatians, it was as though Jesus Christ the crucified was placarded before my very eyes! (Gal 3.1 Moffatt).

In some traditions, this is known as ‘Eucharistic Adoration’ — a practice in which the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is adored by the faithful. This act and attitude of worship culminates in ecstatic union with God, a merging of the human soul with the Divine. St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the beloved Curé dʹArs (parish priest of Ars, France), declared:

Jesus, whilst He remains after Holy Communion under the Eucharistic species, unites Himself intimately to the Christian soul, by animating it with the most lively sentiments of love and fervour; this is the chief end for which He comes into our hearts. The union of the flesh of Christ with our flesh has its consummation and its perfection only in this union of spirit which it brings about and symbolises. In the Eucharist, the flesh of our Lord is in some way the instrument by which the Divinity touches us even to the most intimate depths of our being in order to give us life.”

Indeed, I would often be so overwhelmed by the presence of God in the Eucharist that I would burst out speaking in tongues (behind my face mask). I didn’t know what was happening, but I was aware, at a transcendental level, that something was happening! And I knew that come what may, my life and my times were in God’s hands.

There is transformative power in the contemplation of the Divine

The convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, is without a doubt, one of my favourite places in one of my favourite cities in the whole world! Reconstructed in the 15th century under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, the convent was home to a community of observant Dominican friars including the prophetic firebrand, Girolamo Savonarola.

The second floor of the convent contains the friars’ cells, small walled enclosures overarched by a single trussed roof. The walls of the cells are decorated with devotional frescoes of the life of Christ, painted by one of the friars himself, Fra Giovanni Angelico (Angelic Brother John). “Fra Angelico” as he would become known, was one of the most outstanding painters of the Early Renaissance, renowned for both his artistic talent and humble piety. He would pray earnestly before he painted, being convinced that in order to paint Christ perfectly, one must be Christlike. His paintings thus became tools for contemplating the theological mysteries hidden in the biblical events he depicted.

Frederick Hartt (of Monuments’ Men fame) observed in The History of Italian Renaissance Art: “The meditational frescoes in the cells of the convent have a quieting quality about them. They are humble works in simple colours … There is nothing lavish, nothing to distract from the spiritual experiences of the humble people who are depicted within the frescoes. Each one has the effect of bringing an incident of the life of Christ into the presence of the viewer. They are like windows into a parallel world.”

I can vouch for the magical and mystical power of Fran Angelico’s frescoes. They are indeed, like windows into a heavenly world. In An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence, Judith Testa points out that “Angelico’s frescoes — beautiful as they may be — were not intended as decoration but more as aids to meditation and prayer.” Testa also notes that the monks’ cells were more than a place to sleep — they were also used for prayer, meditation, study, and preparations for preaching.

Imagine a monk, cloistered in his cell, gazing at a fresco of the sermon on the mount, the transfiguration, or the crucifixion. How could he not be imbued with the power and love of Christ? How could he not be inspired to preach the gospel, care for the sick, and relieve the oppressed? For a 15th century monk or friar, Fran Angelico’s frescoes were simply transformational.

In medieval Christianity, contemplation of the Divine represented the highest union with God, far transcending ordinary prayer and culminating in the direct, mystical knowledge of God. For example, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) described four stages of mental prayer through which she passed, culminating in ecstatic union with God. This state of spiritual rapture is depicted by Bernini’s magnificent sculpture, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

The apostle Paul alluded to the transforming power of spiritual contemplation in 2 Cor 3.18, declaring that “in beholding Him, we become like Him.” Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to fix their gaze on Jesus so that they would be empowered to emulate His example (Heb 12.1-2).

To be healed, one must contemplate healing

The English author and mental science pioneer, Thomas Troward, declared, “The law of flotation was not discovered by contemplating the sinking of things, but by contemplating the floating of things which floated naturally, and then intelligently asking why they did so.”

Indeed, the Wright brothers didn’t contemplate the ‘staying on the ground of things’, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t contemplate the ‘noncommunication of things’, Thomas Edison didn’t contemplate the ‘darkness of things’, and Alexander Fleming didn’t contemplate the ‘incurability of things.’

When Jesus encountered a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5.1-9). In effect, He was asking, “What are you focused on? Your disability which you are well aware of and have learned to live with, or a new life of wholeness and responsibility?” To be healed, one must contemplate healing and the life that one will be called to lead as a result.

My personal journey to wholeness began by contemplating Christ the Healer, my Healer, in the Eucharist. And each time I would eat the bread and drink the cup, I would do it, as Jesus directed, “in remembrance of Him” — in the consciousness that He bore my sicknesses and carried my pains, and that because of His wounds, I am healed.

With a grateful heart, I can attest to the veracity of His words: “Whoever continues to eat my flesh and drink my blood continues to live in union with me and I in union with him. Just as the living Father has sent me and I live because of the Father, so whoever keeps on eating me will live because of me” (John 6.56-57 Williams trans.).

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