A memory from my school days has been coming back to me a lot recently. It's a memory of a painting that hung in my secondary school. My schooling was all in Irish language schools, and the room where this painting was hanging was called the áiléar. That translates as "attic, loft, or gallery". It was more like a hall than a room. It was upstairs, as one would expect. It had a piano, and was laid out like a lecture theatre or a drama theatre, except that there were no desks-- just steps rising from the front to the back, with a small bit of flat foor at the front. There were mats to sit on, when needed. We would use it for choir practice and sometimes for watching videos.
The picture that hung above the piano (some distance above the piano) looked rather like the picture above. I don't remember exactly what it looked like. I have a very poor visual memory. All that I remember was that it was a Madonna and child image, and the two figures were surrounded by darkness as in the picture above. The áiléar was a rather dark place already, which only seemed the heighten the darkness of the painting.
I've always loved darkness. Darkness is (so far as I'm aware) never a good thing in the Bible. "Men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil". So I'm a bit wary of admitting that I like darkness so much.
It's not that I don't like light. I love everything that shines and glows. The Transfiguration is one of my favourite passages in the Gospels.
And yet, I love darkness. I find it peaceful, enveloping, comforting. I like dark winter mornings. I like cinemas because they are dark. I like the night sky.
I like Coca-Cola. It's one of my favourite things in the whole world. I like looking into its bubbles and swirls.
The darkness in the Madonna and Child picture, though, spoke to me of more than simply peace or repose or shelter. It always seemed to me to be a visual representation of love.
Catholic commentators like to make a very sharp distinction between love as a feeling and love as a virtue. To love is "to will the good of the other", as St. Thomas Aquinas put it. We often find this contrasted with the "chocolate box" notion of love in "the culture", which (we are told) is more focused on feelings and emotional rewards.
I'm not disputing this distinction, but sometimes I wonder if we are wrong to emphasise it so much. When I think of the people for whom I would sacrifice a great deal (for whom I have sacrificed a great deal, in some cases), they are the very people for whom I feel "the warm fuzzies" that are so lightly dismissed. Family and very close friends.
Much Catholic devotional art, at least in recent centuries, was very sentimental. The term "maudlin" derives from the name Mary Magdalen, and from very "maudlin" representations of her in art. Personally, I'm fine with this.
When I think about unconditional love (whether received or given), I think of the darkness in that picture of the Madonna or Child.
Boundlessness might be the most relevant term here. The dark backdrop in the picture was boundless; it might have gone on forever, like outer space. And this is how unconditional love feels. There is no end to it.
While the dark backdrop of the picture gave an impression of boundlessness, it also gave an impression of intimacy. The mother and child are surrounded by boundless darkness, but also sheltered by it. And this is also how unconditional love feels-- a feeling of unutterable closeness even when the person is not there.
But there is another aspect to it. In complete darkness, there is no "up", "down", "left", or "right". This is the characteristic that spoke to me to the most, although it is the hardest to explain.
I have such a deep love for everything that is particular, for particular times and places, atmospheres and occasions. And yet...to me, profound interpersonal love seems to exist in a state which is the opposite of all that. When you love anybody, somehow they exist to you in a way that is outside time and space, beyond all contingency or circumstance.
That is what I saw in the picture of the Madonna and child; an unspeakable stillness, silence and sense of eternity.