In art “sacra conversazione” (or sacred conversation) refers to depictions in paintings of the saints, Jesus and Mary, on the same picture plane as though they are in dialogue. There is something deep about this in the history of Christianity. Historians of our faith have argued that among the many factors the led to Christianity emerging as a major religion –factors like large conversion experiences in response to the apostolic proclamation of the risen Christ, the conversion of many Hellenistic Jews, the witness of voluntary martyrs, the role of women -the early church had more women than men, and more—was how Christians survived the plagues in greater numbers than non-Christians or pagans. It has been argued that the greater survival rate was due to Christians providing a caring, stable network of care. So, plagues (probably smallpox and measles) led to the loss of a fourth of the population in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. Estimates are that Christian care for each other (I’ll just use the term love) meant the loss of 10% of their numbers to plague, while pagans (who were divided deeply by class, sex roles, masters and slaves, rulers and ruled) losses were 30%. The history of love and the history of sainthood are intertwined. The first two centuries witnessed the first and greatest era of male-female friendships (think of Galatians 3:28). While, sadly, males came to wield greater authority than women in the church, there have almost always been strong female mystics and saints. Julian of Norwich wrote the earliest surviving mystical text in English in which she reflects on the awesome love of God.
“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them. It is only with the help of his grace that we are able to persevere in spiritual contemplation with endless wonder at his high, surpassing, immeasurable love which our Lord in his goodness has for us.”
Writing earlier on Christian love, St. Aelred of Riveaulx was the most well known 12th century promoter of friendship among persons, especially among Christians.
“No medicine is more valuable , none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share happiness in time of joy.”
My hope and prayer for us all in Lent is that we might find through sacred conversations with the saints and with each other, the joy of life-saving, transformative friendships. At the end of the day, this can be a powerful, profound force for healing and renewal during a time of pandemics and social injustice today.