Windows of light


25 Jun 2019

The beautiful stained glass windows at Cabrini Hospital, Melbourne, bring together moments of faith.

Many of us have spent time in hospital for one reason or another. They are complicated places. On the one hand, you are surrounded by the never-ending practicalities of life, from catering to car parking. On the other, hospitals embrace everything sublime and mysterious from birth to death, from pain to joy, from suffering to surrender.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that in baptism we are contaminated by the mess of humanity. For all their cleanliness, I feel the same way about hospitals. On any given day, there is a lot happening that is close to the heart of God. None of it is sterile.

Places of prayer

Most hospitals, even those not associated with any particular religion, have special places for prayer because many people now understand the healing nature of faith.

The chapel at the Catholic Cabrini Hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern does a beautiful job of reaching out to patients and visitors, whatever might be on their mind, and drawing them into the rich story of Christian hope. Near the door, there is a diary in which people are free to write their prayers for others to share. A pastoral worker is a regular contributor and often simply asks God’s blessing on the people she has visited and their families. Elsewhere, there are words of deep anguish, sometimes expressing confusion about what the Lord might be up to. A long entry asks for the grace to forgive church leaders for the abuse suffered by someone close to the writer. On the next page, another person has simply written two words: ‘thank you.’ These words can be hard to find when you are sick. The artist, Michael Leunig, describing a recent experience with melanoma says ‘suffering is holy ground, and I imagine that’s partly because it is common ground.’

A place of warmth

The chapel is full of warmth. The stations of the cross, created by the renowned Australian artist, Justin O’Brien, are gentle. Their pastel colours tell a story of pain with unusual mellowness. There are hills depicted in the background behind Jesus’ journey to Calvary that create a sense of perspective: Jesus’ story of suffering so long ago helps us to understand suffering in every time and place.

Above the stations sit a series of wonderful stained glass windows created by another Australian, David Wright, in 1994.

They fill the chapel with many hues of light, varying according to the time of day and the season. David Wright has written of them that ‘along with stumbling journey of discovery, our spirituality proves flashes of light, beacons pointing the way, the Flames of the Spirit.’

Two of the windows ask the viewer to think about birth and death. There is a similarity between these images, each suggesting that we are carried from one end of our days to the other along a river of life. That river is made of light. There are darker images beyond it. In each case, the central figure is shown in a gesture of surrender. He or she is also being supported and held, although the one dying is gently letting go of the hands of other people. As this figure leaves one life to begin another, it appears a little like a tree. So many moments of faith are brought together here: the windows quietly ask us to trust God to create more with our lives than, as St Paul puts it, we can possibly ask or imagine.

A reminder of hope

The image entitled ‘love and nurture’ shows two figures in a boat, tossed on a sea which is about to reach over the gunwales. There are stars overhead. Two fragile figures cling to each other, reminding us of the millions of refugees who leave home with nothing but hope. It also reminds us poignantly of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who has often been called ‘the star of the sea.’ It is a curious title because scripture never suggests that Mary ever left dry land. But we believe that the angel Gabriel asked Mary to embark on an extraordinary voyage into the unknown, one for which there were no maps. She simply said ‘yes.’ Her trust in God has always asked us to live the same way.

One of the windows that moves people deeply is called ‘prayer, finding a way.’ It shows a figure that could be leaving the safety of the shore or a clearing to enter the unknown space of a sea or forest. At the same time, it could be arriving to safety from either of those places.

This is exactly what prayer is like: both an arrival and a departure. When we sit down for a time of personal prayer, the Lord always makes us welcome, embraces us and is ready to listen and accept. At the same time, the Lord is very likely to ask us to hear something challenging, to send us into a fresh encounter with grace. It could be either healing or pain, peace or confusion, reassurance or suffering. But whatever it is, it will always allow God’s light to reach through to us.

The article first appeared in Madonna Winter 2019.

Image: Prayer, Finding a Way. Chapel of Cabrini Hospital, Malvern. David Wright, 1994.

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