I sew and make clothes. To do so, I need to read from a pattern – making clothes is intricate, fiddly and requires something to work to. The pattern gives an idea of what the garment ought to look like and what is required in order to achieve the proper end result – practice, persistence and skill do the rest. The final garment should at least resemble what is pictured on the pattern – and when it does so to a lesser extent, comparing it to the original pattern gives clues about what might have gone wrong.
Perhaps this can be seen as a reflection of the spiritual life.
In giving the world the Divine Mercy devotion through Saint Faustina in 1931, the Merciful Lord told the young sister to “paint an image according to the pattern you see” – and to enable her to accurately recall precisely what that pattern was, the vision was repeated to her on at least fourteen occasions.
The use of the word ‘pattern’ is interesting – this word has a very specific meaning and association in the Old Testament.
There, it is used almost exclusively in conversations between God and His chosen ones at those times when He wanted something very specific to be made – and to be made in a very exact way.
In Exodus, for example, God tells Moses to build a ‘Tent of Meeting’ – “This dwelling and all it’s furnishings you shall make according to the pattern that I will now show you”.
In fact, of all the times the word ‘pattern’ is used, there are only two occasions where a person is not being directed by the Lord to make something very specific.
Clearly, then, this particular image of the Lord as Divine Mercy was intended to be very specific in how it appeared – and this original image is filled with clear symbolism which relates very strongly to the Old Testament and to the concept of the ‘Old Covenant’ and the ‘Holy of Holies’.
In the late Seventeenth Century, the Lord had provided another of His chosen ones with an earlier ‘pattern’, of an image that would be reproduced to such an extent that it would eventually be found in almost every Catholic Church – it was the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This shows the Heart of Jesus aflame with love of humankind, crowned with thorns and bearing the wound of the lance which pierced It upon the Cross. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread like a fire across Europe and then the whole world.
Now, no Catholic is obliged to even believe in the devotions to the Sacred Heart or Divine Mercy; these fall into the class of ‘private revelation’. While the Church places them before us as “worthy of belief”, we are free to accept them or not, as we choose.
But the Lord’s use of ‘patterns’ is far older than either of these devotions – indeed, it goes back to the very Gospels themselves, which form the core of ‘public revelation’. And public revelation is quite a different thing in terms of what it demands of us.
As in the Old Testament, within the Gospels we find the Lord using ‘patterns’ over and over again – ultimately, in fact, the Gospels themselves became the pattern we are to follow.
At the most essential level, the very life Christ led on earth was a ‘pattern’. And like the two devotions mentioned above, this pattern is intended that we might copy it, much as I do when I am sewing. The life of Christ is to be the foundation of the pattern of our own lives. And like my sewing, the end result of the lives we seek to live may or may not closely resemble the pattern upon which they are based – but when the resemblance is poorer, we can look again at His own life then at ours, seek to correct our faults and try again.
A second pattern we find are the words used by the Lord in the Gospels. The Beatitudes, for example, offer a very explicit pattern for us to follow if we wish to try to be like the Master. The Lord’s Prayer is another example of a pattern of words which the Lord gives us. And the Church carefully copies such a pattern of the Lord every time she offers the Sacrifice of the Mass – she is very careful to closely follow and reproduce not only His words, but also His actions.
Third on this list are the parables employed by the Lord to illustrate what He is asking of us – in these, He paints visual images. These have the effect of ‘sticking’ in our memory in a way that words do not always do as well. To illustrate this point, think of the Sacred Heart devotion; you might not know the details of the apparitions themselves nor the life of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, but you will know perfectly well what the statue of the Sacred Heart looks like and what it is intended to represent to us.
And so patterns have a very clear purpose in the spiritual life, much as they do in sewing. They are essential in the sense that without them, we are not clear what it is we are asked to be or to do. Patterns are the spiritual blueprint which we attempt to follow as closely and as perfectly as possible. They are also, in this sense, the rule against which our efforts will be measured – and so it is important to make every effort to follow the patterns which the Lord, in His kindness, provides for us.
When Saint Faustina told her confessor about that apparition of the Lord and His words to “paint an image according to the pattern you see”, her confessor at first told her this was to be an image “painted within your soul”. Of course, we know it was much more – the Lord wanted a physical image painted with a brush, as He went on to clarify. But still, there is a truth in the words of the confessor – such a spiritual pattern, following the life, the words and the commands of the Lord, should indeed be painted within our souls.
At the close of life, the correlation between what we were asked by the Lord and what we went on to do as a result – or, put another way, how well we have followed the pattern – is what we will be judged on.