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 | By Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

Creative Penance Invites Contemplation on Christ’s Sacrificial Love

Linda Bryant went to confession in January 2018, she expected to receive the grace of the sacrament. What she couldn’t have guessed is what her penance would be— or how it would inspire her to return to an old hobby with greater meaning.

“The penance was shocking,” she said.

It wasn’t a prayer or a work of mercy. It was to paint Christ.

Linda, a parishioner at St. Brigid of Kildare Parish in Midland, was attending an Encounter Ministries Conference at Christ the King Parish in Ann Arbor when she went to confession with Father Brian Gross, a visiting priest from North Dakota. During the sacrament, she and Father Brian prayerfully discussed how to move forward to avoid sin.

Naming our sins frees us from their power, explained Father Andy Booms, pastor at St. Brigid of Kildare Parish.

“When we are free, we can make better choices, and with God’s grace we will!” he said. “(Penance) is not a punishment for having sinned. Penance is medicine to help us draw closer to God.”

That truth was evident in Linda’s confession and penance four years ago.

“(Father Brian) took me through, ‘What does Jesus think about this (sin)? Let’s pray. Let’s bring Jesus into this and ask him what … you might do about that,’” she said. Maybe, Linda suggested, I could start painting again.

Linda hadn’t painted anything for nearly 40 years, so she began with research.

“I took my penance seriously,” she said.

She ordered pastels, what she used to paint with, and drew inspiration from “Cristo Crucifado,” a painting by Diego Velasquez that she saw at the Museo Nácional del Prado while attending World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid.

“I always loved that crucifixion picture,” she said. “I think people need to think more about how (Jesus) suffered for each one of us individually, and the meaning behind it:  out of total love for us. … My heart is drawn to his passion and suffering.”

Over about a month’s time, a painting of Jesus on the cross took shape.

“I feel like the Holy Spirit had a hold of my hand,” she said.

As she worked, Linda listened to praise and worship music and prayed. She was particularly inspired by the song “Arms Wide Open” by Misty Edwards. “‘What does love look like?’ is the question I've been pondering,” the lyrics begin. The song goes on to describe Jesus’ eyes looking at you as he hangs on the cross.

As if to answer the song’s opening question, Linda titled the painting “What Love Is.”

“In ‘What Love Is,’ Linda captures the crucifixion and the love that motivated Jesus to face the brutality of the cross,”Father Andy said. “Love is a complex word, and so the drawing offers one of many subtle truths behind the glory of the cross. … It is a lovely image (that) draws one into the heart of Christ and his love for us in his free gift of self.”

Father Andy said that religious art can lead the faithful closer to God, captivate our imagination and help us to pray and contemplate God who became man.

“The Holy Face of Jesus is just so precious to sit and gaze at,” she said.

In her painting, as in the Velasquez it’s based on, half of Jesus’ face is covered, hidden.

“He is hidden, and he wants us to find him! … he wants you to seek him out,” she explained.

Linda knows well what it means to seek out God.

Growing up, her family attended a Methodist church occasionally, but religion wasn’t a big part of life. In adulthood, Linda experienced a health issue and felt a strong desire to pray.

“I was just crying out to God, and I felt this overwhelming … peace, just love,” she described. “It’s overwhelming love. And nobody ever talked to me about that! … To have it flood in you, God’s presence and peace— I just felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know who to talk to.”

Linda decided to try the religious TV stations.

“I came across Mother Angelica, and she explained everything I was feeling,” Linda said. Mother Angelica was the nun who founded the Catholic network EWTN.

Linda asked the pastor at her former church about the questions she had from watching EWTN— Who was Jesus? What was the Eucharist?— but found her answers unsatisfactory.

“You know truth when you hear it,” Linda said. She began to devour Catholic books and media. “I just made up my mind:  I really wanted to become a Catholic.”

Linda, along with her children Nicole and Jordan, entered the Catholic Church in 2002.

“I feel like just even coming into the Church has just been like God revealing himself to me,” Linda said. Since entering, she has become involved in the charismatic movement, enjoys participating in charismatic worship and is a student at the Encounter School of Ministry in Brighton. “I feel like the Lord is opening myself up to the … gifts of the Holy Spirit, and it’s all for his glory.”

Linda’s involvement with the charismatic movement is what led her to the Encounter Ministries Conference confession line.

Since receiving her penance to paint Christ, Linda has continued to combine artistry with her faith. The unique penance atoned for sin, but also helped establish a prayerful new practice. Linda has created floral crosses and is painting the Sorrowful Mother.

Earlier this year, an artist friend suggested that Linda make prayer cards, which she did.  She believes the Lord led her to the phrase “loved beyond measure,”for the back of the card. It is  a summary of Ephesians 3:19. She got hundreds printed, and they have been placed in parishes around the area with pastors’ permissions.

The Scripture-based phrase matches with the meaning of the painting and her hope that it will lead others to contemplate Jesus’ great love for all.

“Every love that you have— for your kids, for your spouse— (God’s) love is even greater,” she said. “It is so beautiful.”