Blog: Jesus of the Potatoes – Saint Faustyna and the Divine Mercy Devotion

Having just waded through all 644 pages of the Diary of Saint Maria Faustyna Kowalska (1905-1938), Polish nun of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy and founder of the internationally popular Divine Mercy devotion, I’ve resolved to try to make sense of it in the context of the modern history of popular Catholic culture, banging my particular research-drums – the rise of popular cults, religious images and authenticity, commercial religion and female saints.

Maria Faustyna Kowalska,  1929.

Maria Faustyna Kowalska, 1929.

Faustyna and Thérèse – Sisters in Arms
While the six volume diary of Sister Faustyna provides an extended exploration of her spirituality, it is the insights it gives into the conventual life that are most immediate to a modern reader. Her recounting of in-fighting, whispering campaigns and petty irritations that become huge obstacles inside the cloister shares something with the autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the French Carmelite nun who became one of the most popular saints of the modern Catholic Church. Here Thérèse wrote vividly of her irritation with one sister who audibly ground her teeth in choir and another who splashed dirty water in her face at the laundry (Ms. C, 30rº-31rº). But just as these little trials and unfair persecutions were treated by Thérèse as ‘treasures’ and ‘pearls’ – opportunities to make chastening sacrifices and move ever closer to a saintly state – Faustyna too made the everyday struggles of convent life, where other sisters branded her a ‘queer, hysterical visionary’ (I, 60), into opportunities for sanctifying herself:

One time during the novitiate, when Mother Directress sent me to work in the wards’ kitchen, I was very upset because I could not manage the pots, which were very large. The most difficult task for me was draining the potatoes, and sometimes, I spilt half of them with the water… Then I heard the following words in my soul, ‘From today on you will do this easily; I shall strengthen you.’

That evening, when the time came to drain off the water from the potatoes, I hurried to be the first to do it, trusting in the Lord’s words. I took up the pot with ease and poured off the water perfectly. But when I took off the cover to let the potatoes steam off, I saw there in the pot, in the place of the potatoes, whole bunches of red roses, beautiful beyond description. I had never seen such roses before. Greatly astonished and unable to understand the meaning of this, I heard a voice within me saying, ‘I change such hard work of yours into bouquets of most beautiful flowers, and their perfume rises up to My throne.’ From then on I have tried to drain the potatoes myself, not only during my week when it was my turn to cook, but also in replacement of other sisters when it was their turn. And not only do I do this, but I try to be the first to help in any other burdensome task, because I have experienced how much this pleases God. (I, 26)

That Jesus should intervene for such a petty concern will strike many as amusing, but it fitted with Faustyna’s focus on small sacrifices and trust in god as the path to holiness. Faustyna’s style of sainthood diverged from  Thérèse’s in many ways, having constant visions of Jesus, the Virgin and assorted angels and devils, often experiencing the pain of the stigmata and having vivid Eucharistic visions of ‘the Child Jesus on the altar’, where ‘the priest took the beautiful Child into his hands, broke Him up and ate Him alive’ (I, 134), all in marked contrast to Thérèse’s unecstatic and comparatively sober approach. However, she had read Thérèse’s writings and absorbed her doctrine of the ‘little way of spiritual childhood’ – complete confidence in god and abandonment to his will. As Faustyna put it, ‘I now see everything from a higher point of view and accept all events and things, pleasant and unpleasant, with love, as tokens of the heavenly Father’s special affection’ (II, 300), speaking of ‘total abandonment to the will of God, which is for me, love and mercy itself’ (IV, 22). The psychological appeal of a doctrine of complete trust in the divine will is clear – it helps to make sense of the random cruelties of life (not to mention its sanctioning of complete inertia on the part of the individual). The Divine Mercy devotion had a similar function, and Jane Garnett and Alana Harris have commented that ‘Just as the cult to Thérèse of Lisieux was forged on the fields of Flanders, an initial stimulus to widespread promotion of the Divine Mercy devotion was its use by Polish soldiers in the Second World War. The soldiers experienced Faustina’s fears for Poland and found in the prayers a way of coping with the reality of evil and the constant presence of death.’¹ As frivolous as he seems then, this Jesus of the potatoes was the same Jesus through which Faustyna reiterated  Thérèse’s doctrine of trust on the eve of a war that tore Poland apart and he was also the Jesus who charged her with bringing a new devotion into being .

'The Divine Mercy' by Adolf Hyła (1943), Sanktuarium Bożego Miłosierdzia, Kraków

‘The Divine Mercy’ by Adolf Hyła (1943), Sanktuarium Bożego Miłosierdzia, Kraków.

Jezu, Ufam Tobie – The Divine Mercy Devotion
On 22nd February 1931, Sister Faustyna experienced the following vision:

I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand [was] raised in the gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was struck with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, ‘Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You [(Jezu, Ufam Tobie)]. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world.

I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I Myself will defend it as My own glory… I desire that there be a Feast of Mercy. I want this image, which you will paint with a brush, to be solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter; that Sunday is to be the Feast of Mercy.

I desire that priests proclaim this great mercy of Mine towards souls of sinners. Let the sinner not be afraid to approach Me. The flames of mercy are burning Me – clamoring to be spent; I want to pour them out upon these souls.’

Jesus complained to me in these words, ‘Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at My insides. The distrust of a chosen soul causes Me even greater pain; despite My inexhaustible love for them they do not trust Me. Even My death is not enough for them. Woe to the soul that abuses these [gifts].’ (I, 18)

Through a focus on the Passion and Jesus’ power to remit sins, the Divine Mercy devotion conjured up a wrathful god and a salvific son, Jesus stating during another vision that ‘These rays [from his heart] shield souls from the wrath of My Father’ (I, 130), and the influence of Thérèse’s ‘little way’ can clearly be seen in the references to ‘distrust’ here. Fausytna would receive many more visions of Jesus in this guise and she set about having the image Jesus had asked for painted and the feast recognised, with the aid of her spiritual director, Father Michał Sopoćko, who also established the Congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Mercy (another task Jesus charged Faustyna with) after Faustyna’s death. The history of the rise of this devotion is yet to be told in full, although its twists and turns appear to mirror those of Thérèse of Lisieux’s posthumous rise to fame. What is immediately remarkable about the rise to prominence of this devotion, however, is that it was banned by the Church for 20 years, and it was only the intervention of Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła, who promoted this local cult with vigour, that saw it saved from obscurity. Faustyna’s diary was put on the index of forbidden books in 1959, but Wojtyła pushed for the opening of her beatification process in the mid-sixties and the ban on her writings was lifted in 1979 as a direct result of his reexamination of the documents. As Pope, Wojtyła went on to institute the feast of the Divine Mercy, preside over the canonisation of Saint Faustyna in 2000, and consecrate the huge, spectacular Divine Mercy basilica in the Łagiewniki district of Kraków in 2002, entrusting the world to the Divine Mercy at the same time. He was himself beatified and canonised on Divine Mercy Sunday, a mark of his love for this devotion.

The Divine Mercy image appears on the shrine erected by 'cross controversy' protesters outside the presidential palace, Warsaw, in the wake of the 2010 Smolensk plane crash.

The Divine Mercy image appears on the shrine erected by ‘cross controversy’ protesters outside the presidential palace, Warsaw, in the wake of the 2010 Smolensk plane crash.

Rivalry and Contested Authenticity – The Divine Mercy Image
Although JPII can be seen as the driving force behind the official recognition of the Divine Mercy devotion, its popular success must surely be put down to the image of Faustyna’s Jesus (above) – it is ubiquitous in Poland and is as strong a marker of Polish Catholicism as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. This was evident in its prominent use at the shrine set up by hardline Catholics who mounted a vigil protesting against the removal of a wooden cross outside the presidential palace in Warsaw following the death of 96 Polish dignitaries, including President Lech Kaczyński,  in a plane crash near Smolensk in April 2010. David Morgan has conceptualised the ‘covenant with images’, by which they may become culturally accepted and come to ‘act’ on the viewer², and the Divine Mercy image is one with which Polish Catholics have a powerful covenant. But this image has a complex history in which issues of authenticity and the emotional pull of the devotional image are key.

Faustyna’s champion, Father Sopoćko, was responsible for arranging to have the original Divine Mercy image painted, commissioning his colleague at Vilnius’ Stefan Batory University, Polish painter Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, to work under Faustyna’s direct supervision, beginning in early 1934 (she had been transferred to her order’s convent in Vilnius in 1933). Sopoćko had this image displayed publicly for the first time, mounted on Vilnius’ Eastern Gate during the celebrations of the Jubilee Year of the Redemption of the World in 1935, he gave the first sermon on the Divine Mercy during the celebrations of the same, and then wrote the first piece of published literature on the devotion – a brochure called Miłosierdzie Boże (Studium teologiczne-praktyczne) (The Divine Mercy (A Theological – Practical study)) with the Vilnius image on the cover – in the following year. Kazimirowski’s image was placed in Saint Michael’s Church, Vilnius, from 1937, but six years later an artist called Adolf Hyła offered to paint another version of the image for Faustyna’s own Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Kraków. He took both the Kazimirowski image and Faustyna’s descriptions of her visions as models, and the finished image was placed in the Sisters’ chapel.  Despite yet more versions of the image appearing – one by Stanisław Kaczor-Batowski in 1943, also intended for the Kraków convent but ending up in the Church of the Divine Mercy on Ulica Smoleńsk in the city, another by American artist Robert Skemp in 1982, seen at the Divine Mercy Shrine outside of Manila, and another by Ludomir Śledziński, apparently produced under the direction of Sopoćko in 1954 – Hyła’s image ultimately triumphed.³

The reasons for the success of Hyła’s image seem to be manifold. It had the advantage of being placed in the Sisters’ chapel, just as Jesus had requested in Faustyna’s vision, and this was also the place where Faustyna had taken the veil and where she had died, allowing the fortunes of the future saint and this image that was representative of the devotion she founded to be tied together. When the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office banned Fausyna’s Divine Mercy devotion, the associated images were removed from many churches, but the archdiocesan authorities allowed the Hyła image, already the focus of popular enthusiasm, to remain in the Sisters’ chapel at Łagiewniki, and thus it was given a further advantage. But Hyła’s image may also have risen to supremacy because it was more effective (and affective) as a devotional tool than the Kazimirowski version. Garnett and Harris have looked at the contested authenticity of these images in the commentaries of various constituencies, showing that it is an issue of debate even today, and that the Kraków shrine authorities continue to condemn ‘incorrect’ versions of the image, not true to Faustyna’s vision. But the issue of the ‘real’ image was raised from the very first attempt to render it. Faustyna herself wrote:

Once, when I was visiting the artist [Kazimirowski] who was painting the image, and saw that it was not as beautiful as Jesus is, I felt very sad about it, but I hid this deep in my heart… I went immediately to the chapel and wept a good deal. I said to the Lord, ‘Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?’ Then I heard these words: ‘Not in the beauty of the colour, nor of the brush lies the greatness of this image, but in My grace.’ (I, 134)

The eternal problem of rendering an authentic image of the divine is raised here. Sopoćko, meanwhile, argued for the supremacy of the Kazimirowski image, condemning Hyła’s version as ‘overly feminine’⁴. But the image’s femininity may be at the root of its success. This was an image that, in its style, was strongly Saint-Sulpician – a type of religious art dominant (in France, at least) from around 1860 to 1930, featuring romantic, feminised depictions of Jesus and the saints (this style was named after the area around the church of Saint Sulpice, Paris, which had become a centre for the retailing of devotional products). Hyła’s image fitted the bill here, and the fact that Saint-Sulpician religious art was also defined by its commerciality, and that this was an eminently marketable image, also gives further clues to the reasons for the image’s success. Attempts had been made to promote Kazimirowski’s image commercially, with Faustyna writing of going ‘to see a certain gentleman where they were printing and painting small holy cards of The Divine Mercy’ (IV, 45) in late 1937 (this was Józef Cebulski publishers at 22 Ulica Szewska in central Kraków), but she later comments that some of the images ‘had not come out too well and were not selling very well’ (V, 114). Indeed, as Garnett and Harris have noted, the original image was looking downwards as it was meant to be hung high on a church wall – it was highly unsuitable for replication in print and lacked the immediacy and adaptability to a range of media of the Hyła image.⁵ Hyła’s version looked straight at the viewer and, in ever more lurid and glam reproductions, it does so with what can only be described as a coquettish gaze. Hyła’s image had a greater affective power than Kazimirowski’s version then, and despite the latter’s undoubtedly superior claims to authenticity – being completed under the supervision of the saint who had received the vision it depicted –  it failed to gain popular currency among the faithful. It may have been the original, but in terms of its affective and commercial pull, it was certainly not the best.

Transposed into an inelegant (to put it mildly) 50-foot statue in El Salvador, and reproduced on everything from car air fresheners to watches, Hyła’s image has perhaps become tainted with absurdity, but it remains the one that captures the drama and heightened emotion of Faustyna’s Diary – an emotion seen in her account of her encounter with the Jesus of the potatoes – most closely.

¹ Jane Garnett and Alana Harris, ‘Canvassing the Faithful: Image, Agency and the Lived Religiosity of Devotion to the Divine Mercy’, in Giuseppe Giordan and Linda Woodhead (eds.) Prayer in Religion and Spirituality (Leiden, 2013), p. 97. Full text access via Academia.edu.

² David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, 2005), p. 81.

³ On the history of the competing images see Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, 2013), note 1. Full text.

⁴ Garnett and Harris, ‘Canvassing the Faithful’, p. 88.

⁵ Garnett and Harris, ‘Canvassing the Faithful’, p. 94.

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