Obama to Little Sisters: It’s just a piece of paper

Administration 'blind to religious exercise issue,' say lawyers

Karna Swanson

When the Obama administration refuted on Friday the temporary injunction granted to the Little Sisters of the Poor protecting them from the controversial Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, the sisters couldn’t be reached for comment. They were at Mass, praying with the elderly residents of their home in Denver.

Within hours, dozens of news stories appeared online that put the sisters at the center of a contentious national debate on what constitutes strong-arming a religious congregation to provide contraceptives and other abortion-inducing drugs to its employees.

The sticking point for both sides is a waiver/authorization form that the Little Sisters must fill out to take advantage of a so-called accommodation for non-profit ministries. The form, however, has a dual purpose—it signals opposition to the mandate, but also authorizes a third-party to provide the services it finds morally objectionable.

“The Little Sisters and other applicants cannot execute the form because they cannot deputize a third party to sin on their behalf,” stated the Becket Fund, which represents the Little Sisters, in a brief responding to the Obama administration. The group added that the administration is “simply blind to the religious exercise at issue.”

The Obama administration minimalized the importance of the form, enticing the Little Sisters to “secure for themselves the relief they seek” …“with the stroke of their own pen.”

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the nuns, said in a statement Friday that the administration was “trying to bully nuns into violating their religious beliefs.”

If the sisters don’t sign the waiver/authorization form, or if the courts don’t uphold the injunction, they could be subject to devastating IRS penalties that could add up to millions of dollars a year.

After checking back later with the sisters, who run Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver, Mother Patricia Mary stated, “At this point we are not saying anything. We are just kind of waiting … and continuing to work with the elderly.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have served the elderly poor in Colorado since 1917, and the congregation has been in the United States since 1868. They currently run 30 homes for the elderly across the country, and one in Canada, which are characterized by hospitality and a dependence on Divine Providence.

The mission of the Little Sisters began in 1839 when their foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, invited a blind, paralyzed old woman into her home, and cared for her. From that day onward, the Little Sisters have offered “the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family, and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”

Following in the footsteps of Jugan, two Little Sisters go begging daily for basic necessities on behalf of the elderly. This was a practice that Jugan began in the early years of the congregation, thus saving the residents the indignity of having to beg for themselves.

In an interview last fall with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, stated quite clearly that the sisters simply want “to take care of the elderly poor without being forced to violate the faith that animates our work.”

For more than 100 years, the Little Sisters have been able to do just that here in the United States. The contraceptive mandate, however, puts the ability of the Little Sisters to continue their mission and work in jeopardy.

“All of this is sad and unnecessary,” said Rienzi. “Our federal government is massive and powerful. It can obviously find ways to distribute contraceptives and abortion pills without forcing nuns to be involved.”

Preliminary injunctions had been awarded in 18 of the 20 similar cases in which relief had been requested.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is the justice assigned for emergency applications from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, gave the Little Sisters a temporary injunction Dec. 31, and gave the federal government until Jan. 3 to respond.

After the Obama administration’s request that the injunction be lifted, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty urged Sotomayor to keep the injunction in place as it protects “religious exercise.”

Currently, there are 91 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate. The Becket Fund represents: Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, Guidestone, Wheaton College, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University, Colorado Christian University, the Eternal Word Television Network, Ave Maria University, and Belmont Abbey College.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.