Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Sanctuary in Devotion
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A Sanctuary in Devotion

Hail holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.
Hail our Life, our Sweetness and our Hope.
To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,
To Thee do we send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us
And after this our exile
Show unto us the bless'd fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary.

Salve Regina prayer, attr. Hermann the Lame, Monk of Reichenau, 1013-1054

When lighting a candle the mind of a Catholic often becomes a sanctuary from accepted doctrine. Symbolically the act should commemorate Christ, the Light of the World, but really it means anything from a desperate cry to a loving memory, from a plea for shelter to the profound scrutiny of a piece of wax.

This uncontrollable variety of spiritual experience gives popular life to a strict religion, and a most dramatic life to O'Casey's play. "Holy God! There is no God! Blessed Virgin, where were you?" Individual religions are founded and subverted by the cry of a moment. O'Casey shows Catholicism moving through social, political, philosophical structures where religious devotions are guarded and discarded — in one instance, by a single puff of breath.

Two significant devotions in the play are those to the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart. It is important to know that Catholic doctrine only permits the worship of God himself, while Saints may merely be venerated or prayed to for their intercession. But Johnny Boyle keeps a light lit before a picture of the Virgin both from obsessive superstition and to beg for her protection, for the ordinary religious mind does not always distinguish prayer from worship. As with St. Bernadette's visions of Mary the Immaculate Conception in 1858 and the apparitions in Fatima in 1917, generally it is the young and very poor who communicate with the Virgin, the purity of their witness generating doctrinal acceptance upward through the Catholic hierarchy. Such simple purity is emulated by the children's confraternity to which Mary Boyle, as a Child of Mary, once belonged.

The cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is voiced throughout the play in prayers and hymns. This worship originated in the visions of Jesus with his heart on fire, symbolising his love for mankind, seen by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque between 1673 and 1675. On her urging Catholics rededicated themselves to the love of Christ, steadily filling their homes with popular pictures of the Sacred Heart, shown bleeding on Jesus' breast. A similar vision is experienced in the play, and one relation between the two cults gradually becomes clear: the Virgin Mary, for all her powers of intercession, cannot prevent the sword of sorrow from piercing her heart or provide a sanctuary for her own son.


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Last modified: 2012-03-15