A family at prayer
Examining the art of the German painter, Theodor Christoph Schüz
by Gina Loehr
Paris, 1867. The World’s Fair, a gathering so full of character and culture that it attracted more than 9 million visitors during the course of the nine-month exposition. Among the exhibits at the fair was the work of the German painter, Theodor Christoph Schüz (1830–1900). His Midday Prayer in the Harvest was likely chosen for this international festival because of its stunning depiction of the German country life of the era.
But there is more to meditate upon in this painting than the bright colors, naturalistic faces, and detailed landscape of the Deutschland. Schüz, the son of a Protestant pastor, has given us a remarkably beautiful depiction of the domestic Church (whether it was his intention or not).
Here, camped beneath an apple tree that bends low under the weight of its prolific fruit, a family of eight rests from the noon-day heat in the shade of the colorful boughs. Standing as an image for their own “family tree,” destined to grow and spread, the branches tower above five courteous and well-groomed children accompanied by their parents and an elderly grandfather, the only one of the party who is clearly exhausted from the demands of the morning’s harvest.
The farm family prepares to take their lunch, but not before offering a prayer of thanks to Almighty God for his blessings. Their recollected piety and the lovely setting of their simple meal stand in stark contrast to the swirling crowd of drinkers and eaters carousing on the opposite side of the tree. Schüz also draws a pointed contrast between these praying children and the three vagrant youngsters to the left who, alone and dressed in rags, must take their midday repast without mother or father by their side.
In the background we see active images of those still gleaning the fields.
This is precisely how the domestic Church operates.
The backs of the workers are bent in toil, and even the birds are mid-flight. Thus Schüz has created an image of calm amidst the “storm” of life, as this family pauses, even in the middle of the bustle of daily duties, to sustain both their souls and their bodies. The tiny lamb in the foreground, resting patiently as the family prays, conjures for us a clear image of the Lamb of God and the Prince of Peace, Jesus, whom this family has faithfully invited into their midst.
This is precisely how the domestic Church operates. The family, the smallest body of gathered believers in Christ, lives in the midst of the world and all its demands, but always with an eye upon the kingdom of heaven. Thus, the mother of this “little church” closes her eyes and bows her head even as she nurses a baby at her breast. The father removes his hat and folds his hands, even as his fields stand burning in the sun. The grandfather pauses to beg God for the strength to continue helping his children with their work, even as his legs ache from arthritis. And the children stand (or sleep) with dignity and patience, even as their lunch sits in reach before their very eyes.
These are virtues of family life well lived. To bring Christ into our regular routine. To do what we must without getting lost in the swirl. To carry out the responsibilities of our vocation without being defeated by its demands. The witness of this family is captivating. To see such beauty, such peace, and such harmony cannot help but inspire all those who have eyes to see.
Amidst the noise and chaos of the World’s Fair, it is likely that millions of people failed to behold the splendor of this one exhibit among the 50,000 there present. But one cannot help but suspect that the hearts of those who did take the time to stop along the midway of the Parisian extravaganza and meditate upon this magnificent work were changed for the better. We as Christians are called to be among those who pause in the midst of the commotion of life to attend to what really matters.
We, too, are called to bear witness, in and through our families, to the peace and tranquility that comes from Christ. Let us not fall prey to those who would convince us that our families are too busy to stop and pray. May we have the courage to simply put God first in our lives and thus enjoy the true rewards of living life within the embrace of the domestic Church.