Eilieen Cunis: The art of whatever is asked for right now

Eileen Cunis, 67, makes banners for churches. Not those primitive and graceless felt-and-burlap banners that dominated liturgical decor through the ’60s or ’70s, but thoughtfully crafted, dignified works of art produced by a woman who just wants to walk through whatever door the Lord has opened for her.

One of Cunis’ pieces, a processional banner of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, was recently accepted for the National Eucharistic Revival Art Exhibit, and it will travel from Connecticut to Indiana. It is a shining, intricate, iconlike work with many layers of fabric and brocade carefully pressed, folded and sewn into position, the faces and hands of Mary and her baby delicately rendered in paint.

As delighted as Cunis is to have her fabric work honored, she’d really rather be painting. She prefers the freedom and flexibility of working exclusively with paint, and she’s starting to wade into the deep waters of iconography, with its profound theology of light.

“I would love for a priest to say, ‘I have this big wall and I want you to do a big mural, and it’s going to be in the church for 50 or 100 years,’” she said. But it all comes down to how the Lord is leading her right now.

Right now, she’s just finished a set of four tapestries for Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield, Connecticut, a building that had some vast, empty spaces to fill. It’s a gymnasiumlike structure, and that’s not just a coincidence. The church was built in 1962, when Catholicism in the United States was still burgeoning. The congregation assumed their parish would continue to flourish and grow, so they built the church intending to eventually convert it into a gym for the Catholic school.

“It just didn’t happen,” Cunis said. “People were caught flat-footed, and the gymnasium church remained the church.”

The school closed in the ’80s, a nearby church also closed, and the large, simple structure of Sacred Heart became the main church building for the congregation. It had been decorated and made suitable for worship, but still had a rather bleak facade on the apse wall.

The pastor saw Cunis’ work in a local shop, and a lightbulb went on. The gray space has now been transformed by a small host of angels rendered in shining fabric.

Cunis’ first banner, though, wasn’t designed to enliven a large space, but just the opposite…

Read the rest of my latest artist profile at Our Sunday Visitor

I did and did not learn about Jesus at the eclipse

A week before the solar eclipse that passed over much of the nation, I wrote an essay about it. I had a whole thesis worked out about how the sun is like Jesus and the moon is like the sacraments. I said that the power and glory of Jesus is like the blinding blaze of the sun, and although we live every day in its presence, we can only look upon it when it’s covered. Jesus is like the life-giving, illuminating, warming, but unapproachably brilliant sun, and he covered himself in mortal flesh for thirty-three years so people could live and walk with him, and now he covers his divinity under the species of bread and wine so we can see him, and eat him, and not be burned up. Someday, I said, our spiritual eyes will be changed so that we don’t need protection, but can behold him directly for eternity in Heaven.

Then I thought, maybe I should see the eclipse first.

So we packed a gigantic lunch and our special sunglasses and piled into the car, and plowed through hours of traffic to the spot up north where we could see the eclipse.

Did you see it? Were you there?

I saw it. I was not prepared.

I know why a solar eclipse happens. I’m very familiar with the science, and I’ve seen the little animated models, and I’ve seen countless amateur and professional photographs of total solar eclipses, too. I’ve also seen a partial solar eclipse and many lunar eclipses. I saw Haley’s Comet, and I’ve seen the rings of Saturn, and I’ve seen meteors so big and bright they leave a green streak across the sky. I’ve seen things in the sky that filled me with wonder and left me gasping and grateful for the strange beauty of the universe.

This was different. And it was not Jesus.

Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor

Image: Flammarion engraving (public domain)

When the darkness passes, do not forget the Lord

It was four years ago, at this time of year, that COVID social isolation began in earnest. Remember?

First we started staying home from Mass, then from school, then from everything else. The thing that brought me up short, though, was when it dawned on me we wouldn’t be back to normal in time for Easter. It seemed so terrible not to be present for my favorite day of the liturgical year, such a loss.

Then my father died suddenly, just before Easter, and I had to adjust my views on loss.

It was a strange thing. Instead of planning for my father’s visit, we were planning his funeral. All through the Easter Vigil, live-streamed on a laptop, I was aware that this wasn’t ideal. We should be inside the actual church, actually receiving Christ’s body and blood, and instead we were crammed into our living room watching a tenor singing out “Christ our light” into an empty building.

But I couldn’t stop smiling.

It was a strange thing. The seminarian started to read from Genesis, telling us how the world was empty and void, and then God spoke, and there was light. He told us how God made the water, and fish to swim in it, the land, and creatures to crawl on it, and sun, moon, and stars to rule the day and night, and man. And breath for man, the breath of God. It was a good story, and I wanted to hear more. I was spellbound through the entire Mass, as if it were all new. Out of the void, God made something firm, something real, something for us to stand on. And then he gave us life.

When I got the call that my father was dead, even as I cried, I kept finding little stepping stones of joy. It was like trying to make your way across a dark, formless swamp. No one would dispute that death and grief are dreadful and cold, but there was always something to stand on, something good.

I kept thinking: At least he died at home in his comfy chair, not hooked up to the beeping hospital machines he loathed. At least he was a praying man, and he had been to confession. At least the last thing I told him was that I love him. There was something for my feet to stand on amid the grief.

At least I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. It’s a good story, and I want to hear more. I kept thinking of it at his burial, where my siblings and I stood six feet apart, in an almost comically tragic scene straight out of a Russian novel, with fog and mud and solitary mourners by an open grave; and I smiled then too.

That was the year when one thing after another started to unravel in my life. I kept losing things, precious things, that I thought I utterly depended on; but I also kept finding firm ground under my feet. Not a lot of ground! But enough…. Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor.

Image via PickPik

“My conscience will not allow me to make boring art for God”: Artist Daniel Mitsui

Daniel Mitsui likes drawing on calfskin vellum the best.

It’s popular with artists who, like Mitsui, create works in a medieval northern European style. But it’s not mere tradition or attachment to history that makes calfskin so appealing to Mitsui.

“It’s really, really, really nice,” he said. “It’s a very precise medium because, on a microscopic level, it’s an organized layer of skin cells. You get a more precise line, and you can make corrections easily by scraping away a layer with a knife.”

Try that on paper made from vegetative matter, and you’ll tear your picture up. But calfskin vellum is forgiving.

“People sometimes say, ‘How can you be so precise?’ That’s part of the secret. You draw on a better surface,” Mitsui said.

Mitsui, 41, has spent decades doing the work of carefully sorting, modifying and balancing tradition with innovation — or, more precisely, “combinations of influences, rather than wholly new ideas,” he said.

His work is distinctly medieval but brings in elements of Persian, Celtic and Japanese art.

“I think of it as a living style, rather than a historical one,” he said.

“In religious art, there’s a requirement that you try to uphold tradition in some manner, but I think that tradition is mostly in the content and the arrangement of the picture. It’s not really stylistic, so much as what you are showing, and with what associations,” Mistui said.

Thus he brings his audience “Great Battle in Heaven” in the style of a Japanese woodblock print.

On his site, he explains how he synthesized the appearance of the angelic warriors, who look like the heroes in prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, with a composition from one of Albrecht Dürer’s apocalyptic works. The result is at once arrestingly unusual and weirdly familiar, like a vivid but coherent dream where the mind feels free to draw on any meaningful image.

He is aware that not every viewer will be well versed in the Patristic writings and artistic conventions that enrich his work, so he tries to write descriptions to help the viewer understand more fully what they are seeing.

“It’s something I’m not as on top of as I’d like. I’m a relatively fast artist and a relatively slow writer,” he said. “I’m always behind.”

He said that medieval art is full of well-established symbolism, which is not necessarily obvious when you first look at it, but a little bit of analysis will provide the background to show how well it corroborates with what the Church Fathers have always taught.

“I very strongly value tradition as a theological concept, as the basis of Catholic epistemology. It’s how we know what we know as Catholics. That underlies my artwork; that’s part of what I’m trying to communicate,” he said.

But his work enjoys enormous appeal across a wide range of audiences because the images themselves are so compelling. And remaining faithful to tradition doesn’t mean limiting his scope.

“There’s really very different views on artwork even in traditional Catholicism,” he said. “If you even go back to the 12th century, the Victorines and the Cistercians had very different notions of aesthetics. I can’t just say, ‘My work depicts traditional Catholicism.’ Well, which part of it?”… Read the rest of my latest artist profile at Our Sunday Visitor

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Image: “Jesus Christ in Majesty with Cherubim and Seraphim” by Daniel Mistui

 

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This is the ninth in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Mattie Karr
Jaclyn Warren
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

All possible questions about Lent, answered

Dear Simcha,

Somebody told me that “Lent” is actually an acronym for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking,” and it’s always been a time for focusing on our sense of self-worth as valuable members of God’s organization. But someone else told me that’s a foolish modern innovation, and it actually stands for “laborare errare nobis tacitumitas” and it has something to do with hard work making you silent? But when I ran that past my Latin teacher, she just gave a little shudder and pulled a flask out of her top drawer, and wouldn’t even look at me. So where does the word “Lent” actually come from?

Signed,
Little Miss Etty Mology

Dear Miss,

It is a word that comes directly from the Middle English word “Lent,” which comes from the Old English word “Lencten,” which is derived from the proto-Germanic “lengentumpen” which means “quit trying to be cute.” Lent is Lent. You guys know what Lent is. Say your prayers, make with the alms, and don’t touch that burger. That’s what Lent means. 

Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor.

Superbass, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The freedom of wearing your faith on your sleeve: Artist Mattie Karr

Mattie Karr wanted to be an infiltrator. The 28-year-old Kansas native had big dreams of traveling to Hollywood and stealthily planting spiritual seeds in the work she did, smuggling religious themes into mainstream stories and animation.

“I loved the idea of being incognito with my art. I could be this Catholic evangelizing spy, almost,” she said.

It didn’t work out, and she is so glad.

First of all, she loves living in Kansas and loves the parish where she just finished a massive commission, three years in the making. It consists of two 15-foot high triptychs that bring color and warmth to either side the rather austere apse of Holy Name of Jesus in Kansas City.

Second, she found that she couldn’t stop making religious art if she tried. “As I grew in my faith, I couldn’t help it. The art just came out and it was all religious, mostly Mary. I couldn’t stop drawing Mary,” she said. The big shift came when she went on retreat, and some people prophesied over her, saying that God was calling her to do something and that she needed to be brave and step out.

“It was very clear he wanted me to leap,” she said. A week later, she did, quitting her job in sales, and launching her full-time career as an artist. Karr paints and draws sacred and liturgical art and also does commissions with specific religious themes, depicting spiritual tableaux that are particularly meaningful to her patrons.

Now that she’s surrendered to the idea of being a sacred artist, she said life has gotten so much easier.

“The images come a lot quicker. It doesn’t feel like as much of a struggle,” she said. “I appreciate wearing my religion on my sleeve in my business. It’s much more freeing.”

Karr said she once met a priest at a wedding, and he was adamant that she is an iconographer. Although Karr has done a painting that, at the request of a client, borrows some elements of traditional iconography, most of her work is in a very different mode. But the priest insisted, “Your spirituality is that of an icon painter. I can tell you pray through it.”

And this is so.

“Even if I’m not consciously praying, I’m praying,” she said. “Even in artist mode, I’m aware of the Holy Spirit.”

When she’s working with a client to develop a commissioned piece, she prays with them, and asks the Holy Spirit to give her an image for them. This is what happened when a client asked her to portray Mary, Undoer of Knots.

She collaborated with a client whose wife is a mental health counselor and had a recurring dream of Mary dressed in work clothes, diligently unbinding the tangles in a long ribbon that shines in the light falling on her shoulders.

Karr said that, although the image was made for one client, it often brings people to tears, even if they previously knew nothing of this traditional title of Mary.

“I’ve seen how much God can speak through these images. Beauty has this quality of stopping people in their tracks and making them pay attention,” she said. It breaks through the silence, even a silence we may not be aware of.

“So many people in their relationship with God don’t think he has much to say to them. Even devout Christians don’t experience the love of God in their lives,” she said. But sometimes beauty can speak to them with God’s voice.

“It’s a collaboration with the Holy Spirit. I’m always asking,” she said.

Sometimes that collaboration seems to come in the form of failure…. Read the rest of my latest monthly artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor.

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This is the eighth in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Jaclyn Warren
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

This potted plant life: Lessons on prayer for the new year

Let’s talk about prayer. Let’s talk about how January is a wonderful time to start or restart a habit of daily prayer.

But first, let’s talk about winter.

I’m not a big fan of this time of year. There are plenty of unpleasant things about the winter months where I live: The way the coldness makes you cold, the way the darkness is so dark, and the way the dark and the cold make you kind of stupid.

But the thing that really hurts is how all the green goes away. You look outside, and everything is gray and white and brown, and it’s just sad. I need green! This is why, of course, people have houseplants. Nothing livens up a living space like living things. It’s the obvious solution to my green starvation, right?

Not so fast. I’m an absolute plant assassin. I love having plants around, but I’m terrible at keeping them alive. If plants were people, I’d be on an FBI watch list for the sheer number of suspicious disappearances associated with me.

Take, for example, my little fig tree. I had put it outside on the patio over the summer, but then a frost came and I forgot to bring it in. The poor thing turned brown, all the leaves fell off, and it went from a luxurious, broad-leafed beauty to a dry stick in a pot. I was so sad.

But I’m telling you about it because I realized that I’ve actually learned a thing or two in the last several years — and what I’ve learned dovetails very nicely with what I’ve learned about prayer. Just as I suffer when there is no green outside, so too do I suffer when I don’t have a naturally flourishing relationship with God; and just as the solution to green starvation is having houseplants, the solution to spiritual starvation is prayer.

And if this metaphor doesn’t quite work out perfectly, just assume it’s because it’s dark and cold and I’m stupid. Not my fault!

I am the queen of letting plants dry out in between waterings. Then, when I finally do remember to do it, the soil has become so parched that the water goes straight through it and runs out the bottom. Depending on the plant, you can fix this by either flooding it with water from the top down, or putting it in a second pot of water and letting it absorb it from the roots, or you can give it little sips of water very frequently until it softens up and is ready to accept more.

But the point is: There are consequences to letting it get that dry. If you neglect it for long enough, you can’t expect to just leap back in and pick up where you left off. The same is true with prayer. If you’ve been out of touch for a long time, you might be able to reestablish contact by flooding God with your passionate prayers; or maybe you need to sit and quietly meditate for a long time; or maybe you need to start small with short, frequent prayers until your soul softens up and feels ready for more. But there will be a period of adjustment…Read the rest of my latest monthly column for Our Sunday Visitor

The long game of Advent parenting

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s almost Christmas. Advent — what’s left of it — is a time of preparation, but unless you live a very unusual life, you probably need some time to prepare for this season of preparation.

We have done various things over the years to try to make Advent a season of anticipation that leads up to a day of Christ-centered joy, rather than a month-long wallow in decorations and cookies that leads to a volcano of presents. We fail every single year.

But we do always try. The nice thing about Christmas is that it’s a birth, and that means it’s a beginning, not a culmination. Call me hopeful or call me delusional, but I always feel like as long as we TRY, then we’re getting Advent and Christmas right.

So this is how we try: We set aside the day after Thanksgiving as Jesse Tree Day. And that is about all we do the day after Thanksgiving. The kids are home from school, nobody expects me to cook anything elaborate, and God has granted me the gift of a profound unwillingness to rush out and shop for amazing Black Friday deals at Target. So Friday is the day of getting ready to get ready.

The first step is to choose a list of Jesse Tree readings. The idea is to find one that more or less matches up with the actual calendar. Advent begins Dec. 3 this year, but if we end up with one that starts on Dec. 1, it doesn’t matter that much, because we know we’re going to miss some days anyway, so it all evens out. Then I print it out, round up the kids, and read off the symbols, and they dibs the ones they want to do.

Some years, I get fancy and buy special paint markers and a bunch of blank capiz shell discs with holes drilled in them, so we end up with a set of more or less uniform ornaments. Other years, I just open the infamous craft cabinet and pull out everything that looks like it won’t cry if you put glue on it. (This is my first act of Christmas Generosity: I renounce my claim on anything I put out on the table. If you’re not going to use the good stuff for getting ready for Jesus, then what in the world are you saving it for?)

Then I start some music going. In this house, we do not listen to Christmas music before the day after Thanksgiving; and the very first one we listen to is “A Medieval Christmas” by The Boston Camerata. The kids groan and complain, but I’m a big believer in building unwilling fondness through repetition. I choose my battles with music, but I insist on this one at least once a year. This is my first act of Christmas Bullying, which is also an essential part of the season, if you’re in charge of other people.

So then I toss the list with names into the middle of the craft heap, and I leave the room. The kids are going to be incredibly mean to each other while they work, which is just how they show affection; and they are going to make an insane mess, which is something I don’t need to see happening. This is my first act of Christmas Surrender. Some things are beyond my control, and it’s very good to keep this in mind and not waste emotional energy getting upset about it.

Read the rest of my latest monthly column for Our Sunday Visitor.

“Beauty is always the right answer”: Painter and illustrator Jaclyn Warren

“I was so nervous about having the chalice and paten in my garage,” Jaclyn Warren said.

“We have too many kids and too many cats; something’s going to happen to them,” she said.

But the precious liturgical vessels survived. They were in Warren’s home, along with a priest in full vestments holding a censer billowing smoke, because she was making sketches for a series of paintings of the North American Martyrs for a high school chapel.

The project, the brainchild of Father John Brown, who commissioned the pieces for Jesuit High School in New Orleans, will show two of the martyred laymen toward the back of the church, and then some of the saints in liturgical dress worshipping along with the congregation, with their vestments becoming more splendid the closer to the altar they are. It’s a huge project, and Warren is working feverishly in between caring for her young children, who, like everyone else in the country, keep getting sick.

Warren, a Louisiana-based liturgical painter and illustrator, said what’s more overwhelming is when she remembers where her work will be displayed.

“It plays on my nerves a little bit. It’s kind of a big deal. People are going to be looking at this for I don’t know how long, maybe after I’m dead and gone, and thinking maybe that nose doesn’t look quite right,” she laughed. “But I know the mission is so important, I can’t get hung up having an artistic crisis.”

Captivating an audience

Mainly, she tries to keep her audience in mind.

“I think of all the boys that are going to be looking at [the paintings of saints]. It’s important that they see them as a source of inspiration and strength, and not just, ‘Look at all these bald guys,’” she said.

She knows from personal experience how an off-putting depiction of a saint can stick with you for years.

“I remember growing up, I had my book of saints, and Mary Magdalene was wearing this bright pink dress and green eyeshadow, and even at 10 years old I was thinking it was so dated,” she said. She also remembers the Black saints were painted so clumsily, their skin almost looked green.

That was a missed opportunity by Catholic art. Warren grew up loving the saints, but it was despite these illustrations, not because of them; and even though she wanted to be an artist herself, nothing she saw drew her in personally. It never occurred to her that she could be the one to update those unappealing pictures.

“It had already been done. The books have been illustrated; the churches have been decorated,” she remembers thinking. She didn’t see herself as someone who could step up and answer a call.

So when she did study art in high school and then at Savannah College of Art and Design, sacred art was not on her radar.

“I thought, ‘I have to do something that’s going to sustain me. I have this talent; I’ll be a portrait artist. That will make money, and I’ll be secure,’” she said.

An artist’s struggle

But when she attended a summer program at Yale, she found herself the odd man out, ostracized because of her faith and because she made figurative art that wasn’t designed mainly to shock and titillate the viewer. She also noticed that artists who chased the cutting edge of artistic fads might have their moment of fame, but then they were just as quickly forgotten.

“I had to rethink, ‘Is being famous and well-esteemed all it’s cracked up to be?’” Warren said.

Read the rest of my latest monthly artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor

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This is the seventh in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

Who shows up at the Adoration chapel?

Without really meaning to, I seem to have adopted adoration as a mainstay of my spiritual life. It’s the thing I keep coming back to in all seasons, and I’ve done so since I was in college, and I hope to keep it up until I’m one of those creaky old people who makes everybody hold their breath while they shakily lower themselves down for a little genuflection, possibly never to get up again.

I have been to all kinds of adoration chapels: ornate, baroque ones and glossy, minimalist ones, ones that feel like waiting rooms of some kind (waiting for what?), ones that feel like a Polish grandmother’s rummage sale, and ones that feel like raves.

The funny thing is, the people you meet at the adoration chapel tend to be the same, no matter where you go.

Everybody knows, for instance, about the classic Jesus Whisperer: The adorer who simply cannot pray without whispering. Maybe it’s how they keep track of how many Hail Marys they’ve said, or maybe Sister Mary Scrupulosa back in 1952 actually taught them it somehow doesn’t count if it’s not audible; but by gum, as long as they’re there, everybody else in the room is gonna hear about it. Some people can simply smile and shrug and say their own prayers, but for others, the Jesus Whisperer is a good reminder that earbuds are cheap and there’s nothing wrong with Googling “one hour of rain sounds” before you pop in to pray.

But there are a few other adoration regulars who turn up almost as reliably.

For instance:

The Juicy Mouth. A close cousin to the Jesus Whisperer. These folks seem to realize that it might be disruptive to others to actually whisper prayers, so instead, they simply mouth them. And for some reason — and I’m willing to admit that the reason is that I’m crazy — this is far, far worse than whispering. It’s just an hour of barely audible, faintly wet, somebody-else’s-mouth noises, and it’s the absolute worst. Yes, I have heard of offering things up. No, it’s not getting me anywhere.

The Accessorizer Supreme. Many people bring rosaries, chaplets, Bibles or other prayer books, maybe a journal, perhaps a chapel veil. The Accessorizer Supreme brings THE WORKS. She (and it’s generally a lady) sits down, unpacks her tote bag that says “this is the day the Lord,” pulls out a binder that says “has made,” unzips it, flips it open to the correct page, whips out a little box that says “let us rejoice” that holds dozens of miniature color-coded Post-it Notes and starts applying tabs to the chart in the front so she can get caught up on which color highlighter she’s supposed to be using today.

The highlighter has a little bespoke leather tag tangling off it that says “AND BE GLAD.”

Once she establishes that the color of the day is pink, she pulls out the retractable matching pink bookmark to note the spot where she started reading for the day, and then smartly tears open the Velcro on the little fanny pack where she keeps the thematic hand puppets, with which she acts out the Bible verses. This can occasionally be a little distracting for the people around her, and once somebody complained when she got up to the Song of Songs puppets, but this is HER SPIRITUALITY and she is a TACTILE LEARNER and also if you are interested, she knows where you can BUY THIS EXACT KIT and she will EARN A SMALL COMMISSION.

Read the rest of my latest monthly column for Our Sunday Visitor

Photo by Guruh Budi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-praying-in-a-church-16970828/