Our Mother of Perpetual Help: Icon of Compassion

 

fiesta-icon
Photo credit: A. Lubi, C.Ss.R. | Baclaran | June 2018

“Be ready to intercede with every form of help
for each human heart and all the peoples …
especially for those who have heavy ordeals in life
due to suffering, poverty and every form of afflictions…
Mother of Perpetual Help, accept this humble offering
 and place it in the Heart of Your Son,”
– St. John Paul II in Baclaran

Filipinos have embraced Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, as their own mother. From the moment that Our Mother of Perpetual Help arrived in the Philippines in 1906, Filipinos took her into their own homes and communities. Many devotees fondly call Our Mother of Perpetual Help “Mama Mary” (Mother Mary). It may sound sentimentalist to some but to many devotees it expresses their deep devotion and childlike dependence on Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Just like Marvin L. Maderas who in October 14, 2014, wrote a thanksgiving letter to Our Mother of Perpetual Help which she fondly calls Mama Mary,

Dear Mama Mary,

I cannot stop thanking you for the blessings you have given me. I was jobless and hopeless then. I prayed to You for a job and You found me one in Manila, near your shrine. I tried to make it every Wednesday to attend to the novena asking for a more permanent job so that I can continue to support my children in their college education. You not only given me a regular employment but you restored me to my previous job in my hometown. O Mama Mary, You are really the kindest of all mothers for granting my prayers and giving me this extra gift! I am now working in our place and going back to our home daily and sleeping every night beside my youngest daughter. I can now watch her as she grows up into a lady. Nothing is impossible to you and your generosity is beyond expectation. Thank you, thank you so much Mama Mary. I promise to proclaim Your miraculous intervention in every opportunity that I have. Amen

Mary of Baclaran is the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help enshrined on the altar of the shrine. The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enshrined in Rome in the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori (Chiesa di Sant’Alfonso di Liguori all’Esquilino in Italian). It is a Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Church) icon painted sometime between 1350 and 1450 AD in the island of Crete by an unknown iconographer (painter of icons).

Unlike other objects of devotions to the Blessed Mother in the Philippines which are usually images or statues of Western origin, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon of Eastern origin.  Not all devotees know that Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an icon let alone an Eastern icon. Many are unfamiliar that this icon comes from the Eastern Church tradition. This comes to the fore when devotees comment on the beauty of Mary in the icon. Many find Mary in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help different from the smooth, fair, and beautiful faces of Mary they have been used to in images or statues of Mary of Western origin, like Fatima, Lourdes, or Rosary. This highlight a significant reality that Filipinos’ standard of religious beauty has, for a long time, been conditioned by Western standards, symbolism and spirituality.

The unfamiliarity with the Eastern spirituality and understanding of the icon adds to the mystery of the icon. This is symbolized by the location of the icon at the shrine—enshrined at the top of the altar with no physical access for devotees. Despite the inaccessibility of the icon, however, devotees find creative ways to reach the icon. I remember the story of Fr. Maguire on a one Wednesday when he just finished the blessing of pious objects. A woman approached him and said, “Can I go in and touch the image of the Blessed Mother?” He said, “How do you intend to do that?” He had an image in his mind of her trying to climb the bronze decorations above the Tabernacle to reach the icon. She said simply, however, “I just touch the tabernacle; the icon is connected to it.”

For many devotees, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help seems to be full of paradoxes: distant yet near, mysterious yet familiar, unattractive yet inviting, and alienating yet fascinating.  Indeed, there is a profound mystery and universal appeal in the icon that transcends the physical and natural as Clement M. Henze suggests,

It appeals to the supernatural within us; to something, therefore, that is wider than the world; to something that is not confined to race, or color, or country; to something that is not determined by artistic theories or artistic values, be they proper to the East or to the West.[1]

Despite all these, Filipinos loved the icon of Mary of Baclaran. How can a strange foreign icon become so popular and well-loved in the Philippines, not to mention in many parts of the world where there is widespread devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help? Brazilian Redemptorist Fr. J. Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R. tries to make sense of this enigma,

[W]e are faced with an Icon that in itself does not belong to the Catholic tradition of the Roman Rite, or to western religiosity, as we know it and inherited it with our paintings and devotional images. How was it possible for this Icon to be welcomed in such an amazing way by the devotional world of the west? What process would have had to happen for the mandate of Pius IX to us Redemptorists to have such an international effect and for peoples of different cultures to feel such a strong affection for a typically Byzantine Icon? Or could it be that we have taken an Icon of eastern culture and conferred a new meaning upon it, so that it might penetrate our religious culture?[2]

Appeal of the Icon to our Indigenous Religiosity

There must be something in the icon of Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help that appeal profoundly to the Filipinos’ sense of religiosity, or as da Silva suggests, Filipino devotees could have conferred a new meaning upon it consonant with their cultural and religious idiosyncrasies. Fr. Nico Perez also ponders on the attraction of the icon to Filipino devotees and posits that it has something to do with the practical advantages of it being an icon.[3] Unlike a statue,  a copy of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help can be easily placed on their wallets. Thus, the icon is always with them wherever they go. It would be inconvenient doing the same thing to a statue. In other words, Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon has the character of accessibility (availability), mobility (transportability) and physicality (presence)—qualities which always appeal to and sustains popular religiosity.

In the previous chapter, we saw how our ancestors also made larauan (icons) made from wood, stone, or ivory which are representation of the invisible society coexisting with their material world. In other words, these larauan served as the bridge to the spiritual world. The icon of OMPH appeals to the devotees because it served as a window to eternity in the same way that their ancestors’ larauan served as bridge to the higher heavens.

Rootedness in the Church Tradition and Teaching on Mary

Before Pope Pius IX entrusted the icon to the Redemptorist in 1866, it took an almost 500 year’s journey from Crete to Rome. The miraculous icon was painted or written in the 14th century in the island of Crete.  The story of the journey of the icon from Crete to Rome is a fascinating one. It is a long journey replete with miraculous anecdotes. One very significant observation is that from the very beginning of the journey of the icon, the protagonists of the veneration have been mostly lay people: the merchant who ‘stole’ the icon, the family who came into possession of it and the girl to whom Our Lady appeared in a dream so as not to be forgotten.[4] Through many ordinary people, sinners even, Mary was directing people where the Icon should go and where it should be enshrined for veneration. This may also hold true in Baclaran.

The story of the icon, however, cannot be traced only from the 14th century as the icon represents the hundreds of years of church’s tradition, teaching and reflection on the role of Mary in God’s mission beginning from the Council of Ephesus in 431, which gave the title to Mary, as Mother of God.  The original Greek word used in this church dogma was theotokos which means God-bearer.  Mary was chosen to be the bearer of God-made-man.

The teachings and faith declarations of the church on Mary, however, was based on the scriptures and witness’ accounts of her actual life here in earth.  Therefore, the icon also bears the actual life of Mary.  To kiss an icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is to show love towards Virgin Mary herself, not just to the wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Veneration of the icon as entirely separate from Mary’s life is inconceivable. Indeed, we can say that the icon is a relic of the living Mary; an icon of a life lived in the fullness of God’s grace: “Hail Mary full of Grace.”

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, is more than a work of art.  It is a sacred testament which reveals the church’s profound development in the understanding, belief, and recognition of Mary as the Icon of Trinitarian love. The icon is not mentioned in the scriptures but expressed centuries of church’s traditions and teachings on Mary as well as veneration and devotion of people through the years. In order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, therefore, we need to understand the theological and spiritual role of Mary as proclaimed by the church through the centuries. As Fr. da Silva reiterates,

The Icon itself is normally not the object of devotion or veneration, as are our pictures and images of saints. It is totally integrated into a broader context, as a sacramental reference to the contemplation of the mystery of Christ and the Trinity. It is an invitation to contemplate the History of Salvation in its mystery dimension, that is, as a fulfillment of the salvific plan of God.[5]

By containing the church’s teachings and traditions, the icon is important means of evangelization. As the document The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God says, “The icon as an instrument for evangelization especially about the life and theology on Mary. Marian shrines in particular provide an authentic school of faith based on Mary’s example and motherly intercession.”[6]

Synthesis of Marian iconography/archetypes

Church’s tradition and teachings on Mary is not only ingrained in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The icon is a product of centuries of tradition of iconographic archetypes. Each of these archetype contributed to the final art and meaning of the icon. Ferero states that if we wish to understand the original and overall significance of icons, we must refer back to the iconographic archetypes that produced them.[7]

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is at the tail end of a long creative, artistic and theological process. [T]he original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was written by the iconographer at a time when the Christian art of symbols was reaching the end of its creative process. As a result it becomes a synthesis of the fundamental elements of earlier Marian iconography. Being at the tail end, it gains much of the insights, spirituality and meaning of previous icons.

Let us now examine briefly the iconographic archetypes contained in icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

There are five Marian archetypes that are significantly present in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They originally appear in a number of other fundamental iconographic themes or compositions. Ferero enumerates these archetypes as the Virgin Mother, the Mother of God as Empress, the Orant, the Hodegetria and the Eleusa. All other types and models, including the Virgin of the Passion, are derived from these five archetypes.[8]

Virgin Mother

Upon her veil are three stars, which represent her eternal virginity: Mary was “always a virgin, before, during and after the birth of Jesus Christ.”[9]

Mother of God as Empress

Besides Christ, the basis of all iconography, no other subject has been more depicted than Mary, the Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”, literally “God-Bearer”). The icon of Theotokos represent the first human being who realized the goal of the Incarnation: the deification of man.

On her left hand the Virgin holds the hand of he who holds the universe in his hand and whom neither heaven nor earth can contain. The words of the Akathistos hymn read as follows:

“He who sits in glory, on the throne of Divinity, Jesus, the Supreme God, came in a veil of cloud, into the arms of the Immaculate, and brought salvation to those who cried out, ‘Glory, 0 Christ, to your power’” (Od. 4).

“Hail to you who bear he who sustains all” (Od. 1). “Hail to you, the seat of God, the Infinite one; hail to you, the portal of the sacred mystery … Hail, to this throne more holy than that of the cherubim; hail seat more beautiful than that of the seraphim” (Od. 15).

Orant

Mary as intercessor. In this type, Mary is shown with arms in ornate position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb. “Of the Sign,” is a reference to the words of Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”

orant

The Mother of God as one Praying (Orant) is a symbol of the ascension of the soul, through the experience of death, towards the resurrection and participation in the mystical life of Christ. It culminates in the hereafter but we are also called upon to experience it at specific moments of our life on earth, such as times of prayer. This is why the celebrant raises his arms during the Eucharistic prayer and invites the faithful to raise their hearts to God, like Mary as the one Praying and in the scene of the Annunciation, the Ascension and Pentecost.[10]

Eleusa

Eleusa means tender mercy. In this type, the Theotokos holds her Son, who touches his face to hers and wraps at least one arm around her neck or shoulder. This icon type, showing the poignantly intimate relationship between mother and child, is much beloved by Orthodox worshippers, and has been often painted through the centuries

eluesa-icon

The Eleusa does not offer a moving depiction of the relationship between Mother and Son, instead it expresses the most profound experience of the life of the human soul in God, obtained not from a psychical perspective but in the world of the spirit.[11] The Eleusa focuses more on the human and maternal dimension of this Marian attribute.[12]

Hodegetria

Hodegetria depicts Mary as the guide. In this type, the Ever Virgin Mary is holding Christ and pointing toward Him, as a guide to God and salvation.

It is interesting to note that Mary in the Eastern tradition does not give so much emphasis on Mary in her own right. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never depicted by herself, autonomously, separately but always depicted with her divine son—Jesus.

hodegetria-icon

Mary’s right hand is, above all, the Hodegetria hand, that is to say, the hand of she who shows the path to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Therefore, as in the wedding feast at Cana, she appears to say to believers: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).[13]

Virgin of the Passion

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is an example of the Virgin of the Passion type of icon. When we say: Our Mother of Perpetual Succour, we have to include the icon of the Virgin of the Passion and the Marian devotion that has appropriated it.[14]

Da Silva summarized all these iconographical elements in the icon:

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an iconographic representation of the Theotókos, the Mother of God, in the style of the post-Byzantine school of Crete, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Unlike the Icons that present Mary in a majestic attitude, Our Lady of Perpetual Help bears the same characteristics of serenity, but in a maternal attitude, lovingly holding her son. And while holding him, she presents her Son to whoever is contemplating her. More specifically, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is part of the iconography proper to the Virgin of the Passion, in which the Son glimpses his future sufferings and the serene face of Mary is mixed with something like angst. The child clings to her thumb and one of his sandals is loosened from his foot. The same Archangel Gabriel who announced the Incarnation to her, now with the Archangel Michael shows the Child the instruments of the Passion.[15]

All the theological elements that these iconographic archetypes should be present if we are to develop a healthy and balanced devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. In understanding the meaning of the icon, we need to consider all the iconographic archetypes. In the past, we have stressed so much the intercessory part of Mary but we have neglected the part of the icon where Mary shows the way and Jesus looking beyond the passion. The intercessory dimension of Marian icons is the least powerful part of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help; the strongest is the gaze and the hand.

What’s in a Name?

The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help also evokes profound appeal that draws the attention of Filipino devotees. The name—Our Mother of Perpetual Help—has also contributed to the phenomenal rise of the devotion in Baclaran.  The title Our Mother of Perpetual Help originated in the text itself accompanying the icon. The Blessed Virgin herself chose this name to serve as an encouragement to us all to have recourse to her with complete confidence in all our needs.[16] Let us reflect on each of the name of the title and it’s appeal to the devotees.

Mother

Mother is written in the icon. MP OY = Meter Theou: Mother of God (in the two upper comers of the icon). Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the few titles that calls Mary, mother (the only other titles that I can think of are Mother of God and Mother of Mercy). Other titles are mostly called our Lady of _______________ which is oftentimes connected to a particular place.  Other times, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is also called Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Indeed, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is universal; it appeals to us all of our universal experience with our own mothers. Mother is a more universal title. While others are called by their local names, Our Mother of Perpetual Help transcends the local. Fr. Ulysses da Silva expounds,

It is not a title bound to a location (such as Aparecida, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, etc.), nor to a privilege or accolade of Mary (like Assumption, Mystical Rose, etc.), nor to the Passion event, as would be the original characterization of the Icon. It is an invocation that identifies the maternal attitude of Mary in relation to her Son and to all of us. It is a universal title in relation to time as well as space, whenever or wherever someone is found in need or in danger.[17]

Similarly, Pope Francis in his homily on the celebration of the first feast of Mary, Mother of the Church on the 21st of May, 2018 in the Vatican, said that Mary is not referred to as “the lady” or “the widow of Joseph,” but is rather called “the mother of Jesus.”  Mary’s motherhood is emphasized throughout the Gospels, from the Annunciation to the foot of the cross.[18]

Perpetual

The adjective perpetual (laging) is always active rather than passive. The emphasis is not just on the help but on the active quality of help. This implies that God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is helping us now, as in the past and in the future, in all our predicaments.

Help

Saklolo is almost a desperate cry for help in distress. This is the plea of many devotees: help me, saklolo! Many are desperate, they have no one to turn to; any help will do. Mary under the title of Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) appeals to the very situation that the thousands of devotees find themselves in real life.

We are all creatures in need as we sought the help of God and of one another through prayer and action.  Those who have freely received blessings are called to freely give and those who have not yet received theirs petitions are encouraged to continue to ask. By expressing our devotion and praying the novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we accept that the help we ask and receive should be perpetual never to be stopped and disconnected from each other.

touching_icon

Perpetual Help

Whenever we show the Icon and ask the people: Who is the perpetual help? Most of them immediately answer: Mary is the perpetual help.  Most devotees think that the help and blessings comes from Mary. But Mary is the Mother of perpetual help; if Mary then is the mother of God—Jesus, Jesus then is the perpetual help.

The perpetual help of Our Mother of Perpetual Help ultimately originates from the perpetual generosity and unconditional love of God to everyone through the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Put differently, understanding the meaning of perpetual help in the context of the whole icon, means the perpetual showing of Mary to the devotees Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thus, the name, Our Mother of Perpetual Help can also be appropriately called, Our Lady of the Way as in the iconographic type of hodegetria.

Rediscovering the Icon

Since the Redemptorists introduced the icon to the Filipinos in 1906, the Redemptorist has been instructing the devotees about the meaning and nature of Our Mother of Perpetual Help as an icon. The missionaries also introduced the history and the meaning of the different parts of the icon. The earliest extant of Novena in 1926 explains and meditates on the different parts of the icon. The second earliest Novena in 1936 also includes an explanation and meditation of the different parts of the icon.

The instructions about the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, focused mainly on the meaning of the parts of the icon and the history of the icon from its origin in Crete to its arrival in the Philippines.

The instructions, however, only mentions the Eastern theology, spirituality and background of the icon in passing.  The division within Christianity between the East and the West may have contributed to a lack of appreciation of the Eastern tradition and theology let alone the Eastern background and spirituality of the icon. The return to Eastern spirituality of the icon was only given a boost after more than 100 years of the mandate of Pope Pius IX. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is one of the greatest Marian gifts of the Eastern Church to the Western Church. Yet, it was overwhelmed by the explosion of the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

It is essential to understand the background and purpose of Eastern iconography in order to understand the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Instructing about the icon without an understanding of Eastern iconography will only scratch the tip of the iceberg, as Ferero explains,

To truly comprehend the richness of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help we must do more than give it a simply vague or even pious look. We need to tune in to the theological message it holds through an iconographic, aesthetic and spiritual ‘reading’ of the symbolic elements it employs.[19]

Because it expresses a foreign culture–the Byzantine culture–it is not easy to decipher. As Ferrero admits,

[F]or those who belong to a different culture from that represented in such images, icons are works of art that are not easy to understand or appreciate. As with all works of symbolic character, they require an authentic introduction. It is not possible, in a spontaneous way, to capture the message of which they are bearers and which they set out to convey.[20]

Moreover, because of the cultural and time gap, it is also one of those icons that have been most exposed to iconographic distortion. Without losing its fundamental symbolic elements, artists have adapted it to the aesthetics of each region, reducing it, in many cases, to a simple devotional image.[21] Due to this localized adaptation, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor has acquired its own context (added to those of the past) in the Marian devotion that it now symbolizes. The sanctuary of Crete, in which it was so venerated as the Virgin of the Passion, has been replaced by altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that the devotion has created all over the world.[22] In so doing, it’s rootedness to the iconographic elements–theological and artistic–have been lost in the process.

We will discuss more the Eastern spirituality of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in later chapters.

Present Situation

We have seen how the theological and iconographic elements help us retrieve the original meaning of the icon. Iconographic understanding of the icon, however, is only one side of the pole. The other side of the pole is the current concrete life-situation of the devotees.

Thus, each period need a re-reading and re-reception of the icon according to their context. We need to read the icon in the context of the burning issues of the day, the signs of the times, and the lights and shadows.

As we contemplate the icon, we experience a creative tension between our present situation and the future life in eternity with God which the icon represents. The icon is the encounter between heaven and earth, now and the fullness of time. This is represented in the icon by the interplay between the sad eyes of Mary upon seeing our situation and the golden background of the icon which symbolizes heaven as our future home. Likewise, this is represented in the expression of fear of Jesus as symbolized by his falling sandals upon seeing the cross and the promise of the victory of resurrection.

Icons are doorway, means of access into the age to come. It is a meeting point and a place of encounter with the communion of saints. It makes Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the icon present to us. We participate in the mystery that is depicted. More than an object, the icon is an event.  An icon is a proclamation.

The shrine for the devotees has also become an icon. The shrine has become a channel of passage from the present world to the eternal where Our Mother of Perpetual Help dwell.

Conclusion:

The icon that devotees, venerate, touch and kiss is a dynamic icon; a living icon, not a dead icon.  It carries with it a rich history, spirituality, theology and sacramental efficacy. It is not a magical object which is inertly imbued with vast power and a miraculous object where we bring our petitions but rather a dynamic icon that enters into our life story.  The icon is the story of our faith; the summary of our salvation. We are invited to participate in this story and journey. We are invited to enter into God’s story, into Mary’s story; to join our story with the story and journey of the icon.

Ultimately, the whole icon points to Christ. Jesus Christ is our way, truth and life. Christ is the Word who came down to us so that we can come up to God.

Joey Echano

(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)


 

[1] Clement M. Henze, 3.

[2] Fr. J. Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, Campo Grande, Brazil, May, 2014. http://www.cssr.news/2017/12/our-lady-of-perpetual-help-and-popular-piety/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OlxbVy_AcM&index=3&list=TLGGapvNN1caKwIxOTA1MjAxNw

[4]  Fiore, “The spiritual, pastoral and missionary message of the Icon,”21.

[5] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety

[6] The Shrine: Memory, Presence and Prophecy of the Living God

[7] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 48.

[8] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 48-49.

[9] Miravalle, Mark (June 2006) [1992]. Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion. Foreword by Édouard Gagnon. Goleta, California: Queenship Publishing. pp. 56–63.

[10] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 52.

[11] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 52.

[12] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 50.

[13] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 123.

[14] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 15.

[15]Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #12.

[16] “Give this message to your mother and to your grandfather: Holy Mary of Perpetual Help requires that you remove her from your house, if not, you will all soon die”. Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 133.

[17] Ulysses da Silva, C.Ss.R., Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Popular Piety, #43.

[18] Pope Francis, “The Church, like Mary, is woman and mother,” Vatican News, 21 May 2018. Accessed at  https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope-francis/mass-casa-santa-marta/2018-05/pope-francis-mass-santa-marta-mary-church-woman-mother.html

[19] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 128.

[20] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 11.

[21] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 14.

[22] Ferrero, The story of An Icon, 15.

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