My earliest recollections of anything pertaining to faith are not of words or instruction, but of primal sensory experiences of holy things within the built environment. From long before I learned how to read, and probably not so long after I learned how to walk, I recall momentary mental glimpses of the simple state of being in church with my family.
Many of these mental images are vague, but some are quite vivid. Before any cognizance of the details of religion gained through Catholic school and catechism class, it was sacred objects—sacramentals—that cultivated the ideas of God and heaven within my fresh mind, even if I didn’t quite understand what it all meant yet.
My family almost exclusively attended our own church, but every so often, my parents would take us to a certain neighboring parish that had a Mass later on Sunday that was sometimes more convenient. I was captivated by this relatively small brown brick church, which still retains much of its original one hundred sixty-five-year-old Victorian Gothic interior.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Specifically, I always looked forward to seeing the church’s several colorful, life-size, vintage Daprato statues, complete with glass eyes. So lifelike were they that, to a small child with very short legs, they seemed to be watching over me from high upon their pedestals, despite the tops of their heads being no more than nine feet above the floor.
There was something enthralling about these steadfast “other people” who were always in the church; who never flinched and never left their respective stations. They were firmly there in that place, yet I always sensed that they were somehow ambassadors from another place. To me, they seemed like antennas, as it were, to something powerful and invisible.
It was in this way that I came to be introduced to the saints. Those material images communicated to me, instantly and wordlessly, the very thing proclaimed in the passage from the Book of Revelation read each year on the feast of All Saints: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” They were three-dimensional teachers in the form of plaster and paint.
Years later, upon reaching young adulthood, I came to the puzzling realization that such beautiful silent teachers were actually somewhat of an endangered species in many corners of the Catholic world. By the thousands, so it seemed, they had been banished from their long-held homes in the sight of the altar of God. From there, they had been relegated to vestibules, stairwells, gymnasium entrances, musty basements and consignment shops.
When I was in college, I once attended a town hall meeting on the impending renovation of a major local church. The presenter not-so-subtly implied that devotional statues and other representational sacred artwork are “pre-Vatican II,” and should be discarded or given to museums because they are no longer relevant beyond private sentimentality. Contemporary Catholics, so the reasoning went, are literate and educated, and therefore do not need to be taught by pictures as in centuries past.
Almost inevitably, the Second Vatican Council gets blamed—or credited, depending on one’s viewpoint—for this most unfortunate phenomenon of modern day iconoclasm, or what might be described more accurately as a sort of iconophobia. Yet it was that very Council which said “the practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.” The Council Fathers knew that we humans are sensory creatures at our most basic level, regardless of how intellectually sophisticated we think we have become.
The Council does go on to provide balance immediately following, however, by saying that “their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order,” thus alluding to the danger of falling into a false piety that borders on magic or superstition. Care must be taken not to treat sacramentals as more than what they are: objects made holy only by what they represent, and never by their own merit.
This is all well enough, but the more basic question has less to do with the vehicle for representation than it does with the nature of what is represented. In other words, what is our relationship to the saints, and what is theirs to us? Do we remember them in the same way we remember various personalities from history books who lived, died, and are no more? Were that the case, then it really wouldn’t make much sense to have statues and other imagery in churches. After all, if we believe we worship the living God, then why would we have depictions of all of these long-gone dead people present?
It is true that those statues I remember from my infancy, no matter how animated they appeared, are nothing more than cold, lifeless masses in the material sense. This being said, they serve a higher purpose than similarly cold and lifeless statues of figures like Socrates, Mozart, Lincoln or Gandhi. The latter memorialize men who made great personal contributions to society which were stifled upon their deaths; while the former help us visualize and commune with holy men and women who advocate for the eternal salvation of souls. This is the key to understanding why we venerate sacred images, and what they have to do with public liturgical worship.
It is important to note the tense being used here. We do not say that these holy men and women were real, but that they are real, now in the truest sense possible. Not only are they historical models of how to live in Christ, but they are living intercessors on our behalf in the present. They themselves have finished the race, but they have not forgotten the difficulty of the course. They now stand just across the finish line with arms extended, to guide and encourage us, and to help pull us to safety as we approach in our fatigued, battered, and winded state.
This important truth of our Catholic faith is underscored in the Traditional Latin Mass, wherein a short prayer is said silently by the priest as he kisses the altar after ascending the steps: “We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of the saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen.”
In this prayer, we find a literal acknowledgement of the altar stone containing relics of the titular saint or saints of the given church. It is also no coincidence that this is the very spot upon which the corporal, paten, and chalice are placed during the consecration; for it is physically atop they “who have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb” that the very same Precious Blood is made present for those of us who are still in “the time of great distress.”
Thus, this can be thought of as the great point of convergence, where we are all present at the same sacrificial banquet by which we are all redeemed—we from this side of heaven and they from the other; beyond that holy finish line, so to speak. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a direct link between the visible and the invisible; the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.
This incredible richness is always there, but our experience and awareness of it can be dulled or possibly even lost in churches where sacred art is sparse or altogether absent. Had this old church of my infancy been nothing more than a large room of white walls devoid of any sort of imagery, I would have no such early memories. Had it been simply a sterile “container” for the function of worship, my eventual enthusiasm for the faith and love of the saints may not have been quite as strong.
So, let us ponder just how relevant the sight of the “other people” in artistic form continues to be in the House of God. Although there may still be a lingering leeriness of placing sacred images in churches, the orchestrated assault against them that raged in the late twentieth century seems to have finally begun to plateau. In those places where the climate is growing favorable again, now may be the time to begin a concerted effort to systematically reintroduce some of the beautiful artistic identity of our faith.