Seeing Saints in the House of God

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.

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.

Michael Tamara

By

Michael Tamara is an architect who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He holds a BA in architectural studies and art history from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and an M. Arch I from Syracuse University. He studied in both Rome and Florence.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “The holy, great, and Ecumenical Synod which by the grace of God and the will of the pious and Christ-loving Emperors, Constantine and Irene, his mother, was gathered together for the second time at Nicea, the illustrious metropolis of Bithynia, in the holy church of God which is named Sophia, having followed the tradition of the Catholic Church, hath defined as follows…: We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about. idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.” [Second Council of Nicea 787]

  • Mary

    Thank you, Catholic culture has suffered so much and in doing so we have been guilty of ‘burying our gifts’ like the poor servant who lost his gifts in the end. By burying these great works or art and not passing on the tradition of Sacred art we have lost much ground. All of this tradition of Sacred art needs to be rediscovered and promoted. I say this for the protection of the art of the past but also because Christian/Catholic artists of today struggle much with feeling left out of a modern art world with little room for faith images. Support Catholic artists! In the end it will be Beauty that saves us–the beauty of Truth in all the forms it takes.

  • Arizona Mike

    Excellent article, and very true – the young as well as the old are taught through the environment, which why the aesthetic arts – sculpture, paintings, stained glass, incense, architecture, ornamentation, and music – are so important.

    Another quote from the Second Council of Nicaea:

    “As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    So, help me out here. Are you saying perhaps a beach ball and a soccer jersey are NOT sacred objects? Whew! Now, I’m really confused!

  • NickD

    The high school nearby built a chapel a few years ago, called “the Chapel of the Saints.” Around the building, they hung dozens of paintings of holy men and women, ranging from as early as Ss. Joachim and Anne to as recent as Bl. Pp. John Paul II. So, I would agree that the assault against sacred images in churches is starting to subside 🙂

  • hombre111

    Not bad. I think my own vocation to the priesthood was formed in part when I accompanied my struggling mother to church for a visit. While she prayed, I wandered around, looking at the saints.

    • Art Deco
      • hombre111

        I would have to see the inside of the first church to see what they did with enhancing Eucharistic worship and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, creating sacred space, and inviting us into the Communion of the Saints. Never knew what to think about Episcopal churches. As for the Cathedral in Rochester, I guess I would have to see if it has stained glass windows, etc.. But there are a couple of tragedies in my diocese. Fortunately, the trend now seems to be going the other way.

        • Art Deco

          The inside of St. Patrick’s in Chittenango looks like a small hotel auditorium. The ceiling is like any other piece of institutional architecture constructed ca. 1962, all ventilation ducts and recessed lighting. There is no vault; quite the contrary. There is an upright piano in what passes for the sanctuary. IIRC, the alter is a table or some marble slabs. There might be a tabernacle. There is a crying room which looks out over the ‘nave’ through a plate glass window. There is no obvious sacristy. A private confession is impossible. There is a room off the front vestibule with a piece of canvas in front of a kneeler. The pews are strange and ill-adapted to anyone attempting to engage in worship. The building is irreperable. The only thing the diocese can do is sell it to a developer who can repurpose it or tear it down.

          • hombre111

            I believe it. Fortunately, as we have both noticed, this stuff is going away.

        • Art Deco

          The business in Rochester was a scandal because it cost a seven figure sum of money to render the building less suitable for Catholic worship. But hey, Bp. Clark made a small advance in his long-running campaign to expunge the particularity of Catholic worship and moral teachings and Richard Vosko got his artistic rocks off. Isn’t that what’s really important?

          At the time, Bp. Clark had all of three (3) seminarians drawn from a territory which has 350,000 nominal Catholics. The situation was even more dire in the Diocese of Albany. Oh, but he was so innovative! One of Clark and Hubbard’s favorite maneuvers was to merger or federate a mess of parishes, but some woman religious in charge (or some lay diocesan apparatchikette), and then have a sacramental capon go from point-of-service to point-of-service to say Mass (built around her ‘reflections on the readings’).

          • hombre111

            Never having been to Rochester or Albany, I take your word for it. In my diocese there are about twenty seminarians. There should be fifty. We have about 65 parishes plus missions, and 45 priests. Fortunately, because we have mined Mexico, Colombia, and Africa, a good number of them are young. But with 65 parishes and 45 priests, you have to do something. At 75, I have essentially come out of retirement because I have to do something to help. Four masses last weekend. Three this weekend, along with a mass in the penitentiary. They put nuns and deacons in charge so that the parishioners can at least get together for Communion.

            The vocation crisis was first evident in 1979. Twenty-four years have passed. If this is not a self-inflicted wound thanks to the papacy and the high mucky-mucks, I don’t know what is.

            • Art Deco

              No, it was evident very soon after the Council. See Kenneth Jones compilations.

              http://www.amazon.com/Index-Leading-Catholic-Indicators-Vatican/dp/0972868801

              Bishop Foery was ordaining about eight priests a year in Syracuse during his episcopate (1937-70). By 1975 in Rochester, ordination classes were down to two a year.

              • hombre111

                In my seminary, the collapse took place around 1970, as a result of an action by the Archbishop. While I was still in the seminary, the Sulpicians at Roland Park in Baltimore were having a terrific problem with their deacon class, who actually went on strike.
                I guess I chose the date 1979 because that was the year when enrollment finally hit the bottom. But if the problem was obvious as early as 1975, that means 28 years have passed with the Church still doing nothing. It might be several more years before the Church finally declares the old model dead. I don’t plan on living to see that time. In the meanwhile, out of love for the Church, I am doing what I can, and so are most of the other retired priests. Interesting, the only retired priests who have disappeared and gone golfing are the most conservative. The liberals stick around.

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