Yesterday at Cuddesdon (my training college for the ordination bit of my journey, Ripon College) I was involved in a Mothering Sunday Eucharist in the Anglican-Catholic style. This does not mean it was a Roman Catholic rite of course, but an Anglican liturgy that referenced the Virgin Mar as the mother of Christ, contained more sung bits where they might otherwise be spoken, and in the prayers said the Hail Mary. There was a statue of the VM under the altar beside some flowers.
Some folks found this hard and said they found it idolatrous. This is a common misperception and perhaps prejudice, and one I held myself in the past, before I decided to look into what other parts of the Christian tradition said about the saints.
Essentially including the saints, and their pictures or physical representations, in worship is definitely not about “worshipping” them. They are always secondary to the worship of God, through Christ, and secondary to the reading and pondering on scripture, from which all the liturgy has itself emanated.
Essentially the point of the saints is to remind us of our humanity. That these people have undertaken this same journey of faith before us, and overcome and made it to the end, and that we will also. They remind us that there will be struggles and temptations, times when we are weak, but that we will make it to Christ at the last. Their journeys give us encouragement and hope.
The reason there are pictures of them (icons) or statues is primarily because we are physical people, made of matter, and this is not to be called profane because God chose to make us out of the dust of the ground. He gave us our limited bodies, and called matter ‘very good’. It is not to be despised, but accepted, blessed and pushed into. Using physical reminders, or prompts, particularly where they show the talent and visual artistic skill of people, is a gift and a blessing that helps and inspires us. The first person mentioned in the Bible to receive the holy spirit is Bezalel, an artist and goldsmith working on the construction of the first temple. God dwelt there – he did not refuse these gifts as idolatrous!
At the reformation, the physical became rejected and implicated as evil. Durkheim, the sociologist, in 1912 made a list of what was sacred and what was profane and much that was physical and earthly was listed on the negative list. Puritanism stripped bare all colour, form and beauty. We still struggle with this today, and some protestant churches particularly are still calling profane what God allows to be used and is helpful. If the human was noted in Genesis 1 to be very good, then the beauty and art that flows from us is also able to be acceptable in God’s sight.
Statues and art in churches and in our lives of faith are helps, prompts, reminders that flow into our visual senses and tactile natures. They point us, give us a suggestion of other doors that may open within our spirit, heart or imagination – through which God can work and lead us.
This same resonance comes to us through other humans. All other humans – not just special or set aside sanctified people like priests. “A Spirituality that cannot accommodate humanity is probably not a spirituality at all. It is our spiritual duty to become fully human. It is a task given to us by Divine life. Everything of God is ultimately concerned with everything of humanity.” (The Personal & The Spiritual Life: All Too Human, Terry Veiling, p7-21; The Way: Journal of British Jesuits, Jan 2013. Vol 52/1
This encompasses emotion, feeling, body, action in ways that have not always been taught as sacred or spiritual. There is still sometimes a sense that the holy is disembodied, separate, intellectual. Terese of Avila said ” The Creator must be sought through the creatures.” Something to ponder over Lent perhaps.