"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Statues, Icons, And The Mythology Of Jesus–The Community Of Plaster Of Paris

Patricia Lacey was a devout Catholic, one of the few girls in New Brighton who looked forward to High Mass, Sunday School, Catechism, and the homilies of Father Brophy.  She couldn’t get enough of Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, and his disciples; and every Sunday when Father Mullins read the stories from the Bible about Jesus’ walking on water, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves and fishes, blessing the Samaritan woman, and entering Jerusalem on an ass, she was happier than she had ever been. 

These stories  actually meant something.  They were wonderful tales about courage, heroism, love, ambition, promise, and defeat with a purpose.  The story of Jesus, born to poor carpenter and his faithful wife, hunted down by the Emperor’s emissaries to be killed, but saved by these same men who, after seeing a miraculous star in the heavens, worshiped the divine child, hid his presence from Rome and allowed the Holy Family to escape to Egypt, is a fairy tale with import. 

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It was different from the other stories like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Bears her father read to her.  These fairy tales were lovely and comforting to be shared between her and her father, a world of dark forests, wicked witches, and good families ; but the story of Jesus, his friends, the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman legionnaires suggested something the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen never could.   She could not begin to understand the complex metaphors and allegories of the Gospels; and for the time being would simply enjoy the stories themselves – Joseph’s carpenter shop, the magnificent Jewish temple where the young Jesus preached, the Via Dolorosa where the adult Jesus walked, burdened with the cross onto which he would be nailed and die.
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Patricia never outgrew her love of the fairy tale, mythical nature of the story of Jesus; and even as she became and adult and matured in her thinking and her faith, she still wanted to hear the stories of Jesus, told now by the Stations of the Cross and in the paintings of Giotto, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo.  She loved the image of the crucified Jesus – so sensual and masculine, so beautifully suffering, so vulnerable and attractive.  She loved the statues of Mary, all so demure, proper, pious, and loving.  Patricia tried to imagine being a mother of God – loving him as her own child, but also as a divinity.  She couldn’t, so only wanted to love that profoundly male, needy, and lithesome figure she saw on the cross.  She was his mother, his lover, and his worshiper – all made possible by that sculpted figure above the altar.

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The other saints arrayed around the church – St. Maurice, the patron saint of the parish, St. Thomas, St. Timothy, and St. Mark – were peripheral to her very personal faith.  As she grew older and studied the Bible, she began to appreciate their relevance and importance; but for many years they were distractions.  Jesus was the central figure, the hero of the myth, the ultimate victor, a man who did not just save the girl but the whole human race.

Later, she realized how her romantic myth of Jesus was only one part of the story.  Early Christian theologians debated the nature of Christ and whether he was all man, all divine, both or some other level of being.  They parsed the works of the Evangelists and the letters of Paul to extract meaning and purpose, they factored in Jewish, Roman, and newly Christian politics; and finally by the time of the Council of Nicaea, under the stern direction of Constantine, they finally agreed on doctrine and theology.  Of course there would always be re-interpretations, disputes, and continuing debates, but by 325 AD, the various theological threads were well-knit.

Most Catholics, Patricia Lacey included, had no need for theological underpinnings.  While it was interesting for her to understand how the central, problematic, and highly questionable doctrines of the Holy Trinity became Church doctrine, it was irrelevant to her belief. Jesus was the Son of God, the Redeemer, who died for our sins and who, seated at the right hand of the Father, will welcome the dutiful into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that was all that was necessary to know.

So every Sunday and every day during Lent Patricia visited St Maurice Church.  The plaster-of-Paris statues and the saints depicted  in the many paintings on the walls of the church, the sacristy, the vestibule, and the residence were her family and community.  Although she did not pray to all of them, or revere them in the same way she did for Jesus and his mother, she greeted them, addressed them, and talked about Jesus with them. 

Each parish had a different array of saints.  There were far too many in the Catholic pantheon to all be represented, so each church had its own family.  St Mary’s, for example, the Polish cathedral on Broad Street featured statues of  Saint Wojciech, Saint Jadwiga, and Saint Stanisław; St Joseph’s, the Italian church in the North End had many statues of St Francis – as a boy, a young man, and a saint.

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St Maurice had not particular ethnic identity, so the statues were traditional, common, and familiar; but it’s neutrality mattered little to Patricia.  The community she belong to was fungible – saints could come in and out, sit and be seated, and leave for another venue, and the order would never be disturbed.  Christ was at the head of he table and the saints were only invited guests.

Protestants criticized the Catholic church for its ‘idolatry’ – the statues, paintings, and icons filling churches were distracting at best and corrosive to faith at worst.  Martin Luther rejected such venal displays of adoration and reformed the church to his liking – a stripped down, severe, un-ornamented place of worship signifying the same simple, direct, unmediated relationship between believer and Christ.   Images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints would detract from that singular, powerful, and unique individual relationship between man and God.  Protestants were in this regard very much like Jews and Muslims for whom God has no physical image, no physicality at all.  He is too universal, almighty, and all powerful to be illustrated.

All of which is why Patricia remained a Catholic, and unlike her highly-educated intellectual Catholic friends who eschewed any imagery – they needed no help to understand, respect, and believe in God – she had statues, crosses, and paintings throughout her house.  She would stand before each of them daily, speak to them, ask about them, tell them about her life as though they were real members of her family. 

She was more Orthodox Christian than Roman Catholic in her love of iconography.  Bulgarians, Greeks, and Macedonians regularly kiss the icons on the church walls; crawl under and over the sarcophagi of the bones of Orthodox saints, bless themselves many times over as the priests open the iconostasis and emerge into the sanctuary.  The Orthodox Church would have been a better spiritual match for Patricia, but she was quite happy where she was.  The actual members of the family didn’t matter – only the family itself.

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Catholic statuary and iconography have gotten a bad name – cheap, plastic knockoffs of the saints are on dashboards and in lighted bedroom grottoes.  Inflated camels, wise men, Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus Nativity scenes are common in working class neighborhoods.  To severe Puritans, such a display of ‘incorporation’ is heresy.  Catholics have become a tribe of pagan idolaters.  Not so for Patricia for whom the statues, statuettes, and paintings were as holy as the saints who were depicted.

If there were no images to reflect upon and talk to, then the whole complex theological structure of a Church comprised of and based on saints and their lives would be lost.  She would lose a vital, living  link to Paul, Thomas, Augustine, John, and Mary.  Whether the statues were kitsch or Michelangelo, they were the holy persons they represented.  The quality of the art made no difference whatsoever.  In fact, once one began to judge statuary and iconography based on its artistic merit, faith had already begun to be eroded.

So her Upper Northwest friends snickered to themselves when they walked in to Patricia’s house – a garish, lowbrow display of tacky statues, pop paintings, rosary beads, scapulars, and miraculous medals.  While to some it was surprising that after a New England upbringing and an Ivy league education Patricia turned out to be no different than a South Philly Irish Catholic, to others who knew her better, her love of the trappings of Roman Catholicism – the mystery of the Mass, transubstantiation, confession, the nature of the Trinity and all the statues, icons, and religious accouterments – was real, fundamental, and essential. 

Why does this matter? What does the peculiarity of Patricia Lacey have to do with anything? In an era of progressivism where community is defined only in secular and political terms, spiritual communities are overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant.  Social justice and human progress will result only through human efforts.  A secular, social Utopia, a heaven on earth with no God, is all that matters.

Patricia’s community – her statues of Mary and Joseph, her crosses, her paintings of the saints, the illustrated stories of the Passion, the Temptation in the Desert, the marriage at Cana – were the only community she needed.  She could make of them what she willed, speak to them as she would, never hoping for a response.  Hers was a devoutly spiritual faith expressed in very simple way; and in that, she understood the nature of faith, devotion, and spiritual love better than most.

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