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St. John Damascene: Holy Pictures to the Rescue!

BY Father Cole

Dec. 1-7, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/1/96 at 2:00 PM

 

ON DEC. 5, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of the great defender of icons, St. John Damascene, who encourages us to keep images at home, in the car and on our person. He once wrote: “[God] deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through matter.” St. John was the first theologian to systematically distinguish between worship of God and veneration of things associated with him, such as the icon. “I honor material things, not as though they were God, but in as much as they are replete with energy and grace. … Do not despise matter. …

Through matter, my salvation is accomplished.”

Because of Original Sin, humans tend to neglect God and spiritual things. And since we are generally attracted to the delights of the senses, pleasing images, statues, pictures and medals help us stay on course. The more I visit the sick and infirm as well as other homes of American faithful, the more uneasy I become by the absence of the crucifix, images of Mary and other signs of Catholic faith. Only a generation ago these were found everywhere. Worse still, few people today carry rosaries or bother to have their homes blessed.

We need these supplements to devotion. They give us greater fervor and a willingness to bring our faith into daily life's many challenges. Some of the “kitsch” art of the past does not excite contemporary taste, but we need images to remind us of who and what we really are.

Poetry and music help inculturate the faith in all cultures, but the visual arts hold pride of place. Again, as St. John Damascene put it: “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” Certainly in the West bishops should be more concerned with good pictorial and popular sacred art as well as music and poetry. Economic pastorals don't really touch the “heart” of the masses.

Father Cole is a friar of the Western Dominican Province.