The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, February 26, 2007

On Statues....

And Vanishing Tradition

I have found yet another kindred spirit. A blogger who I have recently come into contact with has a beautiful blog that I commend to you all called Go Sit in The Corner. There is much food for thought there.

I was particularily impressed with a recent post the blogger made about growing up in New Orleans. It is a great Lenten post because it is quite out of the ordinary, and isn't that what Lent is all about anyway? I was particularily touched by this section of the post:

And then there are the churches. New Orleans is a Catholic city, and has historically fancied herself a European city. Thus, the churches (and there were so many of them in my childhood) are ornate in French or Italian baroque style, statues and paintings larger than life and in Technicolor with gilding everywhere. My sister used to fear a large statue of St. Lucy, holding her huge green eyes on a platter in front of her. There was St. Anne’s Church, where my mom often went to daily Mass and as she’d kneel and pray, I would play with an extra rosary she had that had a strange blue iridescence. Then, my favorite part: the Stations of the Cross, meditated on while crawling up steps on one’s knees. I didn’t do that bit, so eager to reach the Resurrection (at the top of the steps one walked out onto the roof, in the full blaze of that New Orleans’ sun) and then walk back into the darkness of an alcove where Mother Mary was, with votive candles surrounded by blue glass at her feet.

I had to laugh since I too feared many statues of saints growing up in the church. I used to fear in particular a large plastic set of the Holy Family that my grandmother had , to the point that I had nightmares about them. Hispanic Catholicism may not have a monopoly on bad taste in religious art that borders on the grotesque, but we certainly give everyone else a run for their money.

As you know, on the books I am Byzantine Catholic. Changing rites was a life decision I got stuck with for reasons that now no longer matter. Byzantine iconography was one of the reasons that I decided to make the Eastern Church home. But now, I no longer feel as compelled to bash the Western tradition of religious art. I suppose it is part of my realization that life is incredibly sloppy, and to portray that in art is something that will happen on its own. The Byzantine icon at times is too perfect, too theological, and too immaculate. I love them, but when it comes down to it, sometimes I just want to pray in front of a bloody Spanish crucifix, a statue of the Immaculate Conception, or of St. Joseph. It is our humanity shining through , for better or worse, that at times can seem sentimental, decadent, and even frightening. But there is something there that speaks to the soul of the Western Christian that an icon wil never be able to articulate. Indeed, can we say that the icon is prefered by many chique Christians to the exclusion of all else precisely because they can keep their distance?

There is a greater point I would like to make, however, and it has to do with the rest of our blogger's superb post, and it concerns what I call the rationalization of Roman Catholicism. That is to say, the creating of another parallel religious praxis of Roman Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council to replace the old one. In an earlier post on this featured blog, it was put very well in this manner:

“Well, at least we have the real sacraments!” is an oft-heard cry, but with it carries a smidgen of triumphalism and something more pernicious – that it doesn’t matter what they or we believe, as long as our sacraments are valid. We then give a point in argument to our critics: that all that holds us together is what the Catholic Church teaches about itself legally – that as long as one is tied to the pope, one is doing just fine in the spiritual sojourn.

I have been condemned for using the term, "neo-Catholic" on this blog, and I realize that categorizing people often does not help. If, however, we are to understand what is going on in our own church, we must apply some labels, if ever so delicately. My main fear about Catholic conservatives who unquestionably accept the order that has emerged out of the Second Vatican Council is that they are creating a religion out of the book, and not using the book to guide the religion. That is, what is occuring now is no longer an organic development of what has been done in the past but rather a formation of something new loosely based on what some experts think the past should have been like.

Many of the more prominent neo-Catholic voices are either converts or Catholics who grew up in a very secularized Anglo-Saxon culture. Those of us who had the benefit of growing up in a Catholic culture that was merely the normal way of life often cannot understand their very polemical and all-too-Anglo concerns about having to justify the Catholic triumphalist position at every turn. I cannot speak for the blogger I have cited, but growing up in the Mexican barrio in this country and having been exposed to folk Catholicism in Mexico as a boy, I cannot help but feel that these intellectuals are creating a safe, paper religion that does not know how to keep vigil all night in a cemetery, do the Stations of the Cross on one's knees, or pray in front of a rosy-cheeked statue of the Child Jesus. Is the heart of this new conservative Catholicism, Novus Ordo, faithful to the Pope, able to cite Newman at the drop of a hat, just cultural Protestantism on which a Catholic ideological structure is supposedly built?

I suppose I am not being fair. Not everyone can be raised in an atmosphere where Roman Catholicism was the unchallenged atmosphere that governed one's life growing up. The incredible hubris of many of these voices, however, cannot help but make me react rather dismissively towards them. This does not mean breaking communion with them or saying that they are "heretical". After all, they are my fellow Catholics, and who am I to judge them? But they have no idea what was lost; they have no idea how powerful all of those "decadent" things that have been consigned to church basements in the wake of the aggiornamento really were. It can be argued that even the mumbled pre-conciliar Mass of a distracted priest in an old Baroque church carries much more weight than even the sung Novus Ordo Mass as done by Solesmes. The former was unconsciously traditional, the latter is not. Tradition is truly tradition because we are beholden to it, not because we can re-make it according to our fancy.

My featured blogger and I are both about the same age, and that is quite an interesting fact in terms of what is being discussed here. For we were born precisely ten years after the Pauline Missal broke the liturgical back of the Western Church. Again, I cannot speak for the other blogger, but I certainly knew at a very early age that what took place before me at Mass had not been taking place for very long. I was exposed in other ways to the soul of what the Roman Catholic Church had always been, and this taught me that Papal encyclicals, catechisms, and manuals of theology are not schemata for making a religion from scratch (changing the Mass, the rosary, the idea of religious life, etc.) but rather aides in helping to guide the organic life of the heaving beast known as the Body of Christ here on earth, the Church militant. If this beast has no life of its own other than what is in books, and if it must constantly be re-made to conform to the latest theological fad, then it is either sick or dying. In spite of the fact that many aspects of pre-Conciliar Catholicism now seem unappetizing, would it not be advisable to return ad fontes to what we should have been taught, rather than trying to imagine what the early Church was like via the lens of a Von Balthasar or Congar?


At 11:49 AM, Blogger AG said...

Thanks for the compliments, and for choosing me as a “featured blogger.” I also apologize for the length of this comment, but I’m too lazy to post it on my own blog and I think you should get any credit/blame anyway.

Sometimes I feel like singing “gimme that old-time religion,” ‘cause I love me some Roman Catholicism, with all the prayer cards and scapulars and plastic statues sitting out in the yard. Where you hold your breath to hear about saints who have had the stigmata or Mary’s consecrated life in the temple. As I wrote on my own blog, I left deeply rooted Catholic soil when I was in six. I’ve been living in Protestant America since that time. I first entered it when my family moved to Houston and we became parishioners at the local church that was pentagonal and had a flat, mosaic, empty cross above the stage/altar and I was a member of the children’s choir, singing only songs that were composed after 1960. That’s Novus Ordo to me.

I don’t know what my faith would be like had I not been raised in a devoutly Catholic family where we said Rosaries and litanies every day, in a constant cycle of novenas. I learned my faith in the family, for after the age of six, the local Catholic parishes were of little to no help other than as dispensers of sacraments; CCD classes were even detrimental.

My mom would sign us up for all manner of ‘traveling’ religious artwork, so the pilgrim statues of Our Lady of Carmel, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, and a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe would visit our house for a month at a time, and we’d keep a votive candle burning next to her and pray in front of these depictions of the Blessed Virgin every night. When we were in pain, the first response out of my mom’s mouth was, “offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory.” We blessed ourselves with holy water every time we left the house and Lourdes water was always on hand, as were palms from Passion Sunday to burn above a candle whenever bad weather approached. My mother also kept a picture of Christ’s face, in agony and covered in blood while wearing the Crown of Thorns, on our refrigerator door. The big pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus with their chests opened and fingers pointing towards their Immaculate Heart and Sacred Heart, respectively, were in the bedrooms. Even now, my mom calls me whenever she lights a candle at church for me – which is as soon as the last candle she lit for me has burnt out - to tell me to make sure I say a special prayer to St. Joseph or Mary.

I was once involved in Catholics apologetics – I left it not only because I got tired of the same old arguments, but because of the intellectual oddities of some of the Catholic converts I would encounter. A former Baptist who, when asked why people light candles in front of statues of saints, said “of course we pray to the saints, but the candle lighting is just some superstitious thing some people do.” A former Presbyterian who, after attempting to explain a few of the Marian teachings, said “as a Catholic, you actually pay very little attention to Mary. It’s no big deal – other than the only three times she’s mentioned in the mass, you don’t have to do any of the other Marian devotion stuff.” What kind of Roman Catholicism did these friends of mine convert to? What in the world did they see in the Church? Why in the world do they, newborn in the ancient faith as they are, think they know better than people who have lived it for generations?

I suspect they had a hankering for a connection to the apostles, but with the 2000 years between then and now somehow smoothed over and wiped out. I sometimes think they became HUGE defenders of every Catholic teaching because they want that apostolic succession to be true OH SO BAD, because otherwise, why even bother being Catholic? They seem to find only the certainty of it attractive, not the ‘get your arms in all the way up to your elbows’ ways it’s been lived out (prior to V2, of course). I think it’s a hollow religion they have, one where they love being part of the communion of saints but are completely embarrassed that anyone would have such an effusive love for Mary and the saints that they’d seek to have depictions of them around, even if it’s bad artwork. Somehow the assent (bad Newman!) to Catholicism is, so they think, more important than the experience. I have no idea what kind of Church people like my Catholic convert friends are trying to re-build. We believe that a crucified Jewish carpenter rose from the dead. Some Lourdes water won’t kill you.

Sorry if I’ve used your combox as the beginning of a love letter to that old time religion.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Thank you so much for that.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Mack Ramer said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there something precolumbian about all that blood one sees on Mexican statues?

At 7:29 AM, Blogger Archistrategos said...

Brilliant post. Growing up in the Philippines, with all the unabashed Hispanidad in the practice of Catholicism, I understand what you mean. It's sad how many supposedly conservative or traditionalist Catholics are able to memorize so much encyclicals but are unable to manifest the simple piety of their fathers in faith, which I am admittedly also guilty of from time to time. I agree with your assessment that the practice of Catholicism today has largely been confined to paper and has lost much of the character it once possessed.

The number of drops of blood DNJC lost in the Passion, the hidden tortures He experienced, crawling to the altar... it's just sad how many of these practices are being forgotten.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is all true and revealing but for those of us who WERE NOT RAISED IN A TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC CULTURE AND WHO ONLY GET NOVUS ORDO NEOCATH "NEWMAN or AQUINAS SAID" OR "ACCORDING TO RERUM NOVARUM" there is little other choice. It is entirely a "religion of the book (encylical)."

We post-VII secularized American converts don't have fond memories of traditional Catholic praxis. Nor are we being presented with any truly reliable living images of it now. This situation makes 'American' Catholicism (at the very least) look deeply suspicious.

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