In the Eyes of a Plaster Saint
When I visited the shops around the National Basilica of the Virgin of Lujan in Argentina, I couldn’t believe some of the kitschy statues I encountered. Some were badly painted and of poor quality. Others were just outright grotesque. Since we do not live in a Catholic country, religious art is monopolized by the official Church or reputable companies. In traditional countries, street vendors often sell religious art to make a living on the sidewalks in front of shrines or in random places in a city. My former abbot told me that in Greece, you can even buy your icons and pornography from the same stall…
After my encounter with these poorly made statues, I was overheard to say, “no wonder people become Protestant!” My aesthetic snobbery was unable to tolerate these poor examples of sacred art. Now I am beginning to see the error of my ways once again.
The main problem for me when approaching orthodox Catholic discourse in this country is that it all seems so “by the book”. (Liberal heterodox discourse also seems by the book, just a different book.) The Church in its hierarchical function has always tried to formalize and codify what is allowable, appropriate, and pious, and what isn’t. They are the shepherds, and we should follow them in what they say, or at least acquiesce when they make a decision. But that does not mean that they have to micromanage everything and that they are infallible in all of their decisions. The development of the ethos of the Church was not a top-down exercise in obedience, but rather a constant give and take between a hierarchy that was often detached from many concrete conditions of life and a laity that often had to face these brutal and nasty living conditions head on. This I think is the reason behind all of the devotions and practices that Protestants and not a few Catholics think of as superstition and idolatry. As I have said, Marian devotion and the cult of the relics did not begin because the bishops thought that they were a good idea. They were rather an expression of what people felt they needed out of the Church.
So when I read many examples of Catholic writing in this day and age, often I only see a preoccupation with being approved of and “official”. The treasures of our Faith were often not the result of official proclamations, but rather spontaneous reactions of simple folk who had to adapt to the conditions of life in which they found themselves. When I read “Catholicism by the book”, then, it’s not that I find it merely to be boring (I get the feeling that I have read all of these books before), but I also find it lifeless and quite stale. There is a great danger for fundamentalism on the one hand, and party-line posturing on the other.
The problem then, as one person put it, is that there are times in the Church that it doesn’t seem “real” anymore. That is, either people openly doubt the supernatural nature of the Church, as is the case of the heterodox, or people do violence to their modern sensibility viz. assent and consider it an act of Faith. (It very well may be one.) In the latter case, while we are universal skeptics and rationalists in all other matters, when it comes to Faith, we become die-hard believers. While this could be considered admirable, it is hardly sustainable in my opinion. The asymmetry between life and Faith, between society and Church, will not be able to hold out for long. Something, in my opinion, will have to give. The dissonance cannot sound indefinitely.
That is why I simply don’t see the “crisis” as many ecclesiastics and observers see it. I don’t see it as an issue of relativism vs. "absolute truth". When we are swimming in our daily lives in theory and praxis that are diametrically opposed to hierarchy, tradition, enchantment and order and are expected to take them up again in the pew on Sunday morning, something is not going to click in the minds of many of the faithful. And unless we are prepared to become crypto-fascists, monarchists, or New Agers, we will never be very consistent about how we integrate our lives. Can we really look at the eyes of a plaster saint in the same way, in supplication and devotion? Will this ever again feel natural to us? Will this ever again be a "bottom-up" phenomenon for people in the "developed world"?
I do not have the solution. All I know is that the path is steep and the way difficult. All I know is that despite my grandmothers’ questionable uses of eggs, traditional Christianity made much more sense to them than it does to us. That is because they really did feel that they owned the Gospel, that God really listened to them, either in turning water into wine or multiplying loaves on a mountainside. At times, I think we now feel that it’s only on loan to us.