God in a Broken Frame and Shattered Glass: Another Look at Sacred Imagery

Recently, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church here in Berkeley, California, was vandalized and robbed of various sacred images. Among them was a portrait of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a favorite amongst the parishioners. The Byzantine-style icon was ripped out of its place, leaving nothing there but the empty frame and broken glass. Some parishioners have already made offers to replace it, though the church itself is now closed during the day until it can get some cameras or other security measures in place to make sure that such incidents do not happen again.

One Sunday after these events, I saw something a little strange, but touching, at least to me. At the early morning Mass, several people approached the empty frame with their usual candles and stopped to say a prayer in front of it. To those who think that praying to an image is silly in the first place, perhaps this would be something that would prove their point. Not only were these devotees having a picture fill in for Jesus and His mother Mary, but they were having an empty frame fill in for the picture. Having grown up with religious imagery in a Mexican household, I personally found this act of faith profoundly moving; just another example of how our Catholic Faith has to do with such little things that can mean so much.

The veneration of images is one of the things that most separates us from our Protestant brothers and sisters in this country. Growing up, I had relatives who had converted to evangelical Protestantism, and as a youth I would see lying around their houses Jack Chick comic books that attack various elements of Catholic doctrine. The strongest critiques are often directed toward the veneration of sacred images. In their very exaggerated way, these comics sought to demonstrate how this Catholic practice is a hold-over from ancient pagan religions and is antithetical to the Gospel. Being a precocious student of ancient mythology and religion, I wasn’t at all scandalized by these ideas. It did make me sensitive, however, to what sacred images are and are not in Catholicism. It is good to have the official definitions in mind first when approaching this very sensitive issue.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that sacred images form an important part of our liturgical functions. Citing the Second Council of Nicea (787 A.D.) and the works of St. John Damascene ( +749 A.D.), the Church defends the use of images in portraying the mystery of the Word of God made flesh, as well the “cloud of witnesses” (the communion of saints) that surround Him in His Kingdom (Hebrews 12: 1). As stated in paragraph 1162:

[T]he contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.

According to the official teaching of the Church, sacred images can be valuable tools for expressing the most sublime truths of our faith. They show that the truth is not an idea but a Face, and that salvation does not come through abstractions, but through the workings of divine charity in our day to day lives.

That of course is what it says on the books, but how do we apply this to the phenomenon that I saw at the Berkeley parish church that morning? What would cause people to get so attached to an image that even when it is gone, they pray before it and offer candles anyway? Is such a tendency healthy? Is it faithful to the Church’s teaching? Or should it be dismissed as hollow sentimentalism, a sense of loss that we all have when something familiar is taken away from us?

The sociologist Michael Carroll wrote a book called, Veiled Threats: the Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy , that can shed some light on how sacred images have been viewed on another, more organic level in Catholic culture. In this book, Carroll highlights the life of Blessed Bartolo Longo (beatified by Pop John Paul II in 1980), a lay apostle to the Italian rural masses in 19th century Italy. His own life story could merit an article in itself, but what I would like to discuss here is his involvement in the spread of the devotion to the Madonna di Pompei, basically an image of the Virgin of the Rosary. Truth be told, the now famous icon is a touch-up of a portrait that Longo bought from an old convent. Devotion to it swelled in the nineteenth century among the devout in Italy. Miracles were attributed to it, and a massive church was built around it to welcome pilgrims seeking answers to their prayers.

Longo documented his life and apostolate in a personal journal. When discussing the phenomenon of the new religious image that he had helped bring into being, he wrote the following:

This fact seems uncontestable: to the Neopolitans and other outsiders who come here on a daily basis, there is something in this image that draws them to admire it. It is certainly not the workmanship, since it is not one of Rafael’s Virgins. Rather, it seems to be a mysterious force that imposes itself on people and leads them, almost without their wishing it, to kneel and pray.

Here then we see a more foundational and human approach to religious imagery in the Catholic Church, one that takes the sacramental principle a step further. Catholicism in the end is a religion of the concrete: a religion filled with ceremony, trinkets, and daily things used for extraordinary purposes. Bread and wine, rosaries, cloth, incense, and old, worn pages come together to create a religion that you can touch, taste, and smell. At times, these things can compel us to be better than what we are now; they often lead us to repentance and to a life committed to a God who is above all human sense and thought. It can appear to be magic to the casual observer, but the real magic here is not in the plaster or the paint, but rather in faith:

Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17: 20).

That is how I would see those people placing candles before that desecrated image on a Sunday morning. It is a confession of faith in a great God who became so small for us. It is a sign that what we believe is so close yet so distant, so familiar and yet so mysterious, and that we must seek God in beauty, simplicity, and trust.

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