The importance of 'holy things' for one's Christian faith

The importance of 'holy things' for one's Christian faith

Andrew Kania

One day, at the time of the systematic destruction of the synagogues in Eastern Poland during the Second World War, a scroll lay tossed and torn on the cobbled streets of the Galician city of Jarosaw. A Ukrainian Catholic man in his fifties, a father of five, walked out of his house in full view of others. Bending down to pick up the pieces of parchment, all covered in Hebrew script, the Ukrainian slowly collected the fragments, and returned to his house, his wife and children, stunned by his reckless action.

There in the sanctuary of his dwelling, he quietly lit a fire in his stove, and turned to his family, saying to them, 'I do not know what is written on these pages, but I do know that this is the Word of God, and Holy Things are for the holy'.


Forty-five years later, in a strange twist of irony, this man's grand-daughter would be sitting in a religious education classroom at a Catholic school in Western Australia. There a young teacher, deciding to make a point about the difference between 'faith' and 'things', interrupted his regular lesson, and from the wall took down the pictures of Christ and of the saints, throwing them into the dust-bin, saying to the students, 'We don't need to have these 'things' in order to believe in God! Isn't our faith bigger than pictures?'

After the class, the grand- daughter, a shy girl of twelve, rose from her seat and picked the pictures from out of the bin, taking them at the end of the day to be given to a 'better' home.

In the early eighth century, Leo III (680-741), Emperor of Byzantium, issued an order that the image of Christ over the palace gate of Constantinople should be removed. The motivations for Leo's edict ranged from the Emperor's desire to appease the Muslim armies, who had won a number of key victories against the Byzantine forces, as well as his belief in a bad omen after a spectacular volcanic eruption on the island of Thera.

Leo's edict, seeking to court the Muslim clerics, specifically condemned 'the craft of idolatry', but interestingly stopped short of banning images made of himself. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Gemanus I (d. 730), who was not consulted by Leo, and concerned that the Emperor's edict would convince Jews and Muslims that Christians had indeed been wrong in forming images of Christ and his saints, appealed to the wider Church.

The then Pope, Gregory III (d. 741), condemned Leo's actions but the subsequent Emperor, Leo's son, Constantine V (d. 778), upheld his father's ban. Constantine attacked the monasteries, disposed of the relics of saints in the Bosphurus, and placed an even more stringent liturgical ban on the veneration of saints.

In such a political and religious climate, a great saint rose to the fore, the Syrian, John of Damascus (676- 749), coming to the much-needed defence of the veneration of Icons and of saints. In a tract, now commonly referred to as On the Divine Images, the Damascene exhorted religious and secular leaders to reject the bans placed by the Emperors.

In St John's words, 'If, therefore, the Word of God, in providing for our every need, always presents to us what is intangible by clothing it with form, does it not accomplish this by making an image using what is common to nature and so brings within our reach that for which we long but are unable to see?

'A certain perception takes place in the brain, prompted by the bodily senses, which is then transmitted to the faculties of discernment, and adds to the treasury of knowledge something that was not there before. The eloquent [Pope] Gregory says that the mind which is determined to ignore corporeal things will find itself weakened and frustrated. Since the creation of the world the invisible things of God are clearly seen by means of images.

'We see images in creation which, although they are only dim lights, still remind us of God. For instance, when we speak of the holy and eternal Trinity, we use the images of the sun, light, and burning rays; or a running fountain; or an overflowing river; or the mind, speech, and spirit within us; or a rose tree, a flower, and a sweet fragrance' (St John of Damascus, 2000, p. 20).

Decree on holy images

Such was the power of St John's thesis, as well as that of Theodore the Studite (758-826), that the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 issued the following decree, which is still maintained to this day, by the Church:

'Following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her) we rightly define with full certainty and correctness that, like the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy images of our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, our inviolate Lady, the holy Mother of God, and the venerated angels, all the saints and the just, whether painted or made of mosaic or another suitable material, are to be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, in houses and on streets' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, par. 1161).

Centuries later, during the period known as the Reformation in the West, a sense of the sacred was deliberately eliminated from many areas of Christendom. James Monti, in his study of the life of St Thomas More (1477-1535), The King's Good Servant but God's First (1997), notes among other aspects of the Reformation how '[a] nun of Geneva's Convent of Saint Claire, Jeanne de Jussie, tells of the path of wanton destruction forged by the soldiers as they passed through nearby villages on the way to the city. In Morge the troops quartered their horses in the cloister of the Franciscan monastery and desecrated the friar's chapel, starting a fire in the nave and throwing the consecrated Hosts into the flames, an action that our chronicler Jeanne likens to the tortures inflicted upon Christ by the soldiers of Caiaphas and Pilate.

'The Bernese completed their work by denuding the chapel, burning all its wooden statues and destroying the altar along with the stained-glass window behind it. Elsewhere in the suburbs of Geneva, the story was the same; everywhere they went, the soldiers vented their fury on all the religious images they found and even poked out the eyes of the images with their pikes and swords, and spat on them, to deface and disfigure them'.

These men of Zwinglian persuasion were also quite proficient in the destruction of Catholic books. Any priests who fell into their hands were beaten and stripped of their clerical robes. Especially perverse were their acts of sacrilege against the reserved Eucharist, with tabernacles broken and the Hosts thrown down to be trampled upon. In one case a consecrated Host was fed to a goat as the soldiers mockingly commented, 'Now he can die if he wants, he has received the sacrament' (Monti, p. 143).

New iconoclasm

Today, we in the West seem to be living in another period of iconoclasm. Many would find it incredible that the man, as described at the start of this article, would risk life and limb to pick up unintelligible pieces of paper from a war-torn street; fewer still, it appears, would find offensive the removal of an icon from the wall of a Catholic school or hospital to satisfy the demands of 'political correctness'.

Now we find rosary beads being worn as jewellery by 'celebrities' whose lifestyle stands in direct opposition to what the beads signify. Other celebrities, who declare their allegiance to various forms of paganism, find it not the least spiritually reprehensible to integrate the mockery of Christ's crucifixion into their concerts.

Yet these actions - however reprehensible - could be viewed as a back-handed if unthinking recognition of these symbols.

On a general level, a lack of appreciation for the sacred is perhaps no better exemplified than in the deliberate 'dressing-down' and general irreverence at church services, be they weddings, the celebration of the sacraments, or Sunday Masses.

Some even suggest that such occurrences are a form of spiritual maturity since 'holy things' are for spiritual beginners. Once these props are discarded, the real business of spirituality can begin. God, after all, is beyond material things.

Yet, as we find in the Scriptures and in the writings of the saints, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the Old Testament, 'things' are revealed to be holy, when God interacts directly with them: Moses has a snake that becomes his staff, Aaron a staff that becomes a snake; a bush burns to indicate a revelation from God; and man himself is said to have been formed by God from dust.

In the New Testament, Christ heals by mixing spittle with soil; and a woman is healed by touching the linen hem of Christ's garment.

To claim, as did the Protestant Reformers, that inanimate things cannot be made holy and are not integral to faith is to reject much of Scripture.

Byzantine theology affirms the integration of the spiritual with the material by incorporating into the liturgical calendar such days as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, with its blessing of the flowers that the faithful later take to their homes, and the Feast of the Transfiguration with the blessing of the fruit.

Here God can accept mundane objects giving them a transfigured quality, indicating that nothing in the material world is profane when God gives them a higher sacredness.

The teacher who takes it upon himself to trash religious paintings, has in fact betrayed his own lack of belief. If a lover's digital image still holds its revered place in the pockets of millions of human beings today, as did painted images of sweethearts in bygone years, perhaps it is not the symbolic meaning found in religious 'things'' such as icons, that has lost meaning, but rather the person's understanding of exactly what the symbol means that is lacking.

No man would consciously destroy a Rembrandt given to him, for he knows its worth, and no religious symbol could ever be considered dead or worthless, if the person who viewed the symbol was adamant that that symbol reflected in some way a living God.

This is what keeps the image of a loved one alive, even many years after the person has died - a firm belief that the object of their affection does exist, or did once walk this earth.

The man who picked up the tattered pieces of Hebrew Scripture did so on the basis that 'things' do have a value given to them by the presence of God in the world; that some 'things' are worth living for - even dying for.

In the Latin Church, still recoiling from the aftermaths of the 16th century Reformation, the Enlightenment and the post-1960s excesses of 'the spirit of Vatican II', it is little wonder so many prefer to dismiss the value of 'holy things', even 'apologising' for past superstitions like crucifixes and icons. They fail to appreciate the importance of such 'holy things' to Catholic tradition.

Awareness from East

It is perhaps from the Apostolic East that a heightened awareness of the sacredness of 'things' can be revived.

The great Eastern scholar of the 20th century, John Meyendorff, in his work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, explains the enduring purpose of symbols in Christianity. An icon or a cross, he says, 'does not exist simply to direct our imagination during our prayers. It is a material centre in which there reposes an energy, a divine force, which unites itself to human art.

'The sign of the cross, holy water, the words of Scripture read in the course of the divine office, the ecclesiastical chant, the ornaments of the church, incense and lighted candles, are all symbols in the realistic sense of the word. Ritual symbolism is more than a representation addressed to the senses in order to remind us of spiritual realities É [it is] an initiation into a mystery, the revelation of a reality which is always present in the Church' (Meyendorff, 1998, p. 189).

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College in Perth. A Ukrainian Catholic, he received his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Uppsala. He is the author of numerous articles on religious topics.

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