What You See Is What You Get: Catholicism and the Importance of Imagery
Off the top of your head, what are some of the most commonly broached objections to Catholicism that you’ve heard? I’m sure you can think of plenty, and I need not present my own list here, but there’s a decent chance that one of those dissenting voices you just recalled said something like: “Catholics worship statues and images,” or simply, “The Catholic Church just has too much stuff!”
One of the many paradoxes of modern society is its tendency to be simultaneously bacchanalian and sumptuous with regards to certain matters, and near brutalist and spartan with others. It’s no-holds-barred when it comes to our personal lives, relationships, and our eating and spending habits. But it only takes a passing glance at nearly any office building constructed within the last sixty years to recognize the presence of some kind of internal disparity. It is in part this new and subconscious iconoclasm (an early Christian heresy that taught that all imagery was idolatrous) at the root of the objections quoted above.
A great many of us have all but forgotten that humans are of a dual nature: physical and spiritual. And if we haven’t explicitly forgotten (or ignored) this fact, then we have convinced ourselves in modern times that these two natures are somehow divorced from one another, that there exists no overlap between them.
Our at-once physical and spiritual nature is a truth that all ancient cultures and societies have recognized implicitly — and the Church is no different. Lavish examples abound of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, shrines, and monuments practically exploding with carvings, paintings, mosaics, statues, stained glass, and icons.
But what the modern sensibility finds so hard to comprehend about all this seemingly unnecessary “stuff” is its vital role in nourishing both our physical and spiritual natures.
The myriad of artwork and ornamentation that permeates Catholic culture does not exist just to satisfy our desire to make and have beautiful things, although this is certainly a factor. Frankly, all of them are tools at their most basic function; tools meant to aid us in directing our minds and hearts to higher, transcendent things.
Is it possible to reach the same destination without the use of art and religious imagery? Perhaps, but why not employ all the faculties God gave us in glorifying Him and His creation? To me, it would be like purposefully blunting a knife and then becoming frustrated when it doesn’t cut like it should. Maybe there’s a connection between the pervasive nihilism in our society and the shameful lack of attention paid to making our everyday surroundings places in which we would be proud to live, work, play, and worship.
All of us are familiar with the concept of what are known as “sacramentals”: objects and signs recognized by the Church as beneficial to the growth of our faith. Your rosary is a sacramental, along with the crucifix on your bedroom wall. Each and every piece of art and imagery associated with our faith can also be seen from this perspective. They are outward signs of interior realities, visible representations of the union of body and soul.
So how can we make better use of these most lovely of tools? First, it starts with simply becoming more conscious of your environment. With what do you choose to surround yourself? Do you make any conscious effort to beautify your living spaces? We must have a baseline from which to begin. Then, you could create a designated sacred space in your house or your room, consisting of whatever statuettes, icons, candles, and incense burners you wish; catering to all the senses. I guarantee all this “stuff” will make a difference in your prayer life.
As a guiding principle of sorts, keep the ubiquitous colloquialism “what you see is what you get” in your mind, although I’m not using it here in quite the same context. In essence, be mindful of what you “feed” your senses. Just as we are advised to eat a healthy diet, so should we nourish our senses with good and beautiful things, so that our spiritual as well as our physical being may be in good working order. What we see is truly what we will become.