October 1, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Religious artwork and imagination help deepen our faith

I am writing this column in advance because when it is published, God willing, I will be leading a pilgrimage to Oberammergau in Germany.

We pilgrims will be attending an all-day production of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (I am told there will be a break for food.)

This version of the Passion of Jesus is enacted by virtually all of the citizens of Oberamagau only on a 10-year cycle. I have always wanted to see the drama, but never had the opportunity. I’ve been to the German village before and have seen the stage sets, costumes and props, but not during the 10th year of production.

I look forward to the drama, not just out of idle curiosity. I have always had a love for and devotion to the Passion of Christ. The Way of the Cross is one of my favorite devotions. The play is in German. I am hopeful that my grasp of the language is good enough to follow an already familiar story. I will pray for all of you during it.

I remember being fascinated as a boy by the Stations of the Cross in the church of my youth, St. Joseph’s in Jasper. I recall studying them with great admiration during Mass—and as we stood in line for confession.

I was impressed by the grandeur of their size. The stations are large, but I’m sure they seemed much larger to me then. I loved the presentation and the color of the images, and I still do. Of course, the artistic effect was important for me in my boyhood but, more importantly, my love for the Way of the Cross and following the Passion of Jesus had its roots in that church.

I also recall studying the mosaics that decorate St. Joe’s. The side of the church where our family always sat during Mass looked upon a large mosaic of the marriage of Joseph and Mary. You don’t see many depictions of that marriage.

That mosaic impressed me with the idea of the sacredness of marriage, and the witness of Joseph and Mary. The depiction was from the medieval period so, of course, it wasn’t intended to be a realistic reproduction of whatever had been the betrothal rite for Mary and Joseph.

In my earliest days, St. Joseph Parish was served by Benedictine monks from Saint Meinrad. (I was baptized by Benedictine Father James Reed.) I mention the monks because they were the builders of the monumental church, and there were a lot of Benedictine symbols all around the interior. In fact, until a later renovation, statues of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were located on either side of the main altar. Incidentally, the formidable main, marble altar portrayed the sacrifice of Abraham and that of Melchizedek.

I didn’t intend to get carried away with a verbal tour of the grand St. Joseph Church, although it is worth a visit if you find yourself in southern Indiana. It dominates the Jasper skyline so you can’t miss it.

It has been 65 years since my earliest impressions of religious faith were profoundly initiated in that home church. I am grateful for the sacred art that was such an important part of my young life and still is an important part of my life. We are visual people, and we need images that shape our imagination and make an imprint on our spiritual lives. I learned a lot about my Catholic faith from the artwork in old St. Joe’s.

I think my experience is telling. It makes the case for the importance of images and imagination in the shaping of our faith in God. We can’t simply depend only on words and philosophy and theology, as helpful and important as they may be, for the deeper understanding of what and why we believe what we Catholics believe.

I tend to agree with folks who maintain that we lost a lot in our local Catholic culture after the Second Vatican Council. In an effort to work some correctives in the way that we celebrated liturgy, I believe we went from a more pious rendition of sacred art and liturgical decorations to admittedly austere renderings. I also tend to agree that we leaned heavily on the intellectualization of the presentation of our faith on the one hand and on the banal simplification of imagery on the other.

I am convinced that Passion plays and Stations of the Cross—and certainly the dignified celebration of the sacraments, rituals and sacramentals of the Catholic Church—help to shore up the foundations that our imaginations need to sustain the practice of the faith.

We are a visual people, and our religion and culture have much to offer to our vibrancy as a believing people. †

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