Saint Worship - Part 16

That the honor we pay to relics, crucifixes, sacred pictures, and images might, while Greek and Roman idolatry was predominant in the empire, have been taken in a superstitious or idolatrous sense by some only half-converted from heathenism, and have led the heathen to regard Christians themselves as idolaters, is not impossible. It would seem that, while the danger of awakening old idolatrous or superstitious associations remained, these memorials, though carefully preserved, were exhibited with more reserve to the reverence of the faithful than after Christianity had take possession of the empire, and the discipline of the secret – disciplina arcani – was no longer necessary or even practicable.

The use of images did not originate idolatry with the heathen. The culpable loss or corruption of the knowledge of God preceded the idolatrous worship of images, or the worship as gods of things which are not God. The gentiles had the knowledge of the true God, but "when they knew God, they have not glorified Him as God, or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts; and their foolish hart was darkened. For, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of four-footed beasts, and of creeping things." But while men retain uncorrupted the knowledge of the true God, they cannot confound Him with anything visible – with the sun, or moon, or stars – far less with an image which man has painted or carved.

Memorials [of our Lord and the saints], so far from tending to obscure that knowledge in the minds or hearts of the faithful, have the contrary effect – that of tending to keep it more clear, fresh, and living in the heart. Nothing can tend more directly to bring home the great facts of the Incarnation and the redemption, on which all our hopes of salvation depend, than to kneel before the image of Christ dying on the cross for us. The son does not forget his mother in contemplating her picture, or the lover his beloved. The patriot does not find his knowledge of Washington obscured, or his love for him or his country weakened, by looking on his coat or sword which the nation preserves. Everybody knows and feels that the contrary is the fact. Experience proves that they who object to the relative honor that Catholics pay to the memorials of Christ and His saints as superstitious or idolatrous, themselves gradually lose the sense of the Incarnation, and are by no means remarkable for their knowledge and love of the saints and martyrs. [Yet] they also, with an inconsistency that does them honor, cherish such memorials as they have of the reformers, who are their saints and great men. There is preserved in the Watburg even yet, I am told, the inkstand which Luther threw in the devil’s face, and pilgrims are shown the black spot it left on the wall.

But it is said that these memorials are addressed to the senses, and can only tend to give our piety an outward, sensible character, and prevent the mind from turning inward and becoming acquainted with the deeper, internal spiritual life. The contrary is the fact. These memorials direct the mind at once to the spiritual life, for they are nothing to the Catholic save as memorials of such life; external symbols of the interior and spiritual. Perhaps they are not such to the Protestant, who has no acquaintance with the deeper spiritual life familiar to every saint, and in some degree to every Catholic. Do not be scandalized, my dear Protestant friend. There are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in your philosophy, or attained to in your pious meditations. Our Catholic worship seems to you external, sensual, unspiritual, because you have in your own spiritual experience no key that unlocks its mysterious depths. These memorials so dear and significant to us, so powerful to place us in the presence of God, and to make us feel that we belong to the communion of saints, are to you no memorials at all, and tell you nothing beyond what they are in themselves. But is that our fault?

Then, again, it must not be forgotten that the living man is body and soul united, not body alone, nor soul alone, and the senses in their place and in their proper use are as essential to man as the intellect. Man is not a pure intelligence, and grasps the intelligible only as sensibly represented. He can no more live and act without sense than without reason. For him, pure spiritualism is as impossible as pure sensism. Hence the principle and reason of external worship. A purely internal worship is as insufficient as a purely external worship, and experience proves that they who reject all external worship soon come to neglect all internal. Worship demands the homage of our whole man. Christianity elevates, purifies, and directs our nature, but rejects no part of it. The whole is from God, and should be returned to Him as His due. In all true religion there is indeed a mystic element; but they who seek to be pure mystics, to live in this world as pure, disembodied spirits, mistake the nature of religion and the capabilities of man. These memorials of Christ and His saints help us precisely because, like music and speech, they are external signs, and are addressed to our senses, conveying a truth, a spiritual reality, to the understanding and the heart.

But in the relics of the saints, Catholics worship (we are told by men who esteem themselves wise) dead men’s flesh and bones, rottenness and corruption. We do not worship the relics of saints, in the sense the objectors mean. But the objection shows how far the age that brings it has departed from the true sense of the Incarnation, and the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection. The Christian does not view these relics as do those who lack the Christian’s faith and the Christian’s hope. This flesh and these bones have been redeemed by our Lord, for He assumed flesh, took upon Himself a real human body, not simply a human soul; and in assuming a human body He redeemed all material nature, all the elements of which are included in the human body (whence the ancients term man a microcosm, or world in little). In the Incarnation, all material nature has been assumed and purified; and Holy to the Lord, as foretold by the prophet, and has been written on everything. Hence Peter, in the vision, was forbidden to call any creature common or unclean. The relics of the saint have also been cleansed and sanctified by the prayers, vigils, fasts, mortifications, and holy life of the saint – purified and sanctified by the grace of God, so freely bestowed on the saint, and so [fully] complied with by him.

Moreover, these relics are not the flesh and bones of dead men. The saints are not dead; they live, and live in heaven, in the presence of God, and enjoy the glory of their Lord. Have we forgotten that life and immortality are brought to light through the Gospel? And is the future life only a hope and not a reality to men calling themselves Christians, as it was and is to the heathen? But more than this the Christian knows: not only does the soul live, but this very flesh which once clothed the saint shall rise again, and live forever; for does not the Christian sing with the Church, Credo in resurrectionem carnis – I believe in the resurrection of the flesh? Hence even our bodies should be sanctified and preserved pure, for they are destined to rise again, to an immortal life. The honor the Church pays to the relics of saints and martyrs is an honor due to them as related to Our Lord Himself through His assumption of flesh, and as having in some sense shared in the holy life and sanctity of the saint; but it serves also to keep alive in our minds and fresh in our hearts the great and glorious article of our faith, the resurrection of the body.

This said, the reason for honoring with an inferior and relative honor, as expressed in the catechism, the pictures and statues of the saints, as well as of Our Lord in His humanity, is obvious. They are related to the saints in an inferior degree, but still related to them; and though feebler than the relics, are yet memorials of them, which keep alive in us the great Catholic principles and virtues the saints honored in their lives, and direct us to that Fountain of Grace whence they drew the strength to come off conquerors in the battle of life.