“He was a wicked man, but the Lord forgave him.” One fine spring day in my sophomore year of college, I joined my paternal grandmother on her more-or-less daily walk from her house out to the cemetery of my parent’s hometown in Eastern North Carolina. This was her characteristically pointed and Christian evaluation of a man whose tomb rose at the edge of the yard; far more monumental than the others, it was decorated on all four sides with Masonic symbols and inscribed with third-rate (or so I thought then—I was a sophomore, after all) verse. My grandmother’s particular judgment was pronounced as she pointed to some words carved in the stone above all the verbal and pictographic arcana: “O Lord, be merciful to me, a poor sinner.”
My grandmother was deeply, devotedly Protestant, and I had been reared in an Anglo-Catholic rectory, but, by then, I had become a Catholic simpliciter. I remember thinking that it was all a bit rich for my taste, this juxtaposition of strange ritual references with the simplicity of an act of contrition. Then I had a little flash of intuition: Maybe this is the way Protestants feel when confronted with Roman liturgy or devotion. I was soon to have confirmation of this insight. Later in the week, I dragged a moderately curious male cousin to Mass in the town’s small Catholic Church. It was a no-frills, spoken vernacular Novus Ordo, and so, not surprisingly, he said that it wasn’t as strange as he had expected it to be; but, he added, unable to contain himself: “It’s pretty weird that boys that can’t marry go around kissing Bibles. I bet they kiss those statues, too.” Now, my cousin was no lubriciously minded Freudian. No, he was merely an instinctive iconoclast, suspicious of the living, bodily iconography of celibacy and of the artifice of sacred images. These memories, for which I am so grateful, have led me both to an understanding of what motivates a certain kind of Christian iconoclast—or, better, iconophobe—and also to an appreciation of the condition sine qua non for being an authentically Christian iconodule.
Anglicans jocosely switch the words of their Venite at Morning Prayer: “O worship the Lord in the holiness of beauty.” A certain Wildean inversion of the proper order of religious experience is the great enemy of true, Christian image worship and a concrete, ascetical—albeit insufficient—justification for the refusal to venerate the icons. Saint Augustine can enlighten us here, as he comments on the Old Latin version of Psalm 95 (96 in the Hebrew):
Confession and beauty are fitting in his presence. Are you in love with beauty? Do you want to be beautiful? Then confess. The psalm did not say “beauty and confession,” but “confession and beauty.” You have been ugly, so confess and become beautiful. You were a sinner, but confess and become righteous. You were able to make yourself foul, but you cannot make yourself fair. What a bridegroom we have: One who loved a soiled bride in order to make her beautiful! “What do you mean?” someone asks. “In what sense did He love a soiled bride?” Remember what He told us: I came to call not the just, but sinners. But what about those sinners whom you call, Lord: do you mean them to remain sinners? “No,” he replies. But how can they cease to be sinners? Confession and beauty are fitting in His presence. They confess their sins . . . There you find confession and beauty. We are in love with beauty, so let us first opt for confession, that beauty may follow.
“Low Church” Protestantism has always seen genuine Christianity as a matter of personal repentance and redemption and liturgical Christianity as, at best, negligent of these things, concerned with aesthetics, ceremony, and the social influence of the hierarchy. “High Church, low morals” an evangelical-wag friend of mine used to say. It is this evaluation of the image-worshiping and image-conscious Catholic that seems to justify the evangelical’s or Calvinist’s aversion to the icon.
Surely the kiss, the bodily gesture which so impressed my not-kissing cousin, is, of all touches, the most evidently expressive of aesthetic appreciation, a man’s instinctive movement to that which is loved as beautiful. The tradition of the Roman liturgy accompanies the priest’s kiss of the altar with the words May you deign to pardon all my sins and his kiss of the Gospel with the invocation By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out. The only statue in the Roman rite that the worshiper is directed to kiss is the crucifix on Good Friday, as a sign of repentance, on bended knee. In the Latin West, the bow or genuflection toward an image or hierarch was traditionally called a venia, a request for pardon. In its most ancient and austere tradition, the Old Roman, the image-worshiping Christian world always accompanies the veneration of the beautiful with the sense and the seeking of forgiveness.
In his Rule, St. Augustine quotes Sirach 44’s eulogy of the saints, as he exhorts his brethren to be “lovers of spiritual beauty.” In Augustine’s day, as later in the middle ages, the word conversion referred to a life lived in monastic repentance, modeled on the common life of the saints of old:
Let us praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation. The Lord hath wrought great glory through his magnificence from the beginning. Such as have borne rule in their dominions, men of great power and endued with their wisdom, shewing forth in the prophets the dignity of prophets, and ruling over the present people, and by the strength of wisdom instructing the people in most holy words. Such as by their skill sought out musical tunes and published canticles of the scriptures. Rich men in virtue, lovers of beauty: living at peace in their houses . . . Moses was beloved of God and men: whose memory is in benediction . . . Before him there were none so beautiful, even from the beginning.”
It is not for nothing that the veneration of saints and their images found its greatest development through the monastic tradition in both East and West, which was precisely the cultivation of spiritual beauty through a life of repentance and conversion in imitation of the saints. Yet the full development of the cult of images represents a danger that engenders an anxious reaction. The sincere Christian iconophobe does not suspect the ideal represented by the saint and his image but, rather, an inversion of value on the part of the believer. He insists, with the Psalmist, that confession must come before beauty, that God is to be worshiped “in the beauty of holiness” and not vice versa. No Protestant, but the most Catholic and monastic of mystics, St. John of the Cross warns in chapter 35 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel:
The truly devout person directs his devotion mainly to the invisible object represented, has little need for many images, and uses those that are conformed more to the divine traits than to human ones. He brings these images—and himself through them—into conformity with the fashion and condition of the other world, not with this one. He does this so that worldly images will not be stirring his appetite and so that he will not be reminded of this world . . . His heart is not attached to these goods, and if they are taken away, his grief is slight. He seeks the living image of Christ crucified within himself, and thereby he is pleased rather to have everything taken from him and to be left with nothing.
A worldly, merely sensible appreciation of the beautiful before conversion, the concern for false worship, pleasure, and power indicated by the life and the tomb of the wicked freemason before he prayed “O Lord, be merciful to me, a poor sinner”—this kind of love for beauty Saint Augustine calls philokalia. It serves as an indication of the possibility of conversion, of some real but inefficacious tendency to moral goodness in fallen nature. In his Contra Academicos, written in the year of his conversion to his friend Romanianus, whom he longs to persuade to follow (and underwrite!) him, Augustine writes:
Truly I was fast returning completely to my senses. And as if returning from a journey, I beheld again—I avow it—that religion which had been implanted in us in our boyhood, and which had been, as it were, interwoven with the very marrow of our being. But that religion was drawing me to itself, although I knew it not. Trembling, irresolute, and impatient, I snatched up Paul the Apostle. For, I say, surely those men could not have accomplished such great things, and could not have lived in such manner as they manifestly did live, if their writings and reasonings were in opposition to so great a good. I read the whole book with the greatest attention and care.
Then philosophy’s countenance, however dim the light that was cast upon it, revealed itself to me. It was such a countenance that, if I had been able to describe it to that adversary of yours (I shall not say “to you,” for you have always been arduously desirous of it, although as yet unknown to you; but “to that adversary of yours,” and I know not whether you are being more exercised than impeded by him) then he would forsake and relinquish the seashore resorts, the beautiful parks, the delightful and elegant banquets, the private theatrical exhibitions. In fine, he would shun everything that is strongly inciting him toward any pleasures whatsoever, and as a fond and pious lover, he would fly to the object of his admiration, the aim of his desire, and the end of his longing. For we must admit that he has a certain mental adornment, or rather the seed, as it were, of such an adornment. While it strives to sprout into true beauty, it produces twisted and misshapen leaves amid the rough thickets of vices and errors. However, it is incessantly producing leaves, and to the few who peer—insofar as it is permitted—intently and diligently into the dense entanglements, it continues to be plainly visible. Hence, that kindliness, the extreme elegance; hence, the splendor and the most orderly arrangement of all things—and the charm of a reflected beauty everywhere, adorning everything. This is commonly called philokalia, the love of the beautiful.
Today, this word has another, wonderfully sublimated meaning, which sums up the power of “confession before beauty” to establish the deepest love and veneration of the icon. As is so often the case, we Western Romans have to look East to rediscover the spiritual tradition of our own saints and doctors. There, where the icons, in an overwhelming profusion, are venerated with the countless kisses of the faithful, the Philokalia is a compilation of texts from the patristic and monastic tradition on the practice of contrition and continuous prayer. The whole collection has but one purpose: that the believer be united to God by the constant, heartfelt prayer, “O Lord Jesus, be merciful to me, a poor sinner.” Not a bad way to unite my grandmother, my cousin, wicked old Masons, and me, as well as Calvinist, Carmelite, Wildean, Roman, mundane, and monastic. A smiling, bearded Oriental coenobite proffers an image to our lips, saying with Saint Paul: “And such were ye . . . ”