Many religious symbols become ornaments when they die, or at any rate when they are near to death. We were impressed when two young boys came to our retreat centre to buy rosary beads. We were so impressed that we made them a gift of them. Only after they had left did the penny drop: they did not see the beads as religious objects but as accessories, sported sometimes nowadays by footballers. I had a further lesson in the same subject a short time later when I saw a statue of Mary balancing a garden gnome at the other end of someone’s flower-bed. The icons of our faith – even the cross of Christ – are slipping away by inches to join the dead symbols of forgotten folklores and religions: leprechauns, ankhs and zodiacal signs.
Can you think of any other examples of this? Has the degeneration of religious symbolism ever reached this level in times past? Oh yes it has, and far exceeded it! In past centuries it became a custom among the very wealthy in England to build a rustic hermitage in the garden and pay an “Ornamental Hermit” to live there. For example, in the 18th century the Hon. Charles Hamilton advertised for an Ornamental Hermit and laid down the conditions: he should “continue in the hermitage seven years, where he would be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never under any circumstances must he cut his hair, his beard or his nails, or stray beyond the limits of the grounds, or exchange one word with the servants....” It is recorded that the man who got the job remained only four years and so lost every penny.
A symbol is an outward sign, and there seems to be nothing to stop it becoming more and more outward until it loses all contact (except perhaps a faint nostalgia) with the inner reality it once showed forth. It isn’t enough to blame the secular spirit for this. The artistic standard of many religious objects on sale is so low that you wonder if they ever had any interiority at all. I took an interest in this and sought out a few particularly gaudy plaster statues which I then painted white. The transformation was very striking. From being religious dolls they suddenly turned into religious symbols. The transformation was most dramatically evident in the face. It was as if silence had suddenly fallen on them; the red lips and blue eyes and pink cheeks disappeared, and with one stroke of the brush the objects attained a kind of interiority. They had been saying more than they should say, all of it shallow and falsely ornamental, and in one moment it was all silenced.
The silence, of course, is in oneself, not in the statue. But a statue that doesn’t say too much allows you to be silent; it can even help you to return to a great silence in your own spirit. What we need in a noisy age is a kind of religious art that suggests silence and contemplation. The unlovely objects of repository art were part of a very wordy piety in which language and sentiment were readymade. Our instinct was to look immediately for a prayer-book and wonder, “What page is that on?” Contemplation was scarcely mentioned, except in biographies of saints. As recently as the 1930s, many Catholic theologians held that contemplation was for contemplative nuns and monks, not for ordinary Christians. That position, thank God, has been abandoned. There is a strong emphasis now on contemplation and silence; and around the world there are countless people who take this with great seriousness. Icons from Eastern Christianity have largely replaced repository art.
But could this too not be a little like reaching for the book? In addition, shouldn’t there be religious objects that reflect our own homegrown interiority? If you have a gift that points in this direction why not take the plunge?