Keep in touch with your faith

EVERY SUNDAY AFTER MASS, I PAT JESUS' BIG TOE. Let me hasten to explain that Jesus is made of wood. Like the little boy who preferred his mother over prayer to shield him against things that go bump in the night, I too, prefer "God with the skin on."

Incarnation is all-important to Catholics. We, like the apostle Thomas, long to put our fingers in Christ's side; we want to feel the nail holes in his hands and feet.

Focusing attention on an object as a symbol for the real thing is instinctive. Witness the throngs of British mourners who propped flowers and momentous against the railings of a London palace at the death of Princess Diana. Consider the Vietnam veterans who can finally grieve by touching a name chiseled in the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington. Driving the highways, I see flower wreaths and crosses marking the site of fatal car crashes. At one marker, the silk flowers are carefully changed to reflect the seasons, year in and year out.

Though long reviled as idolatry by non-Catholics, the practice of praying to God, Mary, and the angels and saints in the presence of their images fulfills a fundamental human need to communicate with the incorporeal divine.

Devotional images go back to the earliest church. Pragmatic stonemasons carved sarcophagi with both pagan and Christian motifs for their customers. And the Vatican has a third-century statue of the Good Shepherd in the guise of a beardless youth.

Significant images also abounded in the lives of the saints. Saint Thèrése of Lisieux, the Little Flower, attributed miraculous healing from a childhood illness to a statue of Mary. Finding no help on earth, poor little Thèrése turned toward the Mother of Heaven and prayed with all her heart that "she take pity on me. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me, so beautiful that never had I seen anything so attractive; her face was suffused with an ineffable benevolence and tenderness, but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin. At that instant, all my pain disappeared."

Living in Texas with its large Hispanic population, I see the faithful relate to devotional images in the most personal fashion. Our diocesan cathedral displays a life-size replica of Michelangelo's Pietá. Imprinted on Jesus' hand is a decades-old lipsticked kiss. One year I visited the cathedral in Nueva Laredo, Mexico with a Guatemalan family. Without hesitation or self-consciousness before a mob of tourists, the family went straight to the huge folk-style wooden crucifix and kissed Jesus' nailed feet. (Inhibited Anglo that I am, I chickened out.)

Still we are called to veneration of the cross on Good Friday. A custom recorded in Jerusalem as early as 380, participants often faithfully bow or kiss the cruel instrument of Christ's death that became the tree of life. Such images aren't limited to Holy Week. Year-round at my parish statues are favorite rallying places for family rituals. Before them parents can be seen boosting their children to light votive candles or instructing them on how to cross themselves.

Working at a TV station, I own a statue of Saint Clare, patroness of television. I've tried to explain to my born-again Baptist boss that the tiny statue on my desk serves a purpose similar to the photos of his wife and child on his.While reminding us of what we love, we know quite well they aren't the real thing. Or as Saint John of the Cross put it, our devotion should be directed "spiritually toward the invisible saint in the immediate forgetfulness of the statue."

Sacred images serve as proxies for the divine. On them we can focus our devotion, sorrow, anger, and joy. But most of all they are someone we can thank when we are grateful. In our local Catholic hospital, the Sacred Heart of Jesus stretches healing hands over those who pray. Tucked into the folds of his robe is a slip of paper: "Thank you, Jesus, for my baby's life." Beside it lies a tiny heart-shaped charm that Hispanics call milagro. Symbol of supplication and answered prayer, it leaves something behind of the giver's grateful heart, held close to Jesus' own.

Pamela Edwards author of Catechizing with Liturgical Symbols (Resource Publications, 1997). She is currently completing her second book, From Slavery to Living Stones: How to Oppose Evil as a Christian.

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