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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

St. Francis' Window

As a Catholic, you hear it a million times: Why do you worship Mary? Why do you pray to humans (saints)? Why do you bow down to things like statues and crucifixes? Don't you know those are idols! Or I should say, as a Catholic you hear this sometimes and read it often. Online people feel anonymous, which can manifest maliciously. In person people have a lot more tact. Wheaton is the same. Although I've had a few people express anti-Catholic views to me in person, most are just pro-Protestant views that conflict with Catholicism, and there's nothing wrong with that. But one of the major objections you'll find, even in thoughtful Wheaton, is to statuary, honoring depictions of the saints, and so on. A lot of evangelicals believe Catholics focus on the physical and the human too much. "Sure the saints were great but they were just humans. Why elevate them?"
My cousin, an Evangelical, took a missions trip to Italy several years ago and actually visited Assisi. After he got back I was talking to him at a dinner and asked how his trip went. He told me about Assisi and remarked that in visiting, he was struck by the impiety of the physical church in the town. It seemed to be full of much that honored and praised St. Francis of Assisi and very little that focused on Christ himself. He said that everything in that church was about St. Francis. He spoke of a large mural depicting the saint and how he felt something almost evil in overlooking Christ - God - in favor of a human. Where was Christ’s even bigger mural?

I recently reflected on this interaction and realized something. For many, certainly for my cousin in his Protestant tradition, that church building seemed a complete structure, a closed system representing the Church in microcosm and outside of which nothing else existed. If this is how it represents Christianity to its visitors, isn't that wrong? That building is a church but it's really only a small part of the Catholic Church. Just as at my parish I may stand directly in front of a window to stare at its depiction of St. Michael and wonder why he should get the whole window with only a small symbol of the trinity in the corner, my cousin was looking at the Assisi church and concluding Christ was made small in Catholicism in favor of humans. No, the window is only a part of the Church, and if we look around we see other windows and, always, Christ in the center of it all. There are many windows, 
always existing alongside others making up the building. They are meant to be seen individually but understood collectively. 

The light of the Sun is too bright to view directly. The best thing about windows is that though they can never create the celestial energy of light, they do a very good job of filtering it, making it ordered and understandable to our eyes, pleasing and sublime, magnifying and combining it in beautiful forms.  And it’s only after light shines through a window that we can see the artist’s unique use of glass in capturing light. We understand light through our windows just as we understand God through the lives of each other and especially the lives of the saints. St. Francis was one of the greatest among them. Let him have his large window. It only means that more light will shine through on us.
[Comments & questions welcome. Feedback is fuel for the writer!]


  1. While there's nothing inherently wrong with elevating saints (hopefully they deserve it most of the time), I think the risks to the experience of faith are many, especially for those who haven't reached the level of self-actualization that you have. Let me explain what I mean:

    As a Christian, I believe that the greatest mystery of the faith is that our communion with God has become unmediated. The Old Testament is full of descriptions of mediated experiences - for example, temple sacrifices in which worshippers are separated from God's holiness by a curtain, a ritual that quite literally prevented humans from interacting with God directly. And this holds up theologically: God's wrath against a sinful humanity burned too hotly for Him to commune with us. That was the great tragedy of a fallen race. We were estranged.

    But when Christ died, that curtain was torn. Christ told His disciples to call God "Father." This was radical. It was this so-called blasphemy (among others) that got Jesus killed.

    You say that the sun is too bright to look at directly, and I've heard others say the same thing (Kelly Ford once told me that as a Catholic, he had to view the world 'through a lens'). But I submit to you that our interaction with God is only mediated through one person: Jesus Christ. And if you believe that Christ was a true incarnation of God the Father, then that mediation becomes something entirely unmediated... and that is also a great mystery. I think Catholics understand this better than some others, especially in the Sacrament - believing that the host is the actual presence of God has a special significance that is lost in other theologies. But I wonder how this mediation of glass and lives which you describe fits into that understanding.

    Your last blog post (which I love) describes a Christian life that isn't defined by the actions or examples of others, but is instead defined by personal traits that become sanctified by the Lord. While that idea doesn't have much Biblical precedent, I think it's right. I think one of the biggest problems with the modern Church, is that we too often look to the examples of people like Paul (who were, in fact, bad examples in many senses) to inform the way we live and think about the Gospel. You reject that notion in your last post. So why, here, do you suggest that our Christian life can and should be informed by seeing the world through the actions and examples of others?

  2. Wow, what a thoughtful response. Thanks for reading my blog and the compliments.
    I agree about the mystery of our faith - Israel before had actually met their god (a novelty in the region at the time) on Sinai. But Christ made the separation cease: the Secular and the Sacred were no longer apart. Christ allows us to actually meet God. And I think that's the point of religion.
    We learn about God through the saints but not exclusively through them. There is a difference between Mediation and Intercession. Though Christ gives authority to his Church he is the sole mediator. The saints teach us by human example. They also intercede for us because they are still part of the Church in Catholicism. Just as I'd ask you for prayer, we can ask the saints. But they've already experienced the trials we're going through and so are in a better position to aid us.
    I don't think anyone can fully understand Christ let alone God the Father. To truly understand God, to see the brightness of the sun unblinkingly, requires the perfect union with him that is heaven.
    But I'd say Paul is godly. He's one face or facet to God. He lives out a special path to sainthood and I think all the paths are from God and therefore a part of God. Paul isn't great because we all need to follow in his specific footsteps. He's great because we can recognize his unique path and look for our own. At least that's where I am now.

  3. Thanks for articulating that. I have heard the "I'd ask you to pray, so I also ask the saints" thing before, and I get it. I guess within my personal theology the jury is still out on where the saints are and/or what they are doing for eternity. If they are communing with God in heaven, then can they really pray to Him in the same sense as we here on earth can? If they are asleep in the Lord awaiting the next age, then they aren't really in a position to pray. I know I'm oversimplifying it...these are big questions that I will have to meditate on in the coming years. But I do know that Christ taught us to pray directly to God the Father, so for now that's my de facto method of communication.

    Of course I think Paul is godly. He was a tremendously insightful saint, and had a unique experience that positioned him to unify the old and new testaments. But I do worry when Biblical literalists take his opinions and interpretations of his own revelations as divine prophecy. I think he was flawed like we are, and was working with insight from the holy spirit that he didn't fully understand. We can learn as much from his flaws as we can from his moments of clarity. He was pretty conservative as apostles go, and he struggled to reconcile his desire to retain the old law and his revelation that the old law is already fulfilled. Personally, I prefer the mysticism of St. John more. It requires less of my mind and more of my heart. Maybe that's my flaw.

  4. Yeah, I think St. Paul was everything you said - conservative, struggling, flawed, and I think the Holy Spirit was much bigger than him so that he couldn't fully comprehend what God was doing through him. But what a better example of how God can use even someone so clearly obstinate and absolutist (I'm sure I would've really disliked him in person).
    It sounds like you're thinking things through thoughtfully, which I would expect even knowing you only a little. And so it sounds like you'll find your answers on your own journey. Please give some more insight on here in the future!