Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bowing to Blank Walls

In old European churches, apparently, it is not uncommon for some people to bow to a blank wall when entering. This makes no sense until we realize that once there was a statue or wall painting in that spot that has been removed by "reformers" but is still remembered, centuries later.

This happens in England, writes Richard Kieckhefer in the opening of his book Theology in Stone, and in Germany. There, according to Otto Clemen writing in 1938, a wall painting of the Virgin Mary, painted over by iconoclasts, was (perhaps still is) being venerated; for many, the old religion, or at least the old religious practices, still linger. Reformers could not destroy the power of the image, a reminder of the holy.

We can never underestimate the collective memory of a community, especially when it stems from deep feelings. Such feelings are stronger than the shifting political winds of public policy. Stronger than the rational mind, which knows that excessive reverence of statues and relics can be superstitious.

The seemingly meaningless, absurd gesture of bowing to an empty wall is a way to acknowledge a sacred space where, in the words of T. S. Eliot, "prayer has been holy" --especially in old churches looked upon by many today as tourist sites.

As I read about the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, I keep wondering about the thing unspoken by historians, because unknown: the feelings of all those dispossesed of their way of life, sent into terror from the safe haven of holy places that were sold off, destroyed, or left empty, the "bare, ruin'd choirs" that Shakespeare lamented. Religious matters always involve deep, often unspoken feelings.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

You rightly mention the power of an image, even one long gone, but your post reminds me most of the power of liturgy, especially in times of tragedy. I've seen and felt this most often at funerals.

How do we answer the unanswerable questions many people feel when a loved one dies: "Why did God take him (or her) now? She was so young. I wish I knew that he was in heaven," and so forth. Hearts are broken and definite answers are lacking, but the familiar rituals of sacred liturgy, experienced many times over the years, step in and assuage the hearts and minds of those who grieve, depending on their level of faith.

For Catholics at least, singing the familiar hymns, hearing the familiar texts from Scripture and the prayers, adopting the familiar postures of kneeling, sitting, standing at the appointed times, and vicariously participating in the rituals while observing them—draping the white cloth over the casket, sprinkling it with Holy Water near a lighted Paschal candle, smelling the incense while commending the departed soul to God with beautiful, familiar words (“May the angels lead her to paradise….”), can touch the hearts, minds, and spirits of all involved like nothing else.