The following is an introduction I wrote for photographer Jim Lommasson’s exhibit ‘Heaven and Earth,’ an exploration of symbols and images used in worship.
The dash board Madonna and the snow-globe Christ, the yucca leaf and the antelope horn, the flower, bell or candle – all the objects of faith – represent and activate a lived relationship with the sacred.
As intermediaries, they are meant to create a sense of intimacy, even love. Their use is a playful, emotive and pleasurable aspect of devotion, one that arises spontaneously and naturally in the worshipper, yet is imbued with a meaning that goes beyond an appreciation of the object itself.
If they appear at first commonplace or crudely rendered, if we see the seam where the plastic halves of Mary have been soldered together, it hardly matters. The gaze of devotion is one that probes deeper, concerned less with the merely phenomenal and more with the essential nature of the object as a symbol of divine love. It is a comprehensive and transcendent vision, one that returns frequently and tenderly to the body.
Faith needs the body: to circumambulate a temple, to bow, to make the sign of the cross, to carve on the skin divine symbols. Each cut fills with the blood of devotion. Every gesture and scar has its own world of meaning and conveys a specific wish.
The devotee must first evoke the human to summon the gods. For articles of faith, as mediators between matter and spirit, embodiment is key. Simply look at the detail with which icons are rendered – the chorded neck and modestly overlapping feet of Christ, or the sensuous roll of flesh at Laxmi’s waist. Even the serene, stylized body of the Buddha has expression, a belly caught between breaths. The face God has given to humanity is in fact the same face humanity gives to God.
In so many representations of the sacred is the gesture of receptivity, an invitation to draw closer. The arms of the divine body open to the believer and ask for prayers, confessions, touch, and feeling. Devotion is externalized in gestures of intense emotion and worship becomes an advanced form of play. By performing the devotion of myth its theological implication – the transformation of earthly into divine love – is realized. If God is sublimely inconceivable, then the path to understanding is through an even greater mystery, that of love. The Vedas say, brihad karomi, ‘ With love I make myself vast.’
The endowment of body to the divine bestows with it a heart full of human qualities. It is not the boundless might of the intermediary or the knowledge of some large and exquisite plan to which we are not privy that draws us closer, but rather the body that bleeds, the eyes that weep. It is the moment of total vulnerability that invites identification.
The worshipper is reminded by example that the mask is not what the gods desire but the human, mobile eyes beneath.
Idols are loved because they come unheralded and unprotected, full of the pain of too much tenderness, but asking for no relief. Having suffered greatly, humanly, they offer compassion to the devotee. To seek them is to acknowledge that one cannot perfect oneself alone. Fellowship is needed, models, images, inspiration, relationship. Sometimes it is necessary to remember why we persevere in faith and seek strange, unmapped terrains to explore the edges of our passion. To be reminded that between Heaven and Earth, the heart is a potent intermediary.
Objects of faith are forged in wood, in wax and stone, and anchored in space and time with all the weight of a believer’s longing. But beyond their inherited forms, like all created things, they might still have the power to speak of their own will, one that fill us with a mixture of desire and dread and says: Yes. Beyond these words, beyond your fashioning of me, there is something. If you are lucky, it will find you. Break yourself at its feet. Even this shattering is an invitation.