For the past week I sat facing an icon of Saint Nicholas during the Divine Liturgies at the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos. Because of the number of monks and pilgrims, when I first entered the church I was constrained to sit there as it was the only available space. I would not normally choose to sit behind a column facing an icon, as I am a believer in full, active and conscious participation—the need to hear, and above all, the need to see everything happening on command, lest I not be spiritually and bodily engaged in worship. Slightly as an experiment, but more so because I found myself curiously content to sit in that spot, I remained day after day, staring at Saint Nicholas. I wasn’t so concerned about seeing after all I found. Since vigils began in the dark of night there was nothing to see until sunup anyway. And with the standing, sitting, and crossing myself seemingly without end, my body was engaged—almost too much. Ears, fully occupied. Only rarely was there silence during any liturgy—and when there was, it was deafening.
What I found, however, was that my happiness to be in that spot, behind a column looking at Saint Nicholas, was nothing about the most mundane fulfillment of the idea of full and active participation. Rather, my engagement came precisely by being surrounded by the saints, not only Nicholas, but the myriad of others painted on the walls and domes that danced in the candlelight and that then emerged into full brilliance in the sun, as well as the pilgrims and monks that stood next to me.
Soon into one of the first liturgies I finally understood that the icon is not a type of late-Antique Christian art, but a metaphysical and epistemological system. I’ve taught this concept to my students in Rome, but I had never before experienced it. I was engaged, at home, because the gaze of the saints were upon me, and that is precisely the experience of communion we liturgists fuss about incessantly but so often end up obfuscating with our over ‘sociologizing’ of liturgy; If only we just say something else about some group the Kingdom of God will finally break upon us, we delude ourselves. Instead, sitting before Nicholas it was clear that I was just one in a crowd participating on the human side of the heavenly liturgy. There was nothing else to be done, or worried about, I was already ad sanctos.
This experience has made me feel that in the West we have done a very poor job understanding and teaching the Communion of Saints. Alexander Schmemann, in his work The Liturgy of Death (2016), points out that the whole of our Christian living is a communion, or should be, with those who have died. He notes that we pray with the departed, and they pray with us. Because of this communion the Church speaks on behalf of us all, the living and the dead, in its worship (159). Protestant traditions betrayed this fundamental sense of communion during and after the Reformation, exhibited in the iconoclastic destruction of both images and relics. The physical signs of ecclesial communion had to be destroyed when it was asserted that both the Church and faith were only ‘invisible’ and grounded in the ‘spiritual’ world. At the same time, Roman tradition until today, has not been terribly clear in theology or praxis either, at least in a popular sense. Saints tend to come across as individualized helpmates that respond to private devotion, or macabre spectacles laying underneath glass fronted altars. In both cases, there is very little sense of the relationship between saints and liturgical communion.
As a person interested in liturgical art and architecture, my question is how can this fundamental reality of communion ad sanctos be more clearly expressed in Western churches? Without surprise I think we have much to re-learn from Orthodox Christianity.
Firstly, I think we need to return to the saints their pride of place in the artwork of our churches. For some communities this means returning artwork to begin with. But in any case, our churches need to regain the capacity to speak liturgical theology, not only in their spatial arrangements, but also by their art. Western trends in church building today tend to be concerned about ‘ambiance’ more than anything, sometimes more or less successfully; Or, the entire space revolves around the crucifix/cross, which I have written about elsewhere. For good or ill, Western art tradition since the time of Gregory the Great and Charlemagne was more open ended about the content of art in churches, thus depicting history and hagiography found an opening, and eventually came to dominate. Yet, Eastern Christianity has remained liturgical in its format; A vertical registration from the living church (an imageless zone), to the saints in heaven, to the 12 Great Feasts, to the Thearchy. This image syntax based upon liturgical theology, while maybe not imported wholesale, can inform how we think about our churches.
At the same time, beyond simply artistic syntax, iconography as a ‘style’ also has much to say liturgically. Books abound on the topic – Here I would simply point out that the gaze of the eyes is paramount in liturgical art, for here is the foundation of the experience of communion, the act of seeing and being seen. Jean-Luc Marion, in his masterful work The Crossing of the Visible (2004) described the reality this way: “The painted gaze invisibly responds to the invisible gaze of the one in prayer and transfigures its own visibility by including in it the commerce of two invisible gazes—the one from a praying man (sic), taken through the painted icon, to look upon an invisible saint, the other the gaze of the invisible saint covered with benevolence, visible through the painted icon, looking upon the one in prayer” (20). It is this reciprocal gazing-world that defines Orthodox church interiors. And importantly, it is not the gaze of some one-off personal plaster saint, but an ocean of eyes from the assembly of the redeemed.
Second, it seems to me paramount that we return to a true cult of the saints. At Simonopetra Monastery after dinner during the Apodeipnon, pilgrims are invited to venerate the relics of the community, which are removed from the treasury specifically for the occasion. The precious body parts are set out and their feats of faith retold by an hieromonk day after day. Each pilgrim then takes a turn kissing every shrine. Should one repeatedly kiss a skull, the need to preach morality seems less necessary. A general restoration of a holistic cult of saints such as this means that the bodies of the saints are taken seriously as holy objects. Relics in European cathedral and diocesan museums offend this logic (for a summation of Roman Catholic law), as they are made to appear as cast-away kitsch from a pre-enlightenment naiveté. It also means allowing localized decisions about worthiness and sanctity. Just as national synods in Orthodoxy confirm sanctity, Roman bishops’ conferences could be empowered to do the same, so too at the diocesan level. Protestant traditions, for their part, need to be more responsive to the fundamental notion of the Communion of Saints in life and death. To this end, the inclusion of contemporary Christians in books of lesser feasts and fasts is not sufficient. It would be spiritually beneficial if these churches judged and celebrated sanctity more clearly, inserting persons found worthy into the tactile world of Christian worship through the keeping of their relics and veneration as the Great Tradition has always done.
Perhaps restoring our felt connection to the saints will also impact our church buildings. Preaching on Saints Juventinus and Maximinus, John Chrysostom exhorted, “Let us constantly spend time visiting them, and touch their coffin and embrace their relics with faith, so that we might gain some blessing from them. For just as soldiers showing off the wounds with which they received in battle, boldly converse with the emperor, so too these martyrs, by brandishing in their hands the heads which were cut off and putting them on public display are able easily to procure everything we wish from the King of heaven.” Implicit in this statement is the idea that church buildings are not primarily places ‘for us’, but are the houses of the Saints, of which we obviously are but one part.
Misunderstanding this fact has had grave consequences for our church buildings. The Roman reform of the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar was rendered rather sterile in this respect by making optional and oversimplifying the night vigil with relics preceding the day of dedication. The modification of this aspect of the rite evidences a fundamental weakness of ecclesiological understanding regarding the unity of the church throughout time and symbolized in worship. Should the typical edition of the rite ever be revisited, this element, and the centrality of the cult of saints, should be restored to the more vigorous presence it once held. In similar fashion, John Keble’s assertion during the time of the Oxford Movement that the saints of all ages gathered together “are a thousand streams in one, One in a thousand, on they fare, Now flashing to the sun” is rendered experientialy moot when in the United Kingdom churches are transformed into multi-purpose spaces. Often times historic buildings are no longer imagined as places of spiritual communion even among church officials, but transformed into cafes and post offices, in an effort to be relevant and useful to the contemporary non-believer. To enter a church building that is neither demarcated by nor dedicated to the saints of yesterday, today, or tomorrow seems to miss the point of Christianity entirely. Even the reformer Martin Bucer shared such a sentiment, writing in his De Regno Christi, “For whoever are of Christ, in them Christ lives, and he does not only say words but really proves them saying, ‘The zeal of your house has eaten me up’. With that zeal, therefore, and through his own, Christ drives from his churches whoever attempts to transact alien business there, and consecrates and dedicates them solely to the ministry of his word and sacraments and holy prayer.”
Perhaps if our Christian life is returned to its proper locale ad sanctos taking up the insights of the Orthodox churches and our once undivided common heritage, we won’t need to try so hard to be relevant. To enter a church and see and experience that I am in communion beyond myself and time can happen naturally, if we trust those in whose presence we stand. Thus through our daily living of the yeastiness of our lives, our communion expands ever outwards and society is swept up in and along with Keble’s mighty river of saints.