While I was in Afghanistan, most of my soldiers kept a space near their bunks which were full of pictures from home. For those with wives and children, the number of photos was certainly greater than those who were single. Yet for all of them, those photos of loved ones were a simple yet necessary reminder of what awaited them at home. Those pictures were often a source of strength and motivation when the combined stresses of combat patrols and separation from family made life just a tad more difficult.
Often one could see soldiers take these photos with them on missions. Some would keep the photos in their kit, others would tape them inside the vehicle, and others would keep them inside their helmets. In a sense, by taking the pictures on mission, these soldiers took their loved ones with them. Sometimes, you could see the soldier give the photo a kiss, a caring caress, or a pensive and intense gaze, as if he were really looking into the eyes of his wife and children.
These actions are, of course, not unique to this war. In more romantic eras, when photographs were hard to come by, a letter or a lock of hair from a sweetheart was often the most precious possession for a soldier lucky enough to have a girl. Those who had photographs of their paramours would guard them perhaps more fiercely than their posts. In the crucible of war, pulled away from the embrace of their loved ones, a small kiss on a photo or letter or lock of hair was perhaps only way for a fighting man to express the desires of his heart– a simple gesture masking an unfathomable abyss of unfulfilled love and longing.
Reasonable people find nothing objectionable in all of this; indeed, one is more inclined to be moved rather than disgusted at the beauty of such a loving gesture. The underlying idea is clear– it is not so much the picture itself that the soldier loves, but the person(s) which the picture represents. His love passes through the image toward the proper object of his love, namely, his loved ones. Though the soldier might not say it or even believe it, we can say that the photo has taken on a sacramental character.
If this is fine, then wherefore the seeming repulsion to Catholic (and Orthodox!) veneration of images? Many of our non-Catholic brethren, believer and atheist alike, may look with repugnance when they see us kneeling or even kissing depictions of the saints. These gestures of reverence may, to the untrained eye, certainly seem idolatrous. But this is not the case. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, distiguendum est.
Veneration is a multivalent concept, and we must differentiate the ways in which we venerate God and lesser things. The distinctions between latria, hyperdulia, and dulia are ancient, seen as early in the words of Augustine and Jerome, and brought to greater clarity in Aquinas.
1. Latria (Greek λατρεία)
The usual Latin term for this is adoratio, or what in English is called “worship”. Latria is proper to God alone; it is complete devotion to him, acknowledgement of his absolute supremacy, and a worship which is sacrificial in nature. Only God himself can be the proper end of sacrifice, and all sacrifice (of earthly things as well as spiritual sacrifice) find their consummation in Calvary, which is perpetuated in all ages through the Eucharist.
2. Dulia and Hyperdulia (Greek δουλεία and ὑπέρδουλεία)
Dulia is the veneration due to the saints. Through their example, we know that they have earned their place in heaven and thus can intercede for us to God. Thus, they deserve a respect superior to the honor we accord to people we know on earth. The Virgin Mary, because of her eminent place in salvation history and proximity to her Son, has obtained a special place above the rest of the saints, and her intercession we consider even more efficacious. Because of her privileged status, we accord her a heightened honor, which is hyperdulia (“super-veneration”). In both cases, however, the proper end of dulia and hyperdulia is latria, the adoration of God; the fundamental Catholic attitude toward veneration of saints is found in the final statement of the Divine Praises which we recite at Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament: “Blessed be God in his angels and in his saints”. Everything goes to God, whether indirectly (dulia and hyperdulia) or directly (latria).
Honor is the simple respect we accord to persons of authority: to parents, to civil magistrates, to superiors, etc. Though they cannot intercede to God with the immediacy that the saints enjoy, they nonetheless deserve respect on account of their station on earth.
Idolatry is fundamentally a radical perversion of latria. Instead of keeping one’s eyes on God as the proper end of all veneration and worship, one’s devotion is transferred to some lesser thing. Another thing is held as an absolute value to the exclusion of God, to the point where one will sacrifice oneself for it. The saints, however, do not exclude God; they imply his existence in human life, and furthermore, the saints do not point to themselves, but always refer to God. The compelling power of their earthly testimony is the divine love of God himself. Honoring and venerating the saints is not idolatry because the saints themselves yield to the Divine. In an analogous manner, images of saints do not ultimately refer to themselves, but point to a higher transcendent reality. And if the saints deserve dulia but are not physically and immediately present to us, how else do we render them veneration if not through their icons and images?
Objections to veneration of images are not new, and such sentiments have unveiled themselves throughout Christian history. In 8th Century, beginning in the 720s, a loss of this multivalent view of veneration caused the Byzantine Emperor Leo III to order the removal of an icon of Christ over Constantinople’s Chalke Gate, replacing it with a cross. His son Constantine V inherited his iconoclasm, and a period of forced destruction of images in churches endured for decades. In 754, Constantine V attempted to convoke an ecumenical council at Hieria for the purpose of condemning images; this council was never accepted by the Church at large, for none of the five patriarchs were represented, either in person or through legates.
The question of iconoclasm was resolved in 787 at the Second Council of Nicaea. Among its decrees, we find:
The more frequently they [the saints] are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration [latria] in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred liturgical objects. Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honor paid to an image traverses it, reaching the prototype, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.
Let us return to the deployed soldier who kisses the photograph of his loved ones. He does not love the picture for itself, but because it reminds him of his loved ones; it raises his heart and mind to those memories and persons which vivify him. So too is it with images of saints: the holy icons raise our hearts and minds to contemplation of the divine; it is not so much the images themselves which we venerate, but the mystery expressed in them.
There is an inherently sacramental and Incarnational worldview here; Nicaea II even framed the iconoclastic heresy as a rejection of the Incarnation. Christ came into the world and took the form of the created world; thus, the creation imbued with meaning by the Creator finds a perfected expression of God’s glory when interpreted through Christ. Finite things have the potential to point to God, and religious images do so in an eminent way. Holy icons, through the participation of man’s creativity, participate in the expression of divine majesty. By representing the saints in a faithful and pious manner, images of saints invite men to raise their hearts and minds to contemplation of the divine. If we can accord simple honor to our loved ones by reverencing their photographs, so too can we render homage to the saints by venerating their images.
Sentiments of iconoclasm and accusations of idolatry, taken up anew by the Protestant Reformation, drove the destruction of countless artworks of inestimable aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual value. This attitude has endured, through the Protestant legacy, in the mind of modern man. Hence the revulsion of many people today who see our religious processions and acts of veneration. Processions which parade a statue of the Virgin or veneration of the Cross on Good Friday are labeled as some of those strange “Catholic things”. Still, I believe that a sacramental worldview is latent even in these Protestant hearts, for they take for granted the power of images to evoke sentiments of spirituality. A photograph of one’s family becomes much more than a mere photograph, for it conjures all the memories of the life which formed one’s identity. So too is it with images of saints: they lift the mind and heart to higher things, through pious contemplation of the saints’ example. And through this pious contemplation, the saints themselves show for us the splendor of God.