Lent, the Great ‘coverup’of our images and what it means

I spent a couple of hours this week ironing purple material, and covering up crucifixes, and pictures and statues. This will be the first thing you will  notice as you walk into the Church today.

While I was working, I began to think about why I was doing it. Why is it that during Lent we cover up the pictures and statues and by the same token remove the flowers?

The first thing to say is that our Church is a very visually rich environment. Everything ‘speaks’ of the faith. But just as we do not ‘see’ the environment of our homes when we live with them all the time, so in Church the visual environment becomes invisible as we get used to it.

It is a bit like the ocean that a fish swims in. These visual clues form part of a nourishing environment, but after a while the environment becomes an unconscious part of the world. So covering up the pictures and statues (we can’t do the windows unfortunately) means that what is taken for granted is now lifted into consciousness. It is a way of becoming mindful of the visual environment that we inhabit.

This is the value of all the small changes that we make in life. Some versions of Christianity, for fear of worshiping idols, and of not seeing God in all things, have said ‘We will not hold up one day above another, or make any visual changes in the Church’. So people get used to that.

The other day, Robyn changed the furniture in the bedroom around, so that she had more room in which to get changed in the morning. The bed is at an angle to the wall. Very interesting. In fact, it is better! Apart from the fact that I nearly impaled myself in the bedpost while coming back from the ‘loo’ one night the change freshened up the bedroom.

The Fashion designers know this too. By continually playing with the concept of ‘what is covered’ and ‘what is revealed’ certain parts of the human body are highlighted or adorned, and others down-played.

This is what we do each year with the liturgical seasons, and the covering up of the statues. A covered object makes us ask ‘So what is it that is covered here? What will the Church be like when it is revealed again?’ I for one will particularly miss the altar piece in the Chapel. Many times when I go into the Chapel, I meditate upon the four ‘doctors’ of the Church who are depicted on either side of the crucifixion scene. Other times I meditate upon the meaning of the crucifixion.

Covering up paintings and statues is also like a ‘fast’ for the senses. Just as my awareness of God is heightened by the need to shop and eat vegetarian during Lent, so by ‘fasting’ from these normal stimuli for the eyes, my mind is also turned toward God as I now ‘see’ an absence.

The other effect of this absence is to turn my soul’s gaze inwards. While I am in general ‘for’ visual richness in Church, I am also ‘for’ the capacity to turn away from the stimulation of the senses in an outward direction, so that I can have time and space to turn inward. This twofold movement, inwards and outwards is necessary. I see the images of dying Children, and distress on the Television, and I am moved to do something about poverty and injustice. But by turning away from other forms of visual stimulation, I have time to become aware of what is happening in my soul. This is where the ‘movement’ of life changes from ‘outside in’ to ‘inside out’. I want to speak my soul to God. I want to have enough quiet to become aware of what is happening, and to ‘tell it out’ as the hymn says. (‘Tell out my soul the glories of the Lord…and much else besides!). This has been my argument against having screens in the Church, because the for words I say and the hymns I sing, I want them to come from the ‘inside out’, not to come from the ‘outside in’. A booklet or hymn book seems to do that better than a screen for me.

So there are two accounts of what is happening with the ‘fasting’ from the visual stimulation of the Church environment during Lent.

But there is one other thing I am reflecting on too. My colleagues who do have screens in their Church, and make use of them say ‘Well we live in a visual culture’, and leave it at that. But it is the same people who do not appreciate the ‘visual culture’ of Churches like ours, such that they strip churches of their visual stimulation. These colleagues are also the ones who place a great emphasis on preaching, which is an auditory experience.

So I think that the nub of the issue has to lie somewhere else. It seems to me that the visual stimulation of the church, as we know it here in Territet, represents ‘old’ Church. It is lovely, but takes a lot to ‘get’. The visual tools used by some of my colleagues is not just ‘visual’ (we all do visual) but it sends the signal ‘modern visual’. These visual clues look much more like the very high tech lighting and visual displays that younger people are used to. If you have ever seen modern game shows on the Television, just look at how sophisticated the lighting is. The direction of the lights goes up and down, and changes colour with the ‘mood’ of the show. The lighting focuses our attention, just as the ‘covering up’ and revealing does in fashion, and in Church during Lent. As I wrote of our visit to Ludwigsburg, I thought that the lighting effects in the Catholic Church there were stunning. And when we renovated here, we had to think about ‘lighting’ as a serious issue.  So the structure of the use of visuals is the same for us as it is for game shows, as it s for my colleagues with screens. But the difference is that other visuals send the message ‘Modern’. Our visuals send the message ‘Old’. This is not a bad thing in itself. ‘Ancient’ also sends the message ‘stable, solid and long lasting.’ It’s just that if we are going to connect with ‘modern’ people we need to be able to work with them in ways that keep them around while we both challenge the visual culture of ‘the modern’ and let these new people make their contribution to us. The visual culture of our building has to make it easy for people to be on the fringes looking in without having too much demanded of them. It involves more explanation of why we do things, and what it means, so that our visual environment does not dominate and alienate people who do not understand it.  I do not think that it is enough to say “Well we do ‘old’ for the people who ‘like ‘old’ “. Discipleship for Christians or people who are becoming Christian is never about ‘What I like’.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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