Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Can Non-Christian Rituals or Incantations Invisibly Destroy the Good of Holy Images?

A concerned reader wrote to me recently with a question about some icons she had bought online. She was happy with the images, but then heard that the company that supplied the high-quality reproductions was owned and staffed by Buddhists. Furthermore, she said, before the icons went out of the warehouse, non-Christian prayers and incantations, perhaps even Satanic in origin, were said over them. Are these icons still authentic? She asked me.

I thought about this, and in fact, I don’t see any reason to worry, even assuming that the worst of the rumors are true. Here’s why:
Icons are as good as they look. It is from the visible image that a sacred image derives its power. If you destroy the image, then it has no impact, it is just wood and ink or paint. Assuming the images are authentic, even if reproductions, then they have all the power of a holy image worthy of veneration. We can rely on them.

It seems to me that the error is in assuming too much of an icon. Some wrongly suppose that there is a presence associated with the icon in the way that Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament. So the misplaced fear here is that the company selling them has somehow destroyed the invisible presence of the Saint and, even worse, have performed a sort of transubstantiation of the devil by which there is an internal evil presence that is distinct from the external appearance.

We should be reassured that these fears are misplaced, for there is no such invisible presence, good or bad. As with sacramentals, icons direct and focus our prayers through the engagement of our imaginations. Even blessed icons do not have the presence of the saint in them in that way. Furthermore, if the devil could be hidden away in an icon in this way, it would potentially invalidate every famous icon or piece of sacred art ever made. After all, we cannot guarantee that there is no one among all of the millions of people who have stood in front of them in church or procession (or museum) who has not uttered a curse or evil incantation before the painting or statue. It is quite possible that people with malign intent have done so on occasion. But there is nothing to worry about, for their words and intentions can have no power at all on the impact of an icon. Short of taking an ax to them so as to destroy the image we see, no one can destroy the power of the good images in front of them.
This is an error of attributing too much to an icon rather than too little. If taken too far, it could lead to iconoclasm, for if it is likely that the image is concealing an invisible threat to my spiritual well-being, it is better to destroy it rather than take the risk!

It is interesting that Protestant iconoclasts went straight for the faces of the saints, thereby inadvertently creating an image of the devil.

A blessing, incidentally, does not give a magic power to an icon, and is not even necessary for it to be a holy icon. However, it does obtain favors from God through the prayers of the Church offered for those who make use of them, and through the devotion they inspire.

If on the other hand, someone is venerating a grotesque or distorted image, say of the devil in such a way to falsely elevate his status, then that is idolatry and a serious problem, but that is not what we are describing here. One may also decide as a matter of principle that he would rather financially support a Christian icon supplier than a Buddhist one, but again, that is a separate consideration from the impact of the icons themselves on our faith.
It is better for the Church that wherever we get them from and whoever creates them, we venerate and promote the use of good and holy images. All sacred images are immensely powerful in propagating and reinforcing faith in God. To go back to the case of the company that inspired the original question, if the suppliers are indeed Buddhist or Hindu, the effect is far more likely to be one of directing the Buddhists to Christ, than of turning Christians to Buddhism. This is the hope, after all, in processing in public places!
I always try to remember that the battle is won and we are pinning our colors to the victor, Christ. The devil cannot harm us, except by fear and distraction that influences us to choose to reject God.
The Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767
There is nothing the serpent can do; Our Lady has trampled on him and he cannot escape.

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