To those outwith the Church, the keeping and veneration of holy images may seem like an odd practice; why do we have these images? What is their purpose? I can’t help making the comparison to photographs of those we love, such as family members and loved ones. Photographs of this sort remind us of those we love, and keep them in our minds and in our hearts; they are a link to those we hold dear. And that, at it’s most basic level, is the reason for religious imagery; they are a link to those we hold dear in our faith – the Lord, His Mother and the Saints.
It is impossible to find a Catholic Church which does not contain sacred or holy images of one sort or another – statues of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin, for example, or paintings of Our Lady under Her various titles, or statues of the Saints in whose names Churches are dedicated. Similarly, most Catholic homes will also have holy images – the Crucifix, or an image of the Lord or His Mother. Clearly, then, the Church places such images before us for our edification and contemplation.
I remember in my early childhood there were two holy images which made a deep and lasting impression on me. There was a small plastic statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, which glowed in the dark; and a very small framed standing print of the Grotto at Massabielle, which depicted Saint Bernadette praying before the Blessed Virgin, who was standing in the niche of the Grotto and illuminated by a heavenly light. These two images had been brought back from Lourdes years before-hand by my Aunt Margaret, who had been there a number of times and who had the pleasure of meeting Pierre Soubirous, the grand-nephew of Bernadette; years later, she would give me an original portrait of the Saint, signed by Pierre as a memento. My Aunt would also play a key role in my spiritual development, although she would never know this on earth; I hope now, in Heaven, she sees this and it gives her cause to smile.
These two images made a deep impression on me and I see them both very clearly in my mind, even all these years later – and I look back on them with deep affection. Looking at them made me ask what the images represented, and so my late mother told me the story of Lourdes. Even now, I remember feeling astonished that the Blessed Virgin would descend to the earth as She did at Lourdes, and I wondered what Bernadette must have been like, both before and after her experiences at Massabielle. To this day, Bernadette remains one of my favourite Saints and I have had the great pleasure of staying in her convent in Nevers and spending time completely alone with her in the Chapel there.
These two images began a journey which took me on to reading the lives of many other Saints, a number of whom have long-since become lifelong friends, whose intercession I seek constantly and rely on enormously. It also led me to read the documents of the Church and of the Holy Fathers, and to find great treasures there. And it led me to read the writings of many Saints – some proved to be great spiritual works which would leave a permanent mark upon me, such as the ‘Treatise On The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’, by St Louis de Montfort, and the Diary of Saint Faustina. These two books, in particular, were utterly life-changing for me, particularly the first; St Louis’ treatise has helped to form me into the person I am now and it continues to form me (very slowly!) into the person I am supposed to be. With regard to the second book, Saint Faustina’s Diary, I am very well aware that a primary purpose of the writings and of the proposed devotion it contained and described, was the painting of a very specific Image, of the Lord as Divine Mercy – and this, the Lord earnestly wanted to be venerated by all the world. He, too, it seems, places value on holy images.
And so, my personal spiritual journey began; and all of this because of two little images, which acted as a catalyst in sparking something within me, and which then spurred me onwards over and over again as the years passed, and which have proven themselves to be vehicles of grace.
I wonder, then, how many countless other souls can relate to this experience and have stories of their own spiritual journey?