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Saint Michael

Art As Armor

or,
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Catechism Lessons

by Matthew Brooks

The Problem

If one is willing to acknowledge that the today's society, by its very nature, presents a constant and unrelenting attack upon the family and its moral values, then it follows that, in order to protect themselves against this assault, families must find a way to fortify their homes. Not with steel, barbed wire, and machine guns, for of what use are these against this all-encompassing yet unseen enemy, this virtual devourer of souls? No, in order to provide an effective defense, homes and families must be fortified with a different kind of armor and armament.

The Danger

Today, thanks to advances in technology, visual images are everywhere. The same technology that allows me to communicate with you, that lets us hear the Pope's Easter address, that brings us so much valuable and enriching information, also floods our environment with dangerous and corrupting material. From seductive women leaping from magazine covers at the supermarket check-out stand to huge flourescent billboards urging us to obey our thirst and "feed the rush", you can't leave the house without coming under the deluge. Fancy clothes, flashy cars, glittering storefronts, all call to us with diabolic urgency. They entice us away from God and into the world each time we step out the door. And we return to our homes each day with another headful of tempting mental pictures to persistently gnaw away at our morality.

Television adds to the chaos. It brings images of violence and promiscuous sexuality interspersed with advertisements for alluring material goods right into our homes. It promises a virtual paradise on earth to those who join the 'world'. It is easy to become disenchanted with our own family life, with the challenges and burdens of raising children and keeping food on the table when everyone else seems to be having so much extravagant fun all the time.

But a closer look reveals the dark side to this rampant hedonism. It's a frightening list: Murder, suicide, drug addiction, broken homes, runaway children sold into prostitution, babies abandoned in trash cans, babies born with aids or drug addiction, domestic violence, abuse, drive-by shootings, gangs, rape, carjackings, theft, corruption in industry and government, war, hunger, starvation, and suffering. These are the regular features of the news of the day. This is the real face of the world we are enticed to join.

Mary
At Stake

How can anyone keep a family together in a world that tell the individual to 'do your own thing'? How can any parent develop virtue, morality, and nobility of character in themselves and their children in such an environment? The old adage "be good for goodness sake" rings hollow in the face of the challenges hurled at today's family.

The only answer lies in a return to God. A return propelled with the same intensity and energy as the world's assaults. The harder the wind blows, the tighter we need to wrap the cloak of God's protection. The biggest obstacle to this is that God speaks to our hearts with a quiet voice. Being neither visible, nor immediately tangible amidst the chaos, He is easy to forget, while images of the new Lexus, glamorous people and the latest fashions are all immediately available as food for thought.

Medal
The Defense

The Sacraments and devotions such as the Rosary are the first weapons of resistance, but at the heart of their effectiveness is meditation. Meditation is the channel by which God's Grace enters, nourishes and strengthens the soul, healing the wounds received in the daily battle and preparing it for its eternal destiny.

Meditation consists of creating and manipulating mental pictures to visualize and empathize with a subject. Whether pious meditation, abstract thought, or even impure thought, it all revolves around mental images created by the brain. Where do these images come from? They come from our experiences, and primarily from things we have seen.

Unfortunately, most of what we see in the course of our daily lives is hardly good material for spiritual meditation. In fact, the disproportionate amount of worldly images we acquire during the course of our lives makes effective meditation difficult. With the devil ever at our shoulder full of suggestions, we face the task of constructing mental images of things we may never have seen.

The process goes something like this: While saying the rosary, we try to meditate on the crucifixion, an event we did not actually witness, though we know a lot about it. We know that Our Lord was crucified on a cross of wood. We have seen wood, so we mentally construct a cross of wood. We know what a man looks like so we place a mental image of a man on the cross. But somewhere along the way as we were trying to decide what type of wood the cross was made of, it occurred to us that the porch (also of made of wood) needs painting and as we are mentally trying to figure out how to fit that project into an already busy weekend, we hear the words "Glory be to the Father..." An entire decade of the rosary has slipped away.

The mind, like water, always takes the path of least resistance. The porch is here, Christ is not (at least not physically). There is far more effort required in building a mental picture of the crucifixion than there is in idle thought about immediate things. We see the porch every day, so images are easily brought to mind, and because they are so fresh, it takes little or no effort to keep them there.

An effective countermeasure is an abundance of religious art work in the home. It provides a doorway to fruitful meditation by giving us "prebuilt" images for meditation leaving our minds free to consider with greater depth the marvelous mysteries of our faith. What kind of religious art work? Holy cards, Crucifixes, prints and pictures of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the Saints. Drawn by children, or created by professional artists and craftsmen, reproductions of sacred art from the history of the Church, or sketched by a faith-filled and talented amateur. Placed in strategic places throughout the home, in the car, and where allowed, on the desk at work, they serve as reminders to our wandering minds, gently calling them back to thoughts of God, thoughts of virtue, mental prayer, and morality. They inspire children to ask questions of their parents. "Daddy, who is this Saint?", "Mommy, why are there rays of light coming out of the hands of this picture of Mary?"

Religious art also provides an essential frame of reference from which we can assess the worldly images that we encounter in such abundance. It's easy to become jaded or de-sensitized by the constant assault, so that our morality imperceptibly shifts with the passage of time. A quick glance at the crucifix on the wall, or the picture of Our Lady or a favorite Saint, throws the immorality we are surrounded with into sharp and vivid relief, and urges us to keep our guard up. It inspires prayer and meditation, the 'cloak' and defense for ourselves and our families.

Thus, religious art work provides the framework of the armor and armament to defend the family and build virtue and character. Given the savage nature of the assault, can any home afford to be without it?

To be continued.

Matthew Brooks is a Catholic artist, sculptor and Founder of Art for the Catholic Restoration, an organization which seeks to restore the visual arts to their former high standards in service of the Church. Examples of his work shown in this article and others can be viewed in more detail at the ACR web site.

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