Icons and Wedding Rings

"A man can not only smell roses . . . but he can and does and ought to pluck roses and he can garland them . . . Which is, presumably, the kind of thing he is meant to do. Anyway, there's no one else can do it. Angels can't nor can the beasts. No wonder then that Theology regards the body as a unique good. Without body: without sacrament. Angels only: no sacrament. Beasts only: no sacrament. Man: sacrament at every turn and all levels of the 'profane' and 'sacred', in the trivial and in the profound, no escape from sacrament.”

                                            —David Jones

I

David Jones (1895-1974) was a painter, engraver, inscription designer, and a first-generation British modernist poet. TS Eliot regarded In Parenthesis, Jones’s modernist epic of World War I, a work of genius, while WH Auden judged a later work, The Anathemata, as probably the finest long poem written in English in the twentieth century. And Kenneth Clark, the famous author, broadcaster, and museum director, best known by many for his BBC series “Civilization,” claimed that Jones was the greatest British watercolor painter since William Blake. Jones was also a Catholic convert, coming to the faith a few years after the end of World War I, in which he fought. The priest who received him into the Church was Fr. John O’Connor, who also received GK Chesterton into the Church and became the model for Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, the great priest-detective.

Jones believed that if creation is shot through with the presence and glory of God, then roses and how we use them suggest something important about us and the world we live in. The language of sacrament is one way to help articulate this, for it encourages us to see creation as a place of enchantment, full of mysteries lurking in and behind physical things. The Eastern Christian understanding of sacrament is helpful here, for if we understand sacraments in terms of the Greek word mysterion (“mystery” or “secret”), then we can see their association with the mystery of Christ, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Col 1:26). These mysteries, according to the Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth, “are the ways in which the mystery of Christ is made manifest in the Church for the world.” The East has always been uncomfortable limiting the number of mysteries to seven, which resulted from the desire in the medieval West to define sacraments by reference to what Christ instituted and to distinguish them from other sacred acts and things. In spite of this difference Christians East and West together profess, in light of the Incarnation and the mysteries which shape our worship and life together, that there are no “ordinary” things or people, no ordinary moments. Nor is there a secular space immune to the presence of God. As David Jones says, there is no escape from sacrament. We can liken all of creation to a Gothic cathedral, which by design points us beyond itself to the heavenly Jerusalem and her king. It’s both a symbol of the new creation, redeemed and ordered by Christ, and the means for earthly pilgrims to encounter something of his radiance and splendor. In this light, I’d like to consider icons and weddings rings.

II

In referring to Christ as the image of the invisible God in Col. 1:15, St. Paul used the Greek word eikon. In early Christianity the English word we get from it, “icon,” could refer to different types of religious art, including mosaics, frescos, the decoration of sacred vessels, books and vestments used in the liturgy, and even statues. Over time, however, the term came to refer specifically to images of Christ, Mary, the saints, and scenes from the Bible painted on wood.

By the sixth century, the practice had developed among Christians of honoring icons, even lighting candles in front of them and addressing prayers to the persons represented. St. John Chrysostom had an icon of St. Paul, and when he read his letters “he looked intently at it as though he were looking at the living person himself.” This is not pious hyperbole, as it reflects a common attitude taking shape among Christians in the early Church. For many Christians had a similar attitude toward the dead, as they honored martyrs and saints by honoring the places where they were buried, gathered at their tombs and graves for prayer, and turned them into places of pilgrimage. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that when the faithful behold relics, the bones of a dead Christian honored by their community, “it is as though with all their senses they embrace the living body itself . . . as though he were actually present there before them.”

This idea is reflected at the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, where a niche was carved into the wall to hold a plaque on which is written in Greek, “Peter is here.” Not “Peter’s remains are here,” or “Peter was buried here,” but, “Peter is here.” In other words, relics and icons were not merely reminders or symbols of a saint or a martyr who lived in the past, though they were that. They were also understood as making that holy person present, and so Christians began to honor relics and icons as objects of veneration.

Objections came from within the Christian communities, including charges of idolatry, and the Iconoclast Controversy officially began when, in 730, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III issued an edict banning the use of icons and authorizing their destruction. Iconoclasm means the breaking or smashing of icons, and opponents of icons did quite a bit of that, as most icons from before the 8th century were destroyed. This ban on icons would last, with a brief period of remission, until 843, when iconoclasm was rejected as imperial policy and the veneration of icons was officially restored. To this day Eastern Christians celebrate this restoration on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent.

As has often been the case, the challenge of sharply divergent points of view became the occasion for the Church to clarify what it professed, to think more deeply through the implications of the Creed and the decisions of ecumenical councils. That’s what happened with icons, as the Church responded to iconoclasm by emphasizing that a faith which professes that God became flesh in Jesus should have little trouble using images portraying Jesus or the saints in their prayer and devotion. The Incarnation was thus placed at the center of the Church’s defense of icons and all religious art. For if God became flesh and assumed our full humanity, using physical matter to portray his human form, or that of the saints, was not only acceptable, but even salutary. And the Church also claimed—and this became an essential part of how icons were understood in incarnational terms—that much more was at stake here than simply the legitimacy of using pictorial representations of Christ and the saints. Icons are not, according to their defenders, simply images of people from the past, but physical means by which Christ and the saints are actually present before us. How to express this, though, was a matter of some delicacy.

III

I sometimes discuss with my students a scene from M. Night Shymalan’s “Unbreakable,” which in my opinion is the best of his films. It’s a superhero film, with the traditional story arc of the hero being told he is a hero, the initial period of skepticism followed by the growing realization that he is different, and the denouement in which he proves himself and then meets his nemesis. Near the beginning of the film the protagonist, played by Bruce Willis, is on a passenger train preparing for departure. An attractive woman asks him if the seat near him is open, and, as he talks with her, he takes off his wedding ring and slips it into his pocket.

It’s obvious what he is doing, and I ask my students to imagine catching their boyfriend or future husband doing the same thing. If this fellow said, “Hey, it doesn't mean anything, baby, it’s just a ring. You know I love you,” what would they say? I hope they would tell him that of course it’s a ring, but also that only a fool of elephantine proportions would say that it’s just a ring. The struggle to articulate how a ring is more than a ring, however, is difficult, and points to the struggle the Church had regarding icons, not to mention how the Church has traditionally understood sacraments, including and especially the Eucharist.

The Church uses and broadens the language of symbolism in these cases, and I think how we understand things like wedding rings might help us to see something of what the Church is saying, so I’ll say a few things about the band of metal on my finger. This band is a ring, and it does symbolize my marriage to my wife. But saying that it’s a reminder, or a sign to others, that I’m married is inadequate. To slip off this ring and put it in my pocket in the presence of an attractive woman who doesn’t know me is not only dishonest, but an act of betrayal. Trying to articulate this, though, demonstrates how quickly we run into the limitations of thought and language, and how resistant matters like this are to linguistic precision. And I think experience helps us to see that speaking about love and marriage and what they mean to us requires more than even the most clear and precise prose.

Our experience as humans suggests that it’s with drama, poetry, and song, with the use of metaphor and analogy, that we speak most eloquently on topics like these, for our language of love will always be partial and unfinished even when we are most eloquent. Prose tends to be flat-footed when speaking to the things which matter most to us, which is why “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June” communicates better than “I really love you a lot.” To use a visual analogy, even our most successful uses of language are not like a photograph, but an impressionist painting. Seeing through a glass darkly implies something about our ability to communicate, and the poetic impulse helps us to navigate the regions of our unknowing far better than what CS Lewis called the expository demon within us, the impulse to reduce mystery to problem.

Keeping that in mind, and following what the Church says about things like sacraments—and recognizing the value of analogies, however imperfect even the best ones are—I can propose that this ring doesn’t just declare my marital status or symbolize my relationship with my wife, but that it also makes present that which it declares and symbolizes. When I have this ring on the nearly thirty years of my marriage to my wife is “with” me, even when she’s not; our shared life together, our children, the house we are trying to make into a home, the ups, the downs, everything, are here. I don’t think I’m being a simpleton or literalist when talking like this, nor am I being an overly sentimental romantic, pining for my girl when she’s absent and concocting an imaginary connection between an object and a relationship. We use terminology like real presence when talking about the Eucharist because we know through the shared life and experience of two millennia of believers, ourselves included, that the bread and wine are bread and wine, but not only that. And the technical language of transubstantiation reflects the efforts of Medieval scholastic theologians working through the biblical and patristic traditions, with the aid of Aristotelian philosophy, all in the attempt of trying to say convincingly, “Yes, this is what it appears to be on the surface, but we know better. There’s much more going on here.”

So Christians have said things like “Peter is here” in front of a tomb, and they have talked about other saints and martyrs as though they were actually present before them at a burial site or through the paint and wood of an icon. I don’t think it too far of a stretch to use this kind of thinking analogically when talking about wedding rings, especially if we keep in mind two related points.

First, it’s important as a Christian to interpret my experience of love and marriage within the sacramental ethos or incarnational logic of the Church. That is, we need to think with the mind of the Church, to see all things through the eyes of a faith that is sacramental through and through. The incarnation of Christ gives us an interpretive framework for all things, including love and marriage. David Jones’s claim that there is no escape from sacrament is made from within this incarnational logic, which allowed him as an artist to see the presence of God throughout the physical world. And it allows us to develop the language of both sacrament and sacramentals, and to look closely at the various dimensions of our lives in order to extend that language in the hopes of faithfully bearing witness to Christ’s presence among us.

Secondly, to understand and speak convincingly of love and marriage in the language of the Church also requires me to enter into a marriage relationship. Not just to get married, but to live a daily life of sharing and giving with my wife and children. And, just as with the sacramental ethos of the Church, to allow the vows that I took at our wedding to shape every aspect of my life. This is a shared and difficult task, and every couple will often fail, but as we share our lives and our forgiveness together within the life of the Church, understanding and the ability to speak about love and marriage will slowly and partially follow. The poetic language that the entirety of my married life is somehow here, in and with this ring, then begins to sound about right. Yes, it’s an analogy, but a sound one within its limits.

In other words, I have to grow slowly into the language, and only as my wife and I grow, together and in Christ, does it become clear that speaking of this ring as only a symbol or a reminder is not only inadequate, but banal. Likewise with sacraments. We have to enter into a relationship with the living Christ, participate through faith in his death and resurrection, and experience ongoing conversion, in order to grow into the Church’s language of real presence over time. We learn through ongoing conversion that the truth of such language is confirmed by our experience. The truth of the doctrines we learn in catechesis is verified in deeply personal ways. This isn’t to surrender to a subjectivist view of the sacraments, to claim that they are efficacious ex opera operantis, any more than saying that we learn what married love really is only by growing into it is to surrender the Church’s teaching on marriage to a subjectivist view. It’s simply to point out that doctrines are confirmed and their truth deepened through the experience they guide us into and through. In the contexts of marriage and the Eucharist the analogies and metaphors become linguistic witnesses to a life of faith, hope, and love, a life which itself bears witness to the truth proposed by the Church.

IV

That’s how the defenders of icons argued. Their imaginative horizons and the language they used to express themselves were formed by faith in the Incarnation and nurtured by a life of prayer and devotion to Christ, whom they encountered sacramentally. It was thus natural for them to speak a sacramental language when discussing icons, as others did when discussing relics. For they understood, I think better than we often do today, that theology, and the language it uses, should focus more on illuminating the journey of the Christian into the Trinitarian life through prayer and worship than developing rational concepts as part of a speculative enterprise. They knew they were dealing with mysteries that open themselves only gradually and partially, and only through a committed engagement with them. For the things that matter most to us, things like love, faith, and God, always remain resistant to even our best efforts to break them open with conceptual schemes or conventional logic. They are not intellectual puzzles to solve through logical analysis and a proper methodology, but mysteries to enter into through loving and childlike trust. The language we speak to articulate all this must reflect the provisional nature of even the most hallowed theological language.

In its best moments, the Church has celebrated how images engage us, how the liturgy engages us, how people and things engage us, in a way that concepts simply can’t. For they speak to the whole person, visually, emotionally, and imaginatively, and our response to them, including how we use language to describe them, must correspond to their nature. And this is the genius of art, and one of the reasons it captivates us. Not just painting, but music, drama, poetry, dance, architecture, and on and on. Art speaks to us in the wordless language of beauty, and invites us into an encounter with its source. The language we use to describe that encounter must be commensurate with the mystery hidden therein.

And so I wear this wedding band, and sometimes fiddle with it, tugging it and turning it around on my finger, without much thinking about it, because I am aware, in a way that transcends my rational and linguistic capacities, that she is with me, and we are together. Admittedly, that sounds rather flat, even a bit hokey, in prose. But sing a sentiment like this in a well-composed song or a poem, dramatize it skillfully in a novel, play, or film, and it can both enchant and teach us.

It is this, but also that: this is what David Jones meant when he said there is no escape from sacrament, and this is what the Church tries to convey in its language of icons, relics, and sacraments. Another way of saying this is found in Celtic spirituality, both Christian and pagan. For Irish writers, poets all of them (especially after a pint or two), speak of places where the boundaries between heaven and earth become thin, where you can more easily touch, and enter into, the heavenly realm. Icons can be understood like this, as they demonstrate in a concrete and visual way, using ordinary materials, the “in-between” space that joins heaven and earth, and in which God makes himself present.

Anthony DiStefano