The power of images
Romano Guardini on the precious potential of limited images to reveal divine realities
“The altar is the threshold to God’s immanence. Through Christ, God ceased to be the Unknown, the Inaccessible One; He turned to us, came to us, and became one of us in order that we might go to Him and become one with Him. The altar is the frontier, the border where God comes to us and we go to Him in a most special manner.
“At this point a few remarks about the images used to express sacred mysteries are in order. The images unlock the storehouse of God’s riches, and they help us to concentrate on particular aspects of divine reality with all our power. When we consider the altar as a threshold, we see one particular trait, leaving out of consideration any other, such as that expressed by the concept ‘table.’ The images used are necessarily taken from objects of our own experience. But, since we are not cut off from God and His life as is one room in a house from another, we must not put too much emphasis on the inability of images adequately to express divine realities. If we do, we lose something precious, something essential. Images are not makeshifts handy for children and the vulgar crowd, which the cultured elite, wrestling with ‘pure’ concepts, should despise. When Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, woke from his great dream, he cried: ‘How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven’ (Gen. 28:17). And St. John writes: ‘… and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the former voice, which I had heard as of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “come up hither, and I will show thee the things that must come to pass hereafter”' (Apoc. 4:1). Now if we were to say that ‘door’ is here only a figure of speech suggesting that God is invisible yet near, that no one can reach Him, but that He can draw us to Himself, we would be correct but we would fail to grasp the basic meaning of John’s words. St. John wrote ‘door’ because he meant door—and not only poetically. The intellect may attempt to express in concepts and sentences all that the image ‘door’ implies; but such concepts are mere props to the essential, not more. The truth is the other way around: it is the image that is the reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it. The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing, is richer, more profound, vital and storeyed than the thought. People today are, if the word may be permitted, over conceptualistic. We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting symbols. We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long.”
— from Romano Guardini, from Meditations before Mass (Newman Press, 1956)
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