UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Statues as Stories

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John Honner

Last Sunday after Mass we had the annual parish clean-up around our church. My job each year has been to tidy up the little garden around the statue of St Joseph. This usually means raking out all the dead leaves and bits of rubbish that have been blown under the shrubs around the statue and its plinth.

This year I decided to give St Joseph himself a bit of a clean up. I was even thinking of giving him a coat of paint. With scrubbing brush and bucket, I set about getting rid of years of grime and scale.

I like this statue of St Joseph. It used to stand outside the old Josephite convent, facing the front door, protecting the Sisters of St Joseph who taught in the parish school for almost a century. The convent is still there, but is now used as a kind of guest-house. Somewhere along the way the statue of St Joseph has been turned around to face the town, as if to indicate that he now has a much larger area of responsibility.

The statue is in an out of the way place. Nobody lights a candle in front of it. The garden around it is neglected. It is hidden and unknown in the world.

I like this statue because it tells so many stories. It reminds me of St Mary MacKillop, who had twice visited the old convent and school here. It reminds me of my great grandfather’s sister, who was one of the early companions of St Mary MacKillop, and one of the first Josephites to die, tragically burnt to death in 1878 when she was only 19 years old. The statue also reminds me of my sister in law, who has a very powerful little statue of St Joseph that has been part of many family miracles. And it reminds me of a good Baptist friend, step-father to his wife’s children, who came to work for the Josephites and suddenly discovered that he was a Joseph figure himself.

As I scrubbed the statue, I realized it would be a mistake to paint it. Even though only half the grime could be removed, the emerging figure, standing behind the boy Jesus, had a patina of age and grace about him: care-worn and caring.

I noticed that a large screw was driven deep into the concrete plinth, as if to fix a plaque of some kind, though there was no sign of the plaque itself. I noticed that Joseph doesn’t hold Jesus so that he can see Jesus’ face, but rather holds Jesus so that the world can see Jesus.

And then I thought: but this is not Joseph, and this is not Jesus, this is a lump of molded clay, probably the work of Irish and Italian piety, and nothing like Jesus and Joseph. And I thought of the scandal that statues have created for some Christians over the years, often destroyed by iconoclasts and reformers for being idols. I thought of the pious ones who kneel before statues and kiss statues and who seem more devoted to the statue than to following Christ. I wondered what my learned theological colleagues would think if they saw me now, happily cleaning a statue, a contented fool.

And then it occurred to me that a statue is a word for those who cannot read, a story for those who are illiterate. It is no less an idol and no more misleading than the words we use – often in translation – to frame our faith. Indeed, sometimes we turn our words into idols, worshipping the words rather than following Christ. Statues probably encourage the Spirit more than words do, because words can build walls, whereas statues can fire imaginations. Of course there are some dreadful statues in the Catholic world, portraying a piety that is all pastel shades and Eurocentric culture. But not this poor St Joseph, watching over our town from his quiet corner among the trees and the rain.