We now know that we human beings do not simply understand things on a surface level, because certain objects like flags or wedding rings have an importance which is beyond their physical appearance. We also know that God has made us this way because He set up His Church for our salvation and the Church has at its centre the same kind of thing, namely the Sacraments. These are parts of our everyday world but they are transformed by the power of God to give us His grace. Bread and wine is no longer bread and wine, but is His Sacred Body and Blood - really, truly and substantially. We know as well that the Saints are there not only as our examples, but as our helping friends. They can pray for us, and they can present our prayers to God in a way which is different to us on earth. They are now in heaven, singing the praises of the One who made them.
To help us focus on God, and on the saints, we in the Western Church use statues. It is sometimes thrown at us that we Catholics worship them. But we know that that is not true. Not only is it not true, it is nonsense. Why would we worship something that God has made and not God Himself? In the same way that we do not worship the saint who is depicted, so we do not worship the image of that saint. But what we do know is that we human beings need help to remember and to focus. I have a number of pictures of my mother in the presbytery. Now, I know exactly what she is like, I can speak to her on the telephone, and she can come and visit me. But there is no harm in my remembering her at other times, or even being caught off guard and seeing her by surprise! Even if she is not there I can speak to her picture.
This is what statues do for us. They remind us of the person they show, and they help us to talk to them, and through their prayers and support, they lead us to God.
But we know that they are only artefacts, and by that I mean things which are made with human hands. They may be aesthetically beautiful, or they may be ugly. They may be bright and shiny, or they may be dull and subdued. That really is just a matter of taste. Beware of criticising someone else’s taste. You may think a particular statue is terrible, but it may be a true help to someone else’s devotion. It would be like me going into your home and saying “What horrible wallpaper, how can you stand it! I guess you’re going to change that as soon as possible.” Only to find out that you had just spent lots of money on it, and lots of time choosing it.
So for us in the west, in our history, statues have helped us to pray and to ask the prayers of the saints. But that is not the case for the Church in the East. There, a different tradition, an ancient tradition arose to do the same thing, but with a much deeper theology… icons.