instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

True devotion to Mary

I was sent a review copy of Shrines: Images of Italian Worship, a coffee-table-type collection of photographs by Steven Rothfeld of personal shrines visible from the streets of Italy, and I wasn't sure what to do about it. Do I keep it, as a bit of distilled beauty on the bookshelf? Do I give it as a gift, since it seems to be in the gift book genre? And what do I write about a book of pictures, with just a brief introduction and a few scattered asides added by way of text, particularly when there doesn't seem to be any sample images online?

Steven Riddle shows me the way on this last question:
The theme of the book is "shrines" in the lower-case meaning of the word--personal, small devotional sites, intimate spiritual places made public so that in some small way you share your devotion with others...

And this last thought brings out one of the poignant touches of the book--these are a commonplace in Italy. Perhaps not everywhere, but they can be encountered with some frequency. Except in the more Hispanic neighborhoods near me, there is nothing like this in the American Way of devotion... We are almost embarrassed by our devotions, it seems. And we have lost the good sense of Chesterton--"if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly."
If the crafts-magazine enthusiasm of The Catholic Home left me unimpressed, looking at all these different Marian shrines left me wanting to build one of my own.

And the thought of building one of my own calls to mind Chesterton's line quoted by Steven. The shrines pictured in this book are not all things of great aesthetic beauty. Many of them are crude or artless; most have seen better days. But they are works of true devotion (and not, pace the subtitle, of worship), and it's the evidence of devotion rather than craft that makes them beautiful.

I thought it was interesting that these shrines also serve as means of devotion for passersby. People cross themselves as they pass, or commend themselves to the Virgin. In the introduction, Frances Mayes writes of buying a house in Italy that came with a shrine to Mary, to which an elderly man would bring flowers daily. The change of ownership meant nothing to him. It's a tidy example of the idea that private property is to be used for the common good, or if you prefer of the difference between right of ownership and right of use. (Mayes appreciates this, too, if not out of any particularly evident religious devotion.)

In any case, if you see a copy of Shrines, take a moment to look through it. There's a good chance someone you know will like it.