Fragments of Light

The Work of Seeing​, Part 3

The image is the principle of our knowledge. It is that from which our intellectual activity begins, not as a passing stimulus, but as an enduring foundation. When the imagination is choked, so also is our theological knowledge.”
–Thomas Aquinas, Opuscula 16, de Trinitate. Quoted in Margaret Miles, Image as Insight.

In her book, Image as Insight, Margaret Miles reflects on the potential for spiritual nourishment that images afford. Grounding her argument in historical example, she makes a case for filling our everyday lives with a selection of images that may similarly nourish us as we repeatedly encounter them.

“The christian image, whether of Christ, Mary, or a saint or martyr, represented — made present to the medieval worshiper by its presence in the liturgy—one who has lived on earth and who continues to live in the omnipresent spiritual universe, participating, along with the presently living, in worship. The image awakened and focused the worshiper’s desire to imitate the spiritual characteristics presented by images. For the Christian, images recalled the intimate, concrete, historical affinity of the worshiper with the figures of the spiritual world. It was not, however, the idea of transcendent spiritual qualities that attracted the worshiper to imitation of the image. Rather, the endurance, ecstasy, faith, or whatever spiritual quality was embodied by the image came to the worshiper not as an idea but as the embodied experience of a historical person. The image posited the possibility and the fruitfulness, for embodied human beings, of the depicted spiritual qualities.”

Stressing the need to repeatedly encounter and spend time with images which nourish, Miles continues:

“Neglect of images is neglect of contemplation. The religious affections, traditionally formulated and trained by images, are not effectively engaged in the worship of christian communities when images play no part in liturgy and devotional practice. In such a situation, there is a lack of balance between language, which plays so dominant a role in worship, and images, which either are entirely absent or are ignored. The intellect, engaged by language, is religiously trained, but the emotions are less effectively engaged. Through the use of images, historical Christians were moved first to imitate and then to assimilate the strength, the courage, and the love they contemplated in religious art. Theoria—contemplation in which one is lifted out of one’s familiar world and into the living presences of the spiritual world—begins with physical vision, with a trained and concentrated seeing that overcomes conceptual barriers between the visible and the spiritual worlds.”

Of course, every individual will take encouragement and find strengthening in their own way. I take Miles’ prescription as a welcome invitation to go looking.

​Comments welcome.​

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