Worship Vs. Veneration
Back when I was on Facebook, I recall a discussion with some Protestant friends about veneration of saints. I protested that worship is for God alone – yes, even for Catholics and Orthodox. But they felt, as most Protestants do, that one risks accidentally offering worship to a creature when one venerates him, her, or it. They illustrated the point by asking me to define the difference between worship and veneration. My answer was rambling and never really got to the point. I really couldn’t answer it. That ended the conversation.
I felt that I knew the difference but couldn’t explain it. I still feel that, but I can maybe come a little closer to explaining it now.
For one thing, I think confession comes into it. Confessing to the object of one’s devotion what he or she is, what he or she has done – that is part of the devotion. It involves an act of the spirit that is at once generous, proper, and warming to the heart. It educates us even as we do it. It directs the streams of our being toward that holy person or thing.
And here’s the thing. What we confess about God, as traditional Christians, is so different to what we confess about saints. I think this is really the hidden weakness of Protestant thinking about God in this area. Their God is not really different enough from our saints.
For us, negative theology has proved so fruitful in distinguishing the Uncreated from the Created that there is always that which may be confessed about God, but no one else. So there’s that. The Biblicist says “God is Love,” and with good reason. But the Orthodox Christian has no problem going beyond the words of scripture and confessing:
Ah, Lord God! You are that which I cannot mean even when I say ‘Love’; you are that from which Love flows and to which Love returns; you are that which Love strives again to be at its holiest and best, but never approaches. Unlove is anathema to you; Love is what you have given us to be like you and think of you; Love is the closest thing I can say to what you are. Still, you are not Love. You are that you are, for which no Name is enough.
Silence follows, and that silence, too, is worship. Other silences may accompany devotions to saints, but they contain an element of companionship which is impossible before God.
And, too, they lack an element of intimacy which is only possible with God.
Yes, I think privacy and integrity and reserve is something that is appropriate even with saints. We never open our whole selves to them, never give them ourselves entirely, never surrender ourselves to them utterly.
And that, I think, is the essence of the thing that worship really is: the pouring out of oneself without reserve, without fear, without hesitation. When giving oneself has no proper reserve, that is the giving that is for God alone.
That outpouring is more than devotion; it is the impatient, reckless, headlong reciprocation of everything one is, to the Source of everything one is; the requital of all gifts; the return of the homesick pioneer from the frontiers of being, Home. For the heart, there is only one Home.
Frankly, it is quite true that the devotion traditional Christians offer to saints, especially to the Mother of God, is so much more than anything I at least offered to God as a Protestant. That is sad, and at the same time, no reason at all not to give all one can properly give to the holy ones and their relics and even to the artifacts of our religion. They simply don’t compete with God in the slightest.
To be perfectly honest, I think at this point in Christian history, many traditional Christians could probably even pay their respects to many of the gods of old without any temptation to idolatry whatsoever.