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Touching the divine

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Kate O’Boyle, Untitled, 2019, still from moving image, 22 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.

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A curious thing takes place inside St Francis’, a modest but busy church in the centre of Melbourne. Not spectacular enough to attract tourists, it caters for an endless stream of worshippers instead, with hourly services and a full-time confessional. The space is lacklustre as far as Catholic churches go, with an interior resigned to a brown-burgundy blandness. In stark contrast, its Marian chapel is hyper-coloured and bursting with material attractions; you’re lucky to get a standing spot let alone a pew.

Above the public gallery, a statue of the Virgin Mary sits on an ornate marble altar. She is further separated from the faithful by a protective brass fence that guards dozens of elaborate bouquets donated by devout patrons. While the statue’s centrality and occasion marks it as the central object of worship, the eye is also drawn to a painting hanging just outside the enclosure. The top of the painting falls away from the wall at a 45 degree angle, reducing any incident reflection on its protective glass. The painting, a copy of the fifteenth-century Byzantine icon, is of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who is credited with centuries of apparitions and miraculous healings. From losing sports teams to grave illnesses, if you’re a Catholic in need of help this icon is your go-to.

Late on a Wednesday afternoon, I see a woman trying to touch the painting, frustratingly just out of her reach. She looks to the wobbly kneeler on the floor next to her and, stepping onto it, she boosts herself up to tap the icon’s gilded frame. Satisfied, she kisses her hand, holds it to her chest and leaves. She is quickly followed by a succession of worshippers undertaking similar acts, each different in their choreography but equally an attempt to touch the divine.

The painting is not the only thing that attracts touch in St Francis’. I see people hold the hands of statues, kiss the surface of altars and trace the imprints of bronze reliefs. Where an object of desire is too high to touch, the wall below is worn with contact. The church’s several glass vitrines are forever being cleaned of greasy fingerprints, evidence of those seeking proximity to the relics encased within.

This place is enlivened by touch, locked in continuous and active exchange with the faithful. Small acts of devotion speak of a care usually reserved for those we love deeply—while these acts might take place in public, they are deeply personal and at times uncomfortably intimate. I catch myself watching and admonish myself for my voyeurism, for here there is a custom of bowed heads and averted eyes.  

These acts of devotion bring me to the work of the seminal German filmmaker Harun Farocki. In his 45 minute documentary Transmission, Farocki captures gestures of touch at public shrines and monuments, from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to the foot of the statue of St Peter in Rome. The relatives of dead soldiers use their fingers to trace the names of their loved ones etched into granite headstones and worshipers kiss and press their faces against the Stone of the Anointing, believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb. People undertake pilgrimages to such sites because they represent tangible links to the inconceivable. Much like the touching I witness at St Francis’, Farocki captures the liveliness of exchange between pilgrims and objects, as people seek to anchor the ambiguous, un-graspable nature of memory and the sacred to something knowable and real.

Until recently, materiality has been disregarded by Western Protestant-based academia, which privileged interiority and doctrine over the public and corporeal.(1) Such an approach does not address what it is to practice one of the many religions that have strong and complex material relationships. The influence of new materialist philosophy on the recent material turn in theology and religious studies has led to a reconsideration the role of materiality, not as a means of expression, or carrier of meaning but as something inextricable from faith.(2)

Kate O’Boyle, Untitled, 2019, still from moving image, 22 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kate O’Boyle, Untitled, 2019, still from moving image, 22 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.

Viewing touch as an active and flat ontological exchange could be dangerous territory in a space segmented by hierarchical structures, but the idea of material agency makes it possible to view these acts outside of these determinants. Without dismissing the importance of existing socially constructed material meanings, it allows us to acknowledge that these corporeal exchanges might speak to something beyond prescribed values.

On the day I witnessed the woman struggling to touch the icon, I had expected to find St Francis’ empty or altered in some way. I had walked there from the County Court of Victoria, where I had watched hundreds of protesters, supporters and the media awaiting the sentencing of George Pell for his assault on two minors. Yet things inside St Francis’ continued as normal. As a swell of similar cases come to light, I have often been confused by the ability of people to continue to worship at sites seemingly unmoved. However, as I sat in the Marian chapel watching these small acts of devotion, it occurred to me that they are performed outside of formal ceremony and often in violation of institutional rules. The clergy had placed the painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help out of the reach of parishioners, protected by glass and angled for viewing only, and yet people touched her anyway. The pull towards matter is so strong for these parishioners that when confronted with something out of reach an alternative is sought. It is here that touch becomes a subversive act, fuelled by corporeal desire in disregard of institutional regulations. In such subversion is space for those marginalised by the teachings of the Church and excluded from formalised service. Desire holds a greater power than compliance; in these improvised rituals we find true devotion.