Respecting the Infant of Prague

Good news, no more virgin martyr posts from our visit to Prague!

But before leaving Prague, I did want to share about our visit to the Infant of Prague.

In the Catholic tradition, various images, statues, and locations become objects of devotion, veneration, intercession, and pilgrimage. There's a sort of feedback loop that makes this happen. There might be, for example, thousands and thousands of statues and images of Mary, let's say. But one particular statue of Mary in a particular church becomes associated with an answered prayer or a vision. This attracts attention and visitors who also pray. If another prayer is answered, the stories continue to spread, drawing in more pilgrims. More stories then accumulate, and the statue gets a worldwide reputation.

The Infant of Prague is one of those objects of veneration and pilgrimage. The Infant is a small, 19-inch, 500-year old, wax-coated wooden statue of the infant Jesus that has been associated with many miracles and answered prayers. The Infant is tended and cared for by the Carmelite sisters at the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. Specifically, the sisters dress the Infant in fine, jewel-studded royal regalia, along with a small, jeweled crown. In the Church of Our Lady Victorious there's an exhibit of many of the robes and crowns that have been given to the Infant from around the world. Pope Benedict brought the Infant a crown in 2009.

Regarding veneration and devotion, the Infant of Prague is one of the most famous Divine Infant and Infant King statues in Catholicism. There are others, like the Santo Niño de Cebú. When we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious there were many people fervently praying in the church. And while Protestants might find such prayers strange and perplexing, I was deeply moved watching those who were praying. You knew each person with a bowed head and rosaries in hand was carrying some worry or heartache. So our visit seemed less like a tourist stop, and more like standing on holy ground.

To be sure, again, Protestants will find veneration and devotion to the Infant of Prague strange and bewildering. But one of the things I like about the Infant of Prague, and devotions like it within the Catholic tradition, is the materiality of the devotion.

This struck me as I was looking at all the clothing and crowns that the Carmelite sisters use to dress the Infant. The Infant of Prague may be the most lavishly dressed doll in the world. But the spiritual genius at work in dressing the Infant is how it forces you to express your love and devotion to God materially, through physical objects and actions. This is an example of the sacramental ontology at work in Catholicism, how the spiritual is expressed in and mediated through the material.

There's always a Gnostic temptation at work in Protestantism, the conceit that spirit can connect directly to spirit leaving the body behind, ignored and superfluous, perhaps even dangerous. In the Catholic imagination, by contrast, we connect with the Spirit through the material world. The body is essential, inescapable. God comes to us through the material world, and we connect with God through the material world.

True, that imagination makes Catholicism vulnerable to superstition and magical thinking. If Protestants are tempted by Gnosticism, Catholics are tempted by paganism. Regardless, if you understand the role of materiality in Catholicism in mediating the spiritual, the Infant of Prague makes more sense. The clothing and the dressing of the Infant are material expressions of spiritual devotion, materially mediating our love for Jesus toward Jesus. Properly understood, the Infant of Prague isn't an object of devotion, it's a means of devotion, a material object that focuses and directs our affections toward the spiritual source of our love.

Still, if visiting and praying to the Infant of Prague seems a bit much for you, fine. And yet, as I've argued for years on this blog, we need something like this devotion in our lives. We need to fill our spaces with material objects--from candles, to icons, to prayer beads--to re-enchant lives that have been stripped of material reminders of spiritual realities.

Look at your living room, office, and bedside table. Is there anything there that points you toward God? Is your life filled with material reminders of your truest, deepest love?

If not, then I wouldn't scoff in the Church of Our Lady Victorious.

I'd suggest you show the Infant of Prague a little respect.

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