Idle Idols in Modernity

Over one of the most amazing weekends I’ve had in a long, long time (perhaps forever? I digress. This isn’t about that!), I visited the Nelson Atkins museum in KC, a place I first visited in my early elementary school days. And a place where I discover and rediscover the wonders and beauties of ancient art and religion.


To me, the Nelson is one of the most spiritual places I’ve stepped into, aside from the wild places and the spirit of the land. In the Nelson, among the modern and contemporary art, they have ancient Egyptian art, mummies, sarcophagi, and ancient Egyptian idols. They have Hindu, Buddhist, and Far east artwork and statues. They have Native American art and clothing and  masks. In short, they have many ancient cultures represented in small, yet hugely beautiful, collections from all around the world.


Early in my conscious pagan path, I marveled at the Hindu statues depicting Shiva and Ganesha, the Native American shaman aprons and ritual masks, but over the weekend I rediscovered something I perhaps have not taken notice.


It was a statue in a large, beautifully crafted room with tapestries and dim lighting. The statue was of the bodhisattva Guanyin, a Goddess of Mercy and Compassion of East Asian Buddhists and Taoists. 


Upon entering the room, I remembered that I had been in that room before. I remembered it as the first place I consciously could recall visiting from way back when in my elementary museum field trip days. Back then, fear of the unknown and strange made me nervous, and I harkened back to that fear. It was a sort of fascination mixed with the fear, the same feeling that humbled me amidst the large colonnades in the main anteroom of the museum, the same feeling that sent chills up my spine when my eyes met the eyes of the eastern Lion statues.


As I stepped into the room, my eyes fell upon Guanyin, a larger-than-life statue lounging in the center of the far wall, sitting in front of an ancient, faded mural. I almost fell to my knees in marvel. The energy that came upon me went wild, and I soon found myself sitting on a bench in the room, unable to remove my eyes from Guanyin. 


Grounding and centering myself, I regained my senses–if only a fraction of them!–and on my way out, I stopped once more in front of Guanyin to marvel at its energy and beauty, and to sheepishly read in the info plaque situated near its mount. I could do nothing but bow my head in reverence. I felt the eyes of the ancient spirit of Guanyin on me, on my soul. I bowed and quickly left the room, still unable to ground and center myself completely. I shivered with the energy.


Idolatry. Some religions say not to do it. I say not to forget it. These idols–statues, pictures, gods–are archetypal ideals anthropomorphized and personified (and sometimes zoomorphized) into beautiful, breathtaking tales. So real are they that sometimes people mistake them as literal incarnations of history past. Some people think they’re mere metaphors formed by primitive man. Some say they’re art.


I say they’re invaluable. Not quite metaphor, not quite art, not quite literal, but something of a crossroads betwixt the three. A sort of glimpse into the universal mind of the universe. An emergence of the ultimate divine spirit. An attempt to express our inner god into fruition. 


Well, whether or not I’m right, whether or not I’m crazy or true, the feelings are there. The feelings are real. And they should not be ignored.

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