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Icons Will Save the World

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  • Christopher Orr
    Icons Will Save the World By *Susan Cushman* http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=928 Standing before the
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 20, 2007
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      Icons Will Save the World <http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=928>

      By *Susan Cushman*

      Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church,
      I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy
      image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes
      forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke
      15:11�32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees
      the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.

      After receiving the priest's counsel and absolution, I remain in the nave
      (the large part of the temple, called the sanctuary in Protestant churches)
      to give thanks and to let God's grace and peace fill my heart. Surrounded by
      icons of Christ, his Mother, the angels, saints, biblical scenes and church
      feasts, I think about how Prince Vladimir's envoys must have felt when they
      walked into *Hagia Sophia Orthodox
      * in Constantinople near the end of the tenth century. Their mission was to
      find a religion that Prince Vladimir could embrace and offer to the people
      of Russia. In their report they said, "We didn't know whether we were in
      Heaven or on earth." Shortly thereafter, Orthodoxy became the official
      religion of Kievan Russia, infusing the lives of peasants and princes,
      artists and writers, with the Orthodox vision of beauty. Nine hundred years
      later, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky penned the famous words, "Beauty
      will save the world."

      I don't think Prince Vladimir or Dostoevsky had in mind the kind of worldly
      beauty that today's fashion and entertainment industries worship, or even
      the beauty of secular art and architecture. I think they were both swept off
      their feet by true *spiritual* beauty�in Vladimir's case, the beauty of the
      Orthodox temple (church), adorned with *icons*.

      In his book *Icons: Theology in
      *, Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is *spiritual*. "Our
      icon painters," Trubetskoi said, "had seen the beauty that would save the
      world and immortalized it in colors."

      We are innately creative, because we are made in the image of a creative
      God. As the twentieth century-abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky said, we
      all strive to make "beauty and order from the chaos of the fallen world."
      Our Creator has given us the freedom to do this, but sadly many artists and
      writers abuse this freedom. The results of that abuse are often
      pornographic, or at best self-serving exposes masquerading as art or

      Good secular art, music, literature, and architecture serve to refine and
      form our souls and make them better disposed to *spiritual* or
      *liturgical*art, music, literature, and architecture. In
      *an essay called "Forming Young
      *" Fr. Seraphim Rose encouraged parents to expose their children to what he
      calls the "Dushevni Diet"�that which feeds the *middle part of the soul*.
      "The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously
      deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art,
      literature, and music." His premise is that people raised on such a "diet"
      would be better prepared to receive the higher, or spiritual foods. Perhaps
      they would have developed an appetite for the patient work of prayer,
      worship, and yes, venerating icons.

      When I converted to Orthodoxy from a Protestant faith (a seventeen-year
      process culminating in 1987), I embraced the veneration of icons
      unreservedly. An important distinction needs to be made here between
      veneration and worship�one better made by St. John of Damascus in his *On
      the Divine Images<http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FTreatises-Vladimirs-Seminary-Popular-Patristics%2Fdp%2F0881412457%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1197653558%26sr%3D1-1&tag=firstthings-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325>
      *). St John used the term *latria* for the absolute worship reserved only
      for God, and the word *proskinesis* to describe the relative worship, or
      veneration, given to the Mother of God, saints, and sacred objects such as
      relics and icons. Maybe an analogy from everyday life will help make these
      definitions easier to grasp.

      My father died in 1998. For forty-nine years my parents shared a strong
      Christian faith�an adoration of God�and a strong love and respect for one
      another. During the last few years of their marriage, they developed a
      morning ritual. Upon waking, they would greet each other with the Psalmist's
      words, "This is the day the Lord has made," and the response, "Let us
      rejoice and be glad in it." After my father's death, my mother continued the
      tradition, greeting instead his photograph�an image of her husband�often
      with a kiss, and would say both the greeting and response they once shared.
      The love and veneration she shows to the image is passed on to the
      prototype, in this case her husband, whom she sees as being very much alive
      and waiting for her in heaven.

      So it is with the veneration of icons. A worshipper enters the church and
      approaches an icon. Maybe it's the icon of the saint who is commemorated on
      that particular day, or of Jesus or the Mother of God. Making the sign of
      the cross, followed by a *metania*, a bow from the waist, the person then
      kisses the icon, passing on her love and veneration to the prototype it
      represents. She is not worshipping the image, any more than my mother
      worships a photograph of my father.

      Icons point to beauty and art as a means of experiencing God. In a time when
      our senses are bombarded with the base things of this world at every turn,
      now, more than ever, we need for those senses to be sanctified. Saint John
      of Damascus called sacred images "the books of the illiterate," and asserted
      that icons sanctify the sense of sight for those who gaze upon them.

      Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the
      spiritual hospital�that is to say, a church�with my soul choking from the
      prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the
      brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus
      my soul is led to glorify God. I marvel at the martyr's endurance, at the
      crown he won, and, inflamed with burning zeal, I fall down to worship God
      through His martyr, and so receive salvation.

      If this description of a first-millennium saint's experience seems too
      removed from our contemporary life, I wonder if that's because we have lost
      the concept of the Church as a spiritual hospital? Or because, in our
      fast-paced lives, we have forgotten how to slow down and let the beauty of
      God's house touch and heal our fragmented psyches?

      I have a dear friend from a life-long evangelical background who has been
      visiting my parish for several years. Although she usually goes with her
      family to their Presbyterian church on Sundays, she frequents St. John for
      some of the weekday services. She has told me that, as much as the prayers
      themselves (usually Third Hour, a short service of Psalms and prayers
      observed at nine on weekday mornings) bless her, it's the icons that are
      having such a powerful effect on her heart. Sitting alone in the nave after
      the prayers, gazing at the icon of Christ on the cross�the one the priest
      carries in procession on Holy Friday�she is sometimes moved to contrition.
      At other times, she feels a longing for a deeper relationship with Christ.
      She is almost always filled with a sense of his love and peace, on a deeper
      level�one that transcends emotions. And yes, sometimes her eyes are filled
      with tears.

      *Anton Vrame<http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FEducating-Icon-Teaching-Holiness-Orthodox%2Fdp%2F1885652283%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1197653846%26sr%3D1-1&tag=firstthings-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325>
      * would say that my friend has had an *encounter with icons*, that the icon
      actually invites a response: "There is a psychological dimension to the
      icons in that they sanctify vision, and through it, all bodily senses,
      pointing to a holistic approach to knowledge and Christian living."

      So why doesn't everyone have the same reaction to icons that Saint John of
      Damascus and Prince Vladimir's men and my friend had? I have another friend
      who became Orthodox in his seventies, and, as much as he loved and embraced
      the Orthodox faith, he always struggled with icons. A few years ago, I
      returned home from an iconography workshop at which I had completed an icon
      of the Holy Apostle Paul. My friend was house-bound, so I was glad to have
      something other than library books to take with me on one of my visits to
      his house. But when I showed him the icon, he confessed that he didn't
      really like looking at them.

      "They always look so *sad*," he said. "I thought the Christian life was
      supposed to be joyful."

      I tried to explain that the bright sadness in the faces of the saints
      depicted in Byzantine icons wasn't like the superficial happiness or
      romantic beauty found in classical religious art. Icons have a quality that
      *Constantine Cavarnos<http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FGuide-Byzantine-Iconography-Two-2%2Fdp%2F1884729681%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1197654427%26sr%3D1-1&tag=firstthings-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325>
      * called *hieraticalness* or spiritual solemnity. The expressions on the
      faces of the saints depicted in the icons often reflect the gravity of
      mankind's circumstances. As Frederica Mathewes-Green says: "No wonder an
      icon looks so serious. Our condition is serious."

      Two very mystical examples of God's response to the serious condition of
      fallen man are miracle-working icons and weeping icons. There are countless
      stories of people who have been healed by icons, flooding rivers diverted by
      icons, and cities protected by icons from invaders. Thousands of faithful
      Christians make pilgrimages to venerate these miraculous icons all over the
      world. Some are seeking healing; others are offering thanksgiving to God for
      his protection and grace given through the icon.

      My first personal experience with weeping icons took place in 1997. I had
      the blessing of accompanying several nuns from *Holy Dormition Orthodox
      * in Rives Junction, Michigan, to *Holy Transfiguration Orthodox
      * in Livonia, Michigan, to venerate four weeping icons. Each of the icons of
      the Mother of God had been in the home of a pious woman who brought them to
      the church as they began to exude myrrh or oil. When these miracles occur, a
      number of church hierarchy are called in to verify the legitimacy of the
      claim. Once confirmed, the icons are usually placed in the church, and
      pilgrims are invited to come and pray before the icons and receive anointing
      with holy oil from them.

      Nothing could have prepared me for this experience. As we entered the
      church, the nuns were immediately greeted by several parishioners and were
      invited up to the front of the nave. I followed their examples as they
      approached each icon, made three prostrations (kneeling and placing their
      faces on the ground), and then gathered as a group in front of the
      iconostasis. Then they began to sing hymns to the Mother of God. I tried to
      sing with them but couldn't stop crying long enough, nor did I want to
      detract from the celestial purity and beauty of their voices. For me, the
      spiritual presence of holiness overwhelmed the physical signs�the sweet
      smell of the myrrh and the visual image of the oil dripping from the icons
      into containers placed beneath each one. But the physical signs were also
      indelibly etched into my soul.

      A couple of years later, I joined three other friends from my parish in
      Memphis for a weekend pilgrimage to Chicago for the purpose of venerating
      several miracle-working icons at three different Orthodox Churches. One of
      them was the *Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of
      * (attributed to St. Luke), which had been brought to this country from
      Russia in 1949 to save it from the Communists and Nazis who were destroying
      icons in Russia. (The Tikhvin Icon was returned to Russia in 2004.)

      But it was another miraculous icon, one that has received less attention
      than the Tikhvin icon, that touched me. Another icon of the Mother of God,
      it adorned the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church and
      began weeping in 1986. What struck me most about our pilgrimage to this
      particular church wasn't the icon itself. It was the love and devotion
      expressed by another pilgrim. I didn't talk with this woman, so I don't know
      her story. But I watched as she knelt at the back of the nave, and then
      walked *on her knees* the entire length of the center aisle of the church
      and crawled up the steps of the *solea* (the raised platform in front of the
      iconostasis) to light a candle and venerate this icon. I could hear her
      praying in another language . . . and I witnessed a humility and love for
      God that humbled and inspired me.

      Henri Nouwen was at a retreat in France in 1983 and found that someone had
      placed a copy of *Rublev's icon of the
      * on a table in his room. At the same retreat, a year later, *an icon of Our
      Lady of Vladimir
      <http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/vladimir.html>*was waiting
      for him. Nouwen entered into a time of spiritual reflection with
      each icon. The following year, Nouwen added the icons of *Christ of
      Zvenigorod <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_the_Redeemer_(icon)>* and
      the *Descent of the Holy
      * (Pentecost) to his experience and wrote a reflection on all four icons,
      which was published as *Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With

      Like my friend who struggled with the icon's solemnity, Nouwen found that
      icons are "not easy to see." He even called them "rigid, lifeless, schematic
      and dull" at first. But he gazed at these four icons for hours at a time,
      and, after patient, prayerful stillness on his part, they began to speak to
      him. As a man who loved the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Marc
      Chagall, he could have chosen any of these Western treasures for his
      meditations. But he chose icons. Why?

      I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of
      offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the
      invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and
      bring us close to the heart of God.

      My favorite section of Nouwen's book is chapter three�"Seeing Christ."
      Rublev painted his icon of Christ in the fifteenth century for a church in
      the Russian city of Zvenigorod. It was discovered under the steps to a barn
      in 1918, along with two other famous Rublev icons, where they had been
      hidden for five centuries.

      Nouwen saw, through a prolonged period of prayerful attentiveness to the
      face of Christ in this damaged image, "a most tender human face, and eyes
      that penetrate the heart of God as well as every human heart." With further
      contemplation, he realized that Christ's "sad but still very beautiful face
      looks at us through the ruins of our world," as if to say, "O what have you
      done to the work of my hands?"

      We are the works of his hands. We are stewards of his world, his creation.
      Gregory the Theologian refers to the human person as an icon of God. *John
      * wrote that "someone who sees the whole world as an icon . . . has already
      entered the life of resurrection and eternity. John Climacus, the abbot at *St.
      Catherine's Monastery on Mt.
      *, was convinced that, in the very beauty and beyond the shattered image of
      this world: "Such a person always perceives everything in the light of the
      Creator God, and has therefore acquired immortality before the ultimate
      resurrection." As we Christians embrace this iconic way of seeing and
      living, perhaps we will become better vessels of God's healing.

      In the "First Apology of Saint John of Damascus Against Those Who Attack the
      Divine Images," Saint John talked about Old Testament images like the ark of
      the covenant (an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos) and the rod of
      Aaron and the jar of manna. These are all visible things that aid
      understanding of intangible things. We read in Exodus 25�26 how God
      instructed Moses to use images in the tabernacle�including angels woven on
      the veil of the holy of holies. It's true that later on God forbade the
      making of images because of idolatry�because of man's misuse of something
      God intended for good. But that was before the Incarnation, as St. John

      It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may
      depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to
      flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without
      form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the
      form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance
      and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image
      and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.

      God's Incarnation not only made it possible for us to draw and venerate his
      image, but also the images of men and women who have been transfigured by
      him�the saints and martyrs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which
      upheld the doctrine of the veneration of images as an inevitable result of
      the Incarnation, said this about icons of saints:

      These holy men of all times who pleased God, whose biographies have remained
      in writing for our benefit and for the purpose of our salvation, have also
      left to the catholic Church their deeds explained in paintings, so that our
      mind may remember them, and so that we may be lifted up to the level of
      their conduct.

      The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate
      every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest
      extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift
      us up to be all that we can be�as we are transformed by God's grace and

      The Incarnation should cause us to take our humanity seriously, as Vrame
      says. And if we take our humanity seriously, we will not scorn the physical,
      material things that the Church in her wisdom has given us as aids for
      transforming that humanity, for restoring the image that fell in the

      Taking our humanity seriously also means being concerned about our
      responsibility to the world around us. Chryssavgis said that our generation

      characterized by a behavior that results from an autism with regard to the
      natural cosmos: a certain lack of awareness, or recognition, causes us to
      use, or even waste the beauty of the world. . . . We have disestablished a
      continuity between ourselves and the outside, with no possibility for
      intimate communion and mutual enhancement. The world of the icon, though,
      restores this relationship by reminding us of what is outside and beyond,
      what ultimately gives value and vitality.

      Like the Incarnation, the icon pierces space and time, because a physical
      object�a piece of wood with gesso and paint and gold leaf�is shot through
      with God's eternal presence. Christos Yannaras, in his essay "*The Ethos of
      Liturgical Art<http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FFreedom-Morality-Contemporary-Greek-Theologians%2Fdp%2F0881410284%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1197659980%26sr%3D1-1&tag=firstthings-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325>
      *," says that "Byzantine iconography does not 'decorate' the church but has
      an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event,
      existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life." This is
      heavenly stuff for us mortals to wrap our minds around, but we all need to
      be elevated�to be lifted up in order to see the world as God sees it�as
      sacred and worthy of redemption.

      In the end, icons are part of what we offer back to God, just as the priest
      at the altar lifts up the material elements of bread and wine, offering them
      on behalf of the eucharistic community�*Thine own of Thine own*. In a
      mystery, God receives our offering and offers it back to us as the Body and
      Blood of his Son. And so we offer our art�in the form of liturgical music,
      prayers, architecture, and, yes, icons�to the God who sanctified the world
      by his Incarnation, by becoming man�by becoming matter.

      Most iconographers refer to the work they do as writing rather than painting
      icons. Just as hagiography is the life of a saint written with words,
      iconography is the life of the saint written with paint. And just as one
      reads the written life, one also "reads" the painted life�the icon. Again it
      was the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who clarified the value of
      icons as a medium of God's revelation, on a par with the written gospel:

      For, when they hear the gospel with the ears, they exclaim "glory to Thee, O
      Lord"; and when they see it with the eyes, they send forth exactly the same
      doxology, for we are reminded of his life among men. That which the
      narrative declares in writing is the same as that which the icon does [in

      Following the council's decree, Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople
      wrote: "If one is worthy of honor, the other is worthy of honor also. . . .
      Either accept these [icons], or get rid of those [Gospels]."

      The Holy Apostle Luke is perhaps the Church's unique example of one who
      carried out Christ's great commission in both of these realms�as the writer
      of the Gospel of Luke, and as the first iconographer. The earliest images of
      the Mother of God are attributed to him. To this day, iconographers entreat
      the Holy Apostle Luke, patron saint of iconographers, to guide and bless
      their work. There is even a special *Iconographer's
      * that commemorates Saint Luke.

      One of my favorite days of the church year is the first Sunday of Great
      Lent, known as Orthodoxy Sunday. This tradition was established in 842 in
      Constantinople by his Holiness Patriarch Methodius in memory of the
      overthrow of the last terrible heresy to rattle the Church, the heresy of
      iconoclasm. In many cities, the Orthodox faithful from different
      jurisdictions (Greek, Antiochian, Russian, etc.) join together and worship
      at one of the larger churches. The children all bring icons and process with
      the clergy and altar servers around the inside of the nave at the end of the
      liturgy, gathering in front of the iconostasis to face the congregation. The
      priest reads a proclamation, his voice gaining volume with each line. My
      heart leaps to join him as he proclaims: "*This* is the Apostolic faith! *
      This* is the faith of the Fathers! *This* is the Orthodox faith! "

      After the priest enumerates some of the wonders of God illustrated in the
      holy icons, the people lift their voices in a song of victory over the

      Who is so great a God as our God?
      He is the God who does wonders!

      Much ado about . . . *art*? No wonder the Church celebrates those wise
      bishops of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who proclaimed iconography to be
      an ordinance and tradition that is not something extra, something added to
      the life of the Church, but, as Chryssavgis says, *a necessary expression of
      the reality of both God and the world*.

      *Susan Cushman is a Byzantine iconographer and writer in Memphis. She is
      working on her first novel.*

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