The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 5 “On Icons and Changing Vision”

I sat and stared at the icon feeling guilty. I didn’t feel a thing. I had no attachment to icons. I had no emotion other than guilt for not having emotion. I didn’t feel in any way like they were ‘graven images’, that common response of Protestants to icons, rather I didn’t feel they were anything special, anything ‘other’ worldly.

Perhaps that was worse than not liking them. Hate and dislike we can work with, indifference is the real killer. 

These were the thoughts that went through my heart and head a few years ago, as I watched my husband make the sign of the cross and then prostrate before a large icon in the narthex of a church. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why he liked them, why he viewed them as ‘windows’ to worship.

I didn’t get it, yet it was all my fault. A few years before I had given him an “icon-writing class” as a birthday gift. Icons are not painted, they are written. The person making them is writing the life of the person depicted through pictures. The class involved 52 hours of instruction. The instruction turned out to be both instruction and meditation and healing as the class read and contemplated the life of the person they were depicting on the icon.

The writing of an icon is serious work, not to be taken lightly or as a ‘hobby’. Prayer, fasting, and meditation are all part of the process of iconography. It became something of a joke for us as we told people he had to do some of this in complete silence — we are both talkers. Distinctive in the making of icons is the iconographer’s meditation and attention to the life of the one they are depicting. They study as much about the life of the person as possible, they write the icon while prayerfully meditating. And they are never signed – it’s not about the artist, it’s about the Saint whose image is on the icon.

At the end of the class he brought home the icon. It was breath-catching. It was a Russian icon of Mary the Mother of God, the ‘Theotokos’, the ‘God-Bearer’ holding Jesus in a tender embrace.

I slowly began to learn about icons. I learned that icons are not new to worship, not new to the Church. They were found in catacombs and places of worship since the early church. When a worshiper came into a church, they could see the entire Gospel story told through Icons on the walls. For ancient congregations with low literacy rates, this made complete sense.

And then came a period of history during the Byzantine Empire where icons were decried as idolatrous, where priceless icons were defaced and destroyed. This was a dark period – ‘We don’t worship the wood, we don’t worship the paint” was the cry of the faithful. “We venerate the person who is depicted on the icon. We adore God, we only venerate icons.” And therein was a huge distinction.

And so I began to pray, pray the the indifference would leave, that I would see with new eyes, that my vision would be changed. Mostly I prayed that I would be okay with mystery – that I wouldn’t try to analyze everything, breaking it down to my limited understanding.

I began to see these icons, with their deep colors of gold, burgundy, deep green, and brown, in a new way. I began to appreciate them. I still didn’t feel a lot, but I could now look at them and wonder about the life of the saint, want to know more about the living person looking back at me from the inanimate wood and paint.

I realized that I had pictures of family, including dead family in my home. I would look at them and think about them, about their lives, about how they reflected Christ to me – particularly my maternal grandma. How was this different?

And then came the day this fall – the day when I suddenly felt something. I was by an icon of Jesus, it is called the Pantocrator, the ‘ruler of all’ and it depicts Jesus Christ as both lover of mankind and as a righteous judge. With a rush of emotion I saw the strong and suffering Christ, the one who gave all, who lived as man so he could experience our story — the pain of the human condition.  Then the final seal of his great love, his separation from the Father in his death on the cross.

This Reluctant Orthodox of the stubborn heart and the dim eyesight, felt tears begin to form. Herein was a window to a greater understanding of my faith, a greater understanding of the lives of those who have gone before, who lived lives of faith, often accompanied by great suffering, because of their love of God.

I find that the questions in my heart about icons began to change. No longer was the question “Why do Orthodox find icons important, ” but rather “Why don’t Protestants?”

“Icons lead one to prayer, to standing before something beyond comprehension and resting in it in trust. Their meaning cannot be exhausted by analysis but only by entering in on their terms and allowing the icon to speak to you, perhaps to change you.” Frederica Matthewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now