Sunday, January 22, 2006

Writing the Icon of the Heart

Writing the Icon of the Heart

[first published in Weavings, 2005]

On the dusky blue background of the fourteenth-century copper plaque, a fine and humorous hand had etched the Baptism of the Lord in gold. John the Baptist stood on the left of the stream, some adoring angels on the right. A few wavy lines suggested water, and around the Lord's naked legs the happy, happy fish looked on, rejoicing.[1]

In a case nearby stood an icon of Mary and John at the foot of the cross. Mary was wiping her nose with her thumb, as any peasant woman might in a moment of extreme emotion.[2] Either one of these precious items would have constituted an exhibit in itself, but the collection went on and on: a dalmatic[3] embroidered with icons in silk looked as though it had dropped straight from heaven;[4] a huge icon of St. George from St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai depicted him as a young warrior, radiant with an innocence that made you want to laugh with joy.[5] In one of the many illuminated books, St. Mark sat with pen poised against a gold ground, waiting for the next word of the gospel to be given, while St. John leaned his right arm across his volume and pondered, left elbow on his knee, chin on thumb.[6]

Perhaps only the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City could have gathered together so many amazing works from every corner of the world. Nothing like it had been seen before, nor, given the state of the world—and in some countries the systematic destruction of cultural heritage— likely would be seen again. That these objects had survived so many centuries, much less that they had been brought together in one place, was indeed a miracle.


Through the warm late-April sunshine laced with a cool breeze that sent flags snapping overhead, with neighboring cherry trees blossoming in their full glory, I had climbed the broad stone steps of the museum.

The exhibit Byzantium: Faith and Power (1262-1557) was buried deep in the great labyrinth of a building. I walked through the vast hall, then up the broad marble stairs and, finding signposts at last, made my way through a maze of galleries toward my goal. I had expected to find an exhibit that contained the usual mixed bag—a few spectacular pieces of interest to everyone and the rest reserved to the specialists. I was so very wrong.

In addition to icons, books, and plaques there were stone and marble capitals, fragments alive in their fluid proportion that drew the mind and held it.[7] A sixth-century portrait of St. Peter, also from St. Catherine's Monastery, looked out at each of us as if he were about to speak,[8] more alive, somehow, than the hundreds of hushed people who moved in utter silence through these rooms of glory, contemplating the revelation of incarnation expressed in objects that were both the consequence and means of divinization,[9] These pieces embodied the ultimate that human beings can be and do—human beings never pointing to themselves or showing off their skill but always directing attention beyond themselves, opening windows into the ineffable. The items on display were steeped in prayer, soaked in centuries of veneration that permeated the very air we breathed, while grace worked within us unawares. Art such as this is dangerous: it transfigures.

We were immersed in what one critic called a “perspective ... at once strange and unnervingly intimate.” He was aware, too, of a danger illuminated by this paradox of Byzantine sacred art: self-indulgence. On coming to the European paintings that had been included in the exhibit to show the influence of Byzantium in the West—Bellini, Bouts, van der Weyden, El Greco, and many other Old Masters, he wrote: “I was shocked. For a moment, my own melting pleasure in Renaissance aestheticism felt shamefully corrupt and foolishly dangerous….” This collection, he says, summing up, “resonates...with concreted sorrow, hard wisdom. I came away with a chilly sense of having been warned.”[10]

I know what he meant. The route to and from Byzantium passed through galleries hung with huge, riotous, crowded paintings of the Fragonard school.[11] On the way in they seemed merely silly; on emerging from hours of life-changing immersion in bejeweled and transcendent restraint, their vapidity, their triviality and banal excess made me physically ill. In the shop connected to the exhibit where visitors could buy crudely rendered reproductions, I broke down and wept. I wept for our lost humanity; I wept for our lost religion; I wept for the vanished vision of the divine shining through the icon of the human; I was overtaken by a loneliness so vast and so deep as to make every other experience of loneliness in my life fade into nothing.
I wept, too, at the knowledge that this transcendent beauty had shone forth from the darkness of a collapsing civilization, and, given the religious poverty of our times, wondered what could possibly come out of the collapse of ours. As the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, writes in the exhibit catalog:

In ecclesiastical terminology we use the term ‘bright-sadness.’ This refers to a mixed emotion of joy, over the anticipated help from God and salvation, and sorrow, for the suffering of life and sin….’ Faith in the person of the Theotokos,[12] the Saints, the holy icons, the churches, the ecclesiastical melodies, and the Lamentations before the Lord's Epitaphios[13] were principally created and cultivated at that time. They were the strength, shelter, consolation, and spiritual reinforcement of a nation, which was in danger and later in bondage….

He then draws a parallel with the agony of the world today, and expresses the hope that those who see these holy things “may find faith in higher values and ideals than those that are being offered by the world marketplace.”[14] He ends with the tantalizing remark that the exhibition offered that “which is needful” for this to be accomplished.


The Ecumenical Patriarch is not setting up a series of oppositions. Rather, he is offering the corrective of paradox. Thus the Patriarch does not speak of light only, or darkness in isolation, but of “bright-sadness.” In the early days of Christianity, the test of orthodoxy in both doctrine and practice was whether the paradoxes of the faith were sustained. Without this balanced wholeness, we are prey to cultural tendencies that ineluctably lead to a dead end, where even spirituality becomes subject to materialism and solipsism. This is the warning communicated by Byzantium.

Western culture, and particularly Western religion, tends to avoid paradox, to emphasize the “bright” without the “sadness.” A consumer culture tries to persuade us that the things we buy will give us happiness, and when we discover that the long-sought object, once possessed, leaves us empty and dissatisfied, it suggests that there is always more out there. When we have become bored by grasping objects, we then resort to a thrill culture that tries to shock us with ever more extreme violence and pornography. But here, too, there is a problem. As Andrew Anthony remarks of the porn industry: “The crisis that confronts the business is not to do with the body but the soul. It’s an existential malaise that extends beyond the San Fernando Valley into all corners of the consumer-driven world. In many respects, the plotless cul-de-sac that has been reached in the Valley is a fable of our times. What happens when there is no more more?”[15]

And so we turn to religion, which has largely become an extension of the culture instead of its critic. It offers to satisfy our lust for experience in more seemly ways, promising that we will be enabled to feel self-righteous even while we are being sated. From mega-churches to alternative religion, worship and practice have been customized to satisfy our primary concern, which is always me. Services are “uplifting” (you show your pain at your peril). Sentiment triumphs over emotion (genuine emotion is too subversive and too frightening). Noise and activity blot out silence and contemplation (at least you can control noise). Navel-gazing replaces adoration.
There are labyrinths, retreats, desert vision quests, yoga, bodywork—an endless smorgasbord of things to do and experiences to be bought. But once these spiritual practices are reduced to the level of other consumer items, they leave us unsatisfied and lonely, for they only further self-regard and self-criticism and the insatiable desire for more. They cannot lead us to the self-forgetfulness and transforming communion of divinization (Phil. 2:5-11).

We might say that it is all a matter of perspective, and that the transition to the perspective typical of Renaissance art is symbolic of the choices that have led us to the isolating loneliness in which so many people find themselves today. The icon of St. Peter has both the perspective of realism and the perspective of the icon; that is, the face has the realism of a painting, but the context draws the viewer into contemplation, the icon virtually effacing itself, leaving the viewer in the presence of the subject. With Renaissance perspective, however, we lose the paradoxes: there is always only another horizon.
If icons draw us into the communion of saints, the endless succession of horizons of the Renaissance intensifies our awareness of our essential aloneness. They hem us in, as if the painter had grasped them and wound them tightly around us so that we would be forced to focus on his cleverness. In that era, even religious painting was preoccupied with human achievements almost to the exclusion of the ineffable.[16] Mirrors are not windows. One might be “transported” by many of these paintings, but icons are literally, and from every perspective, trans-figurative. Paintings are the work of artists as creators; icons are written through those who seek to further God's continuing creation of image and likeness, providing, when the paradoxes have not been sustained, a corrective, a clarified vision of reality.[17]

The fundamental paradox to be sustained is this: that, as Christ has shown us, humanity is both human and divine; there is no humanity without divinity. Christians call this truth “incarnation.” The consequences of losing this paradox are dire; we have only to look around us to see them. In this post-Christian—some would say post-human—world, where icons no longer signify the image and likeness of God but have been reduced to graphics that manipulate computer programs, our notions of both human and divine have become badly skewed.


The process of incarnation, and therefore of writing icons, is repeated again and again during Lent and Easter, calling us to return to our divinity and therefore to our full humanity.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)[18]

Humility is divinity.

That we are alone is incontrovertible. We are born alone into the world and alone we leave it. Our experience—by which I mean encounters with the world that we notice and the way we interpret those encounters—is unique; no one can ever know exactly what it is that we perceive or what it means to us. Our aloneness can manifest itself as loneliness or as solitude, depending on how we represent it to ourselves— as a painting (constricting horizon) or an icon (growing union with God). Solitude welcomes loneliness. Loneliness can signal illusion or its shattering; in either case, it has the potential to open a way into the divinity that is essential to our humanity.

Some people, having looked into the mirrors of illusion and found only despair, die from loneliness. Others, like monks alone in the desert, like solitaries of every generation, seek it out. There is solace in fierce landscapes.[19] It depends, in part, on what you think the human person is. If you are confined to the horizons of the sensible mind, of the global marketplace, loneliness will be devouring. On the other hand, if you understand the human person to share in the nature of the divine because God has come in naked humility to indwell us, then loneliness will become solitude and solitude will be sought.

The great cry from the cross is a cry of ultimate loneliness, yet while it is a cry of abandonment, it is also, more profoundly, a cry of relationship. Martin Andic notes:

For the greatest love is the love that crosses the greatest distance; therefore, it must be the worst of all possible worlds that makes it the greatest love, and that is the love of God as understood in Christianity, for which, accordingly, the Passion of Christ is the center of life. It is this suffering love that redeems the world, saves it from meaninglessness and despair, and saves it for love, as it reveals the world's truth and its beauty.[20]
God's self-outpouring love has taken on our terrible loneliness and made it part of our divinization. But we must allow our loneliness to be transfigured, to be written on the icon of our heart as a revered teacher. This can be done only in silence and solitude and interior stillness. “Sit in your cell and your cell with teach you everything,” counseled the Desert Fathers and Mothers.[21] Seek for nothing, strive for nothing, expect no result. Sit with the limitless perspective of the icon, the transparent liturgy that is eternity in time, an open door to the great cloud of witnesses who have, by welcoming this grace, also turned their loneliness into solitude, who have realized that their own mystery, their neighbors’, and God’s are the same mystery, the same unknowability, a share in the divine nature, which is self-emptying love.

Loneliness may be symptomatic of many conditions, but it is at root a sign that we are trapped in linear perspective and bound by time; that we have forgotten the Self that is outpouring love, failed to see our likeness to the humble God who writes us in awe, reverence, and joy. The divine light comes not instead of the darkness but shines out of it, through us, if only we will realize the full, paradoxical reality of our humanity. The late Ray Charles was a modern, living icon of this reality. Although he grew up blind, surrounded by a culture of poverty and violence, his music celebrated “bright-sadness,” the joy that permeates life, a joy that in no way denies or ignores life’s nightmares. “‘I don't know about you,’ he said, ‘But I saw the light. I saw the light.’”[22]...
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)


[1] Readers may wish to look at reproductions of these icons. See Byzantium: Faith and Power (1262-1557), ed. Helen C. Evans (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 126 . Unfortunately, the faces on the fish do not show up in the photograph. It should be noted that not every item in the exhibit is in this catalogue. Many of the items from St. Catherine's monastery are in a companion volume. See note 2.
[2] Saint Catherine's Monastery Sinai, Egypt: A Photographic Essay, text by Helen C. Evans, photographs by Bruce White (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, 2004), 72.
[3] A liturgical garment in the form of a knee-length tunic worn primarily by deacons and occasionally by bishops.
[4] Byzantium, 302-303.
[5] Saint Catherine's Monastery, 70.
[6] Byzantium, 278.
[7] Byzantium, 95 ff.
[8] Saint Catherine's Monastery, 64.
[9] Divinization is a way of talking about our participation in God through Christ. As Bishop Kallistos Ware says, “God's Incarnation opens the way to man's deification. To be deified is, more specifically, to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. It is through Jesus the God-man that we...are ‘ingodded’, ‘divinized’, made ‘sharers in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4).” See The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980), 98. The sacrament of Holy Communion also confers it: “‘All human striving reaches here its ultimate goal’, says Nicolas Cabasilas. ‘For in this sacrament we attain God himself, and God himself is made one with us in the most perfect of all possible unions...This is the final mystery: beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it.’” The Orthodox Way, 146.
[10] Peter Schjeldahl, “Striking Gold,” The New Yorker (May 17, 2004), 101.
[11] Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) is considered one of the major figures of the rococo style in eighteenth-century French painting. Fragonard is best known for sensuous works depicting the carefree amusements of the French aristocracy.
[12] A name for Mary, “The God-Bearing.”
[13] A large cloth embroidered with a near life-sized icon of Christ in the Tomb, used for veneration on Good Friday.
[14] Byzantium, vii.
[15] Andrew Anthony, “Risky Business,” The Observer (August 1, 2004).
[16] Fra Angelico is an exception, as can be seen by comparing his paintings intended for public viewing and those in the cells of San Marco. See Christopher Lloyd, Fra Angelico (London: Phaidon Press, 1993).
[17]Icons are spoken of as ‘written’ because in Orthodox theology it is the Logos, the Word, who writes the images through the prayer of the iconographer. These images open windows between the world that is seen and temporal, and that which is unseen and eternal, windows that bring the viewer into the presence of Christ and the Communion of Saints. The icon is a sacred text that sends forth the Word into the ends of the earth.
[18] Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version Bible unless otherwise indicated. I have retained the word “grasp” from the older Revised Standard Version because it expresses far more accurately what is actually going on in this text (a mirror of Genesis 3) and especially in this context.
[19] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
[20] Martin Andic, “Simone Weil and Plotinus,” unpublished paper, PO Box 691, Niagara Falls, NY 14302. Italics in the original.
[21] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward, slg (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 118. Abba Moses, #7.
[22] “Heavenly Choir; Through the Voices of His Many Friends, Ray Charles is Still Singing,” The Washington Post (June 19, 2004), C.01.


Post a Comment

<< Home