Sometimes I think I have made a transition to Eastern Christianity but then something happens to remind me that I have so many Western perspectives that will take years to change. It is difficult to think differently than how you were taught or from what was conveyed to you by adults, those in positions of authority, and those you admired. You never questioned their perspectives and opinions, because it made sense and you had respect for them. It never occurred to me that they perhaps didn't have all the information at the time. I think about this a lot as I embrace Eastern Orthodox theology.
I am staying at a Jesuit retreat center this weekend, partaking in a “silent retreat” for 3 days. There are a number of statues in the buildings and on the grounds. Oftentimes, outside there is a small chair or bench in front of the statues. An Evangelical would think, “Why would someone want to just sit there in front of a statue? It’s just a piece of cement (wood, bronze). Do these people worship these statues? Isn’t that idolatry?” As soon as you say “these people”, you have in essence erected a wall between you and “them”, whether that be Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, or African American churches. That wall prevents any further discussion or opportunities to understand more fully why “these people” do and say what they do. We have pronounced judgment upon them and come up with the terms of punishment – ignore them and/or make fun of their beliefs and practices. This judge and jury approach to other faiths is not unique to Evangelicals and Protestants. Other faiths do the same thing in regard to Evangelicals! You have to admit that, in recent years, the name Evangelical has not been embraced with warmth and admiration by the media or the people you see everyday. Many have come to conclusions about this right wing group of Christians based on the extreme behavior and words of key representatives of this Protestant segment. In many cases, it is not a pretty picture.
Let me give an example of one area that many evangelicals misunderstand in Eastern Orthodoxy – the veneration of icons. Now just this phrase – “veneration of icons” – makes evangelicals cringe and step back as if they had just stumbled into the temple of Apollos. When I first encountered the use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox faith, I had this same reaction. What are they doing with all these images of Christ, Mary, and the saints? Why do they surround themselves with them? Are they like good luck charms? Doesn’t the bible speak strongly against such a practice – like in one of the Ten Commandments?
I could have stopped right there and dismissed “these people” as an element of Christianity I would never understand and gone on my way. I would have forever stamped them as “strange” and far from the faith I embraced. Thankfully, my husband had already done extensive reading on the subject and was embracing the use of icons himself. Can you imagine my confusion as I watched this man, whom I respect tremendously in matters of the Christian faith, taking part and finding great joy in an ancient practice that I could not fathom? Well, we weren’t short of material to read, for he had already accumulated quite a number of books. I began to read and soon discovered that I completely misunderstood the purpose of these incredible tools for worship.
"[Icons are]“an essential medium through which the holy may be approached and grace channeled, like a two-way mirror….The icon is the real equivalent to, and venerated with the same honor as, the Gospel. The one communicates religious truth through words, the other through visible forms and symbols. Both equally are modes of revelation.” (Nicholas Gendle, Catalogue: Icons in Oxford)
Icons were used extensively by Christians in the first centuries after Christ, in the churches and in homes. They were not meant to be “works of art”. They were “read”, just as you would say you have “read” the scriptures. In fact, when an iconographer paints an icon, he is said to “write” it, not “paint” it. Just as the Word of God is a means for our hearts to receive instruction, grace, and understanding, icons can be a means of making that connection with God visually. By the way, you will find no icons of God the Father, since he is not visible to us. He only became visible to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, there are many icons of the Son of God, since he took on humanity and walked with men. You could touch him, talk with him, and pray with him.
Evangelicals have a difficult time with the concept of mystery or things they cannot explain from a scriptural perspective, even though many will agree that a sense of mystery is missing in the bible churches today. There is a longing in our hearts to reclaim mystery in our faith, but the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment did a good job in making us suspicious and skeptical of anything we cannot understand or rationalize. We automatically put it into the category of superstition or propaganda.
I am afraid that, in our attempt to emphasize the power and benefits of God’s Word, we have pushed aside those traditions that also enabled Christians to experience God with all the senses which he has bestowed upon us. We seem to have elevated the art of reason above all the other senses. What about the visual, touch, smell, and sight? Shouldn’t these also be incorporated into our weekly and daily worship? Why have we come to distrust them so much? To me, these are all part of the “image of God” in which we were created. The believers of the first centuries valued them, and services were designed to involve as many senses as possible through the use of incense, candles, colorful and gilded icons, kneeling or prostrating, chanting, and listening. Most evangelical churches limit themselves to the preaching of the Word and music on Sunday mornings. Taking communion varies from every Sunday to 4 times a year. Their sanctuaries are not particularly appealing to the eye. Oftentimes, they are devoid of any color, designed for stage productions, a multi-purpose room that can be used for the youth on Thursday nights and then as a place of worship on Sunday mornings.
Embracing the use of icons is a way for me to begin to restore some of that mystery to my spiritual life. Icons are a connection to those who are in that “country” for which I am bound. I am on the pathway, and I need their prayers for me as I navigate the often rough terrain here on earth. Jesus, the Son of God, his dear mother, Mary, the Apostles, the Church Fathers, those martyred for their faith, my own mother, all can intercede for me and pray for me as I pray to them. An icon helps me make that connection. They are God’s words to me through “visible forms and symbols”. I do not worship the blocks of wood, nor do I worship the person portrayed. They are my “spiritual team” who daily behold the Holy Trinity and who can lay my petitions before him. Why would anyone refuse such an opportunity? The results can be life-changing.