Friday, December 21, 2007

Icons will save the world

What a delightful Christmas gift!

Treat yourself to reading this article on the First Things website:

"Icons Will Save the World," by Susan Cushman

Here's a snip:


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 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.”